TRACY - The proposed high-speed train that would link Southern California to the Bay Area should not go through the Altamont Pass, according to an environmental study released Tuesday.
The Altamont Pass option is impractical to serve San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose, the California High-Speed Rail Authority study found, because rail lines would be split three different ways, with fewer trains serving the cities.
Maps included in the study show two possible routes linking the Central Valley to the Bay Area: via Mount Diablo, which would take the train south of Turlock and near Henry W. Coe State Park, or via Pacheco Pass, which would connect Chowchilla to San Jose by way of Los Banos, Gilroy and Morgan Hill.
According to the study for the 700-mile system, an additional 1.1 million people would ride the train via the Pacheco Pass route to the Bay Area.
The system, which could cost as much as $37 billion to build, would be cheaper than expanding the highway and airport systems, the California High-Speed Rail Authority study also found. The trains would zip at more than 200 mph between major California cities.
Kenneth Gosting, executive director of Transportation Involves Everyone, a local advocacy group, predicted that the study's findings will be challenged in court.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority acted without authority when it removed the Altamont option from further consideration, he said.
He also said that a train traveling via the Pacheco Pass would go through prime agricultural land and induce sprawl. "This is a dream turned into a nightmare," said Gosting.
According to the study, a bridge would have to be built across the San Francisco Bay, which could affect wildlife in that area. But Gosting said that the bridge could enhance the health of the Bay if it is done right, adding that his organization has discussed the issue with environmental groups in the Bay Area. The technology is there, he said.
A shoddy system would set back high-speed rail for years, he said, adding that the California High-Speed Rail Authority, which was created by the state Legislature, responds to no one.
"They just kind of float around like a UFO," he said.
Marsh Pitman, a representative for the Sierra Club, said the environmental group wants a full environmental impact report done for the route over the Altamont before a final alignment is chosen.
Rudy Trevino, mayor of Atwater, said the High-Speed Rail Authority has already made up its mind to have the train travel via the Pacheco Pass rather than the Altamont. "They're just playing games," he said.
Maps included in the study show that if the train travels via Pacheco Pass, it could bypass Atwater and Merced.
The Mount Diablo option is only a ruse, he said, and that would require a lot of tunneling. "We're going to keep fighting," Trevino said, adding that the city wants to hear all the facts.
High-Speed Rail Authority officials did not return calls for comment this week.
Tracy Mayor Dan Bilbrey has not seen the draft of the High-Speed Rail Authority's environmental study, but said he intends to discuss it with other representatives in the Tri-Valley area. "I believe there are some opportunities for discussion," he said, adding that it is important that the region speak in unison.
A representative for Assemblywoman Barbara Matthews, D-Tracy, said that Matthews would discuss the matter with elected officials or the executive director for the California High-Speed Rail Authority. "Barbara will be happy to join the mayor in any meeting that he arranges to inquire about what alternatives might still be available for pursuing the Altamont Pass as an option," said Cathleen Galgiani, chief of staff for Matthews.
Leroy Ornellas, chairman of the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors, said he would look at the issue to see if it needs to go before the board.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has recommended that a $10 billion bond to finance the high-speed rail project, which was scheduled to go on November ballot, be delayed because of the budget crisis.
"We don't think the time is right to go forward with this issue," said H.D. Palmer, deputy director of the state Department of Finance.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority will accept comments on the study from Feb. 13 to May 14, according to its Web site.