First peek at $200K HS rail study

The California High-Speed Rail Authority announced Thursday it

As city officials get set to learn more about concerns over a
state high-speed rail project, several of them aren’t singing the
same tune.
The Gilroy City Council will field updates tonight from a firm
hired to conduct a $200,000 high-speed rail visioning project, a
process meant to nail down residents’ thoughts over what might
happen to Gilroy once a bullet train rolls into town. The project
is also intended to reach a preferred pick for a station
location
– either in Downtown Gilroy or east of U.S. Highway 101.
As city officials get set to learn more about concerns over a state high-speed rail project, several of them aren’t singing the same tune.

The Gilroy City Council will field updates tonight from a firm hired to conduct a $200,000 high-speed rail visioning project, a process meant to nail down residents’ thoughts over what might happen to Gilroy once a bullet train rolls into town. The project is also intended to reach a preferred pick for a station location – either in Downtown Gilroy or east of U.S. Highway 101.

The state high-speed rail project, approved by voters in 2008, is expected to include 800 miles of track between San Diego and Sacramento and carry a price tag of $45 billion.

Tonight’s public meeting is set for 6 p.m. at City Hall.

Mayor Al Pinheiro, who is advocating for a station downtown with trenched tracks, said Tuesday’s meeting was “just kind of an update,” and didn’t offer any specifics as to what he was hoping to learn.

“I’m sure they (residents) have brought up some of the issues on both sides,” Pinheiro said. “Obviously there’s pros and cons on both sides, and we’ll have to flush those out as we go along.”

Councilman Bob Dillon, however, offered a strikingly different reaction to the legitimacy of the visioning project.

Dillon called the state high-speed rail project a “boondoggle,” and “a load of crap,” and said he wouldn’t vote for any station preference or to approve findings from the visioning project.

He said it wouldn’t matter what residents suggested during the community meetings because their voices would not be taken seriously.

“I’m out, period,” Dillon said about high-speed rail. “They come to the meetings, they smile and then they do what they damn well please.”

Regarding tonight’s meeting Dillon said , “I might not even go to the damn meeting.” When asked if he was kidding, Dillon said, “Yes I am.”

As of Monday, the city had spent $38,133 on the community project, run by Berkeley-based Design, Community and Environment, according to invoices the Dispatch obtained through a public records request.

Since the project kicked off in May, the firm has hosted three community meetings, and the city has mailed out thousands of fliers alerting Gilroyans to the project. The process is funded by $50,000 from the City of Gilroy and a $150,000 grant from the Valley Transportation Authority.

Dillon said he was convinced the rail alignment and station would be built east of town, in an area known as the 660 for its size in acreage that the city originally hoped would beam with industrial development.

“They’re talking about the visioning project, about deciding where it’s going to go. I can tell you right now it’s going to go through the 660 because the real estate’s cheaper,” Dillon said.

In March, some residents protested the inclusion of the east side station in the visioning project, saying it violated an agreement with Santa Clara County’s Local Agency Formation Commission, which oversees boundaries of cities and special districts.

Such protests fell silent after it was learned that studying the location would violate no agreements and that LAFCO held no sway over the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

Jesus Perales, who owns a home along the proposed east-of-town rail alignment, said his neighbors still don’t know the full impact high-speed rail could have.

He said the occasional community meeting wasn’t enough.

“Some of my neighbors don’t even have a clue there’s something that could be put right in their backyard,” Perales said. “We can’t stop progress, but it shouldn’t trample over us.”

Dillon and the rest of the Council voted unanimously in April to approve Design, Community and Environment as the city’s station plan consultant.

Councilman Perry Woodward said he hadn’t attended any of the visioning project meetings because he “didn’t want to taint the results” by appearing.

Woodward said he, Pinheiro and representatives from Design, Community & Environment walked through Downtown Gilroy last week to discuss at the site how a downtown alignment and station would impact the area.

“I think they’ve got a difficult task ahead of them. There’s so many variables,” Woodward said. “They’ll give us a good idea of what the community thinks about the issues which he have not really had so far.”

The firm hosted its first two meetings in May, including one geared toward Gilroy’s Spanish speakers. The Spanish-language meeting attracted 15 community members while a similar meeting five days later was attended by approximately 50 people, according to a memorandum from Design, Community and Environment.

During the first meetings, participants worked in groups to jot down issues they felt should be addressed by the visioning project. They were then asked to vote which issues were most important to them, with noise concerns (16) and historical resources (10) receiving the most votes.

Another approximately 50 community members attended a third workshop, where they again worked in groups, this time to create their visions of what both station locations could look like in the future.

Woodward said high-speed rail officials were under intense scrutiny, as reports emerge that say the rail authority lacks the large amounts of funding needed to complete the project.

“I think the reality is, high-speed rail is under a lot of pressure at the federal and state levels, and I have real doubts they’ll be able to get it done in the timelines, if at all,” Woodward said. “I’ll be surprised if they get a high speed rail done in the next 10 years.”

Even if the high-speed rail project never came to fruition, Woodward said time and money spent planning for its arrival in Gilroy wouldn’t be wasted.

“You have to look at that the same way you’d look at disaster preparedness,” Woodward said.

Gary Kennerley, regional manager for the high-speed rail project’s San Jose to Merced segment, said Gilroy’s findings would be included in the authority’s draft environmental impact report set to be released in spring 2012.

“That will figure very strongly,” Kennerley said. “That would be a very strong indication for what the preference would be for the Gilroy station.”

The draft EIR, however, won’t adopt specific station recommendations and will present all options, he said.

Once the draft EIR is released, a 45-day public comment period will begin.

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