Showing posts with label Peninsula. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Peninsula. Show all posts

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Why An HSR Design Competition Is An Excellent Idea

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

One tried and true practice for designing projects with a great deal of public interest - and public controversy - is to hold a design competition. Many important public memorials have been designed this way, including the Berlin Holocaust Memorial and the World Trade Center Memorial in lower Manhattan.

Such competitions serve several purposes. They open the often contentious process of designing important yet potentially divisive projects to public scrutiny, enabling the public to participate in the selection process (therefore making them more invested in the project itself, instead of as bombthrowers from the sidelines). They also help people see what is possible and what is desirable in a particular project by having architects imagine new and interesting ways to design the project. Instead of an abstract concept or a feared design, like the "Berlin Wall" on the Peninsula, people can see something that interests them, inspires them, and gets them to see the project not as a threat but as a possibility for welcome change, an opportunity to do something new, interesting, useful, but that meets their own goals and desires.

It is in that vein that calls for an HSR design contest on the Peninsula are such a welcome development:

Joseph Bellomo has a simple proposal for the California High-Speed Rail Authority: Leave the design of the proposed high-speed rail to the world's brightest designers.

Bellomo, a Palo Alto architect whose projects emphasize modular construction, energy efficiency and sustainable design, laments that the design of the controversial 800-mile rail line has so far been dominated by teams of engineers, each working on a separate segment of the line.

So while other local architects, urban planners and concerned residents are busy lobbying the state for underground tunnels, Bellomo advocates a different approach for selecting the design of the proposed line -- an international design competition.

Last month, Bellomo sent a letter to the rail authority, the state agency charged with building the $45 billion rail line, proposing a two-tiered international competition in which architects and designers from around the world would send in proposed designs for the entire line. The proposals would be narrowed to three finalists whose ideas would be further developed.

"The only way to get good design, holistic design, is through competition," Bellomo said.

I'm not as convinced that we need a design competition for the entire route, but a design competition for some elements of the project, including the Peninsula Corridor, makes quite a lot of sense. It would help make the CHSRA seem like less of an outside invader and more of a facilitator of modern designs for a modern urban landscape, allowing residents and architects and planners to come together to present innovative designs appropriate to the location.

This is especially valuable on the Peninsula because the objections to HSR there are almost entirely aesthetic (though they're rooted in deeper issues of economic opportunity and a desire of some to protect what they have at the expense of others). The desire for a tunnel is driven by the conviction that an elevated structure designed by CHSRA will merely resemble a giant freeway. As we've shown before, above-grade HSR tracks can be built elegantly, blending well with their surrounding urban environment. A design competition can show ways to build HSR that meet both the operational criteria of the CHSRA and the other criteria of local HSR supporters. Such a design competition will never silence the hardcore HSR deniers, but that isn't the purpose here.

Bellomo isn't just calling for a design competition in the abstract. He is also offering his own idea, which you can find at his site (scroll down about halfway to find the HSR section). His proposal is for what he's calling a "solar corridor", an elevated track with a steel enclosure that holds photovoltaic solar panels. His Peninsula design leaves two Caltrain tracks at-grade, allowing for its electrification, and a either a single or double track in the elevated viaduct. In some ways this resembles Rafael's La Vitrine concept from back in March, though with important differences.

I can't say I'm sold on the Bellomo concept. And it's unclear whether the visual impact of the "ribs" would be embraced by the locals. Also left unstated is what happens to the at-grade tracks at existing grade crossings. But I am glad to see him giving some thought to how to implement HSR along the Peninsula.

His idea of an HSR design competition for selected segments of the route is a very wise idea. It won't solve everything, but it is worth embracing.

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This site will remain as an archive, but comments will be closed as of tonight, 10PM Pacific. Unless of course something goes wrong in the transfer.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Unsafe At Any Speed

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

There are at least four families in Palo Alto who will be having a less joyous Thanksgiving this year - four families touched by the tragedy of suicide. This year, four teenagers have committed suicide by walking in front of Caltrain locomotives on the at-grade section of the tracks near Gunn High School.

Now, a group of Palo Alto parents are pushing a petition to demand Caltrain slow down to a 5 mph crawl between West Meadow and Charleston Road in Palo Alto:

We ask Caltrain to implement a schedule, effective immediately, of slowing all trains from West Meadow to Charleston to a speed of 5 MPH in order to prevent further suicides on the tracks in this area.

In preparing this request our research has turned up a number of facts that support this measure.

1. They will not go elsewhere. Research has shown that individuals bent on suicide at a hot spot will not simply move further down the tracks. See links.
2. If you restrict access to the ‘means’ you will reduce the number of incidents. It has been proven that even a small impediment at a suicide hot spot reduces the number of incidents at that spot. This is why we are also watching the tracks. We believe that this vigilance, in combination with slower trains will reduce the number of incidents and perhaps stop them.
3. In the case of a suicide hot spot the threshold for the individuals who may be considering suicide is lowered. This is especially true for teens . This means the existence of the hot spot and access to it is increasing the number of incidents.
4. Although teen suicide has many possible causes and there are many preventive measures we may take as a community, slowing the trains is a short term solution.

Although a train at 5mph may be no less deadly, we believe it will be less attractive while giving us the chance to clear the tracks and giving the driver time to stop.

Currently it takes the commuter trains less than a second to clear the crossing at 60mph. At 5mph this would increase to approximately 4 seconds, a negligible delay for drivers when compared with a human life.

Slower trains will reduce the allure of this area, allow time for track watchers to clear the tracks, and give Caltrain engineers the chance to stop the train if necessary. Most importantly, slower trains now will give us time as a community to work together in launching a multi factorial effort to curb teen depression and suicide over the long term.

Caltrain takes these suicides, and any other safety hazard along the tracks, extremely seriously. And it's hard to fault parents who want their kids to experience safe conditions.

That being said, you might as well stop the trains entirely if you're going to insist they crawl through at 5 mph. I don't know if this is a good short-term solution or not, but it is clearly not a long-term solution for either the parents, Gunn students, or Caltrain.

It's difficult for transit infrastructure to be designed in a way that can stop someone truly determined to kill themselves from doing so, as the Golden Gate Bridge and BART have discovered. That being said, this rash of suicides reminds us of the inherently dangerous nature of grade crossings where fast, heavy trains are operating. (Light rails and streetcars have potential issues - but then so does any other vehicle operated on the roads.)

