Central Valley

Proposed high-speed rail route through Merced County proving divisive

SACRAMENTO -- California bullet-train enthusiasts risk losing support from key environmental groups because of a dispute over the train's route. Unless it is 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 are still 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.

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 -- with stops including Fresno -- 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 Prop. 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 Prop. 1 leading 56 percent to 30 percent, with 14 percent undecided. The initiative requires a simple majority to pass.

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.

Today an Assembly committee is scheduled 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.