SAN JOSE -- Before taking the helm of California's High-Speed Rail Authority, Dan Richard told Gov. Jerry Brown that the plan was "really screwed up and going to end up biting you in the ankles."
Richard didn't like the idea of sending it up the Peninsula to San Francisco as opposed to traversing Altamont Pass. He also was in league with those who thought laying the rail along a stretch of the Central Valley was a bad beginning to the ambitious $69 billion project.
But that was then. Thursday, Richard told about 60 people gathered at San Jose State for a high-speed rail forum that he no longer has "the luxury of being a guy throwing stones."
"Now," he joked, "I'm a guy making $500 a month to make decisions" and has since had a sea change. Several of Richard's comments drew chuckles from the mostly genial crowd at the event that was sponsored by Bay Area transit advocacy nonprofit TransForm and the Association of Environmental Professionals.
Marian Lee of the Caltrain Modernization Program was in step with Richard, and talked about the benefits that regional rail service will enjoy through a partnership with high-speed rail -- mainly that the railroad will get needed upgrades and swap out diesel engines for an electrified system that's cleaner and faster.
Bringing a critical voice to the table was Elizabeth Goldstein Alexis, cofounder of Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design, a watchdog group she said was "founded four years ago in response to the chaos involved in the planning process on the Peninsula."
Opponents were dealt a huge blow last summer when the Legislature approved the initial $8 billion plan to start building. Another came earlier this month when a judged ruled against Central Valley farmers and Madera County, who wanted construction halted until a pending lawsuit is settled.
Adina Levin, member of a Peninsula-based Caltrain advocacy group, said "lingering distrust" remains toward the rail program.
"There's a lot more acceptance of the (new) system," she said. "But people still feel really nervous about how the High-Speed Rail Authority acted several years ago."
Richard said he changed his mind about the path the train should take because the route must have a terminus in San Francisco, and swinging across from the Altamont would take longer, require a costly bridge crossing and trigger legal challenges.
As far as the Central Valley start, he said the existing stretch of rails from Stockton to Bakersfield sees a million riders a year, which would bolster paying passengers as the system builds up to high-speed rail.
He also emphasized that it's not just about transportation, but also changing cities along the route and revitalizing them by bringing in more density.
"Now we have a vision on how high-speed rail will not just move people, but will change the shape of growth in key areas of California," he said. "And if we do that, the people will have gotten their money's worth."
Alexis said that like much of the planning that has gone into the project, that idea is flawed.
"A high-speed rail station is not an Embarcadero BART station," she said. "It's kind of noisy ... It's not a pleasant place to live, so people don't live there."
She said the train will more likely turn areas surrounding Fresno into a "suburb of San Jose," gobbling up agricultural land in favor of development when there's an hourlong commute to work.
Alexis acknowledged that "at this point it's very hard" to fight the rail plan, but added that even if the funds are found and the entire project comes to fruition, she would wait before calling it a victory for the state.
"Is that success?" she asked. "Success is a railroad that turns out to be a good investment for California rail. Too often, success is did you get to the ribbon-cutting, not did we build the right project, just did we get the damn thing built?"