Back in June this blog asked why the death toll of at-grade rail crossings was being excluded from the conversation about high speed rail on the Peninsula. The fact is that Caltrain on the Peninsula as it stands right now - at-grade through a densely populated urban area - is unsafe at any speed. A 5 mph slow order is no lasting solution to the problem of how to operate a modern passenger railroad safely through such a landscape.

Some may accuse me of "politicizing" the issue. But it has already been "politicized," long ago, by those who argue that their own property values and their own personal, idiosyncratic vision of urban aesthetics and what their community should "feel" like trumps the safety needs of the general population, including Gunn students.

"Politics" is the process by which individuals and groups make collective decisions, and how they weigh competing needs and desires. Right now in Palo Alto, there is a politics that prioritizes preserving the status quo over providing for safe, affordable, reliable, clean, and economically stimulating passenger rail. Whether the tracks go over or under the grade crossings, it is clear that the status quo for Caltrain and Palo Alto no longer works.

The community needs to come together to find a long-term solution to make the railroad as safe as possible, balancing that against the need for that railroad to continue operating at improved efficiency. They need to recognize that while there is no way to provide for perfect safety, some ideas, like grade separations, are such obvious parts of the solution that anyone who argues against them out of a desire to preserve their own pocketbook or their own sense of aesthetics should be, at best, questioned relentlessly about their priorities.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Biggest Obstacle to HSR in California

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

For most people looking at California's high speed rail project, the biggest obstacle to its completion would seem to be financial. Prop 1A has put $9 billion on the table to get the project started. We can expect $3 to $4 billion from the federal HSR stimulus. The cost of the first route, SF to LA and Anaheim, is likely to be around $30 billion, leaving about $17 billion left to secure. Most of that is expected to come from ongoing federal contributions, some from local governments, and some from private investors.

And yet, as Robert Goodspeed points out, that may not actually be the main problem facing HSR in California. Instead, he argues, it is a land use planning process that is unable to deliver these kinds of projects quickly and affordably:

Ironically, the California system is demonstrating the biggest problems for high speed rail in the U.S. may not be our lack of technical knowledge but our troubled infrastructure planning and delivery system. Disputes about alignments in California have already spawned lawsuits. Maybe beyond ogling their trains, we should study how our foreign counterparts resolve conflicts about system design. In one case study I read about planning a TGV line in France, the government convened a "debate" bringing together the stakeholders before choosing an alignment or other technical details. In the U.S. on the other hand, government agencies act both as project designers and boosters, relegating other stakeholders to reactionary roles as outsiders who rely on lawsuits to pursue their interests. In addition, our government agencies are also lacking in competent planners and administrators who specialize in rail. In the end, dysfunctional planning processes and weak planning capacity may result in avoidable cost overruns. Overcoming these obstacles may prove even more challenging than finding the historically elusive political will.

Goodspeed's analysis of how other stakeholders wind up being placed in "reactionary roles as outsiders" is quite insightful. Then again, that is precisely how planning in California is intended to be. CEQA is set up on the theory that government construction projects are bad, are threatening, and that stakeholders are already in a reactionary, even adversarial position. CEQA was written with a 1970s logic, reacting to a 1960s California Department of Highways that really did behave as a giant bulldozer not giving a crap about what anyone else in the state thought of its route choices, neighborhood impacts, or environmental consequences.

CEQA wasn't designed to promote smart, sustainable growth. It was written to enable people like Gary Patton to have legal recourse to stop projects they don't like, no matter the reason. The mentality is one that assumes the status quo is just fine, that the cost of doing nothing is actually zero - if a project isn't built, no problem, we didn't really need it anyway.

California's planning process should not be a tool for NIMBYs to stop projects they dislike. It should be a vehicle for public involvement in a project development, and to ensure that a project does not cause damage to the environment. CEQA currently fails to meet these objectives.

I'm not the only one making this point. SPUR, the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, came to the same conclusion. In a 2006 report titled Fixing the California Environmental Quality Act they argued that CEQA has failed to meet its objectives, has actually made environmental problems worse, and that it should be replaced in urban and suburban settings with a statewide planning process along the successful path blazed by states like Oregon and Washington:

In the absence of strong statewide planning and in the presence of weak local planning, stopping projects is what California does best. CEQA has become the tool of choice for stopping bad ones and good ones. SPUR has reviewed CEQA from the standpoint of sound planning and environmental quality. We contend that after the law’s 30-plus years of operation, the type and pattern of developments, viewed at citywide, regional, and state scales, are environmentally worse than before. Not all of this can be blamed on CEQA; it has improved individual project design in some cases. Yet viewed broadly, CEQA has contributed to sprawl and worsened the housing shortage by inhibiting dense infill development far more than local planning and zoning would have done alone. To re-form California, we must first reform CEQA....

Our neighbors to the north provide a dramatic model for change. At almost the same moment that California turned to environmental impact reports to protect its environment, Oregon turned to a strengthened planning program, requiring effective local plans and zoning by all jurisdictions. Oregon has protected and greatly improved its natural environment without review of individual projects, but with sound intergovernmental planning. The recent property-rights crusade that passed compensatory zoning at the Oregon ballot box does not lessen the fact that the Oregon environment remains one of the most pristine in the country.

High speed rail should be assessed and planned in a statewide context. Instead, it is assessed in a town-by-town setting, totally divorced from statewide concerns, and even from local urban plans. As a result, sprawl has accelerated over the 40 years since CEQA's adoption, and it has become progressively more difficult to build sustainable infill projects, whether it is housing or mass transit, as the CEQA process empowers people to stop something they dislike, even when doing so causes significant environmental damage.

The alternative to CEQA reform is that more and more projects will simply be exempted by the state legislature from CEQA review. In fact, back in 1982, once and future governor Jerry Brown signed into a law a high speed train bill exempting the project from CEQA review. (The project eventually fell apart in 1983 for various reasons.) More recently, the landmark state planning law SB 375 signed by Arnold Schwarzenegger last year provides CEQA exemptions for certain kinds of infill urban housing projects that meet the AB 32 global warming guidelines.

Using the legislature to provide the occasional CEQA exemption isn't good planning. But it's what happens when the CEQA process is no longer functional. Rather than exempting HSR from CEQA - which, to be very clear, I am not advocating at this time, we should adopt the successful urban planning models used in states like Washington and Oregon that provide for regional and statewide planning processes that still give the public a chance to weigh in, still protect the environment, but don't come at the cost of prolonging a reckless dependence on sprawl and oil. Already the CHSRA is exploring a statewide planning effort, although it is not intended to supplant CEQA.

