The LA Weekly used to be one of the truly great newspapers in California. Founded during the late 1960s, it quickly earned a reputation as both an independent as well as an informative, investigative paper that by the 1970s and 1980s had become a must-read for anyone who wanted to know anything about Southern California politics. They kept up this reputation into the 21st century. But it has been lost, particularly after a merger with the New Times corporation. New Times' approach to "journalism" is to throw bombs and make wild accusations based on scanty evidence. It's a hollow shell of the standards the LA Weekly had been known for. Former editor Marc Cooper charted the paper's sad decline, and Harold Meyerson, a leading progressive writer, has long since left its pages.
That is crucial background for an examination of a sensationalistic and ridiculous article the LA Weekly published regarding high speed rail this week. The criticisms of the paper's appalling decline in journalistic standards aren't my own, and they predate the article. It's unfortunate that HSR is this week's target of shoddy and misleading "journalism," but, here we are.
The article is essentially a grab bag of attacks on high speed rail, none of which are new, few of which make sense. It includes a rehash of the LA River "controversy" that the LA Times already covered (it used to be the case that the Times followed the Weekly, not the other way around). Let's take some of the more egregious parts of the article:
“They need to work in partnership with us rather than shoving stuff down our throats,” says environmentalist Melanie Winter.
Winter is part of a diverse set of environmental advocates, community leaders, elected officials and taxpayer watchdogs who are banding together in the hopes of changing the direction of the rail authority.
The article doesn't say who these people are, exactly, making the group seem larger than it is. And Winter doesn't explain her concerns - instead the quote is designed to make HSR look like the bad guy, instead of the environmentally-friendly form of mass transit, well-integrated with the community and supported by a majority of Californians that it actually is.
The rail authority’s members have little, if any, connection to actual California voters, who polls say are sick of partisan politics. In fact 20 percent of California voters are now registered as “decline to state” political independents. Meanwhile the rail authority board is almost entirely made up of Democratic and Republican operatives and partisans appointed by Governor Schwarzenegger and the Legislature.
OK, this is just absurd. 80% of Californians are registered Republicans or Democrats, and most of those DTS voters consistently cast ballots for Dems. In fact, the members have quite a lot of connection to actual CA voters, if we're going to use this ridiculous metric, since 80 is larger than 20. Moreover, they are all duly appointed and confirmed by the elected representatives of the people of the state - apparently the Weekly has forgotten how representative government works.
Ironically, right after they say the board is illegitimate because it is stacked with Dems and Republicans (as is the state of California!) they write this about the CHSRA's former chairman:
Retired judge Quentin L. Kopp is one of the powerful board’s few politically independent members.
Which of course totally invalidates their earlier point. But there it is, in print, bizarrely enough.
Five years ago, ANG Newspapers published an explosive investigation by Sean Holstege, reporting on a meeting led by Democratic politico Willie Brown and attended by Katz, Diridon and Morshed, at which Brown advised a roomful of engineering and construction firms that to win contracts to build California’s bullet train they first had to pony up $1 million in fees for Katz and other political consultants. According to the story, the consultants would then pull strings in the Legislature, aimed at getting a bullet train plan on the ballot. The controversy died, but several insiders present at that May 11, 2004, meeting with the big firms hold posts on the rail board.
What does this accusation have to do with the present? Did Katz win a contract? Is Willie Brown still involved with HSR? And since HSR didn't go to the ballot until 2008, did this meeting have any relevance whatsoever to the present situation? The only reason this is mentioned is the desire of the authors to throw every possible accusation at HSR to set up their article, regardless of whether the accusation has merit or relevance.
Few California voters knew this back story last November, when they approved a vaguely worded, $10 million bond measure to begin construction of high-speed rail. The details were fuzzy on where, exactly, the tracks would go, what they would look like, and whether property might be seized.
Um, no. The bond measure was not "vaguely worded," it instead specified a very specific corridor as laid out in a very explicitly and not-vague EIR document approved by the board last summer. The details were clear on where exactly the tracks would go, though in some places the tracks could go in a number of places.
