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Bay Area Residents Not Sold on High-Speed Rail

SAN MATEO, Calif. (CN) — The California High-Speed Rail Authority is laying tracks in the Central Valley.

Well, not tracks exactly. More like the concrete infrastructure that will support the eventual laying of tracks, but the point is that the project is quickly moving from a mere proposal to a reality.

"If people ask you what is going on with high-speed rail you can tell them it is happening," the authority's regional director for Northern California Ben Tripousis said during a scoping session in the Bay Area city of San Mateo on Tuesday night.

High-speed rail officials have been hosting public meetings throughout South Bay with the intent of providing updates on the $64 billion project's current status and plans for future construction.

Phase 1 of the project calls for the construction of track that will connect Bakersfield to San Francisco. The authority estimates it will begin running trains between the two cities by 2025.

The line connecting Bakersfield to Anaheim is slated to begin in 2029, by which date the authority plans to offer trains that can travel more than 200 mph and deliver passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in under three hours

There is no current timetable for Phase 2 of the project, which will connect San Diego to Los Angeles.

During Tuesday night's scoping session, the authority said it was there to specifically discuss the section of track slated to connect San Jose Diridon to the Transit Bay Center in San Francisco. Despite still formulating its alternatives for the environmental review process, it appears the authority is set to share its track with Caltrain, which already serves multiple cities and towns on the peninsula.

The majority of those who attended the meeting expressed reservations regarding the San Jose to San Francisco segment, citing two major problems — the increase in trains will compound an already severe traffic-congestion problem and the project is essentially redundant, given that both Caltrain and the Bay Area Rail Transit (BART) already serve the area.

"Why are we duplicating the service, especially when it is only three stops?" one woman asked during public comment. Another man pointed out that not having to transfer at San Jose in order to reach San Francisco was not reason enough cause more traffic congestion.

Most of the concern revolved around 42 at-grade intersections, where the train tracks intersect with roads. Many of the speakers expressed concern that an increase in trains would mean more people waiting in their cars at crossings — creating more congestion rather than alleviating it.

"You are about to inflict the greatest traffic disaster this area has ever experienced," the first speaker of the evening said.

However, the comments were not uniformly negative.

The only speaker under the age of 40 told the authority they needed to do more to reach out to youth and solicit their engagement and enthusiasm for the project, to counteract the negativity often presented at the scoping session meetings.

"We will be the ones benefiting from these systems," the young man said toward the end of the session. "I am excited about the train's potential to reduce climate change impacts, our dependence on fossil fuels, especially foreign oil."

He also said public transit systems have the ability to reduce rather than exacerbate the congestion problems described by many of the speakers.

The project plans to begin the environmental review process for the San Jose-to-San Francisco portion this summer, with the goal of circulating the final state and federal environmental review documents in the winter of 2017.

The deadline for residents to offer comments on the project during the scoping phase is June 10.

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