Friday, February 4, 2011

Altamont redux

There's a lot going on in California.  The CHSRA has stated that they intend to delay further design and CEQA work for the two population regions, the Bay Area and the LA Basin. That's so the Central Valley can get all their attention (and all the available money.)  We discussed this in conjunction with Mike Rosenberg's article in prior blog entries.

In addition, and that's what this San Francisco Chronicle article by John Wildermuth is about, the perennial pre-occupation with the alternative Altamont route into San Francisco is being addressed by the rail authority in such a way that it will not replace the current Pacheco Pass route to and through San Jose, up the Peninsula to San Francisco.  The Altamont corridor already runs several commuter trains and the CHSRA wants to upgrade those as a connector to the HSR main route through San Jose.

Let's make this point clearly.  There have been two proposed routes for the HSR line into the Bay Area, Atlamont and Pacheco Pass.  Each route has their advocates and opponents.  The rail authority made its decision some time ago, selecting the Pacheco Pass route.

The Altamont promoters have not given up, however.  Nonetheless, it should be clear by now that the Altamont route, being promoted to come through the Altamont Pass to Union City and from there across a new Bay Rail Bridge to Redwood City on the Peninsula, is not going to happen as the advocates wish.  And if it did, contrary to the Altamont promoters' promises, it will still do great harm to the Peninsula.  From our point of view, both routes -- Pacheco and Altamont --  are unacceptable.

The consequence for the rail authority to change its mind would first of all downgrade the importance of the San Jose station, through which all HSR traffic is now intended to be channelled. It would reduce San Jose (a strong HSR supporter) to secondary status on the main line.

Second, a new and required seismically up to date bridge across the Bay needs to be built.  The existing ruins of a 100 year old rail trestle cannot be restored. Therefore, a new high-rise bridge will cost vast amounts of additional funding that's not in the plans or available.  The rail authority has already made extensive plans for upgrading commuter rail along the Altamont corridor, using funds from the $950 million part of the Prop. 1A bond issue earmarked for commuter service to support the HSR.  There's no additional bridge money in that package.

Perhaps most important to me is the fact that Altamont supporters favor high-speed rail; they just want it to go their way.  That's not good enough.  We do not want high-speed rail in California, regardless of routes.  No matter where it goes, it will be devastatingly harmful.  We can't afford it.  We don't need it.  The Altamont route won't change any of that.

It is no small irony that some of the most articulate supporters of the Altamont route alternative are also among the most eloquent spokesmen who identify the corrupt and incompetent nature of the CHSRA and its staff. How can they have it both ways?

Please note that the proposed Altamont route does not go across the Bay to the Peninsula, it serves the towns along the route to Stockton and Manteca. This is not high-speed rail, but would connect to the intended high-speed rail route into San Jose through the Pacheco Pass.

San Jose-Stockton train route may improve
John Wildermuth, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, February 4, 2011

Commuters riding the train from Stockton to San Jose could see their travel time cut in half under a plan to reroute the passenger trains that now rumble over the Altamont Pass on their way to the Silicon Valley.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority met Thursday in Sacramento and approved a trimmed-down list of potential routes and stations for an upgraded Altamont Commuter Express, which now runs eight trains a day between the two cities.

While 2008's Proposition 1A provided $9 billion in bonds for a high-speed rail system stretching from Anaheim to the Bay Area, it also authorized $950 million for improvements to regional and commuter rail systems. Some of that money is earmarked for the Altamont project.

The $6 billion-plus project is a long way from shovel-ready, however. Plans now call for preparing an environmental impact report that won't be completed until 2013. Because financing is a major question mark, no date has been set for the start of construction.

Because the 87-mile corridor is divided into sections, the improvements don't all have to be done at once, said Brent Ogden, the project manager.

"Once we get the EIR done, we can pick parts out and get started," he said.

The trains now share Union Pacific tracks, where they can be delayed by the company's freight trains, which have priority. The upgraded system would put the commuter trains on their own new tracks, which would allow them to run at speeds up to 150 mph, rail officials said.

It now takes the passenger trains more than two hours to run from Stockton to San Jose, longer than it takes to drive during the jam-packed commute hours. But the rail project would cut that trip to 55 minutes.

Rail officials will look at several routes and stations as they meet with local leaders before beginning work on the environmental review. Each presents its own set of benefits and problems.

Pleasanton officials, for example, have made it clear they don't want the rail line to run through the city's downtown, while Livermore has concerns about the effect an aerial line would have on the downtown area.

Rail officials already have eliminated routes that would have run trains through environmentally sensitive wetlands in Santa Clara County and agreed to tunnel under Sycamore Grove Park in Livermore if needed.

The need to link with BART and other regional transportation systems also will play a major role in the decisions.

The Altamont Pass has been the scene of a long-running battle over the route of the intrastate bullet train.

The approved route now sends the train over the more southerly Pacheco Pass to Gilroy and San Jose and then along the Peninsula to San Francisco.

But Peninsula residents want to block rail construction in their towns and people in Central Valley towns like Modesto and Stockton argue that the Altamont Pass route would better serve their growing communities.

"We believe the choice of Pacheco Pass is flawed," said Richard Tolmach, president of the California Rail Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes passenger rail. "The Altamont corridor has not been properly considered for high-speed rail."

While rail officials say that fight is over, they insist that plans to upgrade the commuter rail system are far more than a consolation prize for the area.

The need for the improvements stem "from the social and economic ties and travel demand that bind together the northern San Joaquin Valley, the Tri-Valley area and the South Bay, as well as high levels of existing population and future anticipated growth, travel demand and congestion," according to the report on the project.

"The Altamont Corridor is a little bit special, since it will connect a lot of main transportation lines," said Will Gimple, the regional manager for the project. The final route must "maximize revenue, maximize ridership and maximize connectivity with other transit."

altamont plans

More information about plans for the Altamont Corridor Rail Project can be found on the California High-Speed Rail Authority website at Information on the site includes the time and date for public meetings on the project in Pleasanton, Livermore and Santa Clara, as well as a link to the new report of proposed routes for the ACE commuter trains.

E-mail John Wildermuth at