The current issue of Capitol Weekly is full of HSR material, including columns from Quentin Kopp and US Rep. Jim Costa in favor of the project. We'll get to those tomorrow, but of more immediate interest is this article by Anthony York on recent political developments surrounding our HSR plan.
One of the most welcome pieces of news is that Congress is looking to throw down some serious money on HSR next year:
A delegation of state high-speed rail board members recently went back to Washington D.C. seeking an answer to that very question. And the answers, according to Crane, were encouraging.
State officials say they have received indications from members of Congress that there will be roughly $60 billion set aside for high-speed rail projects nationwide in next year's federal transportation bill. And they are further encouraged that California, which is further along than any other state in its high-speed rail development, is well positioned to capture some of that money.
But, said Crane, "it will require a strongly unified and aggressive California Congressional Delegation" to capture some of those funds for the state high-speed rail program.
$60 billion is a pretty stunning number. The CHSRA has been aggressive in pursuing it - a major reason for having chosen the Pacheco alignment was that California members of Congress pressured the Authority to choose it. And given that no other HSR project in the country is anywhere close to being as developed as ours, it bodes well for the project finances. Of course, this is dependent on a Democrat winning the White House, as John McCain is a noted train hater.
It's also dependent on the California environmentalist community. Their support for HSR would seem to be a no-brainer - it would get millions of Californians out of their cars and planes, would provide dramatic carbon emissions reductions, and would kick off a national trend of moving toward sustainable, renewable, environmentally friendly transportation solutions. Reversing the American dependence on pollution-spewing transport would seem to be a holy grail for environmental activists - it sure is for me.
But not so much for the Sierra Club:
Meanwhile, some environmental opposition remains. The Sierra Club's Tim Frank said that while his group is encouraged by the decision not to build a rail station in those protected grasslands between Gilroy and Merced, his group still has concerns with the project.
"High-speed rail will be growth-inducing in the Central Valley," said Frank. "The question is, will it be good growth or bad growth?"
Frank said he wants to give the High-Speed Rail Authority some say over land use decisions as the Central Valley continues to grow.
"Now is the time when we have some leverage," Frank said.
I am as strong an anti-sprawl advocate as you are likely to find on the internets. But the Sierra Club is barking up the wrong tree here. They are defining themselves as an exclusively anti-growth organization, even at the expense of transformative action on global warming and pollution.
Sprawl needs to be ended in the Central Valley. But we also have to realize that sprawl is NOT a force of nature. It is instead a product of three major factors: cheap oil, cheap credit, and favorable land use laws. The first is disappearing for good, thanks to peak oil. The second doesn't exist now, and may never return. As a result the Central Valley is now the world leader in foreclosures. Certainly land use policies will need to change there, as they must statewide. But why should HSR alone carry that burden? AB 32 carbon reduction goals should be applied to new housing developments, and ultimately, localities will have to change their ways.
The loss of cheap oil and the shortage of cheap credit together will lessen sprawl dramatically in the coming decades. I fully support land use changes to further kill off sprawl, but it's not worth holding HSR hostage to produce the changes that need to happen anyway at the state and local level.
Unfortunately the Sierra Club has been attacking electric rail transportation more and more of late. In Seattle, where I lived from 2001 to 2007, the Sierra Club joined with right-wingers to successfully kill a ballot measure to provide a 70-mile expansion of the region's light rail system. The plan was unfortunately linked to an expansion of local roads, but the Sierra Club's opposition included the flawed charges that the light rail stations would have induced sprawl in suburban Seattle (flawed because Washington State's Growth Management Act would have prevented most sprawl). The Sierra Club promised to support a rail-only ballot measure in Seattle in 2008, but so far that support has so far been withheld.
Cathleen Galgani has addressed some of the Sierra Club's concerns in a new bill, written about in the Capitol Weekly article:
The bill makes one major concession to environmentalists, explicitly stating that there will be no rail station in Los Banos. Environmental groups including the Sierra Club opposed the Los Banos station, saying it would damage protected grasslands in the Central Valley.
I agree that there was no compelling need for a Los Banos station. And the Sierra Club can play a valuable role in ensuring that the Pacheco Pass route is designed and built with maximum respect for the surrounding landscape. But especially with the Los Banos change, the Sierra Club would be well-advised to declare victory and join us in supporting one of the most environmentally necessary and useful projects this state has ever considered.
Especially when there is up to $60 billion waiting for us in DC.