SJ Council urges tunnel for high-speed railBy John Woolfolk
San Jose officials urged the state rail authority Tuesday to continue studying an underground tunnel option for a proposed high-speed rail line into San Jose.
The council also voted unanimously to consider new management for the city's convention center and performing arts theaters next year, and to maintain the airport living wage with some changes to satisfy airlines and other businesses.
California High-Speed Rail Authority staff had deemed a tunnel infeasible and suggested above ground options that could be made visually appealing. But in a unanimous vote, Mayor Chuck Reed and other council members argued that San Jose must keep its options open in case an acceptable above ground design cannot be agreed on.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with us asserting our rights and options," Reed said. "Until we see what the aerial alignment looks like, we can't decide. There's no doubt you can build an ugly aerial option. There's also no doubt you can build an attractive aerial option."
The $43 billion rail project would link San Francisco and Anaheim with bullet trains traveling up to about 200 mph on a route through San Jose's Diridon Station, Fresno and Los Angeles. Currently about 25 percent funded with a combination of federal and state funds, it would be completed in about a decade.
High-speed rail officials said building an underground tunnel would add $2 billion to the cost of bringing the trains through San Jose. But residents, businesses and city leaders said the option should continue to be studied thoroughly.
Larry Ames, a Willow Glen resident who has followed the project, said he likes the latest proposals for an aerial alignment but still thinks a tunnel should be studied.
"Whatever gets built," he said, "we'll be living with the result for decades to come."
The convention center vote directs the city manager to prepare a new request for management proposals that the council could approve by June. In the meantime, it orders a spending reduction plan and contract changes with current operator Team San Jose.
Reed said he was initially hopeful about Team San Jose -- a nonprofit affiliated with the San Jose Convention and Visitors Bureau and overseen by hotel, arts, business and labor interests that took over management of the center and theaters from the city in 2004.
After five city audits and two civil grand jury reports found Team San Jose financially disappointing, Reed conceded that his enthusiasm faded.
"I think we've got to reconsider the model," Reed said. "There are elements that are excellent, but there are elements that don't work so well. I think we need to open it up to some competition."
Team San Jose board members acknowledged shortcomings but urged the council not to give up on the organization, noting a host of recent management changes including a streamlining of the board of directors and promising improvements.
"There have been some missteps," said John Southwell, general manager of the San Jose Hilton hotel and interim chairman of Team San Jose's board. "The board of directors is fully committed to the success of Team San Jose."
Southwell said a bidding process would be distracting and create uncertainty that would be bad for convention business. But Councilman Sam Liccardo noted that Team San Jose officials and staff collected $320,000 in bonuses last year even after being warned by city officials about overspending.
"It's fair to say that to whatever extent there was cost cutting," Liccardo said, "it wasn't successful."
On the living wage, Reed sought changes that would address concerns raised by airlines and other businesses that the way it was being applied was an impediment to bringing more business to Mineta San Jose International Airport.
"The way our living wage was being applied was causing difficulties," Reed said.
The proposal by Reed, Vice Mayor Judy Chirco and council members Rose Herrera and Nancy Pyle, allows airport businesses to continue counting the value of health and retirement benefits toward the wage requirement and changes to a more passive enforcement system. It maintains the existing living wage of $12.94 an hour for employers providing health benefits. Both business and labor groups approved of the changes.
"Please let us continue making a living wage," said Dwayne Green, a wheelchair attendant at the airport. "It keeps our morale up, our dignity."
In other action, the council voted 8-3 -- with Liccardo, Herrera and Pierluigi Oliverio opposed -- to approve general plan changes to allow 104 housing units and 90,000 square feet of new office space on a 7.8-acre site at 485 S. Monroe St. owned by AT&T. Critics said the land-use conversion would erode available land for commercial development needed to boost tax revenues and suggested approval was aimed at enticing AT&T to sell land near the Diridon Station the city wants for a possible baseball stadium. Supporters said the developers met the city's requirement of no net loss of potential jobs.
Copyright ©2010 San Jose Mercury News. Published 12/08/2010.