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The California High-Speed Rail station in San Jose, California, U.S., is seen in this artist rendering released to the media on Monday, Feb. 14, 2011.

A trio of powerful Bay Area lawmakers called Monday on the California High-Speed Rail Authority to rethink its plans for running bullet trains up the Peninsula and presented their own ideas for the local section of the $43 billion project.

"If we can barely find the funds to do high-speed rail right, we most certainly cannot find the funds to do high-speed rail wrong," said U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, and state Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Los Altos, in a joint statement.

At a press conference at the Menlo Park Caltrain station, the lawmakers said the rail authority can save money and spare Peninsula cities aggravation by developing a "blended system" that joins high-speed rail with Caltrain.

"Why duplicate a system?" Eshoo asked. "Why tear up the Peninsula?"

Through a combination of electrification, a new train control system and other improvements, the lawmakers say it's possible to create a "21st Century Caltrain" system that would send high-speed trains from San Jose to San Francisco. North of San Jose, bullet trains would use the same tracks as an upgraded Caltrain and pass commuter trains in the same way that Baby Bullets pass non-express trains.

The lawmakers said they want the system to remain within the Caltrain right of way and would oppose running trains along elevated structures. They also said the rail authority should halt work on a study of the current project's environmental impacts, branding it a "fool's errand" in the face of local opposition and limited funding. The federal government last week eliminated all funding for high-speed rail projects.

Gordon said he and other lawmakers want the trains to run at or below-grade, but that decision should be made on a community-by-community basis.

Obligated to study larger system

The rail authority is already developing a "phased approach" for the Peninsula, which could initially include many of the lawmakers' proposals, said Jeff Barker, deputy director of the authority. Since there isn't enough money to build a statewide high-speed rail system all at once, the rail authority may have to start with fewer aerial structures, for example, he said.

But while Eshoo, Simitian and Gordon want to shrink the scope of the project on the Peninsula, Barker said the rail authority is obligated under California environmental law to plan for the larger system, which would add tracks and possibly involve land seizures.

"What we're studying now is the biggest possible system we reasonably think we'd build in 2035," he said. "Whether we actually end up building that is another story."

Barker compared it to a couple getting permits for an eight-bedroom house because they envision having a large family.

"If you ultimately build a two-bedroom house with one bath, because that turns out to be what you need, you're fine," he said.

But if you build the larger home without the necessary permits, Barker said, "then you're stuck and in fact, in our case, you're running afoul of environmental law."

He also said a "full build-out will allow for faster service, full service, and more trains per hour, which we think will be required."

Caltrain also announced Monday it is launching its own study of how the commuter rail can fit into a phased approach to high-speed rail. The first phase would include electrification of Caltrain, according to a statement.

"The concept of phased implementation has merit," Marian Lee, Caltrain executive officer for planning and development, said in the statement. "Defining what it looks like and how it fits into the (high-speed rail process) is challenging and Caltrain, (the high-speed rail authority) and Peninsula communities will need to work together to define a planning process."

Lawmakers with leverage

In their respective legislative bodies, Simitian and Gordon both chair subcommittees responsible for doling out money to high-speed rail. Simitian told The Daily News he would use his role, "ultimately, if it came to that, to simply vote against further funding" for the project.

Gordon said it would be many years before any statewide bullet train system is built, and that funds should now be "spent in a way that enhances and improves" existing transportation systems.

The lawmakers' blended proposal, Eshoo said, would build community consensus for high-speed rail, as opposed to existing plans that have been "by and large" rejected by "one community after another."

"The California High-Speed Rail Authority -- and I don't think they started out intending to alienate anyone -- but it is what it is," she said at the press conference. "I really believe they have squandered a great deal of good will on the Peninsula by not honoring our communities."

Nadia Naik, co-founder of the watchdog group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design, said the lawmakers' proposal is "much closer to an acceptable reality" than the current project. But she added that there are "a whole host of other macro issues that are still unanswered," such as concerns about the rail authority's business plans.

She agreed that the lawmakers' ideas sound similar to the phased approach proposed by the rail authority, but said the difference is the authority is looking to "landbank" extra space.

"That doesn't come for free on the Peninsula," Naik said.

Palo Alto Council Member Larry Klein, who is an alternate representative to the Peninsula Cities Consortium, said he was "very pleased" by the lawmakers' statement Monday. It contained "a lot of the ideas we've been suggesting all along," such as rejecting aerial structures and ensuring the rail line stays within the current right-of-way.

"I hope (the statement) will shake up the authority to move along these lines," Klein said.

Email Diana Samuels at dsamuels@dailynewsgroup.com.