Public comment begins on bullet train route

High Speed Rail Authority releases draft environmental study on alignment through Gilroy

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This map from the HSRA's draft EIR shows four alignment alternatives from San Jose to Merced.

Residents, homeowners, public officials and business owners can begin submitting comments on the draft environmental study for the High Speed Rail section that is slated to pass through the South Valley.

The state High Speed Rail Authority released the draft Environmental Impact Report for a 90-mile stretch of the San Jose to Merced section of the line on April 24. A minimum 45-day public comment period will continue June 8; during this time the public can submit questions, comments and concerns about the EIR by email, mail, telephone or via a series of upcoming hearings and open house meetings.

The San Jose to Merced section of the HSR would connect Silicon Valley to the Central Valley with a reliable high-speed travel option, according to HSRA staff. The 90-mile segment studied in the EIR goes from Scott Boulevard in Santa Clara to Carlucci Road in Merced County. The segment will travel through or near the communities of Santa Clara, San Jose, Morgan Hill, Gilroy and Los Banos. The project includes high-speed rail stations at San Jose Diridon and in Gilroy and a maintenance facility south or southeast of Gilroy.

With the release of the San Jose to Merced section EIR draft, the HSRA is on track to complete environmental certification for the full phase 1 system by the federally mandated 2022 deadline, according to HSRA staff. The final EIR document is expected to be issued in 2021.

Officials in Morgan Hill and Gilroy said City Hall staff will be evaluating the draft EIR in the coming weeks. Each city’s elected council is expected to submit comments on the draft EIR to HSRA staff.

The draft EIR submitted by HSRA staff studied four “alternative alignment” options from San Jose to Merced. The document lists the potential environmental impacts from each alignment as well as ideas on how project designers and builders could mitigate those impacts. The EIR also considered the impact of not building the HSR route at all.

The HSRA’s preferred alignment alternative is “Alternative 4,” which would take the bullet train through the downtown areas of both Morgan Hill and Gilroy, along the existing Union Pacific Railroad tracks.

Morgan Hill Mayor Rich Constantine said he remains concerned that the authority’s preferred alternative will be “detrimental” to the city’s downtown and to the community overall. He added that throughout the HSRA’s planning process, the state authority appears to have done little to coordinate the bullet train system with existing Caltrain and other rail traffic on the UP corridor, as well as high volumes of vehicle traffic crossing the tracks on local streets.

Because the rail route crosses three of the busiest streets in Morgan Hill—Tennant, East Dunne and East Main avenues—adding over a dozen bullet trains per hour in combination with existing train traffic is likely to create endless car congestion on these local east-to-west roadways, Constantine suggested.  

“I’m not sure what their final plans are going to be” to accommodate all forms of transportation and freight on or near the UP corridor, Constantine said.

Constantine is also worried that Caltrain and HSRA have not coordinated on Caltrain’s vision to electrify the commuter train lines and increase service to South County by 2040. The HSRA’s draft EIR states, “The ultimate details of any future Caltrain service operating south of Tamien Station (in San Jose) would be the subject of future planning and negotiation between the railroads as well as decision by the Caltrain Board.”

Gilroy Mayor Roland Velasco said an alignment along the UP tracks is “probably the best option available to Gilroy.” He noted that’s the option that is most likely to upgrade Caltrain with electrified tracks, whenever that may be.

“With the present situation now, with the pandemic, who knows what kind of timeline we might be looking at,” Velasco said.

The EIR draft document added, “While alternative four would potentially have the greatest impact on emergency vehicle response times, this could be mitigated by the authority working with local jurisdictions to construct and operate new fire stations and install new responder equipment at existing stations.”

The HSRA’s alternative four EIR draft proposes a bullet train station in downtown Gilroy. HSR street crossings would be at-grade at intersections in Morgan Hill and Gilroy. This would require the authority to build new high-security crossing gates to regulate vehicle traffic at these crossings.

HSRA staff identified alternative four as the preferred alignment based on a balance of the expected impacts, according to the EIR draft.

A significant concern among property and business owners is the HSRA’s need to take over private properties along the route before construction starts. Of the four alternatives, the authority’s preferred one would cause the least displacement of existing structures: 68 homes would be displaced, as would 66 commercial businesses, 40 agricultural properties and one public facility.

Charter School of Morgan Hill and Villa Mira Monte, an historical landmark, are in the proposed right-of-way of HSRA’s preferred alignment.

One drawback to alternative four, according to the EIR draft, is that it is the option that would create the most noise impact for residents and businesses within earshot.

From the Gilroy station, the local HSR route would continue southeast to Merced County by tunneling under the mountains along Pacheco Pass, according to HSRA staff.

“With the release of this first environmental document in Northern California, we are continuing to show progress on every mile of the statewide system,” said Authority CEO Brian Kelly. “We look forward to hearing from the communities along the route to ensure our project provides a clean, next-generation travel option while improving local quality of life.”

The authority’s preferred San Jose to Merced alignment will cost about $16.5 billion in 2018 dollars. Statewide, the cost to complete the 800-mile system has ballooned many times since voters approved a bond to fund a portion of HSR in 2008. When complete, the HSR will carry commuters from San Francisco to Los Angeles in less than three hours.

PUBLIC COMMENT

The High Speed Rail Authority will host the following opportunities to hear from and comment directly to bullet train officials about the draft EIR for the San Jose to Merced section. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and related stay-at-home orders, meetings will likely be conducted virtually:

• May 11 open house, San Jose City Hall, 200 E. Santa Clara Street, San Jose

• May 14 open house, Gilroy Veterans Memorial Hall, 74 W. Sixth Street

• May 18 open house, Los Banos Community Center, 645 Seventh Street, Los Banos

• May 27 public hearing, Santa Clara County Government Center, 70 West Hedding Street, San Jose.

Members of the public can submit comment without attending the meetings:

• On the HSRA website at hsr.ca.gov

• Via email to [email protected] with the subject line “San Jose to Merced Draft EIR/EIS Comment”

• By mail to: Attn: San Jose to Merced: Draft EIR/EIS, California High Speed Rail Authority, 100 Paseo de San Antonio, Suite 300, San Jose, CA 95113.

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