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California high-speed rail officials unveil route plans

(The following story by Jonathan Partridge appeared on the Morgan Hill Times website on May 4, 2010.)

MORGAN HILL Calif. California High-Speed Rail Authority officials unveiled the alternative routes for the high-speed rail project in Gilroy on Monday during a special study session at the Gilroy City Council chambers.

Area residents, most of whom lived in Gilroy's rural areas, packed the chambers, asking questions of rail authority representatives and voicing concerns about impacts on property values, agriculture and their rural lifestyle. Most left the meeting saying they had more questions than answers and further determined to oppose current project proposals.

"We need information from you guys, and you need input from us, and we're not getting it," rural Gilroy resident Elaine Jelsema told rail commission officials at the meeting.

Jelesma, who lives off of Denio Avenue, expressed fear that she had would be cut off from the road after a project representative said one potential rail route would cause a portion of the road to be closed. Other residents complained after noting that proposed routes would run within a few dozen feet from their properties - or in some cases, on top of them.

The 800-mile California High Speed Rail system, expected to begin full operations in 2020, is slated to have routes from San Diego to Sacramento and to the Bay Area, transporting passengers at speeds of up to 220 mph. A 123-mile stretch from Merced to San Jose would run through the Pacheco Pass with a proposed station in Gilroy. The entire rail project is estimated to cost $45 billion.

Project representatives are investigating seven possible routes, all of which either had a station on Leavesley Road or in downtown Gilroy. All those alternatives will be outlined in a draft analysis report in June.

One version remains aligned with U.S. Route 101 and another remains aligned with the Union Pacific tracks. Other possible routes cross over from U.S. Route 101 to downtown Gilroy and from near the Union Pacific tracks to eastern Gilroy. The commission also is looking at alternate versions that contains elevated tracks and tracks that are trenched when crossing through downtown. A final potential route contains express tracks east of U.S. 101 and brings two tracks into downtown Gilroy.

Several council members questioned whether it was even possible to align the high-speed train with Union Pacific tracks, as Union Pacific has said thus far that it will not allow it.

The project may have to move further to the east if an agreement is not reached with UP, cutting further into surroundings neighborhoods, replied Dave Mansen, a regional team manager for the Authority.

The rail commission has not entered negotiations with Union Pacific regarding the matter, regional project manager Gary Kennerley added.

Gilroy Historical Society president Connie Rogers, speaking on her own behalf, expressed concerns about impacts to historical downtown structures in Gilroy and questioned whether the city's myriad unreinforced masonry buildings could withstand the impact of high-speed trains whizzing by them. Some trains will run through Gilroy as quickly as 220 mph, high-speed rail officials say.

Rogers also questioned the project's impact on prime agricultural farmland in the area.

A couple of rural residents also questioned the impacts on property values.

"These are million dollar parcels," rural resident Sharon Conway said. "We can't afford to just walk away."

Council members had a few questions and comments of their own. For instance, Councilwoman Cat Tucker requested that comments from Gilroy-area residents regarding the project be forwarded on to council members. She also asked about context-sensitive solutions, a system in which people who are going to be impacted by a transportation project can provide input to ensure the project is a good fit for the area. The council forwarded on a letter to the high-speed rail commission asking that such a process be implemented locally.

The high-speed rail commission favored this approach, Kennerley said, saying for instance that the considerations for the Peninsula region would be different from the one used in South County.

However, not everyone was convinced. Rural Gilroy activist Yvonne Rail activist Yvonne Sheets-Saucedo said she recently attended a high-speed rail commission in Palo Alto, where council members were still waiting for answers from the rail commission just as Gilroy council members are.

"It's a one-size-fits all process," Sheets-Saucedo said.

Councilman Bob Dillon also criticized the project, urging attendees to vote against bond measures that would provide financing for the project.

"We need to drive a stake through the heart of this vampire," Dillon said, gaining the applause of several attendees.

On the other hand, Mayor Al Pinheiro said most citizens supported the project, so the council was trying to work with project officials with the aims of making it the best possible fit for the region.

"I can assure you that this council is going to do the best that we can to ensure that there is no (negative) impact," Pinheiro said.

Attendees got a close look at potential routes before and after the meeting, as they were on display in the council chambers and in the adjacent lobby. The rail commission had parcel map books on display with more detailed maps, which eventually will be available to view in public libraries. In addition, project maps should be posted online by the end of the week, said Ben Strumwasser, regional outreach manager for the San Jose-to-Merced portion of the project.

Kennerley said after the meeting that he felt many people were conflating the "alternatives analysis" portion of the project, in which potential rail routes are being evaluated, with the entire high-speed rail preparation process. Despite the generally negative comments that attendees made about high-speed rail, he said he was happy to see the high turnout Monday.

"It was one-sided, but it does seem the word is getting out now," Kennerley said.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

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