Of course, even if we did this, not everyone would buy into it. Those who still adhere to the 1970s "government is bad! there's no downside to killing projects!" attitudes will try and undermine a more sensible planning process in service of their own parochial ends. In fact, they're already doing it, as shown by this John Horgan column:

Belatedly, some citizens are raising alarms. It may be too late. The High-Speed Rail Authority has its own agenda, its own priorities, its own budgetary issues — and a great deal of power.

Input from county residents is being collected at countless public gatherings by the vast public relations armada on the authority's payroll. The panel's latest tactic is something called "context sensitive solutions."

Unsurprisingly, this actually reveals the depth of Horgan's ignorance. CSS wasn't something the CHSRA decided all on its own to use. It was pushed onto CHSRA by the very citizens Horgan claims to be speaking for, who demanded CSS be used on the Peninsula.

I'm still not convinced that the broken planning process is the "biggest obstacle" to HSR in California. I still believe the biggest obstacle is actually the unwillingness of the remaining beneficiaries of the 20th century model of economic prosperity and land use to accept any change in that model, regardless of the consequences. The opposition to properly funding HSR, and the breaking of the CEQA process, are both symptoms of that deeper problem.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Spoiling the Bunch

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

One thing that's become clear since the passage of Prop 1A one year ago is that the project's opponents have learned from their defeat. Instead of launching a frontal assault on the concept of high speed rail, which a clear majority of Californians support, they've decided to focus on generating local opposition along the route in an effort to abuse the CEQA process to undermine the project. It's a Gulliver strategy - tie the giant down with dozens of little but potent attacks across the state and maybe, just maybe, you can kill it outright.

Much of this effort has involved a truly stunning amount of disinformation on the part of the HSR opponents. They have learned well how to use what Stephen Colbert aptly described as "truthiness" - where people see something as true because they "feel" it to be true, because a statement comports with their own inherent biases, even though it lacks basis in evidence.

Truthiness has been rampant on the Peninsula. HSR opponents like Martin Engel have been effective purveyors of misinformation, such as the idea that HSR would be some sort of "Berlin Wall" along the Peninsula (it won't), or that it will require mass demolition of housing along the Caltrain corridor (it won't), or that the CHSRA is determined to destroy communities (it isn't). Of course, it doesn't matter that there are no facts behind these claims, because to NIMBYs, these claims "feel" true. Anything that is perceived to alter the aesthetics of their community is seen as a threat. And Engel is very adept at playing on those sentiments.

One major element of their strategy is to paint the HSR project as some sort of Death Star aimed at the Peninsula, and to paint Quentin Kopp and Rod Diridon as the Emperor and Darth Vader. Both men have a long history on the Peninsula, and have been involved in their share of controversial projects, so in them Engel has found an easy target. If he can find ways to paint them as mean, out of touch, and unwilling to listen to public input, then he and other HSR opponents will have delegitimized the CHSRA and the HSR project. And that helps them gain ground in the local battles, where most residents want HSR but also want it to be built the right way. Engel doesn't want it built at all, so anything he can do to discredit the CHSRA helps pull more people away from the "sensible compromise" camp and into the "kill it!" camp.

That's the background to the latest controversy manufactured by Engel. At last week's CHSRA board meeting, Rod Diridon said he hoped Ogilvy, the CHSRA's new communications contractor, would do a better job fighting the widespread misinformation on the Peninsula. Engel decided to turn this valid criticism of both the Peninsula opponents and of the CHSRA's public outreach into something else entirely, as explained in the Palo Alto Daily Post:

[Diridon said:]"Misinformation is causing serious media relations problems in the mid-Peninsula -- Atherton, Menlo Park, Palo Alto area especially. That misinformation coming
sometimes from inadvertently our own staff. But then again, it's being presented by opponents, blatantly providing false information to the media and then having no correction. No information being provided that would counter that misinformation and I think you related to that earlier.

Robert here: There is no doubt this is a true statement. Project opponents have been spreading lies and the media has fallen for it. This is a potent attack on the NIMBYs, which is why Engel wants to undermine it. Back to Diridon:

"So would you relate to those two examples, not those two specific cases but those examples as kind of in-the-weeds detail that you really need to be on immediately, so that it doesn't, the kind of thing are like a sore that festers, or the rotten apple in the barrel, if you would like to use another example. And you got to get that apple out of the barrel immediately and please figure out a way and let us know at some time in the future and call us individually or give us a report on how you would be creating kind of flying squads of emergency response to nip those problems in the bud.

"You want to avoid them if you can but if you can't avoid them you need to have a way of countering them immediately so that, misinformation isn't allowed to float around, it's corrected. So please consider that as early tasks."

Makes sense, right? Diridon here is merely explaining what has already happened on the Peninsula. One could use any number of other metaphors here - "poisoned the well," "spread like a cancer," anything to illustrate the point that the lies and distortions peddled by Martin Engel and others have spread on the Peninsula and threaten the project. It makes sense for Ogilvy to figure out how to respond to that misinformation. Nowhere in Diridon's statement did he say he wants to attack individuals - just the untruths they have spread.

Of course, Engel decided to continue making stuff up, and used this statement as his way to try and defuse the effort to counter the lies. In a move reminiscent of Sarah Palin's claim about "death panels," Engel spun this as Diridon having attacked himself:

When Diridon told an Ogilvy representative "you got to get the apple out of the barrel immediately," Engel interpreted that as an assignment for Ogilvy to silence high-speed rail dissidents.

Engel said, "Here is Diridon basically saying, 'Take car of these people. Their information needs to be corrected with our information. We need to shut them up because they are a pain.'"

There is no way you can draw the conclusion Engel did from Diridon's quote - unless you place truthiness about actual truth. The quote was very clear: Diridon was referring to the lies, not the people who tell them. Diridon explained as much to the Daily Post reporter:

"What I referred to was that one piece of misinformation will be repeated and repeated and therefore cause a lot of confusion," said Diridon, a former Santa Clara County Supervisor who now sits on the rail authority's board of directors.

But that truth doesn't matter to Engel, who went further in his baseless claims:

Engel said, "Everything they put out is misinformation. That is what's so ironic about this."

