Who Said Building a Railroad Was Easy? 

This could be the make-or-break year for the state's proposed high-speed rail system

You enter the Transbay Terminal at 9 a.m. There is no baggage check, no metal detector, and no need to remove your shoes. The train departs on time, the seats are cushy, the leg room ample. It leaves San Francisco and heads south through the Central Valley, sweeping past gridlock at speeds up to 220 miles per hour. And before noon you're in downtown Los Angeles, having never left the ground. At least that's how it looks in the flashy YouTube video.

The proposed California high-speed rail system could be a reality within twenty years, despite being one of the world's biggest infrastructure projects. But that depends on what happens in 2008, a year of reckoning for the $40 billion rail line. After more than a decade of planning that already has cost taxpayers $40 million, the proposal is still stuck in the conceptual phase. Most Californians haven't even heard of it, due largely to state funding decisions that have kept the dream alive but not provided it the means to move forward.

However, the rail network could get its big break this year, with a $10 billion bond measure currently scheduled for November's ballot. Project supporters say federal matching funds could be obtained, construction could begin by 2010, and a San Francisco-to-Los Angeles route could be completed within ten years. Momentum is building, and the project is gaining supporters.

"It's the perfect storm right now," said San Francisco Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, citing concern about global warming coupled with the rising cost of gasoline-dependent auto and air travel. As chairwoman of the legislative High-Speed Rail Caucus and one of the project's two chief legislative advocates, Ma is actively recruiting support. "As I'm going around the state, people are sick and tired of sitting in gridlock and going to the airport two hours ahead of time," Ma said. "I think voters will pass this overwhelmingly."

Yet reaching that point will be a challenge at best, and a series of obstacles could derail the train. In addition to the predictable disagreement over who should foot the bill, rail proponents have repeatedly criticized Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for professing support while actually doing his best to keep Californians from voting on the project. This year could be Schwarzenegger's last chance to demonstrate that his support is genuine.

Meanwhile, now that organizers have favored a Bay Area route through the Pacheco Pass east of Gilroy instead of through Altamont Pass and the Tri-Valley, the project faces another potential snag. A coalition of state environmental groups, some of which have been vocal supporters of the rail project in the past, claims that the Pacheco route would destroy protected wetlands, and is now threatening a lawsuit that could kill the bond measure altogether. To at least one project backer, these opponents can't see the forest for the trees.

Who ever said building a railroad was easy?

"It's a very difficult undertaking, but at the same time, this is a great project," said Dan Leavitt, deputy director of the California High Speed Rail Authority, the agency charged with designing, constructing, and operating the system. "It could make California a much better place to live. Hopefully we're in a situation when stars may be aligning. ... But if we lose the opportunity that's there now, it won't be easy to do it again." For every year of delay, he added, land prices and material costs rise significantly, adding billions to the final tab.

The project's statewide environmental impact report was certified in 2005, giving the green light to proceed with engineering studies. The report encountered no opposition from any major state environmental group — a rarity for such a massive study — largely because the proposed routes are mainly planned along existing transit corridors and generally avoid environmentally sensitive areas. Virtually all of the system's thirty stations are slated for downtown areas, a proposal meant to reduce sprawl and encourage sustainable transit-oriented development in California's many languishing city centers.

But the Sierra Club and a number of other powerful environmental groups including Audubon California, the Nature Conservancy, and the National Resources Defense Council are less supportive about the authority's most recent environmental impact report, which focuses specifically on entry into the Bay Area and favors the Pacheco Pass alignment, which would make for a speedier route from San Francisco to Los Angeles and also would be cheaper to build. That route would go from Los Banos in Merced County to Gilroy before heading north to San Jose and up the Peninsula to San Francisco along the CalTrain right-of-way.

"We think this report is fatally flawed," said Bill Allayaud, the Sierra Club's state legislative director. "There's a bias toward the Pacheco Pass in the way they account for ridership and ... environmental impacts."

Allayaud alleges that politics, rather than sound science, influenced the decision; Silicon Valley, which would be directly serviced, lobbied hard for the southern route while communities in the Tri-Valley fended off the Altamont Pass, not wanting the railroad in their backyards. He believes it makes far more sense for the train to go through the Altamont Pass' already urban corridor. Although little-known, he said, the other route goes through some "of the most pristine and important wetlands left in California." Specifically, it bissects the Grasslands Ecological Area, which, at more than 90,000 acres, is the largest contiguous block of wetlands in California and a wintering area for more than 1 million birds in the Pacific Flyway. Located about fifteen miles north of Los Banos, the area boasts uncommon types of freshwater wetlands and native grasslands, supporting more than 500 species of plants and animals, some of which are endangered or threatened. While the Altamont route also would interact with protected wetlands — the South Bay's Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge — the coalition believes the environmental impact would be far less harmful.

In the strong likelihood that the rail authority's board votes to certify the environmental impact report in March, Allayaud's coalition has thirty days to file a lawsuit, something it is seriously considering. "Pick the wrong route and we're going to have a train wreck," he said.

For Mehdi Morshed, the rail authority's executive director, a lawsuit is just par for the course for a project of this magnitude. "It's highly unlikely there won't be some kind of lawsuit," Morshed said, noting that there has been serious consideration of eventually building a slower commuter rail through the Altamont into the East Bay. "No matter what decision we make, someone's likely to be unhappy."

The authority has been working closely with its legal counsel and the Federal Railroad Administration, both of which say the decision is defensible. The authority notes that the Altamont Pass route would be far more costly because it would involve the construction of a new Transbay Tube or bridge and potentially limit capacity while possibly also resulting in highly controversial eminent domain actions in the Tri-Valley communities in order to make way for as many as six tracks. The authority says this many tracks would be needed there to enable connections to regional rail services including BART and ACE.

Morshed said the Pacheco Pass decision just made more sense, even if it's not perfect. "If environmental groups intentionally try to harm the rail ... that's their prerogative," he said, suggesting the alternative would be more sprawl and roads. "If one route caused them to torpedo the whole project, would that be better for the environment?"

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