Environmentalists critical of high-speed rail route

SACRAMENTO -- The director of California's high-speed rail board Wednesday defended his recommendation of the Pacheco Pass as the primary route for bullet trains to the Bay Area, saying it was more efficient and environmentally sound.

But several environmental group representatives criticized the proposal, and one predicted that selecting the Pacheco route could sink a nearly $10 billion bond measure scheduled to go before voters next year. That money would help pay for the first leg of a 700-mile rail system linking the state's major cities.

"The staff recommendation, if adopted by the board, will almost certainly lead to the defeat of the bond measure," said Stuart Flashman, an Oakland attorney representing several environmental and transportation groups. "If you're going to have all of the statewide environmental groups campaigning against the ballot measure, it's not going to pass."

The nine-member board is recommending that the state build a $40 billion high-speed rail system that would have trains running as fast as 200 mph. It would link Sacramento, San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Fresno, Bakersfield, Los Angeles, San Diego and Irvine.

A $9.9 billion bond measure that is on the November 2008 ballot would pay for about half the cost of a first link of that line, between the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas.

The board generally has settled on most of the route but has put off a decision on how to get through the coastal mountains from the San Joaquin Valley to the Bay Area until next month. The debate over the options has become heated and has triggered comments from more than 400 people.

The board's staff, headed by Executive Director Mehdi Morshed, is suggesting dual routes.

One would follow Highway 152 through the Pacheco Pass then head north to San Jose and San Francisco, carrying the north-south traffic between Southern California and the Bay Area.

A second line, primarily for commuters and regional travelers, would follow Interstate 580 through the Altamont Pass, then split into two lines, one running to Oakland, the other going to San Jose.

But the Altamont route would be limited to slower regional trains that would make more frequent stops and reach speeds of only 125 mph.

Morshed told the board that using only the Altamont route would require an inefficient three-way split to reach Oakland, San Jose and San Francisco and necessitate construction of a new bridge across the bay.

He also said it would intrude into the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge -- 30,000 acres of mudflats, marshes and vernal pools that were named after former Rep. Don Edwards.

A full-fledged, high-speed rail route through Altamont could trigger opposition from East Bay communities that oppose the multiple tracks that would be needed to handle express and regional trains.

"Basically their sign is 'Do not disturb,' " Morshed told the board during a meeting at the Capitol.

But representatives of various environmental groups said the staff recommendation downplayed the environmental damage to wetlands and grasslands and the urban sprawl that could be created by a Pacheco route.

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