"Everything" is misinformation? Ridiculous. What you see here is that Engel is engaged in a classic case of projection, where you take a criticism of oneself and deflect it onto the person making the criticism. And Engel does this for the purposes I laid out at the beginning of this post - to convince the "silent majority" on the Peninsula that CHSRA and its board members are somehow engaged in bad faith and are making mean statements about nice people.

If Engel was confident that he had a solid case against HSR based on the facts alone, he would feel no need to resort to these kinds of manufactured controversies, deliberate misinterpretations of statements, and continued spreading of misinformation. We who support HSR do so on its merits, and we have no hesitation making an honest and factual case for its construction. I suppose that's our weakness, since we aren't willing to embrace truthiness the way HSR opponents will.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

New Pro-HSR Group Forms on Peninsula

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

As reported in the SF Business Times on Friday (subscription req'd for whole article) a new pro-HSR group has been formed on the Peninsula. The Alliance for Sustainable Transit and Jobs is comprised of some of the Bay Area's heaviest hitters, including representatives of the largest businesses in the region. They don't yet have a website, but that doesn't really matter right now; these groups have already been very active behind the scenes in lobbying for high speed rail, and their coming together as a formal organization portends much greater public visibility. From the article:

Countering critics of high-speed rail along the Peninsula, business and labor groups have banded together to support the approximately $8 billion section between San Francisco and San Jose.

The Alliance for Sustainable Transit and Jobs “was formed in response to recent community outbursts regarding the high-speed rail route through the Peninsula cities and the forthcoming lawsuits, political posturing and other blocking maneuvers,” according to a flyer promoting the group, which will be based in the Belmont offices of the San Mateo County Economic Development Association.

In addition to SAMCEDA, business groups in the alliance include the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, Bay Area Council, Silicon Valley Leadership Group and the chambers in San Mateo and Redwood City. Labor groups in San Francisco, Santa Clara County and San Mateo County are members.

“We’re coming from the point of view of what (high-speed rail) might bring to the Peninsula” in terms of jobs and other economic boosts, said Rosanne Foust, a SAMCEDA vice president and Redwood City mayor.

The Bay Area Council is of particular importance here. 60 years ago they came together to promote regional mobility in the wake of the transportation crisis the World War II boom created; out of their early proposals came the system we know as BART. While they didn't design the system itself, they helped get it launched and built, and look to do the same with HSR. Their member list reads like a who's who of Bay Area businesses, including companies like Chevron and Google; their executive committee includes representatives from Wells Fargo, Clorox, Bank of America, even Janet Yellin, president of the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank. Similarly, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group includes similar (and even some of the same) companies, as does the SF Chamber of Commerce. Clearly, this is a serious effort to promote high speed rail and counter the distortions and NIMBY attacks on HSR on the Peninsula.

Of course, it's not the case that just because a bunch of large corporations say HSR is a good thing, we should just do as they say. In this case, though, the interests of the Bay Area's largest employers match those of working people and families living in the Bay Area and on the Peninsula, clear majorities of whom showed their own support for HSR by voting for Prop 1A last fall.

Having talked with some BAC staff about HSR, they made it clear that for their member companies, sustainable transportation is a very high priority. California is in a severe economic crisis, part of a global recession. When the global economy recovers, multinational corporations will look for places to invest. And it won't necessarily be California, especially if we are burdened with a transportation system that gets gridlocked during times of growth and is dependent on oil, a commodity whose costs are definitely going rise. Those companies want to invest in the Bay Area, but are saying that high speed rail needs to be part of the equation, part of the recovery, if they are going to make long-term plans for the region.

Again, there's nothing to say that the Bay Area should do something just because their largest employers recommend it. But that does place the burden on HSR deniers and NIMBYs to explain to people - especially people on the Peninsula, many of whom depend on the companies represented by the organizations that have formed this new pro-HSR group - where jobs and economic growth are going to come from without high speed trains. The answer is likely to be an assumption that the conditions of the late 20th century will just somehow magically continue indefinitely into the future, and that answer will likely not mention that the current economic crisis was caused by an overreliance on late 20th century sources of growth (sprawl, oil, finance capitalism).

Most Peninsula NIMBYs are those who were the "winners" of the late 20th century economy, those who own property near the tracks and prefer to maintain that asset value at the expense of the economic prosperity of others. Presumably they don't think they have any need of HSR, such is their economic security, but since HSR might possibly in some alternate universe threaten their property values, they're going to fight it tooth and nail. Even if that causes long-term economic distress for the region.

Even those who might not want California's 21st century economy to be dominated by a handful of large corporations can find value in high speed rail. HSR will create a green dividend that makes capital available for new entrepreneurial ventures by reducing spending on oil-based transportation. The hundreds of thousands of jobs HSR will create will produce more buyers of local businesses' products, more tax money for local governments to improve quality of life, and the trains themselves will enable Peninsula residents to have a broader spectrum of job opportunities and mobility that a 21st century economy requires.

In short, HSR offers opportunities for businesses big and small, for workers young and old, for cities along the tracks and those that aren't. The Alliance for Sustainable Transit and Jobs, along with truly grassroots groups like Californians for High Speed Rail, will help give voice to those on the Peninsula who so far have been drowned out or ignored by the loud but few NIMBYs.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Does Russell Peterson Know What He's Doing?

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

In response to a recent Wired Magazine article that declared "NIMBYs won't be able to stop California HSR," one of the more prominent Peninsula NIMBYs, Russell Peterson, decided to not go gently into that dark night. He wrote an email in reply to the article that was itself posted on the Wired site this week. It's a remarkable piece of cognitive dissonance - Peterson is suing to demand that Union Pacific's rights to the Caltrain ROW be recognized as giving UPRR a veto, while at the same time calling for a tunnel to be built on the corridor. The problem with a tunnel, of course, is that it makes it difficult - not impossible, but difficult - for UPRR to continue freight service on the route.

To be clear, the lawsuit (.pdf) is the least intrusive legal action one can take. It is called “declaratory relief” and simply asks for a legal interpretation of the existing contractual rights of Union Pacific. Union Pacific did sell the right of way to the Peninsula joint powers board, but it retained permanent rights. One of those rights, exclusive development of intercity rail, and the exclusion of high-speed rail development on a portion of its right of way makes the situation unclear. And Union Pacific has written letters (.pdf), in May 2008, to the California High-Speed Rail [Authority] stating it will not allow high-speed rail on certain sections of the right of way it owns outright. To imply otherwise is a factual error and a misleading statement in the article.

