Bay Area route dispute threatens high-speed rail line

The state board that is planning California's 700-mile high-speed rail system is facing a politically sensitive route decision that could make or break the $40 billion project.

The nine-member board of the California High-Speed Rail Authority is scheduled to decide next month how to get the bullet trains through the coastal mountains between the San Joaquin Valley and the San Francisco Bay area, and the debate over the options has become fierce.

Five members of Congress representing districts from the Bay area to Monterey have threatened to oppose federal funding for the project if the board chooses a northern route that generally would follow Interstate 580 through the Altamont Pass.

Supporters of the Altamont Pass option have raised the possibility of a lawsuit if the board picks a southerly route following Highway 152 through Pacheco Pass.

“I think it's going to be very contentious whatever they choose,” said Alan Miller, executive director of the Train Riders Association of California, a group of 1,200 rail enthusiasts that supports the Altamont route.

The authority is proposing a rail system that would carry passengers between California's largest cities on trains that run at top speeds of more than 200 mph. Supporters see it as an important third option to freeway and air travel as the state's population heads toward 60 million by 2050.

Board members are looking for a combination of state, federal and private funding to finance the system. A nearly $10 billion bond measure on the November 2008 ballot would help pay for a first link of the system between Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area.

The rail board has generally settled on routes for most of the system, which also would stop in Sacramento, Fresno, Anaheim, San Diego and other cities.

But it has held off on the San Francisco Bay area segment after initially ruling out an Altamont route as too costly, inefficient and environmentally damaging.

The Pacheco route would come west from cutoff points near Merced or Chowchilla through the Pacheco Pass and then turn north to San Jose. It would then split and run up either side of the bay to San Francisco and Oakland.

Under one possible Altamont alignment, tracks would begin heading west between Stockton and Modesto before splitting into three segments at Fremont. One branch would go south to San Jose, one would run north to Oakland and a third would cross the bay to Redwood City and then turn north to San Francisco.

Another option would link San Francisco to the Altamont route through a transbay tube to Oakland.

Some supporters of the Altamont route say the trains could simply go around the southern end of the bay instead of going across or under it. But that would add 39 minutes to the travel time to San Francisco, said Laura Stuchinsky, director of transportation and land use for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, an advocacy organization for the area's computer industry.

Pacheco Pass supporters say that route would be more efficient, allowing one train to serve San Francisco and San Jose or San Jose and Oakland instead of just one of the three cities.

“We think it's the fastest way to serve Northern and Southern California and to serve the major cities in this area,” Stuchinsky said. “It makes more sense to come through one of the three major cities and then serve the other two rather than come through a fourth point and then serve the other three.”

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a San Jose Democrat, said an Altamont route that crosses the southern bay would damage the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is 30,000 acres of mudflats, marshes and vernal pools that were named after former Rep. Don Edwards.

“If there is a plan to degrade the wildlife refuge, I will do everything I can to make sure there's no federal funds for this project,” she said. “I don't think I'll be alone.”

Lofgren and four other members of Congress – Reps. Anna Eshoo, D-Atherton, Sam Farr, D-Carmel, Mike Honda, D-San Jose, and Tom Lantos, D-San Mateo – wrote a letter to the authority in August warning that choosing an Altamont route could “well make us rethink our support of any federal funding for the project.”

Opponents of the Pacheco Pass route, which include some environmental groups, say it also would damage wetlands and grasslands while encouraging urban sprawl.

Melissa Hippard, director of the Sierra Club's Loma Prieta chapter, said a high-arching railroad bridge or a tunnel under the bay could lessen any negative effects on the Edwards wildlife refuge.

The Sierra Club hasn't taken a formal position on the alignment, but “we're just not convinced that the Pacheco Pass is a winner,” she said.

The debate has tended to be divided along geographic lines, with San Francisco and San Jose area officials supporting the Pacheco Pass route to the south and the San Joaquin Valley and much of the East Bay generally backing the Altamont Pass route.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission, a planning agency for nine San Francisco area counties, is suggesting a compromise: Build a Pacheco Pass route that would primarily carry express trains between Northern and Southern California and an Altamont line for regional trains that would stop more frequently.

The dual-line scenario would add $5 billion to the project's cost but also would improve commuter service, said Doug Kimsey, the commission's planning director.

The high-speed rail board's staff also is recommending a two-line approach.

Under a staff proposal to be presented Wednesday, the Pacheco Pass route would connect San Jose and San Francisco. The Altamont line would split in the East Bay before going to Oakland and San Jose and could carry a combination of high-speed and commuter trains.

“I would say this is the best mobility solution we can offer, given the constraints,” said Mehdi Morshed, the rail board's executive director.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission's executive director, Steve Heminger, worries that continued fighting over the high-speed rail route could sink the $10 billion bond measure and the project.

“Passage of this measure will be an incredibly difficult challenge,” he said. “If we don't stop fighting over these alignments and arrive at a consensus, I fear we will lose the whole thing.”

High-speed rail board member Rod Diridon, a former Santa Clara County supervisor, thinks critics of the board's route decision ultimately will support the overall project, despite their initial disappointment.

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