High-Speed rail: Historic moment or blunder?

"I think the public sees this as being for the future when the state's population hits 50 million," Ma said.

  ·  San Mateo Daily Journal   ·  Link to Article

One vote.

Gov. Jerry Brown and the California High-Speed Rail Authority nearly missed building one of the largest public works projects in the state’s history Friday as the state Senate passed a nearly $8 billion funding plan to start construction in the Central Valley by just one vote.

Proponents called the vote a “historic moment” for the state while opponents have described it more as a “historic blunder.”

The rail funding plan also calls for electrifying the Caltrain tracks, a $1.5 billion project, by 2019 to make them compatible with high-speed trains under a “blended system” that will travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

The blended system was the idea of three high-powered local lawmakers early last year as a way to make the project more palatable on the Peninsula by reducing the risk of property takings. The idea was that of Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, and state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto. The three urged the rail authority to scrap plans to build a four-track aerial viaduct on the Peninsula in favor of having high-speed trains essentially share the Caltrain corridor on its current two-track system with the addition of about nine miles of passing tracks.

“This is an historic moment and a huge win for the Peninsula,” Eshoo wrote in a statement following Friday’s approval of the project.

The rail authority has since embraced the blended system approach but on Friday, Simitian voted against the trailer bill that releases Proposition 1A bond money to start construction on the project. Voters passed the $9 billion bond measure in 2008.

Simitian spent 17 minutes on the Senate floor Friday explaining his “no” vote.

“My hope is that the project is a success. I’m just not convinced this is the right way to make it real,” Simitian said Friday on the Senate floor.

Yesterday, he told the Daily Journal that the bill has some great benefits for the Peninsula but that spending $6 billion in federal funds for a 130-mile stretch of “conventional” tracks in the Central Valley is a poor investment.

He is pleased that the rail authority has scrapped its “mega-project” for the Peninsula in favor of the blended system and said funding in the bill for an electrified Caltrain is a significant plus.

Brown’s bill needed 21 votes to pass and it got exactly 21 votes, with every Republican in the Senate voting against it.

Sen. Ted Gaines, R-Rocklin, is the vice chair of the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, who voted against the project Friday.

“The Democrats just passed another budget that is billions of dollars out of balance and now they are threatening to cut billions more from our schools unless they get a massive tax increase in November,” Gaines wrote in a statement. “And they think this is the appropriate time to sink a fortune into a high-speed rail project that is doomed to failure? Those half-empty train cars will be a monument to misplaced priorities and fiscal recklessness.”

The overall project is estimated to cost about $68 billion, down from earlier projections of nearly $100 billion.

Locally, Belmont Mayor Dave Warden is still not convinced the project will not have major effects on the city.

Warden is concerned that to electrify the tracks, Caltrain will need to take some right-of-way on Old County Road, east of the tracks. He is also concerned that the nine miles of passing tracks needed so high-speed trains can pass Caltrain trains may be also planned for Belmont.

The biggest problem the statewide project has, however, is how to fund it, Warden said.

“Where is the $50 billion coming from? Not from the feds. I think voters would undo the bonds if they could,” he said.

Warden hopes the state doesn’t build tracks in the Central Valley that never get used.

For Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, Friday’s Senate vote was a “relief.”

Ma helped get the bond measure on the 2008 ballot when then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was not in support of it. She spent the past six years advocating for the project.

“I think the public sees this as being for the future when the state’s population hits 50 million,” Ma said.

She praises Brown for taking a leadership role in the project and said Caltrain modernization efforts would be dead without the deal it made with the rail authority.

The Senate bill passed Friday releases an additional $600 million to fund Caltrain’s modernization plan on top of another $106 million in funds already approved by the California Transportation Commission. Overall, the bill authorized the state to begin selling $4.5 billion in voter-approved bonds and allow the state to collect another $3.2 billion in federal funding that would have been rescinded had the state failed to act Friday.

Caltrain publicly praised the local legislators Friday who voted to release the bond money including Ma, Gordon and Assemblymembers Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, Jim Beall, D-San Jose, Paul Fong, D-Mountain View and Nora Campos, D-San Jose.

In the state Senate, Sens. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, and Elaine Alquist, D-San Jose, also voted to release the bond money.

“As is often the case with historic votes, this one was controversial but these legislators stood tall in the face of relentless opposition,” Caltrain Board Chair Adrienne Tissier said.

The fact that the rail authority has embraced the blended system for Caltrain, Tissier said, should help resolve a lot of issues on the Peninsula.

“There will always be some against it,” she said. 

Some of the opposition included the Peninsula Cities Consortium, made up of officials from Palo Alto, Atherton, Menlo Park, Belmont and Burlingame.

Another local group against the project, High-Speed Boondoggle, is responsible for all those blue “There goes the neighborhood” signs you see on lawns all over the Peninsula. Boondoggle billboards are posted against the project in the Central Valley now. The group opposed the project based on misleading ridership and cost projections put forth by the rail authority. When voters approved Proposition 1A less than four years ago, the rail authority estimated the overall cost of the project to be about $33 billion.

“I don’t think the benefits outweigh the impacts,” said Russ Cohen, one of the founders of High-Speed Boondoggle.

Boondoggle will publicize which lawmakers voted for and against the project and will continue to act as the “advertising agency” for those concerned about the project, Cohen said.

He said Simitian and two other Democrats in the Senate who voted against the project Friday, Sens. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, and Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, were the three most knowledgeable lawmakers on the subject of high-speed rail.

“The three who knew the most about the project voted against it,” Cohen said.

For Gordon, his support for the bill was contingent on protecting the blended system approach he, Simitian and Eshoo put forward 15 months ago.

“Electrifying Caltrain has been a dream and vision for decades,” Gordon said. “This will allow us to implement that dream. It is outstanding news for our region.”

The bill the Senate passed Friday calls for protecting the “integrity” of the blended system, Gordon said.

Gordon actually spoke with Simitian Thursday night before the Senate vote Friday after the Assembly overwhelmingly passed the bill. Simitian had been considered to be “on the fence” leading up to the vote.

“I didn’t ask him how he was going to vote and he didn’t offer,” Gordon told the Daily Journal. “We spoke about the blended approach protections mostly.”

Gordon said he was “a little surprised” by Simitian’s no vote.

“After I listened to him, I understood his concerns,” Gordon said.

Simitian is being termed out of the state Senate this year and is currently running for a seat on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.