Report to offer glimpse of Calif. high-speed rail plan
(The following story by Michael Cabanatuan appeared on the San Francisco Chronicle website on April 5, 2010.)
SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — Since voters backed a $9.95 billion bond to fund California's high-speed rail system nearly two years ago, critics have questioned the lack of details while backers have wondered what progress is being made. Officials have been pleading for patience, and this week, they will offer a glimpse at where the fast train system is headed - especially through the Bay Area.
Thursday in San Jose, the High-Speed Rail Authority will meet and release a report revealing some details about studies on the location of a San Francisco station and where high-speed trains will travel - at ground level, in a trench or tunnel, or atop an elevated structure - as they make their way down the Peninsula. But no firm decisions are expected.
"We have a lot of momentum on our project, a lot of focus, a lot of support," said Jeffrey Barker, a deputy director of the authority. "So there is a feeling we should have a lot of details, a lot of things lined up. We are still shaping the project, still looking at details."
Similar information will be released about the stretch of the system between Merced and Fresno, which will include the system's maintenance facility and possibly a test track. And, perhaps most important, the authority is also expected to meet behind closed doors to hire a new executive director - the person who will guide the high-speed rail project to construction.
"A lot of things are moving all at once," said Barker.
The study of route and station alignments to be released Thursday, he said, is part of a lengthy environmental review process that won't be completed until the summer or fall of 2011. Construction of the $42.6 billion first phase is expected to begin on some segments by fall 2012, with trains running between San Francisco and Anaheim by the start of 2020.
"There's been some misunderstanding about what this (report) actually means," Barker said. "It's a step toward developing an (environmental report), not a decision point."
That said, engineers and planners could recommend that the authority not further study certain alignments or sites, and the board could endorse such a recommendation. The board could also declare a particular site or alignment its preferred alternative. Neither of those actions eliminate an option, but it gives a clear indication of where the authority is headed.
San Francisco details
The biggest issue in San Francisco is whether the train will stop at the planned Transbay Transit Center, which will replace San Francisco's dilapidated Transbay Terminal.
Proposition 1A, the successful bond measure approved by voters in November 2008, requires that the first phase of the 797-mile rail network end at the Transbay Terminal, a concrete structure due to be demolished soon.
San Francisco officials assumed that meant the trains would use the Transbay Transit Center, but authority officials are also looking at a nearby location on Beale Street, as well as the current Caltrain station on Fourth and King streets. An attorney general's opinion said that's OK, as long as the authority keeps the intent of the law in mind.
While that murkiness irritates San Francisco leaders, it's clear that the authority is seriously considering the Transbay Transit Center. Among the other items it will consider Thursday is a waiver that allows the center to be considered as the San Francisco station even though it fails to meet some of the authority's design standards for stations.
On the Peninsula, everyone knows where high-speed trains are headed: down the Caltrain corridor, which they will share with the commuter railroad. But in cities where homes abut the tracks, residents are concerned that elevated tracks would require the destruction of hundreds of houses, would send loud noise and intense vibrations into their neighborhoods and create an unsightly physical barrier that would divide their communities.
Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton, Burlingame and Belmont have joined forces as the Peninsula Cities Consortium to campaign for the use of tunnels or trenches to take the fast trains through their cities. Both methods, especially tunnels, are costly, planners have said. But they're being seriously studied, Barker said, along with trains running at ground level or on elevated bridges or berms.
"At this point, all options are being considered," he said. "Tunnels in some sections, a trench or aerial structures in others."
Richard Cline, Menlo Park mayor and head of the consortium, said he's not expecting to see much detail, or consideration of a consortium proposal to end the high-speed train in San Jose and let San Francisco-bound passengers take Caltrain the rest of the way.
"This has been built up as something that's going to answer a lot of questions," he said. "But not by us, by the authority. They're going to have a lot of trouble managing expectations" of people seeking more explicit information.
The High-Speed Rail Authority meets at 9 a.m. Thursday in the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors chamber, 70 W. Hedding St., San Jose.
Wednesday, April 7, 2010
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