200-mph-plus bullet train should enter the Bay Area resurfaced Wednesday when the board balked at creating a committee to study ways of improving commuter rail service through the Altamont Pass and Livermore Valley.
The authority agreed Dec. 19 to run the Los Angeles-to-San Francisco part of the 700-mile, $40 billion system via the Pacheco Pass, near state Highway 152 and making its first Bay Area stop in Gilroy.
Backers of the Altamont option argued that it would serve already heavy commute areas in the Tri-Valley, as well as Merced and Modesto. They also said it would make a shorter route for a future connection to Sacramento.
Those supporters, including a host of Central Valley governing bodies as well as the Tri-Valley Regional Rail Working group, sent a letter to the board asking for certain guarantees before moving forward with the steering committee.
The letter urges another look at the viability of high-speed service through Altamont. It also says the board is obligated to guarantee funding of high-speed rail service in the area, whether as a bullet train or hybrid connector system using BART and other commuter lines.
"Until such a plan is developed, the 'hybrid' option is an empty promise," reads the letter.
The board, however, would have none of it.
Board members, including Chairman Quentin Kopp, of San Mateo, said revisiting the Altamont vs. Pacheco debate would further slow the process and such delay would make it more expensive.
Kopp said it appeared the group wanted the new committee to work on high-speed rail through Altamont, not the improved commuter service the authority wants to facilitate.
He said that after 10 public hearings and a decision by the authority favoring the Pacheco route, the group's demands would amount to "flyspecking" the environmental review.
The authority's executive director, Mehdi Morshed, said he was also troubled that the meeting seemed to be "rallying support" for the Altamont Pass route.
"I told the staff that it was not appropriate for the staff to attend a meeting rallying support for one or the other (route)," Morshed said. "If we participate in some of these advocacy processes, then that could create potential legal problems."
Because the authority is still going through an environmental review process for the two alignments, it is supposed to remain neutral with the exception of designating a preferred route until the process is completed.
The rail authority said it may revisit the idea of creating a steering committee in the future possibly as soon as its next meeting in March but made no guarantee.
Ken Ross, a senior Livermore civil engineer attending Wednesday's meeting on behalf of the Tri-Valley Regional Rail Working Group, said the Altamont supporters will get together in the near future to take another look at where they stand on the steering committee.
"What we are seeking is not so much demand for funding as a demand that (the rail authority) work with other agencies to prioritize improvements," he said. "I think part of the problem at (Wednesday's meeting) was that we hadn't really had a chance to meet before."
In a report to the Livermore City Council on Jan. 28, city consultant Bonnie Nelson said the creation of the steering committee is key if they want the area to reap benefits from $10 billion in state bonds that will be on the ballot in November.
"It is important to try and get Altamont projects in this first pot of money," Nelson said.
Authority staff members plan to meet today with representatives of agencies likely to be involved with augmenting train service through the Altamont corridor. Those include the San Joaquin Council of Governments, Altamont Commuter Express and Bay Area Rapid Transit.