Be Careful What You Ask For, You May Not Like It September 9th, 2009
Editorial By Noel T. Braymer
This August there have been many news stories about opposition to the construction of High Speed Rail in Northern California. This opposition has even led a Judge in Sacramento to order a revaluation of the Environmental Impact Reports for the High Speed Rail Project between Gilroy and San Francisco. There are two groups leading this opposition. There is one group generally small but very loud that wants High Speed Rail in the Altamont Pass, not the Pacheco Pass or else nothing for anyone. People like this are difficult to talk to when their idea of a dialogue is to shout louder.
What is having a greater impact are the residents of affluent areas near Palo Alto such at Menlo Park and Atherton who are opposing the High Speed Rail Project. It is difficult to make generalizations of what the motives are of the residents of these neighborhoods. For some it could be when in doubt, it is safer to oppose something until one’s fears about the project are quelled. For some people opposition is a bargaining position to try to get the most for their neighborhood as they can. No doubt every person has different motives.
Many of the local residents in the towns around Palo Alto complain that High Speed Rail (HSR) in their neighborhoods would greatly increase noise and pollution while many homes and business will be lost to build the new railroad. The reality is between Gilroy and San Francisco the construction will be a joint Caltrain/ HSR project. Delays in HSR construction will also delay and increase costs for upgrading Caltrain. Top speeds will be 110 in this urban area which is only 31 miles per hour faster than what trains can run in the area now. Construction will create an electrified railroad which will accelerate faster, be quieter and cleaner than current diesel locomotives. Construction will also create a fully grade-separated railroad. Not only will this reduce traffic congestion in the region, but will also create a much quieter railroad. The loudest part of a train is its’ horn which has to be blown 4 times at every grade crossing by law. Eliminate the grade crossings and you eliminate most of the horn blowing. The point of the HSR project is to use existing rights of ways like the one for Caltrain to eliminate as much as possible the need to condemn property. The High Speed Rail Authority needs to publish drawings of how much land is needed outside of the Caltrain right of way in these neighborhoods and what the profile of the grade separations will be. No doubt some residents want the whole railroad placed out of sight and out of mind in tunnels with taxpayer money.
Of course none of this is new for large projects like High Speed Rail, nor is this unique to the Bay Area. Years ago a single religious congregation stopped any plans to build light rail in North Hollywood on an old SP right of way. You could say they won. What did they win? They now have a busway on the right of way. Some victory! Several neighborhoods for different reasons in West Los Angeles opposed any construction of what was then called the Wilshire Subway west of Western Blvd. The same was true of efforts recently to build Light Rail from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica on an old PE right of way. Traffic now is so bad that people are begging to get the subway out to at least Westwood near UCLA. Planning is going ahead now to extend the Expo Light Rail line to Santa Monica in just a few more years. Last November voters in Los Angeles County by over a 2/3 majority approved raising the sales tax another half cent to help build these projects. In San Diego years ago the City of Del Mar was asked where it wanted a new Amtrak/Coaster Station. After months of Del Mar saying only where it didn’t want a station, the City of Solana Beach was asked if it wanted it. They said yes and they got the station. Almost 20 years ago there was a plan to reinstall a 3 mile long siding in Encinitas that was removed in the 1960’s A group of residents opposed the project demanding that the entire city be grade separated before anymore trackage was built. The result was the project was delayed over 10 years, the cost was higher due to inflation but it was built and the city didn’t get one grade-separation. Years were lost which could have been used to get badly needed pedestrian tunnels built in the city to get people to stop walking across the tracks on this busy railroad.
It is frustrating but par for the course to see these problems with construction for large projects like HSR. Planning and good public education can prevent and help resolve many of these issues. But as in anything political it will end up being a fight. And in a fight someone has to win and someone has to lose. When you have broad public support for improved transportation like we have seen in the last several election cycles for higher taxes: that gives an advantage for those building High Speed Rail in California.