High-speed rail system in limbo

Decision expected next month by state agency could derail entire $40 billion project

The state board that is planning California’s 700-mile high-speed rail system between Los Angeles and the Bay Area 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 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 Highway 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 state Route 152 through Pacheco Pass.

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. 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.

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 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.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a San Jose Democrat, said an Altamont route that crosses the South Bay would damage the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Opponents of the Pacheco Pass route say it also would damage wetlands and grasslands.

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. — AP

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