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High speed rail going down wrong track to Bay Area

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POSTED July 11, 2010 1:51 a.m.
Up in the Altamont Hills stand the forerunners of green energy in California - wind mills turning turbines to generate electricity.

They also stand as the most visible examples of clean power thanks to their close proximity overlooking one of the nation’s most densely populated regions as well as having one of the state’s most heavily traveled freeways pass through them.

How, you might ask, did such a high profile location ever end up as a wind farm?

The answer is easy. The terrain isn’t exactly hospitable to development or farming.

For those reasons - and several others - it would make sense for the California High Speed Rail Authority to revisit its idea of sending the Golden State bullet trains through Pacheco Pass and up the densely populated San Francisco Peninsula where opposition grows to the project with each mile closer the proposed system moves toward downtown San Francisco.

Last month, California political columnist Tom Elias suggested trimming back the grandiose and budget busting CSHRA system plan that is predicated on coming up with anywhere from $40 million to $100 million more to make it work assuming they ever survive environmental lawsuits.

The Altamont Commuter Express is working on making at least the crossing of the Altamont Hills capable of accommodating high speed trains for its own system. They are also entitled to compete for a share of the $9.95 billion bond measure approved by state voters.

The idea is to upgrade tracks in the hills between Tracy and Livermore where trains currently run as slow as 10 mph and instead run them closer to 150 mph.  It would reduce the current ACE trip to San Jose from a little over two hours and 10 minutes to 55 minutes.

The state high speed rail could tie into the ACE Altamont route. Once on the west side of the Altamont the state high speed trains could tie into BART as well as continue to San Jose at normal speeds.   You might even be able to extend BART to Livermore for a direct station tie-in with the ACE/state system to avoid the need for bus transfers. It certainly would be more cost effective than tunneling up the peninsula.

At the same time ACE trains could run on high speed rail tracks to Modesto and possibly even as south as Merced. It would be a cost effective way of tying Northern San Joaquin Valley including UC Merced into the Bay Area. Travel time reductions could establish a true regional economy uplifting both sides of the Altamont without polluting the air or jamming freeways.

It would also provide better odds of the state rail project actually becoming a reality. Just because they have $9.95 billion in bonds at their disposal plus $2.25 billion in federal funds doesn’t mean they will ever get the system off the ground. If they believe otherwise, they need to look at Dougherty Valley in the East Bay where lawsuits delayed the start of a major residential project for 18 years.  The high speed state rail system has the ability to tick off dozens if not hundreds of groups using the California Environmental Quality Act ultimately to fight back.

The Altamont routing cuts costs, avoids repetition, and ultimately accomplishes the goal of shorter travel time between Los Angeles and the Bay Area as well as pollutes less.

By also arranging a marriage with BART as well as ACE/California High Speed Rail at Livermore the seed would be planted for being able to travel between San Francisco and Sacramento at speeds fast enough to match auto travel time now along the Interstate 80 corridor. And unlike Amtrak’s Capitol service. The high speed system would have a frequency high enough to make it a more plausible alternative.

The current state rail system does call for the ACE tie-on but by changing it instead to run the actual trains over the Altamont where they can tie directly into BART you could save billions upon billions of dollars even with extending BART to a direct station tie-in with the high speed rail system in Livermore. You also could substantially reduce opposition to the current state rail route that goes up the peninsula and requires extremely expensive tunneling.

The BART trains still would arrive at the TransBay transit station now under construction in San Francisco just as the high speed trains would if they follow the general route of the Cal Train that serves the peninsula.

Trains could still run 220 mph between Modesto and the Los Angeles and then slow down once they reach the populated areas in LA and San Diego as Elias suggested.

To not seriously consider such an alternative the high speed rail commission is saying they are willing to burn through most of the bond money to accomplish little except employing environmental and design consultants plus a battery of lawyers.
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