We cannot afford high-speed rail done wrong

April 19, 2011

Published in the San Jose Mercury News

By Anna Eshoo, Joe Simitian and Rich Gordon

Each of us has expressed support for "high-speed rail done right," by which we mean a genuinely statewide system that makes prudent use of limited public funds and which is responsive to legitimate concerns about the impact on our cities, towns, neighborhoods and homes.

To date, however, the California High-Speed Rail Authority has failed to develop and describe such a system for the Peninsula and South Bay. For that reason, we are setting forth basic parameters for what "high-speed rail done right" looks like in our region.

For the authority to succeed in its mission it must be responsive to local concerns about local impacts. Moreover, it is undeniable that funding will be severely limited at both the state and national levels for the foreseeable future.

Much of the projected cost for the San Jose-to-San Francisco leg is driven by the fact that the authority has proposed what is essentially a second rail system, duplicating existing usable infrastructure. Even if such a system could be constructed without adverse impact along the Caltrain corridor, the cost cannot be justified.

If we can barely find the funds to do high-speed rail right, we certainly cannot find the funds to do high-speed rail wrong.

Accordingly, we call upon the High-Speed Rail Authority and our local Caltrain Joint Powers Board to develop plans for a blended system that integrates high-speed rail with a 21st-century Caltrain.

To that end, we explicitly reject the notion of high-speed rail running from San Jose to San Francisco on an elevated structure or "viaduct." We fully expect that high-speed rail on this route can and should remain within the existing Caltrain right of way. Finally, consistent with a project of this more limited scope, the authority should abandon its preparation of an environmental impact report for a phased project of larger dimensions over a 25-year time frame.

Continuing to plan for a project of this scope in the face of limited funding and growing community resistance is particularly ill-advised when predicated on ridership projections that are less than credible.

Within the existing right-of-way, at or below grade, a single blended system could allow high-speed rail arriving in San Jose to continue north seamlessly as part of a 21st-century Caltrain -- using some combination of electrification, positive train control, new rolling stock and/or other appropriate upgrades -- while maintaining currently projected speeds and travel time for high-speed rail.

The net result would be substantially upgraded commuter service for Peninsula and South Bay residents capable of accommodating high-speed rail from San Jose to San Francisco.

All of this is possible, but only if the High-Speed Rail Authority rethinks its direction.

The authority has come under considerable criticism from the Legislative Analyst's Office, the Bureau of State Audits, the California Office of the Inspector General, the authority's own Peer Review Group and the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California. The authority would do well to take these critiques to heart.

Frankly, many of our constituents are convinced that the High-Speed Rail Authority has already wandered so far afield that it is too late for a successful course correction. We hope the authority can prove otherwise.

An essential first step is a rethinking of the authority's plans for the Peninsula and South Bay. A commitment to a project that eschews an aerial viaduct, stays within the existing right-of-way, sets aside any notion of a phased project expansion at a later date, and incorporates necessary upgrades for Caltrain -- producing a truly blended system along the Caltrain corridor -- is the essential next step.

REP. ANNA ESHOO, SEN. JOE SIMITIAN and ASSEMBLYMAN RICH GORDON represent portions of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties in the House of Representatives, California Senate and Assembly, respectively. They wrote this article for this newspaper.