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June 14, 2021

Officials exhausted by bullet train costs

When it comes to spending staff hours and taxpayer dollars planning for California’s pricey and contentious high-speed rail project, City of Gilroy officials say they’re nearing the end of the line.

And as fresh criticism over the $100 billion transit endeavor pours in, they’re wondering whether the city’s prognostic, $200,000 Visioning Project might be Gilroy’s last good-faith effort going forward.

“I think the visioning is largely done. I would let that process complete itself. But I wouldn’t do anything else,” Gilroy City Councilman Perry Woodward said, referencing the Valley Transportation Authority and city-funded effort that’s trying to predict what the town will look like once a bullet train rolls through in the next 25 years. “After that, I wouldn’t hold anymore public meetings until it can be determined satisfactorily that the high-speed rail project can be built at all,” he said.

“We should quit spending time on it until it becomes real. At this point, it’s certainly not real,” Woodward added.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority has faced increased pressure as new cost estimates have more than doubled from previous predictions, and as ridership and job-creation projections have come under intense scrutiny. The gigantic project, for which voters approved roughly $9 billion in bonds in 2008, won’t be completed until 2033 – a delay of more than a decade. A recent Field Poll also reveals that two-thirds of California voters want the project to go back on the ballot, with a two-to-one margin saying they would shoot it down if given the chance.

Rail Authority officials said last month they have enough money – $16 billion – to begin construction on the project between Bakersfield and Fresno next year. After that, they’ll be dependent on federal and state funding streams that don’t currently exist, an outlook harshly criticized by the state Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Several California cities have publicly opposed the rail project, while a dozen Republican congressman on Tuesday asked the nonpartisan U.S. Government Accountability Office to conduct an official audit.

In October 2010, a split Gilroy City Council issued a “vote of no confidence” on the project, after which Rail Authority CEO Roelof van Ark visited City Hall in an attempt to build better communication between the two sides. Woodward says Van Ark is scheduled to make another visit to Gilroy City Hall at 10 a.m. Jan. 6 to meet with city officials and Morgan Hill Mayor Steve Tate.

Right now, project opponents have never appeared to have more ammunition.

“All I want for Christmas is for this to collapse under its own weight,” Councilman Bob Dillon said.

But as much as some local officials have criticized the project, they also say they’re careful not to completely trash it. While Dillon wishes Gilroy could free itself from worrying about high-speed rail today, the fact that Gilroy is pegged as one of 24 possible station locations is enough to give him pause – at least to see how the Visioning Project wraps up over the next several months.

Woodward added the city could miss out on the economic boom predicted for cities with high-speed rail stations if the project is completed. “And that’s ‘if’ in capital letters,” Woodward said.

“You’ve got to do something. You plan for the worst and hope for the best,” said Dillon, who also doesn’t think the rail line will ever come to fruition. “Council is being forced into coffin corner. You don’t think it’s going to happen, but you’re forced to plan for it anyway.”

The city will use the Visioning Project to prepare a preferred station request to send to the Rail Authority next year. There are two options: downtown not far from the current Caltrain depot, and east of U.S. Highway 101 along valuable agricultural land and rural homes. The Rail Authority has final say about where station will go, as well as whether the tracks will be trenched, elevated or at-grade.

When asked what how the city should address high-speed rail once the Visioning Project is complete, Dillon said, “Nothing. Just wait for it to collapse.”

Councilman Peter Leroe-Muñoz says he’s “disappointed” in the high-speed rail project’s ballooning costs, but he’s willing to work with the Rail Authority for the foreseeable future. He said the Council could discuss how it wants to handle high-speed rail issues during its annual goal-setting retreat at the end of January.

“It’s very disheartening, the fact there have been delays in getting the project off an running, that people were lead down one path only to see that there’s a different price tag,” Leroe-Muñoz said. “It’s our job as city leaders to prepare for any outcomes or combinations. For me, there’s still a lot of unanswered questions, but we have to prepare as a city going forward.”

Though some city leaders are withholding complete dismissal of the rail line until the Visioning Project is finished, they haven’t exactly been thrilled with the $200,000 study, handled by Berkeley-based firm Design, Community & Environment.

The Visioning Project outlines likely development and additional revenue Gilroy would experience by having a station, though it fails to satisfy some of the Council’s biggest questions, such as why the project doesn’t study a covered trench option or how many homes and businesses would be eliminated when the tracks are laid.

Leroe-Muñoz says he wants more detailed descriptions: How deep is the trench option? How much land will the tracks actually consume?

“We also wanted to see more thought about what the economic impacts would be,” he said. “Sometimes it’s difficult to come to hard numbers, but certainly, give us something other than ‘it’s a moderate impact’ or ‘a slight impact. We really need to be pinning them down a little bit more in terms of the actual numbers.”

Councilwoman Cat Tucker echoed Leroe-Muñoz’s concerns, adding that her most pressing issue – the rail line’s impact on Gilroy homes – has gone unanswered.

“I have to wait for the final report, but I was not happy with what I was given. I want to know more,” Tucker said. “I want to know exactly how many homes are going to be taken, how many businesses are going to be taken. For me, I need more information.”

She says she’s in favor of clamping down on funding any high-speed rail related efforts until the Council gets what it wants.

“I wouldn’t want to spend any more money than we’ve already spent,” Tucker said. “If we’ve spent $200,000 and we don’t have the information we need, then we don’t need to spend anymore.”

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