Gilroy fooled – high-speed rail turns city into ‘Thunder Alley’

The California High-Speed Rail Authority came to Gilroy Monday
night to hear from residents about whether they like its plans to
run elevated trains through town at 220 mph.
By Richard Tolmach

The California High-Speed Rail Authority came to Gilroy Monday night to hear from residents about whether they like its plans to run elevated trains through town at 220 mph.

While much hope has been placed by local leaders on putting the high-speed line in a trench, the HSRA has no funding for Gilroy trenches in its business plan.

Gilroy has as little chance of getting a trench as Madera, Fresno, Corcoran, Shafter, Bakersfield, Lancaster or Palmdale, which also face 220 mph trains on elevated tracks. The costs are just prohibitive. If all those cities were trenched, the project cost would top $60 billion. Trenching is only under consideration to lull citizens into submission, while design of elevated structures proceeds.

Trains travelling 220 mph are controversial and HSRA realizes it. At the August 2009 workshop, HSRA Board Member Rod Diridon tried to claim 220 mph speeds were not planned in Santa Clara Valley cities but was publicly corrected by the project manager who pointed out the those speeds are needed to make the legislatively mandated 2 hour 40 minute travel time between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

HSRA’s insensitive plans for elevated trains have spurred opposition all over the state. First, a few communities on the Peninsula started asking questions and launching lawsuits. Then neighborhoods in Burlingame, San Mateo, Atherton, Menlo Park, Palo Alto, San Jose, and Morgan Hill became openly hostile to the plans.

More recently, southland neighborhoods in Sylmar, Burbank, Glendale, Los Angeles, Santa Fe Springs, Norwalk, Buena Park, and Fullerton have erupted. Nobody loves a noisy, obtrusive transportation facility that causes urban blight, but HSRA plans to overcome that problem with public relations.

Last month, the High Speed Rail Authority voted to retain a world-renowned public relations firm for $9 million. Board Member Diridon directed the new firm to stomp out the “bad apples,” an apparent reference to transportation experts and citizens like myself who see the project as a flawed process incapable of delivering on its wild promises.

The promise of 2 hour 40 minute travel time between San Francisco and Los Angeles was enshrined in state law and placed in the ballot arguments, but never was believable. HSRA’s politically-driven route is some 90 miles longer than highways. Off-the-shelf European trains can’t go fast enough to meet the required schedule.

In August 2009, the project manager admitted to the HSRA board that because of the wandering route, 220 mph speeds were needed through 12 cities including Gilroy and Morgan Hill to make the travel time work.

No European or Japanese city tolerates such speeds because the noise produced degrades quality of life. In the rest of the world, high-speed rail lines purposely avoid cities and are often built as joint facilities with major highways.

High-speed rail promoters want Gilroy residents to believe that new elevated tracks through town will do wonders for the local economy, but residents should worry that 20 roaring trains an hour will turn the city image from tourist-friendly Garlic Capital to Thunder Alley. Residents increasingly realize that a line running at these high speeds will irrevocably harm the entire community.

Another problem HSRA faces is where to shoehorn in high-speed tracks, since Union Pacific denied HSRA use of its right-of-way. Gilroy’s historic center of Monterey Street would be destroyed if elevated high speed trains run anywhere nearby.

The Authority is offering a pair of alternatives that spare central Gilroy:

n The U.S. 101/East Gilroy alternative, which runs about 15 miles via 101 from Coyote to just north of Route 152, then traces the middle of the Pajaro floodplain on its way out of town east of the shopping center parking lots.

n A similar alignment, the East of UPRR/East Gilroy alternative, would condemn lands just east of UPRR through Morgan Hill and San Martin, then go east of the freeway.

Both alternatives would build a Gilroy station in the Pajaro floodplain, and produce ex-urban development nearly as environmentally destructive as the original proposal.

The Authority seems to be on the way towards proving that there is no environmentally acceptable route through Gilroy.

Gilroy’s best hope of avoiding negative environmental impacts is for citizens to insist that the I-580 alternative through Altamont Pass be studied.

Richard Tolmach is the president of the California Rail Foundation in Sacramento. Their web site to learn more about high-speed rail is http://calrailfoundation.org/HSR.html.

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