Last year this blog led the fight against the staggering amounts of misinformation put out by opponents of mass transit in their effort to defeat Proposition 1A. Even though these opponents were frequently given room to spout their misleading claims in TV and print reports around the state, whereas pro-HSR forces rarely ever got that opportunity, we won the battle. Californians rejected the arguments of the HSR deniers, the people who tried to argue against the evidence that high speed rail would be a financial disaster or that it wouldn't work in California or that people would never ride the trains. The voters showed that they understood the value and need for sustainable transportation, for economic recovery, for giving Californians an alternative to soaring oil prices.
That was the easy part.
2009 has seen a different and much more challenging battle taking shape. The Reason Foundation is still out their with their talking points, but few are listening. Instead most HSR deniers, like Morris Brown, have shifted tactics. Instead of arguing against passenger rail - a losing argument in California - they are trying to play on the environmental concerns of Bay Area residents. In order to undermine high speed rail, which will be one of the most environmentally beneficial projects this state has ever seen, they have joined with misguided environmentalists to try and block the progress of California high speed rail by claiming the project as planned will harm the environment.
Environmentalists have made a deal with the devil (so to speak) and allied with people who are fundamentally opposed to high speed rail. The environmentalists in question - particularly those from the Planning and Conservation League - apparently believe that they can use the HSR deniers for their own purposes without enabling the deniers' broader attack on the HSR project. In this the environmentalists are very, very wrong. They are jeopardizing the viability of the project as a whole, are placing a parochial and small concern above the concept, and are enabling anti-environment, anti-rail arguments in order to achieve their goals.
Californians rightly want to protect their environment. They rightly want big infrastructure projects to be built affordably and properly. And even though the environmental/NIMBY alliance ultimately seeks none of that - in fact, they are pursuing methods that jeopardize those values - they are increasingly effective at spreading their misleading claims among both the public and the state legislature.
As longtime blog readers know, these criticisms of mine are not new. What is new is that the Planning and Conservation League and the BayRail Alliance, two normally progressive organizations that support environmental and mass transit projects, have allied with the vehemently anti-HSR TRANSDEF, the "Cal Rail Foundation" (and its three members), and the cities of Menlo Park and Atherton to launch a deeply misleading attack on the high speed rail project.
The centerpiece of the attack is a new website: HSR: Let's Do It Right. The site is chock full of misleading statements, and embraces messaging that will ultimately and fundamentally undermine the HSR project they claim to support.
Before taking an in-depth look at the flaws of this site, let's lay out the landscape of HSR opposition in California:
Peninsula NIMBYs. Concentrated in the Menlo Park/Atherton/Palo Alto area, these are a quite small but vocal group of well-off homeowners who are adamantly opposed to building a grade-separated railroad for Caltrain and HSR, despite the numerous safety and environmental benefits of doing so. They've been convinced that a tunnel is a better solution, but have not identified any funding source for such a ridiculously expensive solution. They have no organization, but have instead brought on board the cities of Menlo Park, Atherton, and Palo Alto to their cause.
HSR deniers. Contrary to those who criticize the use of the term, this refers to a very distinct group of people who deny the proven benefits of high speed rail and want to kill the project outright. They are called "deniers" as an analogue to global warming deniers, based on the HSR deniers' repeated use of claims about HSR's supposed lack of financial viability, its supposed inability to meet projected ridership, and/or its supposed lack of environmental benefit. They tend to be ideologically opposed to government spending and to passenger rail projects. Not all HSR opponents are HSR deniers. But HSR deniers have had a lot of success in allying with more mainstream and respectable groups to advance their cause - specifically, the NIMBYs. HSR deniers have achieved significant gains by convincing some Peninsula residents that above-grade tracks will be a horrible city-killing disaster and that a tunnel is a better alternative - despite the fact that a tunnel is too expensive to ever become reality. HSR deniers hope that NIMBYs will provide the political power they themselves lack, and kill the project when it becomes clear that there is no viable alternative to grade-separating the Caltrain corridor.
Parochial environmentalists. The state's main environmental organizations, like the Sierra Club, strongly embraced high speed rail AND worked to ensure Prop 1A was as environmentally strong as possible (particularly by writing a ban on a Los Banos station into Prop 1A). They recognized that HSR will be a revolutionary shift in California infrastructure in favor of truly sustainable transportation that helps fight global warming, reduces pollution, and grows mass transit while shrinking the ranks of automobile commuters. But a small group of environmentalists have chosen to reject these broad benefits in a fit of pique about the choice of the Pacheco Pass alignment. The Planning and Conservation League is the biggest offender here, apparently convinced that the Pacheco alignment is so horrible that it is worth risking the entire HSR project to block it. To do so they are now allying with the NIMBYs and HSR deniers.
Parochial state legislators. California's Legislature is a broken institution totally incapable of governing this state in a time of crisis. One reason for this is term limits, which encourage legislators to ignore long-term planning and focus on their own careers. This incentivizes a focus on their own districts at the expense of the state's needs. As it relates to HSR, it enables ideological opponents of HSR like Senator Roy Ashburn, a genuine HSR denier, to try and tie down the project through burdensome and unnecessary oversight rules. It also enables people who don't care about the project's stated purpose of providing sustainable intercity transit to try and use the Prop 1A money to fund pet projects in their own backyards, like Senator Alan Lowenthal. NIMBYs, HSR deniers and environmentalists are allying with both Ashburn and Lowenthal to try and kill the HSR project by running it aground on the shoals of the legislature.
All four of these groups are represented on the HSR: Let's Do It Right site. The website is an incoherent jumble of anti-HSR claims that are sometimes mutually contradictory, but together represent a formidable threat to high speed rail.
Let's have a look at some examples.
