High speed rail on track - Page 2

Bay Area alignment chosen as project heads to voters this November

The conflict seemed intractable just a few months ago, with South Bay politicians threatening to oppose the project if it used Altamont and organizations, including the Sierra Club, threatening litigation if Pacheco was chosen.

But it appears that project proponents have allayed many of the environmentalists' concerns by eliminating a proposed rail station in Los Banos or Avenal and including strong preservation policies in the project.

"We have worked with as many of these individuals as we could to accommodate their concerns," CHSRA executive director Mehdi Morshed said at the hearing, noting that they've done all they could to make changes and still have a sound project. "We can't deal with the dogma. Some people say you must do this or else, and we can't deal with that."

After years of studying the options, Morshed said the choice is clear.

"Pacheco is the appropriate corridor for fast intercity rail service," Morshed told the CHSRA board. "Somewhere along the line, we have to decide we've studied enough and move on, and this is one of those circumstances."

Most of the dozens of people who spoke at the hearing agreed, including Tim Frank, who represented the Sierra Club of California and praised CHSRA staff for addressing most of the group's concerns.

"The opportunity to get people out of cars and out of airplanes and get them into steel wheels running on steel track is very important," Frank said, noting that the project was essential to meeting the state's goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet others are still threatening litigation, among them Oakland attorney Stuart Flashman, who addressed the hearing on behalf of clients that include the Planning and Conservation League, the California Rail Foundation, and the Mountain Lion Foundation. He made a number of technical points about the project's environmental impact reports, such as the use of alignment corridors rather than more specific routes.

"We find your report completely inadequate," Daniel McNamara, project director for the California Rail Foundation (a train users group), told CHSRA.

After the vote didn't go his way, Flashman told the Guardian that the coalition he represents will meet soon to decide what's next. They have 30 days from when the notice of decision was entered July 9 to sue unless the Attorney General's Office waives the statute of limitations. "We're going to be considering what to do now, but litigation is certainly on the table," Flashman said.

Whether filed by this group or another entity, the CHSRA has been working closely with Deputy Attorney General Christine Sproul to create a project that will withstand a legal challenge.

"We wanted to make sure that if and when there is a lawsuit — and there probably will be a lawsuit — that we are capable of defending it," Morshed told the board, noting how Sproul was brought in because of her expertise in environmental law.

Before the authority voted, Sproul explained that the environmental documents are for the overall program to build the project and are therefore not as detailed as the specific project studies that will be performed after CHSRA secures specific property to build on.

"Today, before you is really a broad policy choice," she said.

Sproul also said that the project is likely to proceed even if a lawsuit is filed, noting that getting an injunction to stop the project would require the litigants to secure a bond against losses to the state as it pursues this high-dollar project, "which could be millions."

But recent CHSRA actions have appeased many of the would-be plaintiffs and created a project that was effusively praised by stakeholders.

Mayor Gavin Newsom said San Francisco is "very supportive" of the project and will work to make it a reality.