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03.11.09

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NEXT STOP UTOPIA: Plans for California's High Speed Rail project  include a modernized Diridon Station, where the statewide system links up to local mass transit, including BART.

High Speed Derail

Will local protesters block the fast-track to the future?

By Diane Solomon


LAST November, Californians approved a $9.95 billion down payment for the first electric-powered steel-wheel-on-steel-rail high-speed train system in the nation. They voted yes to an artist's rendition of sleek tubular trains invisibly zooming through their neighborhoods, connecting California's major cities and taking them from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and a new green future, in less than 2.5 hours.

But now that public meetings are being held, residents along the Caltrain corridor are worried about what 52 percent of California's voters actually green-lighted.

In January, the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) began the development of the Environmental Impact Report/Environmental Impact Statement for two spurs of the system—the San Francisco to San Jose and San Jose to Merced sections. The public was invited to scoping meetings in San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, which will continue through March.

San Jose's first meeting, on Feb. 25, was typical in that there were more questions than answers from the CHSRA's reps. With only a week's notice, Harvey Darnell, chairman of the Greater Gardner Strong Neighborhood Initiative/Neighborhood Action Coalition (SNI NAC), rallied more than 75 residents and representatives of San Jose's neighborhood associations to Gardner Community Center, which is located a few blocks from the Caltrain corridor.

Under the current plan, Caltrain will share its right of way with the HST, and in exchange, Caltrain will share the HST's electrification, advanced signaling system and safer underground or elevated tracks to separate them from crossing automobile and pedestrian traffic.

Caltrain runs north from Gilroy up to San Jose and then alongside Highway 87, crossing Bird Avenue, then Interstate 280, to Diridon Station. It continues past the HP Pavilion along Stockton Avenue to San Francisco.

By 2030, the CHSRA is projecting that 90 percent of all Californians will be taking advantage of the opportunity to travel aboard the 800-mile Sacramento-to–San Diego system at speeds as high as 220 mph for about half the cost of an airline ticket. With 9.1 million riders a year projected to board HSTs in San Francisco, between 5am and 11pm, and 4.1 million at Diridon station, "everybody's trying to figure out how much impact this is going to have on our daily lives," says David Chang, who lives on Fuller Avenue, near the train tracks.

Neighborhood opposition to high speed rail has sprung up in several communities. In Palo Alto, protesters holding signs saying "Deceived by Prop. 1A" attended a recent meeting, charging that elevated train tracks above cross streets, and proposed security barriers, will divide their community like a Berlin Wall. In response to the protests, the city of Palo Alto asked the CHSRA to consider running the HST anywhere but the Caltrain corridor. City leaders even asked the agency to  build a tunnel under their city.

Meanwhile, the tony cities of Menlo Park and Atherton have sued to route the HST away from the Caltrain corridor. This lawsuit will be heard on May 5 in Sacramento.


Can't Stop This Train

At a Redwood City meeting last week, CHSRA chairman Judge Quentin Kopp stood out in a floppy bow tie, pink shirt and pinstriped suit. The former San Francisco supervisor and state senator is a charismatic figure from the Willie Brown /Wilkes Bashford era of politicos. Kopp said the Caltrain corridor was chosen because they don't have to pay for the existing right of way from San Francisco to the Tamian station area in north San JoseCK. Asked if it was a done deal, he said, "You can't predict lawsuits, but I think it's called 'democracy.' The people of California approved it so there's a mandate to carry this out." 

Kopp says he's confident they'll be able to raise the funding needed to complete the HST from federal, state, regional and private sources. Thirteen billion dollars of the $787 billion recovery package is earmarked for HSTs. CHSRA will apply for about $7 billion.

Ron Diridon Sr., the governor's appointee to the CHSRA board, is equally optimistic.

He hopes to have an approved EIR/EIS by 2010, construction contracts in place by 2011 and a San Francisco–to-L.A. HST as early as 2018.

He says nothing's been decided yet so people shouldn't worry now about losing their homes. But HST opponents express concern about additional space needed to accommodate new tracks.

Gary Kennerley, the regional manager for the San Jose to Merced section, says north of Diridon station they're counting on Caltrain Express and the HST to share twin tracks, with another set to be shared by Caltrain locals and Union Pacific's freight trains.

Dan Leavitt, CHSRA deputy director, says "between Diridon station and Gilroy you could be adding just 60 feet because this corridor is constrained."

"We're looking at optimal ways of arranging tracks within the right of way," Leavitt says. "Within six months, we'll have completed our assessment and we'll be right out there informing the public."


Path of Progress

Word of Faith Christian Center is on Fuller Avenue and its pastor, Dr. Willie Nuitt, is doing the math. He thinks his congregation will lose their church.

"We're right next to the tracks, so whether we want to be involved or not we are," he says. "If they leave our church, it could be damaged by the weight and the speed of the trains. If we have to move, we want to make sure we can acquire new property with the settlement and have a place to go."

North Willow Glen Neighborhood Association president Allison England lives on Fuller Street, and is organizing a scoping meeting at Word of Faith on March 24, the day before San Jose's last official HSR meeting. 

"We've been suffering from the freight and commuter trains that shake and crack our plaster walls on a regular basis," England says. "Now, we'll have to go through all of the dust and nastiness of them building this.

"We knew Caltrain was there when we bought our house but we didn't buy into this."

Tim Frank, Sierra Club senior policy adviser, says the state must weigh the benefits to society as a whole.

"You can't say 'no' to this because a small group of people don't want a piece of the infrastructure running through their back yard," Frank says. "Some people will pay a price and we should consider their concerns, but we're getting a transportation network that will serve the whole population of this state, especially when you consider how it will feed into regional and local public transportation systems."

The Sierra Club and the National Resource Defense Council are both ardent HSR supporters. Both groups supported Proposition 1A. Frank says the people who benefit from the fast trains won't just be its riders. Everyone will benefit from huge reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and less congestion because every passenger on the HST would otherwise be on an airplane or driving. "It will help everyone who uses freeways, everyone who breathes and everyone who wants to end global warming," Frank says.

He says this ambitious project is just the beginning of a greener future.

"The HST is just one part of the solution. We need more local transit and we need to build neighborhoods that are more transit-oriented and walkable. But if you compare the HST's impact on habitat, wildlife and climate change to building the new airports and highways that are needed, HST looks a lot better."  

San Jose's final HST Scoping meetings will be held on March 24, 7–9pm, at Word of Faith Christian Center, 873 Delmas Ave., San Jose, and on March 25, 3–7pm, at Roosevelt Community Center, Community Room B, 901 E. Santa Clara St., San Jose.


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