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Backtracking on Calif. bullet train route

(The following article by Sean Holstege was posted on the Oakland Tribune website on September 23.)

OAKLAND, Calif. -- The agency planning a $37 billion high-speed rail network to link downtown San Francisco and Los Angeles is rethinking how those trains should enter the Bay Area.

A day after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill requiring detailed study of tracks over the Altamont Pass, the California High Speed Rail Authority tacitly endorsed Wednesday a recommendation to drop a controversial route through Henry Coe State Park. Meeting in Los Angeles, the appointed state rail authority also leaned toward erasing a station in wind-swept Los Banos from planning maps.

The rail board informally endorsed the recommendations three weeks after collecting public comments on a 2,300-page environmental study, released in January. A final study is expected in the fall, and final vote on the route changes is scheduled for Nov. 10.

For years, California has been planning a 700-mile system to whisk people from north to south and through the Central Valley on European- or Japanese-style "bullet trains." Such trains reach top speeds of 225 mph elsewhere in the world. California would become the first U.S. state to build such a system, but only after voters weigh a $10 billion bond measure, now slated for a 2006 ballot.

Wednesday's action marks a reverse course on the Bay Area alignment. For years the Rail Authority has described an Altamont route as unworkable because it would require an inefficient three-fingered split to get trains to Oakland, San Francisco and San Jose. In the last two years, the agency added other objections, such as the need for a multibillion dollar Bay crossing through wetlands.

The route into the Bay Area has been the thorniest controversy in the entire plan.

"It's amazing how something that was so unacceptable as Altamont has suddenly found a voice in the choir," said Ken Gosting, executive director of Transportation Involves Everybody, which has pushed for deeper study of an Altamont track.

"We want to shift this from a politically motivated plan to one based on facts. And if that means that in the end Altamont is dropped, so be it," Gosting said, calling for independent oversight of future studies.

Action in Sacramento forced the Rail Authority's hand. Schwarzenegger signed, without comment, legislation Tuesday that includes $2.5 million for the Rail Authority and the Bay Area's Metropolitan Transportation Commission to study the Altamont route. That provision was included in a larger transportation bill carried by Senate Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland.

Schwarzenegger's office declined comment Wednesday, but the governor has been critical of the Rail Authority's work since taking office, and has warned the agency to produce studies that could hold up to outside scrutiny.

On Wednesday, the Rail Authority appeared to be supporting tracks through the high desert to Palmdale and dropping plans for direct service to Los Angeles International Airport.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

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