It wasn't the article I was hoping to read upon my return from my honeymoon, but it's not that surprising to read in the Fresno Bee that the Sierra Club and the Planning and Conservation League are hesitating on backing Prop 1 and even considering a lawsuit - and for the nonsensical reason that the choice of the Pacheco route might "induce sprawl." That objection is bad enough, for reasons I'll discuss in a moment.
But what's really disturbing about this move is that it suggests the Sierra Club and the PCL have lost their focus - instead of looking at the big picture of high speed rail and emphasizing the game-changing environmental benefits it brings, they're focusing on a small non-issue instead. They've lost sight of the forest for the trees and instead of providing leadership on this issue they may instead cast their lot with the far right and leave Californians with no viable alternative to soaring fuel prices and a transportation system that is making our environmental problems far worse.
First, their criticisms as reported by E.J. Schulz:
But the environmentalists are still seething over the selection of relatively undeveloped Pacheco Pass as the route to connect the Central Valley to the Bay Area. They favor the more urban Altamont Pass to the north because they say it would induce less sprawl....
Environmentalists would rather see trains run farther north in the Valley before heading west so that more populated cities are served. They like the Altamont route because it would bring trains closer to Modesto, Dublin, Pleasanton and Livermore in the first phase.
By contrast, the Pacheco route -- roughly following Highway 152 -- is in a less populated area. Environmentalists worry that a planned station in Gilroy would induce sprawl in surrounding rural areas.
These worries are baseless. Gilroy and much of southern Santa Clara County have strict urban growth boundaries. If those places were going to sprawl they would have already done so given their proximity to the job center and hot housing market of Silicon Valley. HSR doesn't change that dynamic.
Nor does it change the fact that sprawl is facing hard times. Sprawl is bad, but it isn't 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. Certainly land use policies need to change to limit sprawl, but those changes have long ago been made in southern Santa Clara County. 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.
The death of sprawl has already made itself manifest in Gilroy. The Westfield shopping center developers had a plan to convert a significant amount of farmland acreage east of Gilroy along Highway 152 into a huge mall. The plan aroused the opposition of the community and it was dropped earlier this year. High fuel prices, the credit crunch, and public defense of urban growth boundaries all combined to kill that sprawl project. Those factors will do so again.
A Gilroy HSR station would produce strong incentives for transit-oriented dense development in Gilroy, the kind of development that California cities need to focus on instead of sprawl. Gilroy is already partway there, and an HSR station where the current Caltrain station is located at 8th and Monterey would actually discourage sprawl because there would be viable alternatives to building on new farmland. The combination of infill development and strict urban growth rules are what have made Portland's anti-sprawl plans a success - you need both for the anti-sprawl measures to work. And high capacity mass transit is a necessary component.
Further, since the Authority has rejected plans for a Los Banos stop, and since as Mehdi Morshed explained in the Fresno Bee article that the communities along the Altamont route were not supportive of HSR, what on earth explains the ongoing refusal of the Sierra Club and the PCL to throw their support to Prop 1?
The only answer is a very depressing one, but an answer that is becoming more widely accepted among many environmental activists, sustainability activists, transportation activists, and folks on the left more broadly: the Sierra Club and the PCL have lost their way, and have lost sight of the big picture. In case folks haven't been paying attention, this country faces a climate crisis and an energy crisis. It's not like we have a whole lot of time to be fighting over objections that are not grounded in fact. At Netroots Nation two weekends ago Al Gore explained that we need to stop burning carbon and make a bold move to power our society with renewable energy. An electrically-powered high speed train system won't achieve that 100% renewables goal itself, but it would provide significant environmental benefits:
-Reduce carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to removing 1.4 million cars from the road, and take the place of nearly 42 million annual city-to-city car trips (Final EIR p. 92)
-Reduce CO2 emissions by up to 17.6 billion pounds/year (Quentin Kopp op-ed)
-Reduce California’s oil consumption by up to 22 million barrels/year (same as above)
According to the Final EIR 63% of intercity trips over 150 miles in California are taken by car (scroll to page 12). HSR would provide a huge dent in that figure.
High speed rail is one of those game changing proposals. How can the Sierra Club and the PCL overlook the cars taken off the road? How can they overlook the CO2 reductions? How can they overlook the reduction in pollution, especially in the Central Valley?
Four years ago Michael Schellenberger and Ted Nordhaus criticized the Sierra Club directly in their seminal essay The Death of Environmentalism. In their view the environmental movement, by focusing on small battles, has totally failed to address global warming, and that organizations like the Sierra Club "have little to show" for nearly 30 years of environmental activism after the big victories of the late '60s and early '70s. One of their specific criticisms is that the Sierra Club, for example, often eschews big policy changes for a niggling incrementalism that has done nothing to arrest the rate of warming. This has led them to refuse to articulate a bold vision for addressing the global warming crisis that of course hurts the natural environment, and it has led them to ignore the politics of producing change.
The Sierra Club's failure on high speed rail proves each of Schellenberger and Nordhaus' controversial charges. Instead of helping change the way Californians get around their state, shifting them away from oil-burning methods of travel to clean methods of travel that limit sprawl and generate urban densities, they are focusing on a small objection that doesn't even hold up on close examination. They have endorsed the concept of high speed rail in the past but if they don't endorse Prop 1, what other opportunity will they have to get it passed? If the HSR bonds don't pass this year, they aren't coming back anytime soon. It might take 10 years to revive the project - it's taken 15 in Texas - and that means completion of the line wouldn't happen until close to 2030.
By then it may be too late. Instead of refusing to support Prop 1 out of pique that they lost the Altamont vs. Pacheco argument, the Sierra Club and the PCL should follow Van Jones' advice and move from opposition to proposition. We have a proposition - literally - before us. Instead of being on the constant defensive the Sierra Club and the PCL can help California take a bold step in the right direction with Proposition 1. If we pass these bonds in November it will then be a signal to other states and to Congress that HSR is a politically popular project and it will spur similar projects around the country - projects that we desperately need.
Why would the Sierra Club and the PCL oppose these things? They have let their opposition to the Pacheco alignment blind them to the bigger picture. That decision has been made and even though the Sierra Club and the PCL lost, they can still be big winners. Let's hope they recognize the pressing environmental need for high speed rail before it's too late.