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Ruling clouds funding outlook for high-speed rail project

(By Gary Richards and Jessica Bernstein-Wax Bay Area News Group / Staff writer Mike Rosenberg contributed to this story)

SAN JOSE — California's proposed high-speed rail project hit a major bump Wednesday when a judge called into question a route that would bring the bullet trains over Pacheco Pass into the South Bay and up the Peninsula.

The ruling, which could significantly delay the $40 billion project and add billions to its cost, has opponents celebrating what they hope will renew calls for alternative routes. Yet, supporters say the decision only strengthens their position because other routes are too expensive.

The ruling comes at a critical time. About $8 billion in federal stimulus money is about to be doled out to high speed routes across the country and California seemed poised to capture much of it. A major delay could erase about $3 billion in aid and increase construction costs.

A California Superior Court judge in Sacramento on Wednesday ruled "inadequate" the High Speed Rail Authority's environmental report, saying it failed to address Union Pacific's recent decision not to allow the speedy trains to run along its tracks from Gilroy to San Jose.

"If the Union Pacific right of way is not available, there may not be sufficient space for the right-of-way need "... without either impacting the Monterey Highway or without the takings of additional amounts of residential and commercial property," Judge Michael Kenny said in the ruling.

At the heart of the often contentious debate is where to bring trains into the Bay Area from the Central Valley. The rail authority approved running the trains over Pacheco Pass into San Jose and then along the Caltrain corridor into San Francisco.

Others favored a route along the Altamont Pass. Yet the court ruling all but dismissed that option, describing the route as too costly and problematic.

The lawsuit was filed by environmental groups and the cities of Menlo Park and Atherton, which are fighting plans to run high-speed trains through the heart of their neighborhoods.

The ruling could result in delays that would result in money that would have been spent in Northern California going to Southern California instead.

To be eligible for stimulus funds, contracts must be awarded by 2012 and work completed by 2017.

The high-speed rail section from Los Angeles to Anaheim would cost $3 billion, and from San Francisco to San Jose, about $4 billion to $5 billion.

Last fall state voters approved a $9 billion bond measure for high speed trains and backers are hoping to leverage that into millions more in federal assistance.

Trains would zip up the spine of California at speeds approaching 220 mph. A trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles would take about 2 hours and 40 minutes with tickets running about $110 for a round trip.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

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