The problem is that Peterson is overstating his case. Caltrain has argued that the 1991 purchase agreement gives it, and not UPRR, ultimate power, that Peterson is reading the agreement wrong, that there's no conflict and that they have a "cordial relationship" with UPRR. Clem took a look at this over at his blog in August. The key section in the agreement appears to be section 8.3:

8.3.(c) In the event that Owner demonstrates a reasonably certain need to commence construction on all or substantially all the length of the Joint Facilities (including User's Cahill/Lick Line) of a transportation system that is a significant change in the method of delivery of Commuter Service which would be incompatible with Freight Service on the Joint Facilities (other than User's Cahill/Lick Line), Owner may, at its sole cost and expense, file no sooner than nine months prior to the commencement of such construction for permission from the ICC to abandon the Freight Service over the portion of the Join Facilities (excluding User's Cahill/Lick Line) upon which the construction is to occur. User shall not object to or oppose such a filing; however, it shall be allowed to participate in the abandonment proceedings.

Of course, Caltrain and CHSRA have shown no desire to kick UPRR off the corridor. Much to the contrary - they are already in discussions with each other about accommodating existing freight rail service.

And that is going to be difficult to do with a tunnel. The tunnel would have to be high enough to allow overhead wires to give clearance room for double-stacked container cars, and would have to have adequate ventilation for diesel locomotives, since it is extremely unlikely that UPRR will use electric power for this route alone.

That would undermine Peterson's stated support for a tunnel:

Likewise, Caltrain rail experts told a civic audience on Oct. 3 that a tunnel is not even twice as expensive as current plans for elevated rail. Given that environmental and other required mitigation costs add significant expense to the elevated option, the tunneling proposal offers interesting development opportunities along the route. Besides these opportunities it seems odd to promote 21st-century high-speed rail and then proceed to plan a 1950s- and 1960s-style elevated structure. The not-so-subtle inference that opponents are NIMBY is simplistic. Boston’s “Big Dig” buried a major freeway, the Loma Prieta earthquake took out the Cypress Freeway (now a park with renewed neighborhoods, etc.) and the Embarcadero Freeway (which led to renewal of the Ferry Building and surrounding area), and Berkeley buried its rail (and only paid a 10 percent premium vs. above grade). All of these projects brought both transportation and civic value to their respective areas. Why community involvement/engagement is so readily marginalized is puzzling to me with such clear examples of revitalized communities.

This is basically an incoherent grab bag of claims. First, the elevated structure would not be "1950s- and 1960s-style," there are 21st century methods of building elevated structures in ways that fit well with the surrounding community. San Carlos hasn't exactly been destroyed by its elevated segment. The Big Dig isn't exactly an argument in his favor, and neither the Mandela Parkway nor the Embarcadero replacement projects were tunnels. Finally, Berkeley paid the extra costs of what was mostly a cut-and-cover project by taxing itself to do so. Unless Peterson believes that the mid-Peninsula cities plan to tax themselves to pay for a tunnel, then he'll be looking to the sale of air rights - a sale that won't be possible if UPRR preserves its freight service rights on the existing at-grade ROW.

Peterson's letter continues in this scattershot vein:

The implication of the story is that this project is coming, like it or not. This may be a correct conclusion based on politics and political connections but Zach makes no arguments for it. Eventually he admits opponents rightfully have concerns, then dismisses those concerns. Caltrain recently issued a letter describing the ill effects of raising a source of noise (train horns) 14 feet in the air and how it is working to correct the problem. Well, elevating the whole train to 15 feet and increasing the speed would create more noise — thus Caltrain even agrees. The environmental impact report is deficient — has anyone explored the idea that people expected environmental laws be followed when they voted “for” this project?

Of course, "this project is coming" is based on the fact that the people of California voted for it and expect the HSR project to be built, and not held up or have its costs driven up by NIMBYism. Peterson claims NIMBYs just have "concerns" and want "oversight," but they've never really shown any support for the concept of high speed rail. Instead they prefer to undermine HSR's effectiveness or even its very existence to suit their own needs, believing that their priorities are more important than those of the state as a whole.

As to train noise, this is a complex matter. But one aspect of it is quite simple: on an elevated structure, there will be no more horns, period. Further studies will demonstrate the difference between those horns and the noise made by passing electric trains, which would not be running at full speed along the Peninsula anyway.

If Peterson's goal was to show the world that Peninsula NIMBYs are a principled group of people just trying to help HSR get better, he has completely failed. Instead he has revealed Peninsula NIMBYism for what it truly is: an incoherent collection of arguments held together by a desire to place their own personal vision of urban aesthetics above the vision, the needs, and the stated preferences of millions of their fellow Californians.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Friday Open Thread

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Some California high speed rail items to keep you occupied and engaged as we approach the weekend. Apologies for not being able to offer a more in-depth post, but after that wild storm came through this week, the beautiful weather here in Monterey calls me outside.

  • The Caltrain/California High Speed Rail Authority’s Policymaker Working Group met last night to get their work off the ground in providing advisement to Caltrain and the CHSRA about the rail improvement project. As Gina Papan's comments showed, not only is misinformation widespread, but there's a disturbing willingness of elected officials to believe whatever they hear from constituents.

  • Merced Mayor Ellie Wooten and Merced County Supervisor John Pedrozo published a pro-HSR op-ed in the Merced Sun-Star today. It offers some very good restatements of the basic case for HSR, from jobs to the environment, but the main reason for their op-ed is to reiterate their case for building the maintenance hub at Castle Airport.

  • A recent HSR scoping meeting in Escondido showed that NIMBYism can be found virtually anywhere in the state. Although most attendees supported the project, one whiner claimed "I'm going to fight it" because he's convinced the noise will lower his home values. Someone living in Escondido, which currently lacks a direct link to either the LA metro region or to the job centers in San Diego, should think twice about leaving their city's fate in the hands of oil and freeways. (Yes, Escondido has a rail link to downtown SD via the Sprinter and the Coaster, but it is indirect, requiring a transfer at Oceanside.)

  • Over at the Transport Politic, Yonah Freemark criticizes the FRA's preliminary rail plan that avoids pissing anyone off (a classic trait of the Obama Administration) and therefore doesn't actually offer any specific recommendations about how to develop a national rail program.

