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Wednesday, Nov 28 2012 11:00 PM

JEFF TAYLOR: Amtrak upgrade or high-speed rail? Seems pretty clear here

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    Jeff Taylor

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Caltrans has circulated a study that evaluates substantial proposed upgrades to Amtrak's San Joaquin corridor. Agencies and the public have 30 days to comment on the document. The deadline is Dec. 13.

Caltrans' proposed project includes upgrading and/or installing a second or third track from Oakland to Stockton and from Sacramento to Stockton through Modesto, Merced, Madera, Fresno, Hanford, Corcoran and Wasco into Bakersfield. The study also proposes obtaining additional operating equipment (rolling stock) to meet forecast customer demand for passenger trains as well as increasing the maximum operating speed of Amtrak passenger trains in all existing segments of the existing San Joaquin corridor from 79 mph to 90 mph. (Amtrak trains can achieve speeds of 120 mph.) Higher speed upgrades coupled with other substantial upgrades in the Caltrans Amtrak proposal can be achieved at a tiny fraction of the cost of high-speed rail.

Upgrades to existing passenger rail systems including Amtrak make sense due to comparatively low cost compared with high-speed rail and the ability to utilize existing transportation corridors. The California high-speed rail project is an absurd alternative because of its excessive cost and unnecessary destruction of private and public properties. An effective system would move massive amounts of people from the Bay Area to Los Angeles along Interstate 5, but the I-5 alternative never underwent a thorough environmental review.

The Caltrans Amtrak proposal is interesting. However it also raises questions. The High-Speed Rail Authority plans to relocate Amtrak from the existing Burlington Northern Santa Fe corridor that connects Hanford, Fresno, Corcoran, Wasco and Bakersfield to the high-speed rail project's 130-mile-long initial construction section. So, why is Caltrans circulating a study for upgrades to the existing Amtrak San Joaquin corridor? Also, according to recently passed Assembly Bill 1779, Caltrans will be replaced by a joint powers authority that will reportedly allow local agencies to manage the San Joaquin Amtrak corridor instead of Caltrans. So, why is a study being circulated by Caltrans proposing upgrades to the Amtrak San Joaquin corridor?

By a razor-thin margin of one vote, the state Senate approved the sale of state bonds for construction of the first phase of the high-speed rail project. Senators received upgrades to their constituents' existing passenger rail corridors in the San Francisco, Sacramento and Los Angeles areas for their vote. State Sen. Michael Rubio brought us home an ag czar for his vote. HSR funds should be used to upgrade the Amtrak San Joaquin corridor, especially since ridership has increased in that corridor more than almost any other in the country.

There is a section in the Caltrans study that discusses how it combines with the high-speed rail project. "Because the High Speed Rail system has not yet been clearly defined," it states, "the exact manner and location of specific connections has not yet been determined, and thus cannot be defined in this document." The High-Speed Rail Authority must "upgrade" its plan by relocating the Bakersfield high-speed rail station outside the metropolitan area with express trains traveling more than 200 mph going around Bakersfield, not through it, and an Amtrak link from that station for Bakersfield destinations using the existing Amtrak corridor. That will eliminate all of the extremely negative impacts caused by up to 15 miles of elevated rail viaducts as high as 80 feet that will divide the city and greatly diminish Bakersfield residents' quality of life.

A number of pending lawsuits has the potential to stop the poorly planned, destructive and massively expensive high-speed rail project. However, the state Senate is expected to consider legislation next year that will exempt the high-speed rail project from California Environmental Quality Act protections. Public outcry, including influential environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club, must prevent that from happening.

Jeff Taylor conducts business in the construction trades and is co-founder and chairman of the Save Bakersfield Committee. Community Voices is an expanded commentary of 650 to 700 words. The Californian reserves the right to edit all submissions for length and clarity.

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