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Bullet train board votes on proposed Valley to San Jose route, amid backlash

The California High-Speed Rail Authority board voted unanimously Tuesday on a route that may ultimately connect the San Joaquin Valley with San Jose – though it didn’t come without some backlash from community groups.

The board’s preferred alternative crosses a grassland area of western Merced County and continues with a tunnel through Pacheco Pass. Additionally, on the route, high-speed trains would ultimately share upgraded and electrified tracks with the Caltrain commuter rail system between San Jose and Gilroy.

But the vote also took heed of concerns raised over the course of a two-hour hearing over the potential danger of at-grade railroad crossings in communities along the San Francisco Peninsula.

Some residents also worry about the potential impacts of an even busier rail corridor on neighborhoods in San Jose, Morgan Hill and Gilroy. Three additional alternatives included variations of elevated tracks, embankments or different routes through San Jose, Morgan Hill and Gilroy.

Boris Lipkin, the rail authority’s regional director for Northern California, emphasized Tuesday’s vote was only one part of a lengthy process that’s far from over.

Plus, Lipkin said all four options will receive equal attention and scrutiny in a detailed environmental impact report.

“This is not the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning,” Lipkin told the board. “This is not a final decision.”

All four options share common characteristics between Gilroy and western Merced County – including a 13-mile tunnel between Casa de Fruta and a site north of San Luis Reservoir, and tracks perched atop embankments across the Grasslands Wildlife Management Area northeast of Los Banos.

Hurdles for proposed segments

The environmental impact report for the four alternatives is just one among many hurdles that will require board approval before a Valley to Gilroy/San Jose route becomes a reality.

Right now, the state’s primary focus is pursuing scaled down plans to establish high speed rail between Bakersfield and Madera. That construction’s ongoing.

Until state money is available to build high speed rail from the Valley to San Jose, however, those plans will remain on the backburner.

Regardless, environmental studies will continue for all remaining segments between San Francisco and Southern California to prepare for future work, if and when that money becomes available.

In the aftermath of Tuesday’s vote, an environmental analysis will be required to assess the effects of each of the four options on neighborhoods, including traffic, noise, vibration and displacement of homes and businesses.

Potential impacts on environmental resources, including the grasslands and other areas, will also be addressed.

The environmental report would also detail measures the rail authority can take to minimize any negative effects. A draft of the environmental report is expected in early 2020 for public comment; certification of the environmental work and a final decision on the route would come in early 2021, Lipkin said.

Reasons behind vote

The state’s analysis indicated Alternative 4 – the option that received board support – would displace fewer homes, businesses, community or public facilities and agricultural acreage than the other three options.

It would also have less impact on waterways or wetlands and habitats for endangered or threatened wildlife and plants, and the least effects on existing parkland resources, the analysis concluded.

It would also cost tens of billions of dollars less to build than a system that originally envisioned fully dedicated and grade-separated tracks for high-speed trains along the Peninsula.

The rail authority’s preference for a blended or shared system emerged in 2012, after the rail agency engaged in “value engineering” to find ways to bring down the price.

But some in the audience felt the price-cutting strategy amounted to what Danny Garza, a resident of San Jose’s Gardner neighborhood south of downtown, called “a bait-and-switch” after promises made a decade ago for a system with elevated tracks to avoid affecting their established neighborhoods.

“I’m here for Gardner because we feel we’ve been tricked,” Garza said. “We approved this project 10 years ago because of the beautiful pictures of a white suspension bridge going around our neighborhood and around our school. … Please don’t use our neighborhood to balance your budget.”

Bill Rankin said Gardner and other nearby neighborhoods already have to contend with at-grade passenger trains from Caltrain, the Altamont Corridor Express and Amtrak’s Capitol Corridor, as well as Union Pacific Railroad’s freight trains. “It is an unfair burden,” Rankin told the rail board. “Our neighborhoods have taken the brunt of the South Bay’s transportation advances over the years.”

Rankin joined Garza and others imploring the rail authority to reject the at-grade option. “The most successful high-speed rail systems in the world rarely have trains at grade,” Rankin said. “An elevated bypass … is a better long-term engineering solution than the short-sighted decision to build a blended system.”