Enjoy your weekend, everyone.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

New Animations of Peninsula Corridor

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A new video animation of possible HSR implementations through Palo Alto has been circulating, and a link was posted to it in the comments on yesterday's post. I thought it worth posting, as it looks quite a lot better than anything else we've seen:

That being said, I cannot imagine that the depictions of the above-grade solutions, whether the viaduct or the retained fill, will please the Peninsula NIMBYs. As Clem noted in the comments to yesterday's post, we have to unpack the term "barrier":

As a San Carlos resident, I can't agree with this at all--unless you meant a visual barrier. Visual barriers don't prevent you getting from point A to point B, which is what a physical barrier does (like the tracks in Palo Alto).

San Carlos = high visual, low physical barrier

Palo Alto = low visual, high physical barrier

The whole "division," "barrier," and "Berlin Wall" debate needs to be separated into physical and visual components before it starts to make any sense. Conflating the two is confusing and is often used to scaremongering advantage.

All of the solutions depicted in this video would create a low physical barrier. As we saw over the weekend in Palo Alto, residents also want a low visual barrier in the form of a tunnel, but it is very, very uncertain whether this is financially possible.

Further, there is a third kind of barrier that must be considered - a "mental geography" barrier. Californians have been trained to see above-grade structures as creating spatial divisions and separations within communities, between neighborhoods. An above-ground high visual barrier is usually seen as a something that causes separation and division - which is why the totally ridiculous term "Berlin Wall" used by NIMBYs to describe the above-ground solutions is able to gain any currency at all on the Peninsula. Those barriers are often permeable and people learn to adapt to them, just as Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Atherton have apparently maintained a high quality of life with the much more obtrusive physical barrier of at-grade tracks. But these images are likely to reinforce the perception of an above-ground solution as an undesirable barrier, no matter how positive the effects are likely to be.

I don't know who produced this video, and that would be a rather important matter, especially in determining whether the depiction of the above-ground solutions are fair and realistic or not.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Has Palo Alto Turned The Corner?

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Over the weekend Palo Alto hosted an HSR design workshop that included working groups focused on a number of different neighborhoods in Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Atherton. I wasn't able to attend owing to last-minute work commitments. But judging by the reports, it was an extremely productive event where residents came up with their preferred plans - and even explored ways to pay for them.

If you were there, by all means, post your thoughts in the comments. For now, I'm going to have to rely on the local press. Sue Dremann at Palo Alto Online had a good overview:

The two-day workshop, sponsored by the Peninsula Cities Consortium, brought together residents, city and Caltrain officials, architects, and experts in transportation, geology, tunneling, historic resources, finance and public art to discuss the visionary futures for the rail corridor.

The consensus was for undergrounded tracks with parks, community gardens, a bicycle boulevard, green spaces, shops and streets to connect neighborhoods now divided by the at-grade and elevated tracks....

Most groups said tunneling the trains seemed the best alternatve -- but they recognized the complexity and cost. The groups considered boring deep beneath creeks and avoiding damage to El Palo Alto, the city's iconic redwood.

Dremann's article goes into some detail on the various neighborhood proposals, but I want to focus on the bigger picture. Assuming this is an accurate reflection of the event, I am extremely pleased to hear this. I've always been open to a tunnel - the question is instead the cost, and according to Dremann, the locals fully understand it:

Some groups suggested the project could be funded by a one-percent sales tax hike, as was done in Berkeley when Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) was built. Others suggested a voter-approved 30-year property-tax fee could cover costs.

Both funding models are sensible, since they rightly recognize that they will have to pay for a tunnel themselves. If these cities can muster the public support to approve such a tax, and if they can show it will pay for the costs of the tunnel, then I'll be one of the biggest supporters of such a plan.

Funding an underground solution is not likely to be a simple matter. Gennady Sheyner's Palo Alto Online article makes that pretty clear:

But speakers at Sunday's workshop also acknowledged a major obstacle standing between them and their idealistic vision: the high cost of creating underground tunnels. While rail officials don't expect to have a cost estimate for the project for another year, they have estimated the cost of boring tunnels to be about 6.5 times as much as building at grade.

The cost of building underground tunnels is also expected to be beyond the rail authority's $4.2 billion budget for the Peninsula segment.

Glenn Isaacson, principal at Conversion Management Association, said cities would have a hard time funding a tunnel, but offered several ways in which it could be done. Aside from passing bond measures or enacting special taxes, cities could sell land currently occupied by the Caltrain right-of-way and use the proceeds to pay for the tunnels, he said.

Workshop participants have also singled out a downtown stretch between El Camino Real and Alma Street as a possible site for dense, revenue-generating developments, including multi-story condominiums. But Isaacson warned that the project would still likely require significant additional funding from the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

"I'd urge you to watch your pennies in the cost of what you select," Isaacson advised the audience. "You'll have a hard time covering 100 percent of the gap."

My guess is they'll have to do all of the above - property assessments, passing a bond, and selling air rights - to fund an underground solution. One possible solution is for the CHSRA to lay out the cost of an above-grade solution (some of these articles mention an "at-grade" implementation as a possibility, which it is not) and then tell the locals that if they want to go above and beyond by building a tunnel, they have to pay for those added costs.

If you want to get public support for paying those costs locally, you have to sell not the process, nor the technical solution, but you have to sell a vision. A vision of a better Peninsula. And that too is something that the locals understand:

California's high-speed-rail project could offer Palo Alto and its neighboring cities a rare opportunity to revitalize their downtown districts, transform old train tracks into leafy gateways and bring neighborhoods closer together, a group of leading urban designers and architects said at a Sunday workshop....

Judith Wasserman, a member of Palo Alto's Architectural Review Board, gave the plan a special name: "Together Again for the First Time." Wasserman said an underground system could offer the city a long-awaited chance to connect its neighborhoods.

"The town has always been divided by the train," Wasserman said. "We've never had good cross-town connection. This is an opportunity we'll never have again."

Of course, Wasserman has it backwards; the train was there before the town. But that shouldn't take away from what is a very reasonable and supportable vision for how HSR can enhance and improve the local community.

That all being said, there are two huge, related caveats that we all need to keep in mind before we pronounce the corner being turned on the Peninsula HSR debate.

