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Calif. bullet train gets major boost

(The following story by Sean Holstege appeared on the Oakland Tribune website on January 26.)

OAKLAND, Calif. -- A $30 billion bullet train network will be the best way to connect the Bay Area and Southern California in a more crowded state in 20 years, concludes a hefty environmental study to be released Tuesday.

The 2,300-page tome marks a major milestone for California's ambitious plan to be the first U.S. state to build a European-style high-speed rail network. The idea to whisk Californians between San Francisco and Los Angel-es in 21/2 hours on 225-mph trains has been on the drawing board since 1993.

"The study finds that this is the most cost-effective, most environmentally friend-ly, most reliable and safest way to get people around," said Mehdi Morshed, executive director of the California High Speed Rail Authority.

"California is going to have a high-speed rail system. It's a question of timing. We're not going to have a choice," Morshed said, noting that in 2020, the state's population will be 12 million people larger.

But the draft environmental report does not re-examine the rail authority's controversial 2001 decision to ignore the Altamont Pass as the site of the Bay Area's trunk line.

Instead, it only studied routes into the Bay Area south of San Jose, either over Pacheco Pass or through a series of tunnels through the Diablo mountain range.

The report comes amid mounting criticism of that decision on both sides of the Altamont, and as the newgovernor proposes cuts to the agency's budget. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed trimming the agency's annual work-ing funds from $3.8 million to $1.1 million and to cancel a November statewide vote on a $10 billion bond.

The money would pay for the first leg of the system between the Bay Area and Los Angeles, but lawmakers are considering putting the question before voters in 2006.

Three years ago, Altamont was dropped because it would require a three-pronged fork in the tracks, with trains running inefficiently to Oakland, San Francisco and San Jose.

"The study is going to say about Altamont the same thing our screening study showed," Morshed said. "Most of us feel that if you do Altamont Pass, you'll never get to the West Bay."

In recent months, Morshed has told Bay Area transportation officials and San Joaquin Valley towns that the route was ruled out because it would take a bridge or a tunnel or would wipe out homes.

In tiny Atwater, he hit a growing political buzzsaw.

"Every time you talk to him, you get a different excuse," Atwater Mayor Rudy Trevino said. "I'm making this my main project. I'm going to go wherever I have to. I'm going to make a big stink because this whole thing stinks. A lot of us will work hard not to support it."

"It will galvanize the issue, and unfortunately cast negative aspersions on the whole high-speed rail project, when we could be moving forward with something positive," said Ken Gosting, executive director of Transportation Involves Everyone.

The transportation planning advocacy group is gathering allies in the valley, Bay Area and major environmental groups, all sharpening their swords for the rail project they all want.

Last week, the group urged federal regulators to put the brakes on the bullet train until the Altamont route is fully studied, something Trevino said would convert him into a vocal ally, even if the results don't change.

The 700-mile bullet train plan has been likened to the California's last big investment, the interstate spree of the 1950s and 60s. Last year, two-thirds of Californians liked the idea, according to a statewide poll.

"High-speed rail can become a dream for California or a nightmare, and the authority seems bent on creating a nightmare," said Gosting, who complains of secret meetings and misrepresentations.

Trevino questions why the rail authority reversed findings of its predecessor agency, which concluded the Altamont route was best.

Last May, Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty failed to convince his colleagues on the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to urge a full study of the Altamont. He thinks the trains would ease congestion on I-580.

Morshed says that misses the point of bullet trains.

"The objective is to serve the inter-city transportation needs of California in 2020 and beyond. It's not to serve commute trips. It won't serve commute trips. It's for trips that are too far to drive and too near to fly," he said.

The California High Speed Rail Authority will meet in Fresno on Wednesday to set a schedule for public hearings and in about 90 days act on a final environmental report.

After that, Morshed's staff must draft an implementation plan, followed by a specific environmental study that will cost tens of millions of dollars.

The overview environmental study will be available Tuesday on the agency's Web site at: www.cahighspeedrail.ca.gov

Monday, January 26, 2004

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