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Morgan Hill
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September 27, 2021

Judge: Slow down, bullet train authority

The California High-Speed Rail Authority’s proposal to run
high-speed trains over Pacheco Pass and up the Peninsula lost speed
Wednesday when a Sacramento judge questioned the adequacy of the
project’s environmental report.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority’s proposal to run high-speed trains over Pacheco Pass and up the Peninsula lost speed Wednesday when a Sacramento judge questioned the adequacy of the project’s environmental report.

Opponents of the project considered the ruling a victory, but top officials at the High-Speed Rail Authority said the judge’s decision won’t exactly bring the project to a screeching halt. Rail authority board member Rod Diridon acknowledged, however, that the ruling could delay construction and cause the project to lose as much as $3 billion in state and federal funding.

A lawsuit filed by Menlo Park, Atherton and environmental groups challenged the rail authority’s decision to run bullet trains reaching speeds of 220 mph over Pacheco Pass and up the Peninsula instead of Altamont Pass and the East Bay.

The plaintiffs contend that the project’s environmental impact report failed to provide sufficient detail on the Pacheco alignment. The report described an alignment along existing Union Pacific Railroad tracks between Gilroy and San Jose.

“However, Union Pacific Railroad had informed the Authority just prior to the publication of the (environmental report) that it would not allow the Authority to use any of its right-of-way for the Project,” Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny wrote in his ruling. Still, the rail authority maintained an alignment “sandwiched between the Union Pacific right-of-way and Monterey Road. If Union Pacific will not allow the Authority to use its right-of-way, it appears it will be necessary for the Authority to obtain additional right-of-way outside of this area, requiring the taking of property and displacement of residents and businesses. However, none of this was addressed in the (environmental report).”

In Morgan Hill, the space between the rails and Monterey Road is often small or occupied by residences and businesses, such as Hale Lumber, the Granary building, Caltrain parking lots, and part of the spacious business park between Main Avenue and Cochrane Road.

Plus, the tracks cross the road between Old Monterey and Cochrane roads, potentially further complicating the authority’s layout plans. In San Martin, the space between the Union Pacific rails and Monterey Road is even smaller.

The ruling’s sentiment echoes what local transportation lawyer Joseph Thompson said he’s been telling the rail authority for years.

“You cannot get onto the San Francisco Peninsula without trespassing on Union Pacific’s property, which they will not allow,” he said.

And the eminent domain granted to Union Pacific by the Lincoln administration in the 1800s trumps that bestowed upon the High-Speed Rail Authority by the state of California, Thompson said. Further, the alignment of the tracks – whether over the Altamont or Pacheco Pass – doesn’t matter because the high-speed trains will still have to cross Union Pacific, he said.

One way to get around Union Pacific’s letter denying high-speed trains access to their right-of-way is “to get them to withdraw their letter,” Diridon said.

The rail authority is currently in negotiations with Union Pacific but Diridon said he wasn’t certain that this option would pan out.

“They’re a tough negotiator,” he said. “They start by saying ‘no and hell no’ but when the dollar signs go up and up, they might begin to reconsider. If they continue to be obstinate, they’re going to cook the goose that lays the golden eggs for them.”

Whether the judge’s ruling will delay the project or jeopardize stimulus funds is still unclear, Diridon said.

As a result of the ruling, the rail authority will need to re-examine the proposed route over Pacheco Pass. Mehdi Morshed, the rail authority’s executive director, said he believed taking a closer look at the impact of the project could be done simultaneously with project-level planning. Based on his attorney’s advice, the judge’s ruling should not impact the project’s schedule or ability to secure federal stimulus funds, Morshed said.

“The judge’s ruling didn’t change anything relative to alignment,” he said. “He just simply said we did not have enough information regarding how we’re going to deal with Union Pacific and the trains’ vibration through urban areas.”

In regards to the vibrations, the trains will be very light, running on a track specially engineered to minimize noise and vibrations, Diridon said. The trains will also slow down as they pass through urban areas.

“There will be no vibration, no noise, no pollution,” he said.

High-speed rail opponents, such as Rich Tolmach, president of the California Rail Foundation, disagree.

“It’s like being at the end of a runway,” he said. “The problem the Authority faces is that 217 mph trains adjacent to residences cause a tremendous amount of sound and vibration that cannot be shielded or mitigated adequately. This needs to be rethought or it will destroy the quality of life all the way through Gilroy.”

The $40 billion high-speed rail project’s proposed route runs from Sacramento to San Diego with arms branching off to San Francisco and Anaheim.

The project is funded in part with $9.9 billion in bonds California voters approved in November. The Authority expects a trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles to take 2 hours and 38 minutes and cost $55 each way.

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