“The cheapest option is rarely the best option,” he added.

Sharing tracks, ecological impact worries

Sharing tracks with Caltrain would also mean at-grade street crossings, compared to construction now underway in the San Joaquin Valley for tracks that would have either over- or underpasses and no-at-grade crossings.

The potential danger of drivers crossing in front of fast trains was a major concern for some of those who addressed the board Tuesday for the area through and south of San Jose, as well as for the area between San Jose and San Francisco.

In a separate vote, the rail authority board identified a largely at-grade alternative between San Francisco and San Jose as the preferred option for that portion of the statewide project.

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo told the rail board that his city’s continued support of high-speed rail was not unconditional.

“Prior to 2018, the authority articulated a position that would fully separate tracks through San Jose,” Liccardo said. “I think we all know that a system that will carry trains daily through San Jose from across the state requires grade separations to comply with international best practices, provide the speed that you need to get this train to San Francisco by the time designated by Proposition 1A, and of course to provide our community with the safety it deserves.”

He contrasted the at-grade plans in the Bay Area to investments that the rail authority is making in grade separations in Southern California “and the 55 grade separations we see throughout the Central Valley.”

“Surely the largest city in Northern California … and our 1.1 million residents deserve the safety that can be delivered only through these grade separations,” Liccardo added.

Gary Patton, a Santa Cruz attorney representing the Community Coalition on High-Speed Rail, also addressed concerns over the Peninsula route in a letter sent Monday to the rail agency’s board. He reiterated residents’ objections over the blended high-speed rail/Caltrain plan and fears of “total gridlock throughout the Peninsula” because of an increased number of trains on the line interrupting traffic.

“Between San Francisco and San Jose there are at least 40 grade crossings where surface streets cross the tracks. If HSR goes on the Caltrain right of way, grade (separations) are needed and these must be furnished before, or concurrently with, the establishment of high-speed train service,” Patton wrote.

In the San Joaquin Valley, the potential effects on the Grassland Environmental Area (GEA) were a key concern of several speakers, including Rick Ortega, general manager of the Grassland Water and Resource Conservation Districts district.

“The staff report does not capture the concerns of many environmental agencies and lacks alternatives throughout the ecological area. … and contains no design detail on how the authority intends to mitigate impacts through the ecological area,” Ortega told the board.

“California has lost 95% of its wetlands. The ecological area contains the largest remaining block of these wetlands and hosts millions of migratory waterfowl and shorebirds each year. Impacts to the GEA from the proposed alignment are certain and significant,” he added.

“The construction and operation of high-speed rail through the GEA and adjacent to the state wildlife area is incompatible with the public trust uses for which these lands were originally acquired by the state of California and through its federal partnerships.

Ortega and other Grassland representatives asked the authority to conduct a more thorough study of possible alternatives through the area, including one for tracks to run below ground level, one for elevated tracks with shielding to prevent flying birds from colliding with fast-moving trains, “and an alternative that avoids (Grasslands) altogether,” Ortega said.

Board members asked their staff to consider the range of public comments over at-grade crossings in the Silicon Valley and possible wildlife effects in Grasslands as they move forward with the environmental analysis of the route alternatives.

They stopped short, however, of including specific direction for Grasslands in the motion they approved.

“We have to consider feasible mitigation” for environmental effects, said Nancy Miller, a board member from Sacramento. “We don’t have to consider all possible mitigation.”

The votes on the San Jose-Merced and San Francisco-San Jose alternatives were the first for former Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea, who was appointed to the rail authority board by state Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins in August. Tuesday was Perea’s first meeting as a board member. He will be formally sworn in later this year.

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Lifelong Valley resident Tim Sheehan has worked in the Valley as a reporter and editor since 1986, and has been at The Fresno Bee since 1998. He is currently The Bee’s data reporter and covers California’s high-speed rail project and other transportation issues. He grew up in Madera, has a journalism degree from Fresno State and a master’s degree in leadership studies from Fresno Pacific University.