The first is the above-grade solution. It makes sense for everyone involved to have the community do work on determining how to implement an above-grade four-track solution in a way neighbors can live with. Neither Caltrain, the CHSRA, nor the Peninsula cities can afford to pin their hopes on getting voter approval for a tax increase to build a tunnel. Such work may have been done this weekend and just didn't make its way into the reports, but it is vital that the design workshops include an emphasis on planning above-grade solutions.

The second is freight rail. As we saw at the Palo Alto teach-in last month, the Peninsula Freight Rail Users Group is adamant that freight rail continue to operate much as it does today, and Union Pacific has its trackage rights that have to be considered as well. It's theoretically possible to design a tunnel that could accommodate freight rail, but the design for that is very, very different from tunnels for passenger trains alone. Since many of the proposals for tunneling in Palo Alto and neighboring cities revolve around using the at-grade land for purposes other than a railroad, that means they're going to have to build a tunnel big enough to possibly accommodate 4 tracks and high enough to accommodate today's containerized double-stacked freight consists.

I don't know if that all was discussed at the workshop. But it should have been, and it needs to be discussed going forward. Otherwise what was a very productive and valuable planning workshop may not actually be as effective as it ought to be.

Monday, September 21, 2009

CHSRA Staff Recommendation for Phase 2 Stimulus Funding

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California High Speed Rail Authority staff have released their recommendations for funding applications for the Phase 2 of the federal stimulus this fall. They focus on "design/build" in four corridors:

1. San Francisco to San José ($1.28 billion)

2. Merced to Fresno ($466 million)

3. Fresno to Bakersfield ($819 million)

4. Los Angeles to Anaheim ($2 billion)

The application also includes funding for preliminary work in all the corridors of the planned HSR route, including the Sacramento and San Diego extensions.

The four "design/build" corridors would enable actual construction of trackage to commence, though to varying levels of completion. Only the Caltrain corridor would include full electrification, and there it would also include Positive Train Control (PTC), along with the San Bruno curve and other "high-priority" grade separations. Merced to Fresno and Fresno to Bakersfield would see tracks built, but no electrification or PTC. (Merced to Fresno is to be along the UPRR/CA-99 corridor, which is obviously going to be an issue; Fresno to Bakersfield is via BNSF corridor.) LA to Anaheim would be everything except electrification (including PTC).

Given the limited possibilities of the way the stimulus is written, this is a pretty sensible approach. Getting PTC and electrification on the Caltrain corridor is an extremely high priority both for Caltrain's survival and for getting HSR seeded on the Peninsula. The trackwork in the Valley will help enable the test track, and getting LA to Anaheim mostly built means it won't take much to get genuine HSR up and running in an extremely high-profile corridor.

Notice that the Merced-Bakersfield piece has been defined as two segments. CHSRA staff are recommending that both segments be pursued in the stimulus funding application. But the possibility that only one of the two could get funded is generating some unease in the San Joaquin Valley:

On Tuesday the Tulare County Board of Supervisors will vote to intervene in contention centered on a potential high speed rail line in the San Joaquin Valley.

The supervisors will take a stand on whether or not a segment of rail should stretch from Bakersfield to Merced, or only to the halfway point in Fresno.

Federal money to design and build the rail is now available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, however some have suggested that only one of the segments should be submitted to the Federal Rail Administration for funding.

The California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley has suggested that valley officials advocate for the entire system, as voters approved a statewide high speed rail system with the passage of Proposition 1A in 2008.

A decision on how the far the rail should extend, and to what counties, is expected to be made Sept. 23 at a special meeting held by the San Joaquin Valley Policy Council.

As you can see by the staff recommendation, CHSRA is committing itself to funding BOTH segments of the Valley corridor. But that may not be enough for key players in the Valley, who want to ensure that HSR isn't built in pieces.

Overall I think this is a sound approach to the federal stimulus, given the limitations of the ARRA law. The only concern I have is that there's nothing for the construction of the mountainous segments through the Pacheco and Tehachapi Passes, but there's probably no way those plans can be "shovel ready" by September 2012, as ARRA requires.

Have at it in the comments.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Judge: No Halt to HSR Planning

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After ruling in Atherton v. CHSRA that the CHSRA needs to address the issue of the Union Pacific right of way between San Jose and Gilroy, Judge Michael Kenny was much less clear about what happens next. Into that vacuum stepped many of the anti-HSR folks to claim that the CHSRA was going to have to stop their work and do a new EIR.

Today we learn that while the ultimate remedy is still unclear, CHSRA is not barred from continuing its project level studies, and that an October 9 hearing has been scheduled by Judge Kenny to decide the matter of how to "correct the programmatic analysis," in the words of this CHSRA press release issued today:

CHSRA 9.14.09 Court Action FINAL

The release also notes that application for federal stimulus for this portion of the route remains active.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Thoughts on the Palo Alto Teach-In

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Yesterday's "teach-in" hosted by the Peninsula Cities Consortium in Palo Alto was a rather interesting - and useful - event. I had to leave right after lunch, so my comments are only going to be focused on the two opening speeches and the first panel. I hope and expect folks will offer their own review of the day, including the afternoon "open space" session, down in the comments.

My comments are divided in two segments: first, some thoughts on the specific presentations and panels I saw, and then an assessment of where things stand on the Peninsula.

Yoriko Kishimoto, Palo Alto city councilmember and one of the lead organizers of the "teach-in," helped put together a very good meeting and should be credited for helping make it happen. In her opening remarks she said that the day's events were to proceed from the assumption that HSR was going to happen on the Peninsula, and the best thing to do was to come together to determine how best it should be implemented.

The first speaker was Gary Patton, former Santa Cruz County supervisor and counsel to the Planning and Conservation League. He proceeded to almost completely blow Kishimoto's constructive opening statement out of the water with an exhortation to the audience to ignore the will of the voters in passing Prop 1A. Patton's argument is that any project can be stopped. He isn't wrong about that, but the idea that we should reject the voters' will runs counter to his calls for democracy and engagement with the planning process.

Patton claimed that voters didn't approve "high speed rail" but merely authorized $10 billion in bonds. Which flies in the face of the fact that Californians voted for that money precisely because they liked the idea of a high speed train following the route the CHSRA laid out. Patton's assumption is that if Palo Alto residents don't want the train, they can organize and pressure their legislators to stop it. But that doesn't deal with the fact that anti-HSR folks aren't the only ones engaged in the public, democratic process, or that 6 million Californians voted to support that train and probably aren't going to be moved by the complaints of a few.