Lying About Altamont/Pacheco
The main intent of the site is to rally the public to oppose the Pacheco alignment and force its abandonment in favor of Altamont - despite the fact that the decision for Pacheco was made through a legitimate process a year ago, and despite the fact that it was ratified by voters at the November 2008 election. Their Why Altamont? page consists of this extremely dishonest graphic:
This is pretty ridiculous stuff. The notion of "fewer impacts on communities" is only true if you don't consider Fremont, Pleasanton, Livermore and Tracy as communities. As I'll explain in a moment the site is full of "concern" for the "livable communities" on the Peninsula that would be harmed by HSR, but no such concern is offered here for the East Bay cities along the proposed Altamont route. There are about the same impacts on communities in the Altamont alignment - but those communities do not count, are not relevant, to the PCL and the other backers of this website.
It is true that expanding passenger rail along the Altamont corridor would help ease congestion. Which is why Prop 1A created a high speed corridor along the Altamont Pass and directs the CHSRA to spend money upgrading it for the purpose of easing congestion. But you wouldn't know that from the site or this graphic.
Sure, a shift from the Pacheco to the Altamont alignment might serve more East Bay residents. But it would come at the expense of about the same number of people in Santa Clara County and the Monterey Bay Area. Given that San José is the state's third largest city and one of the state's key economic centers, you'd think that it would have a pretty strong argument for being included on the HSR line. But you won't hear that argument on the website.
The claim of "$2 billion saved" is not sourced or proved. Given the support for Peninsula NIMBYs, the site's authors are in no position to make claims about saving money.
As to the wilderness area, this is is complete bullshit. The graphic is designed to mislead people into thinking the whole wilderness as shown on the map is under threat from HSR. It isn't. The tracks will run close to the existing Highway 152 corridor, and will go underneath Pacheco Pass State Park in a tunnel - which is conveniently not mentioned anywhere in this graphic or on the site.
Another lie is the "no sprawl effect" claim made. The graphic labels "land speculation" as possible in the Los Banos area, not informing readers that a station at Los Banos was specifically outlawed when Prop 1A passed. No station is planned on the western side of the Pacheco Pass. There IS a station planned at Gilroy, but that alone doesn't induce sprawl - unless the site's supporters think Caltrain service to Gilroy does that already. South County has its sprawl issues, but those already exist without HSR, and residents of Gilroy have already shown their willingness to oppose sprawl (fighting a planned Wal-Mart supercenter, for example).
Environmentalists who actually care about doing something to stop global warming should be extremely wary before getting into bed with NIMBYs. NIMBYs around the country have fought wind turbines, solar power generators, and the transmission lines needed to bring clean, sustainable, renewable power to cities that need them. Solutions designed to protect our environment and arrest the pace of global warming will necessarily impact communities in ways some won't like. We have to weigh their objections against the dire and pressing need to act to reduce pollution and reduce carbon emissions.
The environmentalists who put the website together have thrown all such caution to the win. Desperate to stop the Altamont alignment, they are busy fueling misleading NIMBY claims that WILL get used elsewhere in the state to attack the HSR project, presumably in places where the PCL (among others) claims to support HSR - like Pleasanton.
The site includes a paged titled Visualize What Disaster Looks Like. It's the old misleading "Berlin Wall" images from Menlo Park that we debunked back in March.
But that's not the most insane and crazy element of the unholy alliance between the PCL and the NIMBYs. On the contact page, which includes the list of organizations sponsoring the site, in bright red capital letters is written the statement "REMEMBER: THE CITY YOU SAVE MAY BE YOUR OWN!"
Umm...wow. Is that a message people who supposedly support the HSR project, as the PCL and the BayRail Alliance claim, want to spread? By claiming that HSR will destroy cities, they're inviting open season on the HSR project from other cities, including those along the Altamont alignment. Does the PCL want Fresno to sue? Do they want Fullerton to sue? This is madness.
Allying With Legislative Enemies
The final lunatic aspect of the site I want to examine is their alliance with a broken legislature and in particular with legislators whose opposition to high speed rail has frequently been demonstrated. The site encourages the broken legislature to exert "oversight despite the fact that the legislature is incapable of effectively doing so until that institution is repaired and restored to functionality. There is no better way to undermine the HSR project than to make it dependent on a legislature that can no longer effectively govern the state.
Especially when the site specifically calls out for praise known HSR opponents. One of these is Senator Roy Ashburn, who tried to postpone the Prop 1A vote beyond 2008. Here's what the site has to say about Ashburn, listing the members of the Senate Appropriations Committee (emphasis mine):
Below is a list of Senators on the Senate Appropriations Committee. Note that Senators Simitian, Yee, Cedillo, Corbett, and Oropeza, along with Senator Ashburn, are on both Committees. Senator Ashburn has been very sympathetic:
Perhaps the site would like to explain WHY Ashburn has been sympathetic? That he has worked hard in the last year or so to throw as many roadblocks and obstacles in the path of HSR as he can?
Although Alan Lowenthal is not singled out for praise (yet) on the site, he is one of the leading figures in the legislature trying to use "oversight" to destroy the project. This blog has frequently demonstrated Lowenthal's desire to chop the statewide project into disconnected pieces, to create a glorified commuter rail benefiting Southern California and presumably the Bay Area (although the alliance with Peninsula NIMBYs jeopardizes that).
There are more flaws with the website in question, but I've gone on long enough as is. The above should be enough to make it clear that the folks behind that site are not interested in telling Californians the truth about the high speed rail project, and certainly aren't interested in ensuring that HSR actually gets built.
In fact, as I will demonstrate tomorrow, the Planning and Conservation League has taken a leading role in trying to undermine California's application for federal HSR stimulus funds, thus jeopardizing the financial viability of the entire project. There's much, much more to come.