Monday, April 13, 2009

Editorial: High-speed Rail Still Makes Sense

Mercury News Editorial

The idea of high-speed rail whisking passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in less than three hours was irresistible to California voters in November. In Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, approval of the $9.95 billion bond measure ran over 60 percent. But opposition since has grown on the Peninsula, where the image of swift, clean travel is giving way to that of fast trains zooming past backyards. It's as if folks are saying: Wait. You mean it's coming here?

Yes, it is. And that is a very good thing for travelers, for the Silicon Valley economy and for the environment. Communities need to be focusing on how to build it the best way possible, not how to stop it.

The route to San Francisco through Pacheco Pass and San Jose was chosen over East Bay alternatives last year after a lengthy, contentious and very public process. Public officials who claim not to have known this are either disingenuous or were asleep at the switch. San Jose and some other communities lobbied hard to be on the route: High-speed rail will be another incentive for companies to locate and grow here instead of fleeing to cheaper, less-congested places.

That said, nobody expected the details to be easy to work out. The trains won't go above 125 miles per hour in this corridor — a crawl compared with 220 in the Central Valley — but running them along the Caltrain right of way presents challenges, especially as they pass through neighborhoods.

A number of communities have concerns. But cities such as San Jose and Sunnyvale are taking a positive approach to solving them, while Menlo Park, Atherton and now Palo Alto have turned to litigation.

The trains could run at ground level, in a tunnel, elevated on a concrete platform, or a combination of the above. These ideas and many more contributed by the public in recent months will be studied for the Environmental Impact Report. This will be a massive document, although the High Speed Rail Authority has agreed to report back periodically instead of delivering it all at once with a thud. The big decisions are years away.

Each choice has trade-offs. Tunneling up the whole Peninsula sounds dandy, for instance, but a tunnel that long and deep is likely to disrupt the underground flow of water. It also could mean Caltrain remains forever diesel, spewing tons of pollutants into Peninsula air. Stimulus money to electrify the corridor is a possibility, but only if it's part of an above ground high-speed rail plan.

The United States is behind its competitors in developing high-speed rail, which is extremely safe and popular. Other states are planning lines, including one through Austin, a major economic competitor to Silicon Valley.

As to Peninsula cities and residents hoping to make the Bay Area line go away, we have one word to say: BART.

Five decades ago, San Mateo County rejected bringing BART south and destroyed forever the opportunity for high-speed commuter rail to ring the bay. Is anyone proud of that today?

Voters were right in November. High-speed rail is the right thing to do for future generations. We can make it work.

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