by Robert Cruickshank
One of the drawbacks of using an independent authority to manage and build the high speed rail project here in California is that it risks not having enough political support to properly do its job. And that may be what we're witnessing here in California, as two state senators - Joe Simitian and Alan Lowenthal - are launching an attack on the California High Speed Rail Authority and its funding. Unfortunately, this attack, particularly in Senator Simitian's case, is based on outright lies being told to him by a very small group of people on the Peninsula who want Simitian to step in and overturn the will of the voters by changing the route of the high speed train.
As related in a recent Palo Alto Online article:
A state Senate subcommittee Thursday expressed concerns about the structure and business plan of the California High Speed Rail Authority -- the agency charged with building the $40 billion rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles....
Simitian said the community's message was "loud and clear." The subcommittee agreed to hold off on authorizing the funds and urged rail-authority officials to expand their outreach efforts.
The senators heard from about 30 concerned Peninsula residents who made a morning trek to Sacramento to lobby for more oversight and transparency.
"What we really asked for is for them to change the structure of who is running this," Palo Alto Vice Mayor Jack Morton, one of the speakers, said.
"It's quite clear that the high-speed rail staff is insensitive to the community and has no ability to be responsible for the funds," he said.
Simitian said the nature of the rail authority has changed over the past few months from a small study group advocating a high-speed rail line to an organization actually building the line. Now is the time to consider changes that would bring more oversight and more community outreach to the process, he said.
"We deferred action in part to ensure that before the funds are authorized for the coming year that we see a stepped-up program for outreach and oversight," Simitian told the Weekly.
Simitian is getting played. There's no other way to put it. Those "30 concerned Peninsula residents" include opponents of the high speed rail project, people who want to exercise an unfair and illegitimate amount of power over the project. They believe that unless the HSR project is compromised and weakened to suit their outdated and anti-environmental preferences, then the project should be killed - and they're working to line up Senate support for it.
I will be blunt here - Vice Mayor Jack Morton lied to the committee, if his words as quoted by Gennady Sheyner are accurate. "Insensitive to the community" is Morton's own distorted spin on events, since there is no evidence whatsoever of such insensitivity. Palo Alto has been regularly consulted. The CHSRA extended the Peninsula EIR comment period to accommodate Palo Alto. The CHRSA has also created a working group with Peninsula cities, including Palo Alto.
Even worse is Morton's lie about CHSRA irresponsibility with funds. As we have explained here the CHSRA's work has been hamstrung by financial factors totally outside its control - the state legislature refuses to pass a budget on time and CHSRA staff and contractors go unpaid; the state can't or won't sell the Prop 1A bonds; Arnold Schwarzenegger tries to zero out CHSRA funding (which he attempted to do in 2007).
Jack Morton should be ashamed of himself for making such blatant misrepresentations of the truth to a legislative committee like that. It is disreputable and makes the city of Palo Alto - which in reality has a diverse set of opinions on HSR, including a large number, probably a majority, of residents who back the project.
As for Joe Simitian, I don't really know where he has been, but as far as HSR is concerned he seems to have been out to lunch. The CHSRA has already worked proactively to provide even stronger community engagement.
Let's be clear here. This isn't about CHSRA's supposed failure to engage the community. This is about a small but loud group of NIMBYs who want to kill HSR outright who are doing the equivalent of whining to mom and dad when they don't get their way. They are making up things to undermine the CHSRA in pursuit of their actual goal - gutting the project - which is quite clear from the statements quoted in the article:
Hundreds have attended community and council meetings to raise alarms about the potential of an elevated wall splitting the city, and to express concerns about the possibility of having portions of their property's seized through eminent domain.
Palo Alto Councilman Pat Burt emphasized the eminent domain issue at Monday's council meeting, calling it the "elephant in the room."
Pat Burt is not being straight with the council or the public, since eminent domain takings are expected to be VERY small. I am also concerned with Yoriko Kishimoto's statements, which may indicate a "tunnel or nothing" attitude:
Councilwoman Yoriko Kishimoto, who organized a coalition of Peninsula cities that meets weekly to discuss high-speed rail issues, said city officials are now discussing a variety of proposals they'd like Sacramento legislators to consider.
The coalition, which met Friday morning, wants the rail authority to use the "Context Sensitive Solutions" developed by the Federal Highway Administration in designing the new rail line. The method emphasizes stakeholder involvement and design elements that integrate the project with the surrounding communities.
Kishimoto said the coalition also plans to request that the rail authority conduct an economic analysis for the various design alternatives concurrently with its environmental review of the options.
"We don't want to go through all the environmental analysis only to find at the very end of the two-year process that the tunnel is not feasible," Kishimoto said.
Yoriko, I can tell you right now the tunnel is NOT feasible from an economic perspective unless your city plans to pay for it. It's really that simple.
Further, this who "Context Sensitive Solutions" concept is total bullshit unless it includes the true context of HSR. That method must necessarily include:
• The impact of HSR on carbon emissions
• The jobs and economic benefits of HSR
• The benefits of high speed passenger rail and the costs of automobile congestion
• The impact of rising gas prices
• Safety upgrades of grade separations along the Caltrain corridor
Further, who exactly is the "community" that is at stake here? Palo Alto residents are implying they're the only community that matters, and that is nonsense. Such "Context Sensitive Solutions" need to be examined against the needs of the state as a whole if this exercise is to have any legitimacy whatsoever. Palo Alto believes that their needs trump the needs of everyone else. They are wrong about this, as they are about to discover.
The other part of the article notes that Senator Alan Lowenthal of Long Beach is on the subcommittee and joined in the attack on the CHSRA. At this point I am forced to conclude Lowenthal is an HSR denier - someone who not only refuses to acknowledge the benefits of HSR, but who persists in spreading incorrect information and even disinformation about HSR. We have discussed Lowenthal before - his report from June designed to undermine the HSR project ahead of the Prop 1A vote, and his successful effort to get the Legislative Analyst to produce a flawed report on the CHSRA Business Plan.
As long as Senator Lowenthal is in office it seems he is going to try and kill high speed rail. Unfortunately he may now be joined by Senator Simitian, who has gullibly bought the BS being sold by Palo Alto interests who hope to kill the project, or to severely weaken its ability to provide for California's needs.
CHSRA also needs stronger institutional support inside the Capitol. That was supposed to be Quentin Kopp's role, as he was a former state senator, but clearly more is needed. I don't know if that means some changes to the board, or whether it means other Senators need to step up and chide their colleagues for trying to undermine a core initiative not just of California but of President Barack Obama.
Make no mistake - Peninsula NIMBYs are trying to sneak a gutting of the HSR project through the state legislature. They are out of their minds if they think we're going to let them happen.
The first step is to contact Senators Simitian and Lowenthal and ask them why they are opposing the will of the people and trying to undermine the HSR project.
Sen. Joe Simitian
(916) 651-4011 (Capitol office)
Sen. Alan Lowenthal
(916) 651-4027 (Capitol Office)