New study picks same route for California high-speed rail

(The following story by Michael Cabanatuan appeared on the San Francisco Chronicle website on March 5, 2010.)

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. The state High-Speed Rail Authority issued a revised study that continues to recommend that speed trains between the Bay Area and Central Valley travel through the Pacheco Pass instead of the Altamont Pass.

The authority, which selected the Pacheco route over Altamont in 2008, had to reassess the best route and redo portions of its environmental report after a Sacramento judge ruled in December that its initial analysis was inadequate. The ruling came in response to a lawsuit by the cities of Menlo Park and Atherton and four environmental groups that favor the Altamont alignment.

Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny found that the environmental impact report did not adequately consider the segment between San Jose and Gilroy in light of the Union Pacific Railroad's stated opposition to sharing its right of way. The judge also cited contradicting statements about vibrations that would be caused by the fast trains.

Dan Leavitt, the authority's deputy director, told the authority's board at a Thursday meeting in Sacramento that the study had been amended to satisfy the judge's concerns and would be released for 45 days of public comment beginning Thursday. A public hearing will be held April 7 in San Jose.

Leavitt said the report acknowledges that moving high-speed train tracks adjacent to Union Pacific rails will increase the costs and impact of construction. But, he said, the study found that the railroad's refusal to share its right of way would also affect the Altamont alignment, and that those impacts would be somewhat greater than on the Pacheco Pass route.

The addendum studies the impacts of the alignment, including the effects on Monterey Highway, which adjoins the railroad's tracks. The study found the highway would have to move about 60 feet, and have the number of lanes reduced, at a cost of $118 million. Changing the track and highway alignment could also affect black walnut trees along the highway that might be considered a historical resource under state law, and the authority might have to take extra steps to avoid interfering with the Union Pacific freight trains.

"None of the additional environmental impacts identified in this document, individually or collectively, changes the prior conclusion that the Pacheco Pass Network ... results in the fewest environmental impacts overall," the report concludes.

Whether the study satisfies high-speed rail critics and the court remains to be seen.

David Schonbrunn, president of the Transportation Defense and Education Fund, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, hadn't seen the report but said "the impacts of taking half of the Monterey Highway will be pretty serious."

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit announced last month that they hope to reopen the case based on questions about the reliability of ridership projections. The authority met in closed session Thursday afternoon to discuss the lawsuit.

Friday, March 5, 2010

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