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Bullet-rail idea hits bend in track

(The following article by Sean Holstege was published by the Oakland Tribune on June 25.)

OAKLAND, Calif. -- A group of environmentalists and rail enthusiasts on Tuesday threatened the California High Speed Rail Authority with lawsuits and political opposition if the agency doesn't reconsider a track over the Altamont Pass.

It was an unusual and perhaps pivotal moment of controversy after six years of state planning to build a $30 billion, 700-mile network of high-speed bullet trains that would link the Bay Area to Southern California.

The plan's biggest booster, Sen. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, told the rail authority that such a system is "within our grasp."

That's because California voters will consider a $10 billion bond in November 2004 to pay for the first leg of that European-style system, which Costa said would serve 54 percent of Californians. He said the investment would be the most significant in 40 years, and likened it to the effort to build the state water project, freeway system or university system.

At its meeting in Oakland on Tuesday, the rail commission was told that high-speed rail would generate 450,000 new jobs, but would not contribute to sprawl in the Central Valley, one of the state's fastest-growing areas. Instead, it would lead to more compact development around stations, consultants reported.

So with environmental studies nearing completion and Costa's work to pass a massive statewide bond just beginning, Tuesday's complaints -- which are growing and echoed by Bay Area state senators -- came at a particularly unfortunate moment for supporters.

After years of winnowing options, current plans call for the first leg of track to link San Francisco to Los Angeles via San Jose. The only route into the Bay Area would tunnel through the Diablo range somewhere east of Gilroy or Morgan Hill. Environmentalists said state laws require a study of other options, such as a crossing through the Altamont Pass.

"It's been an arbitrary and destructive decision to leave the heaviest travel corridor out of the study," said Richard Tolmac, president of the California Rail Foundation said of the Altamont route.

Bay Area Sens. Don Perata and Jackie Speier have also called for Altamont studies, as has the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, particularly Supervisor Scott Haggerty.

On Tuesday, Paul Brooks, a University of California, Berkeley, transportation professor, said experts he knows oppose the proposed bullet train and few think it can be done for the estimated cost.

Susan Smart, president of the State Parks Foundation, said that six to 21 state parks would be harmed by the rail line.

Rail authority officials and their allies were stone-faced.

"Does anybody in California realistically think you can complete a $30 billion project without somebody taking issue?" Costa asked.

Wednesday, June 25, 2003

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