In California, Pacheco Pass high-speed rail route wins again
(The following story by Michael Cabanatuan appeared on the San Francisco Chronicle website on September 3, 2010.)
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — For the third time in as many years, the High-Speed Rail Authority on Thursday chose the Pacheco Pass to speed trains between the Bay Area and Central Valley.
Despite pleas from those who favor an alignment over the Altamont Pass, and Peninsula critics of plans to run high-speed trains on the Caltrain right-of-way, the authority voted 7-0, with two members absent, to reaffirm earlier decisions and approved required environmental studies.
But the decision may not be the last.
"If you approve this, you are going to be heading back to court again and, I would predict, to another adverse decision," said Stuart Flashman, an attorney representing Menlo Park and Atherton in a suit that forced the authority to revisit the environmental study and alignment choice.
Choosing a route to connect the Bay Area and the San Joaquin Valley has been one of the most contentious fights as the authority plans for the $43 billion, 800-mile system, whose first phase would connect San Francisco and Anaheim with trains traveling as fast as 220 mph, perhaps by 2020.
In 2004, the authority said it preferred either the Pacheco Pass or an approach under or through the Diablo Range south of San Jose. In 2007, the authority first picked Pacheco Pass, saying it would provide the speediest, most-direct path. But critics called for reconsideration, and the authority conducted another study. In 2008, the authority repeated its choice and approved the environmental impact report.
Menlo Park and Atherton sued, claiming the authority ignored information and intentionally slanted the report to favor the Pacheco Pass route. A Sacramento Superior Court judge found last fall that the report did not adequately consider the segment between San Jose and Gilroy in light of Union Pacific Railroad's stated opposition to sharing its right-of-way, and did not sufficiently study the effects of vibration that would be caused by the fast trains. The ruling forced the authority to reopen the entire study for public comment and reconsideration.
Now that the authority has approved the revised report and reaffirmed its choice of the Pacheco Pass, it has to return to court to show it has satisfied the judge's order. Flashman said his clients will argue that the authority has failed to do so.
The authority received 3,755 comments on the report, said Dan Leavitt, the authority's deputy director. Most criticized the report for a lack of detail on the San Francisco-to-Central Valley segment; questioned the accuracy of ridership estimates also criticized by a UC Berkeley study; said the study failed to address the effects of Union Pacific Railroad's refusal to share its right-of-way and of running trains through communities, and did not seriously consider other alignment options.
The authority's response stated in the report that it had indeed included sufficient detail for a project that is still in the planning stages; that it stands by its ridership estimates; that the authority can condemn land adjoining Union Pacific land if the railroad refuses to cooperate; that it acknowledges significant impacts on communities, and will consider them in focused ongoing environmental studies; and that it has considered other routes.
Several speakers attending hearings Wednesday and Thursday in Sacramento repeated those criticisms.
"All you've really done is pretend to respond ... or say that you disagree that the business plan is inadequate," said Don Barnby, a Menlo Park resident.
Much of the criticism focused on ridership estimates that the UC Berkeley Institute of Transportation Studies recently said are flawed. Pacheco Pass opponents say the selection of the route into and out of the Bay Area was influenced by the figures. But the authority dismissed the dispute as a disagreement between academics and working professionals, and said the ridership figures are acceptable at this stage of the planning.
The Pacheco Pass did have its supporters, though they were outnumbered by critics.
"We encourage you to move ahead," said Jim Bigelow, representative of the Redwood City/San Mateo County Chamber of Commerce. "It's important to note that on the Peninsula, we do not all think in one direction."
Friday, September 3, 2010
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