High-speed rail options uncertain

A number of potential routes are on the table to bring the

No one knows which route California’s bullet train will take if
it comes through Morgan Hill and Gilroy about 25 years from now,
but a number of options are under consideration in the project’s
preliminary stages, including one that might plow through the city
of Morgan Hill’s soccer fields east of U.S. 101.
No one knows which route California’s bullet train will take if it comes through Morgan Hill and Gilroy about 25 years from now, but a number of options are under consideration in the project’s preliminary stages, including one that might plow through the city of Morgan Hill’s soccer fields east of U.S. 101. Others would raze a downtown Gilroy business that’s been in operation for more than three decades, and all of them would see express trains barreling through South County at top speed of 220 miles per hour.

Or it could end up bypassing South County completely.

That’s based on dozens of maps and hundreds of pages of data presented at a community meeting conducted by the California High-Speed Rail Authority in Gilroy Monday night.

For now, HSRA officials prefer aligning the train through Pacheco Pass roughly along Highway 152 to send the high-speed train from Gilroy to Merced, in the Central Valley, according to spokesman Dan Leavitt.

Even though the environmental study of this segment of the 800-mile project was thrown out by a California court, the authority can still continue gathering public input to determine which of at least five possible routes through South County and over Pacheco Pass is the best option. Monday’s meeting was part of that process.

“We are in the process of completing our draft alternative alignment analysis, to identify which option to carry forward to the draft environmental document,” Leavitt said at the meeting. “It’s still very early in the environmental process.”

At the open house meeting dozens of crude poster-sized maps of the different sections within the 123-mile stretch of tracks from San Jose to Merced were presented. A three-ring binder full of smaller, more accurate maps showed aerial photographs with the different route options drawn in.

One of those maps indicated an option that would bring the train through Morgan Hill along the east side of U.S. 101 through the city’s Outdoor Sports Complex and Aquatic Center. That alignment would be at grade, rather than on an elevated or trenched track, if it comes to fruition, likely leading to negotiations on the HSRA’s gain of a right-of-way through the recreational facilities.

Initially, the HSRA proposed only one alignment – through downtown along the Union-Pacific and Caltrain tracks. However, late last year the city council indicated its preference for an alignment along the freeway so that an elevated track would not create another community separator in Morgan Hill.

Morgan Hill resident and former mayor Dennis Kennedy was at Monday’s meeting, and noted his general support for the bullet train coming through South County.

“I want to see a little more detail (on the maps), and make sure it clears the soccer complex and Aquatic Center,” Kennedy said.

City Manager Ed Tewes did not attend Monday’s meeting but is familiar with the proposals, and he said it would be “an error” to conclude that the tracks would affect the soccer fields and swimming pool complex. He said the ongoing EIR process will more accurately determine the impact on the recreational area, hotels and other businesses on the east side of the freeway.

“The alignment is clearly on or adjacent to (U.S.) 101,” Tewes said.

A couple who has owned a downtown Gilroy business for 32 years don’t know what they would do if the HSRA decides to build the train closer to the existing UP tracks. Dave and Georgene Abbott own Abbot’s Pro Power in a shopping complex abutting the railroad tracks near the corner of Luchessa Street and Chestnut Avenue. Their store will have to relocate if finalized plans include the use and expansion of the existing Caltrain station as a high-speed stop, but they can’t afford to devise alternate plans like the HSRA has.

“We’re sitting in limbo. How do we do our business plans for the next two years?” said Georgene Abbott.

All the options presented Monday include a bullet train station in South County. Two proposals would expand the existing Gilroy station, one would expand Morgan Hill’s Caltrain station on Depot Street, and one would put the station east of Gilroy behind the Premium Outlets on Leavesley Road as the tracks make a wide eastern turn into Pacheco Pass. One possibility is to even consider building a new station at U.S. 101 and Cochrane Road in Morgan Hill.

Morgan Hill officials have already indicated their preference for a Gilroy station.

One of the alignment options showed the train passing through downtown areas in a trench, but indicated that such a feature would add about 20 percent to the cost of the Pacheco Pass section.

The total cost of the high-speed train project is now projected at about $45 billion, with partial funding from a $10 billion bond approved by voters in 2008. It will seamlessly connect the Bay Area and Los Angeles, with express trains making the trek in about two hours, 40 minutes, according to HSRA officials.

Some South County residents were perplexed at the volume and intricacy of information presented at Monday’s meeting. Gilroy resident Jesse Arias studied the maps in hopes of finding out how close the new train will come to his neighborhood.

“What’s going to be the impact on us, parking- and traffic-wise?” said Arias, 52, who lives close to the Caltrain station on Monterey Street in downtown Gilroy. “We get a lot of noise from the trains that are there now. How bad will it be when they change the neighborhood by putting that (bullet train) in there?”

A vocal critic of the project said he supports a bullet train in California, but fundamental aspects of the HSRA’s current plans are not feasible and the politically-motivated details would hurt the environment. Richard Tolmach, president of the California Rail Foundation, is also concerned about sudden changes made in the HSRA’s plans, after the voters approved the bond referendum.

Among those changes is that all of the optional proposals show express trains passing through Morgan Hill and Gilroy at 220 miles per hour. “The sound of a train at that speed is like an airplane taking off,” said Tolmach, who did not attend Monday’s meeting.

The HSRA’s initial plans showed the trains slowing down to between 100 and 150 miles per hour through local urban areas, Tolmach said. He said no high-speed trains in Europe or Japan go faster than that through cities.

“That drives down the land values in the middle of town, and upgrades (land values) in rural areas beyond the sound perimeter,” Tolmach said. “Any place the line goes, it’s going to trash it.”

Furthermore, he thinks the HSRA should consider scrapping the Pacheco Pass route altogether, and instead use the Altamont corridor east of Oakland to transport the train between the San Francisco Bay and the Central Valley.

Such a route would bypass South County, San Jose and even San Francisco, but Tolmach thinks it makes more sense, especially since the Pacheco Pass environmental study has been rejected by the courts.

The HSRA is preparing to resubmit the Pacheco Pass environmental studies, Leavitt said.

In the meantime, the authority is working with the San Joaquin Regional Railway Commission to build a rail system through Altamont Pass that would transport high-speed trains and regular commuter trains. He said that system would complement the bullet train network.

Because the HSRA board took back its formal vote to use the Pacheco Pass after the judicial ruling tossing out the EIR, it is possible that the authority could change its mind and use Altamont Pass as part of the primary bullet train route, Leavitt said.

However, he said current studies indicate Pacheco Pass is preferable for a number of reasons, including the ability to serve more passengers (especially in San Francisco), a faster route between northern and southern California, less impact on Bay Area wetlands, and a capacity for more frequent trains.

City officials were aware of the likelihood that the train would reach top speeds through Morgan Hill, Tewes said. He added that the noise impact will be among many factors to be studied in the project’s environmental report.

And city officials are opposed to the Altamont Pass option, which would eliminate the potential for local economic development that a high-speed train could produce in Morgan Hill. Representatives from the city will present these preferences at an upcoming meeting of the California state senate’s transportation in Palo Alto, Tewes said.

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