Today's Modesto Bee reports on efforts by Asm. Cathleen Galgiani to address the Altamont corridor and generate more support in the Stockton-Modesto region for the fall high speed rail bond vote. It's got a ton of information in it, but before I get to the Altamont vs. Pacheco nitty gritty, there's this rather stunning item:
High-speed rail supporters say eventually they'll run tracks north from Merced to Sacramento, passing through Modesto. That could happen by 2020, assuming the Bay Area-Anaheim line is done by 2014, Galgiani said.
That's a game-changing statement. Most public statements on HSR - my own included - have anticipated 2018 to 2020 as the opening date for the system. Galgiani is instead saying just six years out - 2014 isn't that far away. It's much easier for voters to envision a system that opens in five or six years, instead of ten to twelve years. Assuming this is accurate, it could be the deal-clincher with California voters. We should certainly begin playing it up, if we can get some further confirmation (not that I don't trust you, Asm. Galgiani, I just want to be certain).
Once you're done absorbing that, the bulk of the article focuses on the ongoing fight over Altamont vs. Pacheco. Personally I see this like Obama vs. Hillary - the decision has been made so let's move on to the big fight in November instead of dragging this out any further. Unfortunately not everyone sees it that way:
The $950 million carrot "was in the bond from the start," said David Schonbrunn, president of Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund. He said his group will sue to force reconsideration of the Altamont route, which was rejected, he said, because land along the Pacheco alignment is much cheaper.
"This is a real estate deal," Schonbrunn said, "not transportation. We think high-speed rail is the future of California, we think it's crucial and we think they're screwing it up badly."
I'm sorry, but if you consider yourself an environmentalist, or that HSR is the future of California, suing over the alignment runs directly against both goals. It will be immeasurably more difficult to win funds and a public vote for HSR if we have already rejected it - does anyone see Texas and Florida hard at work on an HSR system after they canceled their projects? Didn't think so.
The TRANSDEF arguments on HSR are disingenuous at best. On their site they claim that:
The Pacheco alignment (blue on the map below) would provide no additional public benefits for our region, doing nothing for congested corridors. In controversial (and we suspect corrupt) actions, the Pacheco alignment has nonetheless been recommended by both MTC and the High Speed Rail Authority staff. The only substantial beneficiaries of Pacheco we can see are speculators, who would open up vast areas of undisturbed wetlands habitat for sprawl development (the dark areas in the map below). For these people, public investment in High Speed Rail in the Pacheco Corridor would shower windfall profits on their holdings.
This is bunk. The Pacheco alignment provides service for the Monterey Bay region and provides faster travel times between SF and LA. Moreover, the map on their HSR page falsely implies that an extension to Stockton and Sacramento isn't planned, when instead it will be in the second phase and remains an integral part of the overall proposal.
But the claims of corruption are really too much. I have no reason to defend the CHSRA staff and board but there is no evidence to suggest land speculation. Galgiani's bill will prevent a station from being built at Los Banos, and anyone who bought land around that region expecting an HSR windfall is going to be very disappointed. Of course, as I have argued before, sprawl is an endangered concept thanks to the end of cheap oil. The fears TRANSDEF is trying to stoke here are not supported by any available evidence.
Further, other California environmental groups, like the Sierra Club, appear to have come around and are working constructively with the CHSRA to ensure the best, most environmentally friendly system possible:
Some environmentalists, however, are appeased by the amendment to Galgiani's bill prohibiting stops from Merced to Gilroy, to protect expansive waterfowl habitat. The Sierra Club of California continues to negotiate for resources to help valley agencies plan for transit-oriented development, or growth focused around depots to reduce vehicle trips.
"The role high-speed rail will play will push the valley either toward being more sustainable or less sustainable," Sierra Club advocate Tim Frank said.
Credit where it's due: I was critical of the Sierra Club for not being fully on board, but if their statements in this article are representative, they've made the right choice in working to improve the plan. TRANSDEF should follow suit.
Asm. Galgiani is working instead to improve service along the ACE Altamont corridor to build political support in the Stockton-Modesto region for the fall HSR vote:
Democratic Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani is pushing a bill that could win about one-tenth of the bond money, or $950 million, to upgrade Altamont Commuter Express trains taken by some valley workers to the East Bay. Bullet trains could use improved ACE rails to zip from the valley to the Bay Area in a fraction of the time required by cars, Galgiani said....
Galgiani notes that a recent bill amendment "elevates the focus" of Altamont trains. She envisions ACE adding tracks and grade separations, or running rails over or under roads where vehicles now wait for trains to pass.
"Essentially, we're preparing the ACE system so that it could share tracks with high-speed trains," she said.
ACE trains carry about 3,500 riders daily, including about 350 from Stanislaus County, spokesman Thomas Reeves said. Delay complaints because of conflicts with Union Pacific freight trains could be reduced if ACE had money to build more and longer "sidings," or turn-out spurs, used to let other trains pass, he said.
Galgiani's bill is AB 3034, mentioned in yesterday's post and is coauthored by Fiona Ma of San Francisco. AB 3034 deserves our support. CALPIRG has a online tool to lobby the Assembly to pass AB 3034. Look for this site to step up its activism around this bill, which should help get the bonds passed this fall.
And remember: Anaheim-SF by 2014. Wow.