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High Speed Rail Authority starts campaign for voter approval

(The following article by Gary Richards was posted on the San Jose Mercury News’ website on July 16.)

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Buoyed by a statewide poll showing that two-thirds of Californians support high-speed trains running between Los Angeles and the Bay Area, the High Speed Rail Authority is kicking off a campaign to gain voter approval for an initial $10 billion construction effort.

Top officials will hold public meetings Thursday in San Francisco, and Friday in Los Angeles, to spark interest in the plan that will go before voters in November 2004.

The meetings are hosted by the Commonwealth Club and come a week after the Public Policy Institute of California, a non-partisan San Francisco research organization, reported that 65 percent supported the bond measure. Trains reaching speeds of 200 miles per hour would race over the tracks, making the Los Angeles-to-San Francisco trip in 2 1/2 hours.

``If you ask people if they like high speed rail, polls say over 80 percent do,'' said Rod Diridon, the former Santa Clara County supervisor who chairs the rail commission. ``When asked if they'd be willing to tax themselves, it came out 65 percent. That is remarkable.''

The effort would be among the biggest public works projects ever in the state. It received another boost earlier this month when the House of Representatives Transportation Committee approved setting aside $60 billion for high speed train projects across the country. If approved by Congress and President Bush, Diridon believes California could land as much as $9 billion extra from Washington.

Despite its popularity with voters, the bullet-train must jump through many hoops before crews start laying track. An environmental review to be released later this summer is sure to draw close scrutiny to the routes trains will take into the Bay Area.

Several routes are under consideration. Trains would run through the Central Valley, veer west near Merced, and then tunnel under Henry Coe State Park near Morgan Hill. Or, the line would cross Pacheco Pass east of Gilroy before turning north along the present Caltrain corridor. Environmentalists, many of whom support high-speed trains, are dead-set against carving up Coe Park, the state's second largest park.

But some train advocates want a direct link over the Altamont Pass to San Joaquin County, which was the state's third-fastest-growing county between 2000 and 2002, according to Census Bureau estimates.

That route was eliminated in 1999 because it would not directly run into San Jose, Northern California's largest city. Here's the trade off: The Altamont Pass alignment would save an estimated $2 billion in building costs, but the Pacheco Pass route is expected to carry 1.1 million more riders a year.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission backed the Santa Clara County options last month in a tight 8-5 vote, with East Bay officials lining up in opposition.

However, attempts to omit the Altamont line could lead to a lawsuit, said Alan Miller, executive director of the Train Riders Association of California.

``They are making a mistake by ignoring the Altamont,'' Miller said. ``A lawsuit is not desirable, but of course it is possible.''

Building the entire 700-mile line with extensions to San Diego to Sacramento will cost at least $25 billion. The measure calls for funding the first 400-mile phase by raising nearly $10 billion through bonds, and landing at least another $5 billion from Washington. If the bonds are approved, $950 million would be used to upgrade commuter lines such as Caltrain, which would feed passengers onto the bullet trains.

Construction would take an estimated 16 years.

Santa Clara, Contra Costa, Santa Cruz, San Mateo and San Francisco counties are all considering hikes in their local sales tax to pay for road and rail improvements. In addition, a statewide education bond could be on the ballot.

Thursday, July 17, 2003

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