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Nonsensical, political Pacheco HSR route proves divisive

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  • 8/2 Fresno Bee
    Published Saturday, August 2, 2008, by the Fresno Bee Proposed high-speed rail route divisive By E.J. Schultz Bee Capitol Bureau SACRAMENTO -- California
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 7, 2008
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      Published Saturday, August 2, 2008, by the Fresno Bee

      Proposed high-speed rail route divisive

      By E.J. Schultz
      Bee Capitol Bureau

      SACRAMENTO -- California bullet-train enthusiasts risk losing support
      from key environmental groups because of a dispute over the train's
      route. Unless it is resolved soon, the conflict could pose problems
      for a high-speed rail bond measure on the November ballot.

      The Sierra Club and Planning and Conservation League have not yet
      taken a position on Proposition 1, which would authorize $9.9 billion
      in state borrowing to jump-start the 800-mile rail.

      But the environmentalists are still seething over the selection of
      relatively undeveloped Pacheco Pass as the route to connect the
      Central Valley to the Bay Area. They favor the more urban Altamont
      Pass to the north because they say it would induce less sprawl.

      The Planning and Conservation League likes the rail concept but "has
      continued to be quite concerned about the whole planning effort,"
      said Gary Patton, the league's lead lawyer.

      The initiative aims to reduce air pollution and traffic congestion by
      connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles with low-emission trains that
      would zoom through the Valley -- with stops including Fresno -- at
      speeds of more than 200 mph.

      With high gas prices, the timing is right to bring the question
      before voters, said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll. But
      if environmentalists actively oppose Prop. 1, some voters might be
      turned off.

      "They speak to a certain constituency who might otherwise support
      the initiative," DiCamillo said.

      A recent Field Poll showed Prop. 1 leading 56% to 30%, with 14%
      undecided. The initiative requires a simple majority to pass.

      The High Speed Rail Authority board chose the Pacheco route last
      month, culminating years of spirited debate. This means that -- at
      least in the first phase of construction -- the last stop in the
      San Joaquin Valley would be in Merced.

      Environmentalists would rather see trains run farther north in the
      Valley before heading west so that more populated cities are served.
      They like the Altamont route because it would bring trains closer
      to Modesto, Dublin, Pleasanton and Livermore in the first phase.

      By contrast, the Pacheco route -- roughly following Highway 152 --
      is in a less populated area. Environmentalists worry that a planned
      station in Gilroy would induce sprawl in surrounding rural areas.

      Sacramento is not scheduled for a stop until later phases. But once
      built, the trip from Sacramento to San Francisco would take longer
      using the Pacheco route -- one hour and 47 minutes -- instead of
      Altamont, which would take a little over one hour, environmentalists
      said in a letter to the authority.

      The Altamont route would "make the high-speed rail system much more
      effective in carrying more people and relieving congestion," said
      Bill Magavern, a lobbyist with the Sierra Club.

      On the other hand, crossing over in Altamont makes for longer trips
      from Southern California to San Jose.

      Altamont has other problems, said Mehdi Morshed, the rail authority's
      executive director.

      A bridge would have to be built across the San Francisco Bay, he
      said. Also, communities along the Altamont corridor, such as
      Livermore and Pleasanton, have concerns about high-speed trains
      passing through town, he said.

      "How are we going to build the trains through the cities when the
      cities say 'we don't want you?' " Morshed said.

      A potential compromise would use some of the $9.9 billion bond to
      enhance regional rail service in the Altamont corridor that could
      also accommodate high-speed trains running at slower speeds. But
      legislation to make the ballot measure more flexible is stalled in
      the state Senate because of a partisan fight over how to beef up
      project oversight.

      Today an Assembly committee is scheduled to take up a bill by state
      Sen. Roy Ashburn, R-Bakersfield, to delay the bond measure until
      2010; lawmakers already have pushed off the bond measure twice, in
      2004 and 2006.

      Meanwhile, environmentalists are considering filing a lawsuit to
      demand that the rail authority re-examine the environmental
      consequences of each route.

      "They've really not treated our concerns in the way we think legally
      they are required to," Patton said.

      With environmentalists still undecided, the Prop. 1 campaign is
      shaping up to be a duel between a coalition of engineering companies
      -- which supports the measure -- and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers
      Association, which blasts the project as a "political boondoggle"
      that might never get built.

      The bond would raise about a third of the project's cost. Supporters
      are counting on government and private companies to pay for the rest,
      but have not received firm commitments.

      Rail supporters say corporations won't step up until the state
      commits to the project.

      "It's very difficult for them to work with their business models
      and not know at the end of the day if they're going to get to build
      it," said Jo Linda Thompson, a lobbyist for the Association for
      California High Speed Trains.

      Association members include companies that engineer big
      transportation projects, such as LTK Engineering Services and
      Parsons Brinckerhoff. The group has so far donated $24,000 to
      the "yes" campaign, which has nearly $80,000 on hand.

      Opponents have yet to raise money, said Jon Coupal, president of
      the Howard Jarvis association. That could change if airlines weigh
      in.

      Southwest Airlines -- which serves some of the markets targeted for
      bullet train service -- "could never support the use of public money
      to subsidize" high-speed rail, said company spokeswoman Marilee
      McInnis. But "we don't have any current plans to engage in lobbying
      efforts on this issue or anything of that nature."

      Union Pacific Railroad -- which is in a dispute with the rail
      authority over land -- also plans to stay out of the Prop. 1
      campaign, said company spokeswoman Zoe Richmond. The railroad has
      refused to share its right-of-way on portions of the train route
      because it wants to preserve the option to build its own tracks on
      the land.

      "We don't have anything against the high-speed rail project,"
      Richmond said. "Our concern is putting it on our right-of-way."


      The reporter can be reached at eschultz@... or 916-326-5541.
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