"High-speed rail opponents hope to shed 'NIMBY' image" is the headline of a San Jose Mercury News article examining the attitudes of a handful of people along the Peninsula toward the HSR project, and their lobbying efforts up in Sacramento. I find it interesting that they realize "NIMBY" is something they don't want to be seen as, which suggests to me that we were on the right track after all in leveling that criticism at the folks who are demanding an expensive tunnel or a gutting of the proposed HSR system. Here's what Ben Fuller, a resident of east San Carlos who claims that the above-grade tracks have isolated his neighborhood, and Sara Armstrong of Palo Alto had to say:
Fuller and Armstrong said the consortium should also help dispel the NIMBY, or "not in my backyard", stereotype often tagged on homeowners who oppose high-speed rail. By working together as a regional group, they hope to prove that they represent the interests of many property homeowners in the region and not just their own backyards.
In fact, they said a better name might be YUMBY, or "Yes Under My Backyard," a reference to their preference for tunneling the train.
"We're not NIMBYs," Fuller said. "We care about what happens to communities throughout California."
Really? So do you support the Palo Alto city council's reckless demand that the CHSRA consider terminating HSR trains at San José, which throws the financial viability of the entire system into question? Do you believe that it's a tunnel or nothing? If so I would indeed say you're NIMBYs.
Why? Because in this instance, a NIMBY position is one that says the HSR system must be built according to the specifications of a few neighbors or shouldn't be built at all. THAT is a classically NIMBY position. If they do not reject an above-grade solution, then they're not NIMBYs. If they do reject it, then they are.
The key question underlying everything is this: Do you believe that your aesthetic preferences about how the train should be built in your neighborhood are more important than what is operationally or financially necessary? Then you're putting yourself above the needs of the state as a whole. Perhaps the term "NIMBY" doesn't quite capture what they are exactly saying, but the outcomes are the same: you think that the train should be built your way or not built at all.
I don't see how that is a defensible position. It is arrogant and self-interested, denying the very real need for HSR as part of the solution to the state's dire economic, energy, and environmental crises. Unfortunately these few people seem to have bent the ears of two Democratic legislators who ought to know better:
The groups have bypassed local officials and gone directly to their state representatives, having held meetings recently with state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, and Assemblyman Ira Ruskin, D-Los Altos.
Ruskin said that after meeting with the group recently he called California High Speed Rail Authority officials into his Sacramento office and relayed the residents' concerns, including their preference for tunnels or some other non-bridge option.
"I share their concerns," Ruskin said. "I got the assurance from the high-speed rail people that there would be a below-grade (option studied) as part of the (planning) process.
"I really admire that they have become a part of the process and want their voices heard," he said.
If all Ruskin did was relay concerns, that's fine. But Ruskin has a higher duty - to ALL his constituents, and to the state as a whole - to ensure that HSR gets built on time and on budget. Ruskin has made a name for himself as a leader in environmental legislation. So one would assume that he will be supportive of the HSR project.
Especially when he and Sen. Simitian are facing a major budget crisis. The great unanswered question here is who will pay for the tunnel that pretty much the entire Peninsula wants. Tunnel proponents assume that either the state or the federal government will pay.
I am here to tell them that will not happen. There will be NO support at the state level to pay for a tunnel through these wealthy neighborhoods. None whatsoever. Anyone who thinks there will be is deluding themselves about fiscal and political realities in California.
There might be a possibility of getting federal money, but I believe this to be very, very small. Maybe a 10% chance. Consider that the Democrats who control Congress and President Obama are NOT going to see Peninsula voters as a particularly important constituency ahead of the 2010 and 2012 elections. Obama in particular needs to hold on to states he won that went for Bush in 2004 - Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Indiana, Ohio, Colorado, Nevada. You can bet he will find a way to direct a lot of federal infrastructure money there. If it comes down to paying for the Peninsula's tunnel or paying for a rail project in Virginia, or a bridge in Ohio, he will pick the latter. Peninsula residents have barely any leverage federally.
Ruskin and Simitian must know this. They must also know that the Peninsula's tax base is finite, and that in an era where core city services are imperiled, perhaps it might not be the best use of local tax dollars to buy a tunnel for a few people when libraries, schools, and hospitals are in need.
What's at the heart of the NIMBY and "tunnel or nothing" attitudes? A mistaken but powerful belief that anything that divides cities is inherently negative or destructive to neighborhoods and the city as a whole:
Greater East San Carlos group president Ben Fuller said his neighborhood feels isolated from the city's downtown because of the Holly Street grade separation along El Camino Real, built in the late 1990s. He added that nearby sidewalks have been narrowed, making it difficult to walk through the area, and that noise and vibrations near the tracks have increased since they were elevated.
"What they chose to do is literally just separate us from everybody else," Fuller said. "We just want to be part of 'The City of Good Living,' " he said, referring to the city's motto.
