SACRAMENTO -- California bullet train enthusiasts risk losing support from key environmental groups because of a dispute over the train's route. Unless resolved soon, the conflict could pose problems for a high-speed rail bond measure on the November ballot.
The Sierra Club and Planning and Conservation League have not yet taken a position on Proposition 1, which would authorize $9.9 billion in state borrowing to jump-start the 800-mile rail.
But the environmentalists still are seething over the selection of relatively undeveloped Pacheco Pass as the route to connect the Central Valley to the Bay Area. They favor the more urban Altamont Pass to the north because they say it would induce less sprawl.
The Planning and Conservation League likes the rail concept but "has continued to be quite concerned about the whole planning effort," said Gary Patton, the league's lead lawyer.
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The initiative aims to reduce air pollution and traffic congestion by connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles with low-emission trains that would zoom through the valley at speeds of more than 200 mph.
With high gas prices, the timing is right to bring the question before voters, said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll. But if environmentalists actively oppose Proposition 1, some voters might be turned off.
"They speak to a certain constituency who might otherwise support the initiative," DiCamillo said.
A recent Field Poll showed Proposition 1 leading 56 percent to 30 percent, with 14 percent undecided. The initiative requires a simple majority to pass.
Merced would be valley's last stop
The High Speed Rail Authority board chose the Pacheco route last month, culminating years of spirited debate. This means that, at least in the first phase of construction, the last stop in the San Joaquin Valley would be in Merced.
Environmentalists would rather see trains run farther north in the valley before heading west so that more populated cities are served.
They like the Altamont route because it would bring trains closer to Modesto, Dublin, Pleasanton and Livermore in the first phase.
By contrast, the Pacheco route, roughly following Highway 152, is in a less populated area. Environmentalists worry that a planned station in Gilroy would induce sprawl in surrounding rural areas.
Sacramento is not scheduled for a stop until later phases. But once built, the trip from Sacramento to San Francisco would take longer using the Pacheco route, one hour and 47 minutes, instead of Altamont, which would take a little over one hour, environmentalists said in a letter to the authority.
The Altamont route would "make the high-speed rail system much more effective in carrying more people and relieving congestion," said Bill Magavern, a lobbyist with the Sierra Club.
On the other hand, crossing over in Altamont makes for longer trips from Southern California to San Jose.
Altamont has other problems, said Mehdi Morshed, the rail authority's executive director.
A bridge would have to be built across the San Francisco Bay, he said. Also, communities along the Altamont corridor, such as Livermore and Pleasanton, have concerns about high-speed trains passing through town, he said.
"How are we going to build the trains through the cities when the cities say 'we don't want you?' " Morshed said.
A potential compromise would use some of the $9.9 billion bond to enhance regional rail service in the Altamont corridor that could also accommodate high-speed trains running at slower speeds. But legislation to make the ballot measure more flexible is stalled in the state Senate because of a partisan fight over how to beef up project oversight.
An Assembly committee is scheduled Monday to take up a bill by state Sen. Roy Ashburn, R-Bakersfield, to delay the bond measure until 2010; lawmakers already have pushed off the bond measure twice, in 2004 and 2006.
Meanwhile, environmentalists are considering filing a lawsuit to demand that the rail authority re-examine the environmental consequences of each route. "They've really not treated our concerns in the way we think legally they are required to," Patton said.
Bond set to raise a third of the cost
With environmentalists still undecided, the Proposition 1 campaign is shaping up to be a duel between a coalition of engineering companies, which supports the measure, and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which blasts the project as a "political boondoggle" that might never get built.
The bond would raise about a third of the project's cost.
Supporters are counting on government and private companies to pay for the rest, but have not gotten firm commitments.
Rail supporters say corporations won't step up until the state commits.
"It's very difficult for them to work with their business models and not know at the end of the day if they're going to get to build it," said Jo Linda Thompson, a lobbyist for the Association for California High Speed Trains.
Association members include companies that engineer big transportation projects, such as LTK Engineering Services and Parsons Brinckerhoff. The group has donated $24,000 to the "yes" campaign, which has nearly $80,000 on hand.
Opponents have yet to raise money, said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis association. That could change if airlines weigh in.
Southwest Airlines, which serves some of the markets targeted for bullet train service, "could never support the use of public money to subsidize" high-speed rail, said company spokeswoman Marilee McInnis. But "we don't have any current plans to engage in lobbying efforts on this issue."
Union Pacific Railroad, which is in a dispute with the rail authority over land, also plans to stay out of the Proposition 1 campaign, said company spokeswoman Zoe Richmond.
The railroad has refused to share its right-of-way on portions of the route because it wants to preserve the option to build its own tracks on the land.
"We don't have anything against the high-speed rail project," Richmond said. "Our concern is putting it on our right-of-way."