County leaders keep high-speed rail on the table, despite conflicting views

By Claire Harlin

Contention regarding a high-speed rail vote came somewhat as a surprise to local leaders from Solana Beach and Del Mar at a San Diego Association of Governments Board Meeting (SANDAG) on Dec. 9, and the neighboring cities stand at polar ends of the discussion.

A grouped measure involving three items failed a board vote, but because it seemed the regional leaders on the board were focusing their disapproval on only one issue — the renewal of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between regional stakeholders and the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) to cooperate on a plan that would connect the state’s major metropolitan areas via high-speed rail — SANDAG officials decided to conduct votes on the three issues separately. This decision, along with a changed voted from El Cajon Mayor Mark Lewis, kept the MOU alive and the voice of the SANDAG board (as well as other regional associations of government) from being taken totally off of the table.

Solana Beach City Councilwoman and SANDAG board member Lesa Heebner, who was mayor at the time of the meeting, said what happened at the meeting was “mind-boggling” and that she didn’t expect the item to be as long and controversial as it was.

“Discussion got going about some thinking this is never going to be done,” Heebner said. “However, to kill or not to kill the whole project was not before us. Yet, it was directed in that way by some of the members of the board.”

She said a “no” vote on the MOU would mean “having no voice any longer on whatever happens.”

Referencing the fact that the area between San Diego and Los Angeles has the second-highest number of train commuters in the nation (next to the Northeast Corridor that carries commuters between Boston and Washington D.C.), she said it’s important that our region be in on the conversation — even though connecting L.A. and San Diego is only in the second phase of the 800-mile project.

“We’ve proven we can put people on these trains,” she said. “Wouldn’t we want to be at the table?”

Del Mar Mayor and SANDAG board member Carl Hilliard, who was deputy mayor at the time of the meeting, was one of almost half the board who voted against extending the MOU to send a message to the CHSRA. The memorandum was set to expire at the end of 2011, so the close vote extended it until December 2016.

He called the proposed high-speed rail, which has soared in estimated construction cost from $33 billion to at least $98 billion, “the train to nowhere.”

“It’s a huge boondoggle,” said Hilliard, who was voted in as mayor on Dec. 12. “The most heavily traveled corridor isn’t on the planning stages, but what is on the planning stages is from Merced to Bakersfield. Nobody wants to go from Merced to Bakersfield.” The California High-Speed Rail Authority wants to begin work next year on the length of track between those two Central Valley cities.

Hilliard said that the CHSRA has already spent $800 million in tax dollars and hired 20 public relations firms, as well as political consultants.

“We don’t need to be paying these people huge salaries to plan for something that’s never going to happen,” he said, also pointing to the hefty salary of CHSRA Chief Roelof van Ark. According to a 2010 L.A. Times article about his appointment, van Ark earns $375,000 a year.

According to a poll released earlier this month by Field Research Corp. in San Francisco, 64 percent of those surveyed want another public vote on the project since it has risen in cost, and that 59 percent of respondents would oppose it.

At the recent SANDAG board meeting, grouped with the original vote involving the MOU was also the option of sending a letter to CHSRA regarding the authority’s new high-speed rail business plan, published in November, wherein the higher construction costs were presented.

The SANDAG board voted in favor of sending its comments to the state authority.

Charles “Muggs” Stoll, SANDAG’s director of land use and transportation planning, said there will be a wide range of comments, including the fact that the board is disappointed that San Diego is only in the second phase of the project when it is an important feeder area to both Orange County and Los Angeles. He said there is a push to make the lower San Diego corridor (LOSSAN), which extends from Orange County to downtown San Diego, the best “feeder route” it can be. There will also be feedback regarding the dramatic increase in projected construction costs.

“The more we can invest into that corridor, the more we can build a market here of people riding from San Diego to L.A.,” he said.