City Blows the Whistle on High-Speed Trains | Courthouse News Service
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City Blows the Whistle on High-Speed Trains

REDWOOD CITY, Calif. (CN) - Caltrain failed to study the impacts of sharing its track with high-speed trains when it approved a project to electrify its commuter railroad, a Bay Area city and community groups claim in court.

The town of Atherton and opponents of the California high-speed rail filed the complaint against the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, which operates the public commuter rail service along the San Francisco Peninsula between San Francisco and San Jose.

The electrification project calls for installation of poles to support overhead wires that will power a new fleet of electric trains. Electricity will be provided to the through construction of 10 traction power facilities.

The project is designed to meet transportation demands between San Jose and San Francisco, offset worsening roadway congestion, improve regional air quality, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to the environmental impact report.

Electrifying the tracks will also allow high-speed trains to share the commuter rails eventually.

The project, which will cost upwards of $1.4 billion, will use $600 million from the Proposition 1A bond, approved by voters in 2008 for the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

The joint powers board on Jan. 8 this year voted to certify the final environmental impact report for the project.

Opponents say the board did not fully study the project's potential impacts, because it did not evaluate what effects the high-speed trains will have.

The Community Coalition on High Speed Rail, which joined Atherton in the lawsuit, has been studying the issue for years and informed Caltrain of its concerns.

"We've been telling them that what is being proposed here isn't just an upgrade of commuting services, but it is really part of the high-speed rail system, so you really need to study, evaluate and mitigate the impacts of high-speed rail, not just act as though this is just something to increase commuting effectiveness on the peninsula," Gary Patton, an attorney who works with the coalition, told Courthouse News.

"The impacts of high-speed rail are potentially really dramatic. You have to study the full project. You can't just take a piece of it and say, 'This looks great,' and then come around a few years later and say, 'Here's the rest of the story,'" Patton said.

Caltrain promised to cooperate with the High-Speed Rail Authority to achieve the blended high-speed rail service between San Jose and San Francisco, according to the Feb. 9 lawsuit in San Mateo County Court.

Because Caltrain left out crucial information on the high-speed trains, it violated the California Environmental Quality Act when it approved the environmental report for the electrification project, the lawsuit states.

"The petitioners in this lawsuit want Caltrain to study the impacts and to study the alternatives, before plunging ahead. That is not only prudent policy-making, it's what the law requires," said Jim Janz, president of the coalition and former mayor of Atherton.

One of the potential impacts of sharing the tracks is that the high-speed rail will absorb commuting capacity and will not allow Caltrain to accommodate more passengers, according to the complaint.

Surplus capacity that otherwise would be available to run more Caltrain trains would instead be used for the bullet trains, the opponents say.

"Everybody likes the idea of commuting for workers between the peninsula and the city, but that will actually be cut back with the high-speed trains," Patton said.

Preparing the tracks for the bullet trains will also likely mean the reconstruction of curved sections, because trains that go that fast must have extremely straight tracks, Patton said.

"Unless our lawsuit is successful, Caltrain is going to go ahead and spend over $1 billion on this project and then when high-speed rail comes they're going to have to redo the project and shift the tracks around. The impacts of that on the adjacent neighborhoods and businesses are very unclear," Patton said.

Caltrain does not believe it has to comply with CEQA requirements because of the federal Surface Transportation Board's recent decision that the high-speed rail project does not have to meet California environmental regulations , Patton said.

The transportation board, which oversees the nation's rail lines, ruled that CEQA is "categorically preempted" by the federal Interstate Commerce Act.

Two Central Valley counties and several activist groups, including the two organizations suing Caltrain, have asked the 9th Circuit to review the decision.

"This is about whether California gets to protect its own environment for its own rail system," said David Schonbrunn, president of the plaintiff Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund (TRANSDEF).

Caltrain did not respond to requests for comment regarding Atherton's lawsuit.

This is not the first complaint filed by Atherton in connection with the high-speed rail. The first lawsuit, filed by Atherton and Menlo Park, forced the rail authority to "decertify" and revise its environmental impact report, but did not force it to reconsider the preferred alignment for the Bay Area segment.

In 2010, Atherton, along with Palo Alto, Menlo Park, TRANSDEF, and the Planning and Conservation League, claimed in court that the impact report was no longer sufficient because of the changing nature of the project.

Sacramento County Judge Michael Kenny ruled in favor of the rail authority, finding that the authority had complied with prior rulings and its impact report was sufficient.

Atherton, pop. 7,000, is between Palo Alto and Redwood City.

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