After trying to redefine what voters did last November, Patton went on to repeat virtually every single HSR denier claim, including attacks on ridership projections, cost overruns, and even repeating the "Berlin Wall" claim. Patton even went so far as to compare HSR to offshore drilling.

Patton seems to be of the school that contends any new development that might induce growth is bad and therefore must be stopped. He claimed that Santa Cruz County's changing growth patterns were somehow a success to be emulated, and even cited his role in defeating a Rod Diridon-supported train from San Jose to Santa Cruz. But those aren't exactly arguments in his favor. Instead of allowing more density in Santa Cruz, which suffers from a severe housing shortage and sky-high prices, development was channeled to Watsonville instead. As a result, Santa Cruz County is almost impossible to get around as Highway 1 is hopelessly jammed. The county is desperately trying to get passenger rail service up and running to deal with the transportation crisis. Patton's model for Santa Cruz County has been a failure for everyone except those who have owned homes in Santa Cruz and still have enough work or income or wealth to survive the downturn and the traffic-choked, unaffordable mess Santa Cruz County has become.

No coincidence then that Patton was in Palo Alto bringing the same message to locals. Patton seems to believe that an eternal 1970s can and should be maintained. But what of the consequences? What of global warming? Economic growth? Mass transportation? The future of Caltrain? None of these were mentioned by Patton.

He also mentioned the Atherton v. CHSRA lawsuit and decision, but wasn't honest with the audience about it. He didn't mention the fact that the judge upheld every aspect of the Pacheco choice, and the only thing about the EIR not upheld was the Union Pacific ROW issue between San José and Gilroy, an issue that would exist along the Altamont alignment as well.

Patton's presence, along with Richard Tolmach's presentation later in the morning, undermined Kishimoto's goal of working within the framework of assuming HSR on the Peninsula would happen. Both Patton and Tolmach clearly have not accepted the decision of the voters to build this train, both want to undermine the basic elements of the project, and both prefer to fight HSR itself rather than find the right way to build it on the Peninsula.

I understand the desire of the event planners to have all views represented. But if the goal is to figure out how to build HSR on the Peninsula in a way that residents can live with, having people like Patton and Tolmach arguing against HSR itself is not useful to achieving that goal.

After Patton came Bob Doty, who was a breath of fresh air - not just for the room but for the Caltrain/HSR project itself. He fundamentally understands what needs to be done and how to achieve it. He recognizes that the whole country is watching California HSR. If we get it right, and build it right, we're going to make HSR possible around the country. But if we screw it up, and can't get it built, it's hard to see how HSR is going to get very far elsewhere in the country.

Doty once again showed he is the right person to speak to the Peninsula on this project. He gives clear and direct answers to questions, even when the answer is "I don't know." Doty explained that the best way to get this project built on-time and on-budget is to get the early planning done the right way at the outset - to invest time and money into finalizing all the details, and then sticking to that plan once it has been agreed.

Doty also earned the trust of many in the room, if not all the hardcore anti-HSR folks, when he said that BART to SFO was a "bad project" that "screwed the Peninsula." That was an important point to acknowledge, given the bad taste the project left in many mouths, and given Quentin Kopp's role in the HSR project.

Another key point Doty made, one that keeps getting overlooked on the Peninsula, is that HSR is necessary to Caltrain's survival. Caltrain needs to electrify in order to survive. That's the only way they can accommodate future ridership growth, the only way they can manage operating costs, the only way they can have financial survival with a 75% farebox recovery rate (Doty's prediction).

As the Peninsula continues to discuss the implementation of HSR, Doty is going to play a key and quite valuable role in helping shepherd this to completion in a fair and sensible way.

The morning panel was interesting and quite useful, aside from Tolmach. I wanted to single out Greg Greenway, representing the Peninsula Freight Rail Users Group, who made some important points that need to be kept in mind. Freight rail is just as much a part of our transportation future as is passenger rail. PFRUG supports HSR, but wants to make sure it protects existing freight rail capacity. Greenway mentioned three specific concerns: operating hours, height of overhead wires, and the South San Francisco yard. It is definitely essential to preserve freight rail, and Caltrain/HSR appear determined to do exactly that. Let's hope others on the Peninsula agree and don't support proposals that would limit the effectiveness of freight rail.

Now, on to the broader assessment of where things stand. I believe there are basically two conversations happening on the Peninsula: first, whether or not HSR should even happen on the Peninsula; and second, how it should be implemented.

The first conversation is going to continue no matter what, but it is not useful or productive at this point. The voters have spoken, the route has been selected, and billions of dollars have been or are about to be committed. While Gary Patton is right that none of this is irreversible, there is no reason to turn back now. HSR is good for California and good for the Peninsula. Caltrain cannot survive without it. So I don't see how it does any good for folks on the Peninsula to continue debating whether or not HSR should happen.

The second conversation is very productive, useful, and necessary. I have always supported that conversation, so long as it happens within the framework that Kishimoto laid out at the meeting's outset - an assumption that HSR is going to happen on the Peninsula.

I think for that conversation to be successful, a few things need to be done. First, the public needs to be given a realistic assessment of project scope and limitations. What are some of the financial guidelines? What are some of the legal guidelines? What are some of the practical guidelines? For example, Kishimoto's statement ought to be clarified: HSR is going to happen on the Caltrain ROW. The silly and unworkable notion of building it on I-280 or US-101 needs to be abandoned. But it would also help if there was some sense, for example, of what locals are willing to offer in terms of funding in order to build a tunnel. Residents cannot assume that someone else will pay for a tunnel. Like Berkeley BART, most of that cost will have to be paid for by the locals themselves. If they want a tunnel, it is reasonable to expect them to pay for it, especially if a tunnel is more expensive than above-grade tracks.

Second, future events should probably not include folks who are pushing an anti-HSR agenda. If Palo Alto, for example, truly wants to find a workable solution to the question of how to build the Caltrain/HSR project, then there's really no point to having Gary Patton and Richard Tolmach there.

Third, the rest of the Peninsula needs to be given a greater role. As Bianca noted, Burlingame and Belmont seem to the ugly stepchildren of the Peninsula Cities Consortium - their issues and needs didn't really come up much at the part of the meeting I attended. Sure, the location of the meeting in Palo Alto probably helped explain that bias, but it speaks to a need to think of this project regionally. