While the Peninsula NIMBYs tend to get the most attention from HSR advocates, the fact is that there are NIMBYs across California. It's not a phenomenon unique to the Bay Area. The NIMBYism we're seeing on the Peninsula is generated by a desire among those who benefited from the late 20th century model of land use to preserve that model, to oppose anything that might conceivably threaten or change that model. Despite the fact that such changes are absolutely necessary to produce economic recovery, energy independence, and environmental and climate security, for a certain segment of Californians those imperatives are less important than protecting what they've already got, exactly as it currently is.
High speed trains particularly suffer from this problem. Late 20th century California saw trains as an anachronism, and the worldview of most NIMBYs simply has no place for them. They live in an automobile world, where the idea of using high speed trains to grow city centers as denser and bigger population and job centers is fanciful. Wedded to a 20th century model of land use, they have no investment in 21st century technology. In fact, they see such technologies as an inherent threat to their worldview, and so they instinctively oppose their construction in their neighborhoods, convinced against all evidence that the way we do things right now is not only good, but can be preserved indefinitely.
Since that worldview is shared across California, it makes sense that we're going to encounter NIMBYism along much of the HSR route, no matter where it goes. And that makes it imperative that we not give in to such NIMBYism, rooted as it is in an irrational but deeply held defense of a status quo that has already failed for most Californians. Sending high speed trains to city centers, instead of stopping short of those centers, is an essential part of not just the system's overall viability, but in the project to rebuild the California Dream and provide broader economic prosperity for more people.
That's some necessary background for assessing new developments down in San Diego, where several neighborhood activists and elected officials are proposing a new but inferior alignment for HSR in the city. Instead of the line jogging westward toward UCSD and turning south to serve downtown San Diego and Lindbergh Field, they propose sending it all the way down Interstate 15 to a terminus at a football stadium:
The Interstate 15 corridor between Mira Mesa and Qualcomm Stadium would be the preferred route for the southernmost leg of California's proposed $40 billion high-speed train network, not a path that would take it through University City, a coalition of San Diego-area elected officials said today.
"A straight line is the most efficient way to get between two points," San Diego City Councilwoman Sherri Lightner said. "The meandering path that is suggested at present does not achieve that."
This "straight line" argument is becoming more and more common, even though it is complete nonsense. High speed rail means indirect routes designed to serve more people are not only still much faster than any other form of transportation, save for the airplane (which NEVER flies a straight line from runway to runway), but are more efficient at moving people within and between metropolitan areas. The primary purpose of HSR is to move people, NOT to get from Point A to Point B as fast as possible. Good HSR design will find the right balance between the two, not sacrifice one for the other.
What Lightner calls a "meandering path" is actually a path that follows the population. Hardly anyone actually lives in Mission Valley, certainly not at Qualcomm Stadium. But a LOT of people live in University City, directly across Interstate 5 from UC San Diego. And even more people either live in, or want to visit, downtown San Diego, whether for business or pleasure. (Count me as one of those people - I'll be there this weekend.)
The CHSRA map makes this clear. Qualcomm Stadium is noted by the black Q I added, near the junction of Interstates 8 and 15:
More about their proposal:
Instead of following Interstate 5, the coalition called for more study of keeping the trains on Interstate 15, past Mira Mesa to Qualcomm Stadium. The trains would then follow Interstate 805 to Tijuana's Rodriguez International Airport.
The Interstate 15 to Qualcomm Stadium route was studied by the California High Speed Rail Authority, but was largely dismissed because it doesn't end up in downtown San Diego or link up with Lindbergh Field.
San Diego City Councilwoman Donna Frye said environmental and community concerns over the the proposed route through University City have not been adequately addressed.
"The Rail Authority map showing the Carroll Canyon and Miramar Road routes are imprecise," she said. "They offer little clue to their potential impact to Rose Canyon and other sensitive areas."
This is really unfortunate framing coming from Frye, who should have been elected mayor of San Diego in 2005. Either she's deliberately misleading the public, or simply doesn't understand how planning works. Of course the CHSRA map is imprecise - the entire purpose of the current scoping process is to get public input on what the specific route should be, and examine the impact on the canyon.
What Frye, Lightner and others are really saying is that they think HSR is going to disturb the existing land use patterns and aesthetics of University City, and they would prefer that not even be considered. Instead of finding a way to make HSR work, they basically propose dumping passengers in an empty parking lot. Sure, the Q has a trolley station, but downtown San Diego is the central hub of all of the SD Trolley lines:
What they propose is essentially forcing intercity travelers to transfer to light rail at the Q to make it to their downtown destinations. That's even more inferior and impractical than making people transfer to Caltrain at Diridon Station to continue the journey to downtown San Francisco. If you have luggage, you're screwed, and the extra time on a much slower light rail train would make the overall travel time from downtown LA to downtown SD much less desirable.
Further, you're giving up a huge number of riders who would be using the train to/from downtown SD, including the University City/UCSD stop - a part of the city of San Diego that currently has no passenger rail service.
The CHSRA dutifully said they welcomed the feedback and would look at the proposal. Which is what they ought to do. Hopefully they'll reach the same conclusion they did before, which is that the Qualcomm Stadium terminus is inferior and impractical.
In the meantime, let's hope more San Diegans get engaged in the process, letting their elected officials know they support a train that will serve populations where they already are, instead of empty parking lots.
UPDATE: Matthew Fedder posted in the comments a letter he wrote to Lightner and Frye, and I thought it worth excerpting here, as he makes the environmental case FOR the University City/downtown alignment:
The purpose of having stops in UTC and Downtown is to support transit-oriented development in San Diego. In other words, bring the transit conveyances to where people live. And there are no more dense centers of population in San Diego than UTC and Downtown.
The Qualcomm parking lot is a no-mans land, the poster-child for automobile-based, sprawl-oriented development, with only one trolley line to serve as an oil-free, environmentally friendly alternative to get San Diegans in, and visitors out. It also happens to be a parcel of land that is expected to be completely re-worked in the near future - a project which, ironically, Counceilor Frye has opposed on the basis of the additional car-trips it will add to Mission Valley. You think think that's bad? Imagine 48,000 boardings and de-boardings a day in a location with almost no connection to public transit.
Exactly. Dropping passengers in the Qualcomm parking lot would be a cruel joke, a sign that San Diego isn't willing to truly embrace sustainable transportation or smart growth principles.