by Robert Cruickshank
Leaving no doubt as to where he stands on high speed rail (he hateses it!) Palo Alto Vice Mayor Jack Morton, who misrepresented reality to the Senate Budget Subcommittee last week in Sacramento is now demanding that the CHSRA be abolished:
Vice Mayor Jack Morton of Palo Alto caught City Council colleagues by surprise with a suggestion Monday night that perhaps California's High Speed Rail Authority ought to be dissolved.
He said the $40 billion rail project could be turned over to some other entity with staff that has experience handling large planning/construction projects -- possibly including even Caltrain.
Morton made the suggestion Monday night when he was reporting to the council and public on a trip he, Councilman Pat Burt, Deputy City Manager Steve Emslie and citizens and officials from other Peninsula communities made to Sacramento last Thursday to convey a key message: Don't allow the rail authority to override local concerns.
Morton said authority staff members at the subcommittee hearing revealed a general lack of experience in putting together a large-scale project, and there was a feeling that the planned $40 billion rail project needs a staff highly experienced with large-scale projects.
Unfortunately, as I have reported here before, Senator Joe Simitian seems to have fallen hook, line and sinker for this nonsense, agreeing to delay the CHSRA's $130 million bond money request.
Let me ask everyone this - if you believe an agency needs to "staff up" with people who have experience implementing a big project, why would you deny them the funding they need to accomplish this? It's like telling someone to repair their roof and then garnishing their wages.
Jack Morton and his fellow HSR deniers are hoping that if they kill the CHSRA, then they might be able to either destroy the project outright by neutering it along Sen. Alan Lowenthal's preferred lines (taking the money away from an SF-LA train and instead building glorified commuter rail) - or put it in the hands of a more pliable agency.
The CHSRA's strength is in its independence. It is an agency charged with the task of building a high speed train to connect SF to LA. Putting that power under a single agency is a smart move as it allows the agency to focus solely on building the train. Staff aren't being pulled away to look after the Pacific Surfliners as they might under a Department of Rail, or focus on a roads project as they might under Caltrans.
Further, "governance reform" has often been used as a trojan horse by those who want to kill a passenger rail project - as our friends up in Seattle discovered. Using claims that the Sound Transit agency was somehow flawed or in need of reform, various state legislators floated proposals that would have gutted the agency's ability to implement the light rail project voters had repeatedly supported. Sound Transit's supporters were able to fend off governance reform, although various forms of it still crop up from time to time.
That all being said, this blog's focus is, has always been, and will always be to support the best implementation of the SF-LA high speed rail plan. We want it built, but we want it built right. If there are legitimate ways to improve the CHSRA to help build HSR, we're more than open to it. What we rightly and strongly reject are calls for "reform" by known HSR opponents.
Which takes us to the state legislature, which already has several bills floating around that would impact the work of the CHSRA and the HSR project itself. Some of them are worth supporting, others are not. They include:
SB 455 (Lowenthal): Despite its author, this one actually looks workable. It would provide the CHSRA with more eminent domain power, which it needs to quickly, affordably, and efficiently build the system. It also provides for Senate confirmation of CHSRA board members, which might politicize the agency's work but is something I could probably live with. The bill would also mandate the creation of a project schedule, which I'm all for.
AB 289 (Galgiani): This would make clear that existing CEQA exemptions for building grade separations for existing tracks would be extended to the CHSRA as well. I am all for this, as it could prove an invaluable asset to ensure that the project gets underway in a timely fashion.
In fact, I believe we should go further and exempt the entire CHSRA project from CEQA entirely. Instead we should set up an alternative method to evaluate the project's environmental benefits, one that includes carbon emissions, impact on pollutants, impact on traffic and sprawl, and renewable energy and gasoline savings, while making absolutely clear that non-environmental issues, like aesthetics and "community values" are excluded from the evaluation process. NIMBYs have found ways to abuse the CEQA process, and a project like HSR is too important to allow to be held up like that.
Two other bills are less welcome:
SB 783 (Ashburn): Would mandate yet another business plan, this time by September 1, 2009. I do not believe this bill is being offered in good faith, since Senator Ashburn surely knows that September 1 is not enough time for an agency whose funds are once again the subject of political wrangling to produce this plan. This bill should be rejected out of hand.
SB 409 (Ducheny): This is the 2009 version of Senator Denise Moreno Ducheny's Department of Railroads bill. It would transfer the CHSRA to the new DOR as a specific division within that department, and move all other passenger rail projects to the DOR as well. I've always said I'm open to this concept, and I'm not going to close the door on it entirely - but it doesn't strike me as a necessary move, and brings with it the risk that passenger rail funding could be ghettoized.
Ultimately the key issue here is that there is no real or strong pro-HSR leadership in Sacramento. And that enables the Peninsula NIMBYs to fill a vacuum. Why aren't Central Valley, or Los Angeles, or San Francisco and San Jose legislators firing back against Palo Alto's effort to dictate terms to the rest of the state? Those regions have an enormous stake in this project and their representatives should not tolerate their colleagues' effort to kill HSR or to give fuel to a small and unrepresentative group of people who are trying to reverse the will of the people and destroy one of this country's cornerstone projects for the 21st century.
And just so we have a sense of perspective, two people have been killed in recent days along the Caltrain tracks. That is what the Peninsula NIMBYs are so determined to defend. Makes me sick.