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Calif. high speed rail arguments get more heated

(The following story by Andrew S. Ross appeared on the San Francisco Chronicle website on August 4, 2010.)

SAN FRANCISCO Arguments over California's high-speed rail just got a whole lot more heated.

Last week, the head of the Bay Area Council took an epistolary 2-by-4 to the mayors and city councils of five Peninsula cities, citing their "obstructionist policies" in connection with California's most ambitious infrastructure project of the past 50 years.

Saying such policies constitute a "grave threat to the state," Bay Area Council CEO Jim Wunderman accused elected officials in Burlingame, Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton and Belmont of "bolstering the advocacy of the very small and very vocal minority of Californians who cannot be satisfied unless high speed rail ... is killed."

In turn, Wunderman was condemned for "pulling out all the stops to bully, berate and belittle" officials who are raising legitimate concerns about the estimated $43 billion (and counting) San Francisco-to-Los Angeles project.

The officials in question constitute the Peninsula Cities Consortium ( www.peninsularail.com), which has long been a thorn in the high-speed rail project's side, particularly over its proposed routing through the Peninsula, despite opinion polls showing majority support for the rail project, including among Peninsula residents.

It has criticized the California High-Speed Rail Authority's business plan and questioned revenue and ridership projections, and two of the cities, Menlo Park and Atherton, filed a lawsuit, since settled, citing environmental issues.

'Time is not our friend': The last straw for Wunderman was a July 6 statement issued by the group demanding the rail authority "take a step back and resolve troublesome issues with high speed rail before proceeding with the project. High speed rail should be built right or not at all," it said.

The statement also called for "local communities (to) be empowered in the decision-making process" - including how the rail lines are to be routed, regardless of cost - and to be "given sufficient time to evaluate proposed alternatives and environmental impacts."

High-speed rail supporters say this would put the San Francisco-San Jose leg, at the very least, on semi-permanent hold, and perhaps kill the statewide project outright. Prolonged second-guessing could also prompt Sacramento and Washington to reconsider their multibillion-dollar funding commitments to the project in these cash-strapped times.

"These folks are smart enough to understand that delay is good enough to kill the project," Wunderman said in an interview. "Time is not our friend on this."

Robert Cruickshank, chairman of Californians for High Speed Rail ( www.ca4hsr.org), citing the Bay Area Council's 275 corporate members, said he found Wunderman's letter "extremely significant, coming from an organization that represents the Bay Area's and the state's largest employers. It shows the PCC needs to be more constructive on the issues it raises."

'We will not destroy our communities': No response to requests for comment from the consortium, or two of its leading members, the mayors of Atherton and Palo Alto, by press time. A number of its supporters, however, sprang up angrily on its behalf.

"I was shocked and disappointed in the letter and its tone. It just polarizes the issue further," said Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, whose district includes Belmont and Burlingame.

"I'd like to invite him to meet with the people he wrote the letter to, to engage the community and learn some of the things that are important to them. I'd be happy to conduct the tour."

Hill, who chairs the Democratic caucus in the Assembly, acknowledged polls of Peninsula residents indicating widespread support for high-speed rail.

"We are concerned about how it's going to be done, not whether it's going to be done," he said, disputing charges that the PCC and like-minded South Bay are simply a bunch of NIMBYs. "But we will not destroy our communities for the sake of high-speed rail. We want a project that reflects the quality of life that we enjoy - and we'll work toward that end."

For Wunderman, there are others in California whose quality of life is also involved. "Respectfully," he wrote to the consortium, "you may also under-appreciate the staggering toll of unemployment and economic distress on millions of California families of modest means.

"Though your communities, like other high-wealth communities in the state, have escaped the brunt of the Great Recession, 2.3 million unemployed Californians are not as fortunate. For these struggling Californians, $4 billion of near-term high speed rail construction expenditure would be lifesaving." (links.sfgate.com/ZKBZ)

-- All this could make for an interesting California High Speed Rail Authority meeting in San Francisco on Thursday. Wunderman is scheduled to be there. So will Assemblyman Hill, "if he can clear his calendar," said an aide. 9 a.m., Milton Marks Conference Center, 455 Golden Gate Ave. ( www.cahighspeedrail.ca.gov)

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

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