And while city officials say the majority of residents favor the Holly Street rail bridge — which has improved safety and traffic flow — the east neighborhood group says its special interests as direct neighbors of the rail line should be heard. The group has found friends in neighborhoods such as Felton Gables in Menlo Park and Charleston Meadows in Palo Alto, which also lie next to the tracks, and they hope that together their voices will be louder as a regional group.
First, it's pretty amusing that even though the Holly Street rail bridge has improved conditions in the city, a few people are convinced it is somehow a negative. Fuller hasn't explained how literal separation means that East San Carlos is somehow not a part of the rest of the city. Are they being deliberately denied city services? Are they being denied business and jobs? Are they being denied representation? Fuller assumes that we should take his claims at face value, but to be honest, I'm not seeing anything here that makes me feel for his position.
I'm no stranger to this issue. I grew up in a city in Orange County - Tustin - divided in two by Interstate 5.
View Tustin divided in a larger map
The area to the south of the 5, which has no name but is sometimes known as South Tustin, sometimes seems separate from the rest of the city. But in practice the freeway isn't that much of a barrier. We learned to adapt to it. If you have friends south of the freeway, as I did, or if your church was south of the freeway, as ours was, you just drove under the overpass. Sometimes we walked to a friend's house south of the freeway from our high school, just north of the freeway. No big deal. Even when the freeway was widened in 1992 and the structure made wider and taller, you didn't let it change your habits.
I currently live in a city divided into four parts by various natural and man-made features. Monterey has at least four distinct neighborhoods:
View Monterey divided in a larger map
I live in New Monterey, the neighborhood that runs uphill from Cannery Row (signified by the blue pin). We're wedged between Pacific Grove and the Presidio of Monterey, which cuts us off from the rest of Monterey. Ours is a very distinct neighborhood, but it is vibrant and thriving. Sure, it can be inconvenient to get downtown on days where there's lots of tourist traffic, but we manage. Our neighborhood doesn't suffer because of it.
Lake El Estero is another divider in Monterey, separating the older downtown (dating to 1770, signified by the red pin) and the neighborhood immediately to the east. And that in turn is separated by Highway 1, a freeway built through town in the 1960s. North Monterey is the neighborhood beyond Highway 1 (green pin), and that is indeed cut off from the rest of Monterey, and generally neglected by city government.
But is that a causal factor? North Monterey and New Monterey are physically separated from the city center. But whereas New Monterey is vibrant with thriving businesses and a high perception of quality of life, North Monterey has none of these things. I wouldn't ascribe that to the freeway, however. The problems are based in class and bad urban design. North Monterey, located just across Laguna Grande from Seaside, is a diverse low-income community built in the 1950s and 1960s. There's no real community center, and North Fremont Boulevard is full of strip malls and doesn't serve as the thriving commercial center Lighthouse Avenue is here in New Monterey. City government apparently hasn't done much to try and apply better urban design principles to North Monterey and it doesn't have a whole lot in the way of city services.
That was the case prior to the freeway, and persists not because of the freeway, but because the small population of North Monterey is generally disempowered anyway because of size, lack of an economic base (New Monterey has Cannery Row), and lower income. Monterey can and should devote more attention to this neighborhood, but the freeway doesn't make that impossible.
If you look at most cities in California, America, or the world, you'll see they're divided by any number of features, natural and man-made. Every city has neighborhoods, and in every city there is political jockeying among them for resources, tax dollars, services, and jobs.
Especially on the Peninsula, where a rail corridor has divided cities for a century and a half. I'm sure that if those tracks weren't already there, and Caltrain proposed to build them, Menlo Park and Palo Alto and every other city would flip out and raise all kinds of objections. Yet now they defend the existing tracks - because they found a way to keep their cities together in spite of - and perhaps because of - the tracks.
This notion that an above-grade structure that can be built elegantly is some kind of city-killer is totally absurd, especially when there's already a rail corridor there. Cities and neighborhoods can and should work to ensure that these structures, as with a creek or a university or a large park, do not prevent different neighborhoods from getting different treatment. Nor should they prevent the different neighborhoods from being effectively integrated - otherwise there would be four Montereys, two Tustins, a hundred Los Angeleses, and so on.
If "omg you're going to divide our city!!!" is all that these Peninsula residents have...then I see absolutely no reason to let their objections shape HSR implementation policy. They can find ways to manage, as numerous other cities have. If this was a totally new ROW, or if a large number of homes were to be demolished, then they might have a point. But it isn't. They have successfully managed the existing rail corridor. They can do so with an above-grade solution. The only thing holding them back is their own preconceived 20th century automobile-centric notions of what a good city or neighborhood is like. If they want to pay for that preconceived notion, well, it's their money. But if they think the rest of us will pay for it, they are not in touch with reality.