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California leaders agree on rail, now seek funding

(The following story by Rachel Gordon appeared on the San Francisco Chronicle website on June 12, 2009.)

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — Bay Area political leaders and transportation officials announced Thursday they have reached consensus on a plan to bring high-speed rail to the region as they seek state and federal support for the project.

The agreement calls for funding a series of projects from San Jose to San Francisco that would pave the way for high-speed rail service and enhance Caltrain operations.

The proposal would turn the Diridon Station in downtown San Jose and the planned new Transbay Terminal in downtown San Francisco into major regional transit hubs.

In addition, the Caltrain Station at Fourth and King streets in San Francisco's South of Market would be expanded to accommodate high-speed rail.

The proposed package also seeks funding to electrify Caltrain and to equip its rail cars with automated train-control equipment that senses impending danger on the tracks. The train tracks in San Bruno would be separated from truck and auto traffic.

Together the projects would cost $3.4 billion, said Randy Rentschler, government affairs manager for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. The region will ask for $1.6 billion in new federal stimulus money to help pay for the improvements. Additional funds would come from the nearly $10 billion funding pot backed by California voters for high-speed rail.

The Bay Area will seek additional funding later to pay for other projects.

"This is the first phase to get us going," Rentschler said.

More details on the agreement will be revealed this morning at a Metropolitan Transportation Commission meeting in Oakland.

Coming to an agreement was not easy, as the various parties involved wanted to make sure that their favorite projects, such as San Francisco's plans for the Transbay Terminal, San Jose's plans for Diridon Station and Caltrain's push for electrification, were included.

In March, the fractures emerged in public. Steve Heminger, executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, made it his mission to unite the varying interests to put the Bay Area on stronger footing as it competes for funding.

California's high-speed rail plan, endorsed by voters, would stop in several cities, including San Francisco, San Jose, Sacramento, San Diego, Fresno and Los Angeles. The state's fast train is poised to become the first of its kind in the nation.

The Obama administration set aside $8 billion in stimulus funds for high-speed and intercity rail at the onset, with plans to allocate another $1 billion a year over the next five years to jump-start the operation of super-fast rail service in the United States.

"We have mapped out a smart regional plan for high-speed rail in California, one that will help state lawmakers make the right funding choices and keep California competitive for federal support," Heminger said.

San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom issued a joint press release supporting the plan. Caltrain also praised the resolution.

Monday, June 15, 2009

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