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High-Speed Rail Authority Grilled by Senators and Public

The six hour on the record legislative hearing brought together advocates and antagonists of the multi-billion dollar infrastructure project in Mountain View.

Four years after California voters passed a bond measure to help fund a high-speed rail system, many now felt let down because of skyrocketing costs, heightened by the state's fiscal crisis and an Authority's controversial draft business plan and estimates.

However Dan Richard, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CA-HSRA), said that "the governor told us the number will come down" from the current $98.1 billion.

These and other concerns–like the CA-HSRA's decision to begin construction in the Central Valley versus the "bookend" urban areas of San Francisco and Anaheim–were in Mountain View's Center for the Performing Arts hosted by the Senate Select Committee on High Speed Rail on Tuesday night.

"We are all supportive of high-speed rail, but it has to be high-speed rail done right and decisions made against the best available evidence, use of money and not base on political decisions," said State Senator Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), co-chair of the committee with Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto).

The high-speed rail project, which estimate place the higher-end at $118 billion, had many in the 600-seat  auditorium demanding that the Proposition 1A be place on the ballot again. Proposition 1A, which voters passed in 2008, raised $10 billion in bond financing for high-speed rail. However, some voters expressed that they wouldn't have voted for it "knowing what [they] know now."

Dan Richard, chairman of the CA-HSRA and Board Member Jim Harnett, carefully answered questions fired off to them by Simitian and Lowenthal. Their determination and commitment to the project remained resolute.

"No regional transportation plan is predicated on knowing where all the money is coming from at this stage," Richard said. "I can't look you in the eye and say that we have any greater clarity about the funding today but we'll have a more rational basis [in the future]."

He also added that "the ultimate rider projections show there will be enough riders so that they won't need a public subsidy," a statement rebutted in public comments.

Richard told Mountain View Patch at the conclusion of the six hour meeting that the CA-HSRA would "absolutely" be interested in private sector money.

"There is a lot of private sector interest, but we have to get it built first," he said, adding that they want to be conservative about how much they could get. He said around $20 billion. "The private sector would need to see the ridership figures first."

Under continuous consideration is the $760 million high-speed rail funds that could go toward the electrification of Caltrain, but that remain contingent–because of the language of Prop 1A–on the construction of the entire system. Assemblyman Jerry Hill, in the attendance, earlier that day to encourage residents to support electrification for the commuter rail.

Also, the potential loss of the $2.5 billion in federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds that must be committed to the high-speed rail project by Sept. 30, 2012 in order to be allocated.

William Kempton, chairman of the HSR Peer Review Group, and Legislative Analyst's Office staff Farra Bracht and Brian Weatherford, also raised concerns about the analysis of the CA-HSRA.

There was a mixed bag of opinions during the public comments, which began first with statements from elected officials. Mountain View Councilwoman Ronit Bryant attended the meeting, however no elected member of Mountain View spoke on the record about the project.

The strongest opposition continued to come from Palo Altans and residents of San Mateo County.

Palo Alto Mayor Yiaway Yeh asked the State to eliminate the project. Atherton City Councilman Jerry Carlson said that "nothing I've heard tonight changes our mind," and that the funds should be used for other projects. He and Palo Alto Councilman Patrick Burke called for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) to stop dictating what happens in the Peninsula.

Burlingame Councilwoman Terry Nagel said that "we are not against it if it's done right," but to be done right the CA-HSRA needs to listen to all cities affected along the Caltrain corridor. One of her constituents, Karen Perry, express her fear of losing her home.

Almost all speakers acknowledged and called this new board more "amenable" than the last.

included the labor unions, the mayors of San Francisco and San Jose, and San Francisco Airport Director John Martin.

Cupertino Councilman Barry Chang, and others, spoke to the environmental benefits of getting people out of their cars because "we can't rely on fossil fuels." The potential reduction of vehicular deaths and the duty of goverment to enhance safety were also raised.

William Sandie of Los Altos, among others, hoped to see a French-style or Japanese-style high-speed rail system. He believed it a good idea to start to build in the Central Valley. The Central Valley portion, called by several the "train to nowhere" is part of the CA-HSR's "Initial Construction Segment" and has $6 billion dollars apportioned for it.

"Should we not have built I-5 because not enough people live between Sacramento and Los Angeles?" he said. "We didn't know then where the funds would come from."

But if the project does move forward, all begged the state senatoros to hold the Authority to greater standard. They want not only more transparency, but a solid business plan.

The Authority, however, is also aware of their limitations.

"We made an effort to show voters what it would cost over 20 years," Richard said. "Frankly, the voters also provided that the legislature would make the final call. It's built into the law."

A final 2012 Business Plan is expected to be released late March 2012.

 

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