by Robert Cruickshank
Given my own rather strong opinions on the topic I felt it made sense to take a step back and assess the big picture of the HSR battle on the Peninsula. I know I'm more strident on this than even many other blog readers and HSR. But my assessment is that in arguing that HSR would "harm" cities, the opponents of HSR have allied with people who aren't HSR deniers but who don't really take the project seriously or don't see its importance to their cities' futures, and by doing so have successfully built a coalition that threatens the HSR project itself.
I reach that conclusion for the following reasons:
1. The notion that HSR will damage the cities is powerful, if not based in either evidence or common sense, and creates a strong motivation to ensure the project is either killed outright or severely damaged by not including the SF and Peninsula on the route. It's not easy to talk rationally with people who are certain that a project is the infrastructural equivalent of a "Death Star". The "Berlin Wall" frame is effective at mobilizing city officials to try and compromise the project.
2. Despite the statewide public support for the HSR project, the backing of prominent statewide political leaders and even President Barack Obama for HSR, the Peninsula NIMBYs actually have more political power than the CHSRA and Caltrain regarding the Peninsula corridor. This is because the cities are coalescing into a tunnel-or-nothing bloc whereas there is no countervailing force in the Bay Area to systematically push back against their arguments and claims. The prominent politicians, for their part, are not that interested in this level of detail. You're not likely to see Barack Obama go to Palo Alto and chide the NIMBYs for blocking 21st century progress, as wonderful as that would be. You're not likely to see Gavin Newsom go to Sacramento to lobby State Senators to ignore the NIMBYs, even though that's a necessary move if he wants his Transbay Terminal to include HSR. And as we know, Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn't care about the details of governance, since he merely plays a governor on TV. Instead the legislative debate appears dominated by people whose commitment to HSR is weak at best, like Alan Lowenthal, or who are unwilling to stand up to the NIMBYs, like Joe Simitian.
3. The CHSRA has few defenders and many detractors, and the Peninsula NIMBYs are effective at mobilizing a FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) campaign. I am not a blanket defender of the CHSRA, but I do believe that even HSR supporters aren't really aware the extent to which their own criticisms of the CHSRA are used to support a NIMBY attack. It's easy to paint the CHSRA as a typical "big bad bureaucracy" but to do so is to miss the point entirely. I would strongly suggest that the legitimate criticisms of the CHSRA - and there are many - be made with care so that they don't wind up bolstering the NIMBY cause.
4. A tunnel is not going to happen. It is financially impossible. Neither the federal government nor the state government will contribute a dime to it. And when push comes to shove neither will Peninsula residents be willing to tax themselves to the tune of tens of billions of dollars to underground the HSR trains from Belmont to Palo Alto. Yet the NIMBYs have done such a good job of convincing their fellow residents of point #1 that lots of residents and councilmembers see a tunnel as the only viable implementation of HSR along the corridor. Since a tunnel isn't possible, I am very concerned that the cities will revolt against HSR itself when the CHSRA rejects a tunnel, causing many years of court delays that could hurt the project's ability to be properly funded. I also believe this is the heart of the Martin Engel/Morris Brown strategy in the aftermath of their failure to stop Prop 1A in November.
5. As someone pointed out in the comments to one of the recent posts, cities talk to each other. If NIMBYism is able to exert power over the final project design of HSR on the Peninsula, that emboldens similar forces in the Central Valley and Southern California. What happens on the Peninsula is precedent-setting.
In short, I think the NIMBYs are filling a power vacuum on Peninsula HSR that is created by the lack of strong leadership for the project either in San Mateo County or in Sacramento. That in turn leaves me very concerned that a political deal could be cut to preserve the HSR project by cutting it off at San Jose, which for reasons I've articulated before, would do severe damage to the financial viability and overall effectiveness of the project.
So ultimately I find myself in disagreement with those who claim that the Peninsula NIMBYs are overblown and not really a threat to the project. I think they are an extremely serious threat and I believe we ought to find ways to defuse that threat. I'm also open to new suggestions of how to accomplish this - my stridency may not always be the best solution.
Here's what I believe are the necessary pieces of a counter-strategy:
1. Provide high-profile responses to the NIMBY arguments whenever possible. Ideally this would involve getting prominent political leaders who support the HSR project to participate in the process as they can garner TV news coverage. In most reporting I've seen, the NIMBY position is given prominence merely because they're organized and have locally-based leaders who can speak for them, whereas the only pro-HSR side tends to be the CHSRA, which is not preferable since they must maintain neutrality, and because they do not have a strong local base (that's not really their job anyway).
2. Specifically, promote local pro-HSR voices. 65% of San Mateo County voters backed Prop 1A. That's a large pool of support for this project. We need to find ways to amplify their voices, and thereby show that the NIMBYs are working counter to the will of the majority of Peninsula residents and to the detriment of those residents' ability to take meaningful action on global warming, traffic, energy independence and economic recovery.
3. Undermine the "tunnel or nothing" position. Point out early and often that a tunnel is going to be extremely expensive and that the Peninsula will have to pay for this on their own. CHSRA must be neutral on this during the project-level EIR process, so someone else will have to make these points known. Show that the NIMBYs are proposing a Bay Area Big Dig that the Peninsula cannot afford. Nothing undermines a position like pointing out its inherent fiscal irresponsibility. Note that this doesn't mean we attack the concept of a tunnel, but instead those who argue it must be a tunnel or no HSR at all.
4. Undermine the "HSR will destroy our cities" narrative. Much of that narrative is based on deliberate distortions, such as the "Berlin Wall" propaganda that has been shown. CHSRA hasn't been quick enough to produce alternative modeling to show how an above-grade solution can be elegantly implemented, though we have explored that topic here. We know that the "city-killer" claims are absurd and baseless. We have to more strongly make that argument by showing how above-grade HSR will help improve mobility, connectivity, and safety in these cities.
5. Remind people of the ultimate purpose of HSR. Saving on gas money, reducing traffic, fighting global warming, boosting mass transit, creating jobs, etc. How it connects to longstanding local priorities to improve Caltrain service, and local support for Prop 1A. This is probably best done in a positive way with the general public, but in a more antagonistic form with the NIMBYs - i.e. "why are you against" all that I just mentioned.
It's a question of leadership and public advocacy. It's time we offered both.
Thursday, May 7, 2009
by Robert Cruickshank