Today marks the one-year anniversary of this blog. I'd actually been trying to build out a much bigger pro-HSR site using a dedicated URL, a Joomla! installation, and with neat bells and whistles. But it was taking months, and by March 2008, I gave up and decided to just whip something up on Blogger to fill what I felt was a big gap in the online world, a lack of a site dedicated to both the discussion and support of the California High Speed Rail project.
It's been an eventful year, to say the least. The dramatic gas price spike that showed Californians passenger rail was an essential part of our future infrastructure. The long fight over AB 3034. The constant efforts of HSR deniers such as the Reason Foundation to sow misinformation about HSR to the public. The passage of Prop 1A. And now the fight over whether there will be high speed trains on the Peninsula. We've covered all of it here, sometimes contentiously. I think we've all achieved something fantastic here, and I thank all of my readers and especially the commenters for helping keep this blog going.
Looking back on that year, two things have stood out to me that define this project:
1. The public as a whole supports high speed rail and wants it to happen.
2. However, the political conditions that produced 40 years of passenger rail stagnation, as well as California's broad 21st century crisis (an economic, environmental, and energy crisis), are still there, and the necessary political leadership to overcome those conditions and solve those crises does not yet exist.
President Barack Obama may be the game-changer here, as he is in so many other aspects of American life. His support for high speed rail is genuine, as he played the central role in putting $8 billion in HSR funds into the stimulus. His budget proposal includes $5 billion more for HSR. He could provide the leadership that has been lacking, and could help bring groups to the table to hammer out differences.
Such leadership is desperately needed right now in California and on the Peninsula in particular, where concern over above-ground structures - concerns I believe to be overblown and misplaced - have given rise to a de facto willingness to weaken the HSR project unless it is built underground. Way too much of the NIMBY commentary on the situation implies that HSR isn't necessary, and some of the old HSR denier arguments from the 2008 campaign - that HSR can't turn a profit, that the ridership numbers aren't credible, that the Peninsula doesn't really have any need for this anyway - have unsurprisingly been mobilized to attack the project.
This is but one example of some of the underlying political conditions that have produced passenger rail stagnation and economic crisis. Parochial self-interests have spent the last 30 years constructing any number of methods to veto policies they don't like, whether it's the 2/3rds rule or systematic abuse of the environmental review process to accomplish inappropriate NIMBY objections.
And some of it stems from an ongoing unwillingness to admit the need to change. The NIMBY attack on HSR is grounded in the assumption that the status quo is perfectly acceptable - a state dependent on carbon emitting, pollution spewing, fossil fuel burning methods of travel that are not physically sustainable or economically viable. That the physical landscape of Menlo Park can remain that way for all time.
Nobody here wants to destroy communities. But when some in those communities define the way things look in 2009 as a perfect status quo that must not be changed, then ANY change, no matter how sensible or beneficial, becomes viewed as a threat.
Such attitudes have led to the economic crisis we face, where an unwillingness to confront basic realities, stemming from a desire to cling as tightly as possible to a status quo that is quite clearly failing, has prevented necessary action.
Unfortunately we've been here before. In the early 1990s the Northeast Corridor High Speed Rail project was announced with much fanfare, and was promised to finally bring true high speed rail travel to the United States.
15 years later, we have the Acela. It's a workable system, a train that has over 40% of the market share on the NEC and a generally positive reputation among travelers. But it's also not what was intended. The Acela only achieves its true top speed of 150 mph in a few places; in many others it's held to 79mph.
What happened? To put it simply, stakeholders weren't willing to accept some changes in order to build the Acela properly. Some didn't want to give up land to straighten the tracks. Others were concerned about noise and speed. Some didn't want to spend money upgrading the infrastructure. The FRA wouldn't relax its inane weight rules. And in the 1990s, cheap oil lulled people into complacency, believing that passenger rail was a toy that had little practical use, that filled little practical need.
To me it is self-evident that if we're going to build a project, we should build it the right way. That if we ask voters to approve something - especially if we ask them to help pay for it - then it seems self-evident to me that we should deliver exactly what they approved. The City of Palo Alto and many others on the Peninsula appear happy to gut the HSR project by forcing it to run unacceptably slowly along the SF-SJ route, or to force an unworkable transfer to Caltrain at SJ Diridon that will significantly reduce ridership, or to bypass the state's third largest city (San Jose) just to make a small handful of residents happy.
That's just not right. We must build HSR the right way. We can build it in a way that meets the needs of everyone in California, but when NIMBYs refuse to compromise, they're implicitly saying that a flawed system or no system is preferable to one they don't like. They're happy to Acelafy our project.
We see these problems anytime efforts are made to address our multifaceted crisis. Obama wants to restore higher tax rates on the wealthy to pay for his economic recovery plan? Oh god no, can't have that! Solar energy companies want to build a solar plant in a sunny desert spot, but need to build power transmission lines through open desert to get there? Oh god no, can't have that! We need to build a high speed train along an existing rail corridor? Oh god no, can't have that!
If the underlying political problems did not exist - a state government hamstrung by the 2/3rds rule, a small but vocal group of NIMBYs who are expert at hijacking planning processes, a lack of political leadership on passenger rail - then we wouldn't have these crises at all. HSR would have been built long ago, California's budget would be in the black, and the US would not be staring economic Depression and the massive effects of global warming in the face.
The reason I am such a strong advocate of California high speed rail is because I understand that things must change if our state is to survive this crisis. HSR is just one aspect of the changes that need to be made. And that requires fixing the underlying problems that have produced the crisis and threaten to strangle the HSR project.
The big picture has been lost. If people truly believe that an above-grade trackway is more of a problem than mass unemployment and global warming, then maybe we're in a bigger crisis than even I imagined. If a small group of NIMBYs can block HSR, what's going to happen when we try and build wind turbines or tidal energy projects?
One year later, I am encouraged that Californians as a whole understand the need for passenger rail. But I am concerned that even HSR supporters have lost sight of the big picture, and aren't sufficiently willing to challenge the failed assumptions, rules, procedures, and practices that have brought us to this crisis point. Palo Alto is a warning shot across our bow. Unless we find away to remind Californians of the stakes, of why HSR is such a vital part of the solution to our multifaceted crisis, it will be turned into another Acela, rendered less effective and less viable because we did not have the courage to face down those who created this crisis, and those who believe there's no urgent need to do anything at all to solve it.