One emerging dispute involves a proposal to build the rail line down the middle of I-5. Some activists say the idea makes sense, especially when the alternative would be to run the rail lines through communities and parkland, in some cases cleaving them in half. But state officials seem to have dismissed the I-5 route long before real hearings even took place.
“There hasn’t been a rigorous study of that alternative,” says Damon Nagami, a staff attorney with the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an organization of high-powered lawyers working with communities affected by potential routes. “We don’t understand why the rail authority wants to eliminate this option at this very early stage.”
If that's NRDC's position, they are fools. It's unclear where on I-5 they're referring to, but it doesn't much matter. Nobody lives along I-5 in the San Joaquin Valley, so it makes no sense to put the train there. The trains should go where the people are. If you're talking about I-5 in the LA metro area, that's a truly idiotic plan that should never be given the light of day. It would not only produce much less riders, and might not be feasible given the curves of I-5 in the San Fernando Valley, but the cost would be astronomical and it would have a far greater impact on homes and communities than would following the rail corridors as currently planned. The I-5 alternative should be eliminated because it is senseless and stupid.
Another debate is over downtown’s historic Union Station. The rail authority seems bent on making Union Station the hub for multiple lines that would meet there. But residents of mostly Latino, mostly working-class Lincoln Heights, Cypress Park and Glassell Park worry that trains will tear up their communities.
Nagami says he’s pressuring the state to consider building an annex near Union Station to serve as the high-speed hub. “We’re getting the sense the rail authority has its chosen route and is going to push for that,” adds Nagami, whose organization helped to successfully sue the state eight years ago, when it tried to sell empty land near Union Station to an unpopular developer. “The whole point of an environmental-impact review is to carefully examine a range of options.”
First off, Union Station is going to be the hub because it already is the hub of the LA mass transit system. It would be truly insane to not have trains stop there, with easy transfers to Metro Rail, buses, and Amtrak California and Metrolink trains. The trains won't "tear up their communities" since they'll follow existing ROW and corridors. This is NOT the Century Freeway, despite the LA Weekly's sensationalistic desire to paint HSR as such.
The range of options have already been carefully examined in previous EIRs, and the current program EIR will carefully examine the specific details of bringing trains to and from Union Station.
Perhaps the most emotional and complex issue is the fate of the Los Angeles River. The river has long been both a target for jokes (“L.A. has a river? You mean the giant half-pipe where they filmed Terminator?) and the object of a slow but concerted revitalization effort, which some fear will be quashed by a train route touted on some maps.
Since 2001, California has spent roughly $100 million developing parks along the river, and many of those newly green areas could be ruined by the bullet train.
“This project, if it’s done wrong, will undo years and years of work, on top of the millions of dollars that have been invested,” says Sean Woods, in charge of L.A. parks for the California State Parks department. Though employed by the state, Woods is part of the coalition fighting to make sure L.A. isn’t steamrolled.
LA isn't going to be "steamrolled," as Woods should know. The city of LA's River Revitalization Plan makes clear that the river will continue to be a railroad corridor, and specifically mentioned HSR as part of it. Further, CHSRA is well aware of the desire to connect the riverfront park to the neighborhood, which is why it plans to use the HSR project as an opportunity to achieve that, as this video makes extremely clear. Apparently some people haven't gotten the message:
“Rail has been the barrier to access to the river,” says L.A. River activist Joe Linton, who writes the “Creek Freak” blog. “For eight miles in the downtown area there are tracks along the river. The high-speed rail can either make that a worse barrier or it can make that less of a barrier.”
The plan apparently favored by political types who dominate the rail authority would make that barrier worse. Linton says the inviting green areas now envisioned could mutate into an industrialized backyard for a supertrain. “Those were huge struggles that resulted in parkland for communities that absolutely needed it,” Linton says.
First, the tracks along the river - whether north or south of Union Station - aren't going anywhere. Anyone who thinks they are is out of their mind. Those tracks have been there for a century and will be there for at least one more. Further, as the video makes abundantly clear, HSR will make it less of a barrier.
Of course, the LA Weekly doesn't anywhere mention the CHSRA's video, their plans, their scoping process. Nor does it even appear they tried to reach CHSRA for comment, the way a normal journalist would. Instead they plowed right ahead with their hit piece. Shameful.