Over the river and through the towns: the fight over how to build California high-speed rail

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(San Francisco—Casey Miner, KALW News) First things first: the California High-Speed Rail Authority didn't actually decide anything significant at its monthly meeting yesterday. The board voted unanimously to follow its staff's recommendations about two big sections of the project, Fresno-Merced and San Francisco-San Jose. But those recommendations were merely that staff continue to study the available options for building the rail tracks through those areas.

Those options, though, stirred up a whole lot of controversy. Mayors, councilpeople, assemblymen, activists and concerned citizens packed the auditorium to the point where it was standing-room only for most of the meeting, which began at 9am and lasted well into the afternoon.

At issue was the proposed structure of the train down the Peninsula from San Fransisco to San Jose.

Though several options remain on the table, Peninsula residents were upset to learn that several sections of the train might be routed above ground, on what they described as freeway-style aerial structures. Without exception, elected officials from some of the affected towns—Burlingame, Atherton, San Mateo, and Belmont—preferred that the trains go through in closed trenches, a more expensive but still technically feasible option. In their comments, they conjured images of 8-lane freeways slicing their communities down the middle, ruining views, and destroying any sense of place.

Though many said they were in favor of the project as a whole, they made clear that design was a huge factor in whether they would continue to support it.

People's reactions to the plan also revealed a deeper mistrust of the Authority board's motives. Several commenters objected to the fact that the plans had not appeared on the Authority's website until sometime after the meeting started, when they had been promised to the public earlier. And when the time came to vote on the staff recommendations, Authority board member Rod Diridon sparked yells of disbelief when he declared that "the board doesn't have an entrenched position." Throughout the day, conflict was evident between those who believe the project is moving too far, too fast and those who say it isn't moving fast enough.

For the most part, the board members seemed receptive to the criticism, at one point even announcing that they would try harder to get information out earlier. But for now, the bigger issues are far from resolved.