Four Track HSR on Peninsula Just Got Harder – But Not Impossible
On Friday Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 557, authored by Peninsula legislators including Senator Jerry Hill and Assemblymember Rich Gordon, which establishes a number of hurdles that have to be jumped before a four-track passenger rail system can be built between San Francisco and San José.
The four-track alignment, in which Caltrain would occupy the outer tracks and high-speed rail the inner tracks, was initially proposed by the California High-Speed Rail Authority but later shelved in favor of a “blended system” in which both train services share two tracks on the Peninsula.
Hill’s bill creates a steep hurdle for reversing this decision. Though it stops short of codifying the blended alignment into law, it gives nine Bay Area agencies veto power over revisiting the four-track approach. The agencies include the Caltrain board of directors, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.
This is an unfortunate bill, but it’s also better than an outright ban as Senator Hill was originally seeking. It is frankly absurd for the state to pass a law arbitrarily limiting the capacity of a major transportation artery and making it difficult to expand it if necessary. Passenger rail is essential to the future of the Peninsula as it is with the state, and creating a lot more red tape to bog down any capacity expansion is a short-sighted act that the region will quickly come to regret.
That said, it’s not like the hurdles are all that onerous. Governor Brown wouldn’t have signed it if he thought they were. If anything SB 557 supports his overall push for a state rail plan, since it requires nine Bay Area agencies to sign off on a four-track project. Those agencies would need to be engaged to support such a project anyway, and getting them bought in can actually help build political support for it to get done when the time comes.
Peninsula NIMBYs are celebrating the passage of this bill, but it is really just a punt, like the blended plan itself. The idea is that in the near future, when resistance to passenger rail and to taking action to address climate change begins to fade, it will become easier to build the four-track system rather than fighting and losing that battle now and being stuck with the consequences for decades to come.
As with austerity, the goal is for HSR to survive the current NIMBY counterattack and move forward once that attitude has begun to fade. It’s a sensible political approach to dealing with an unfortunate situation.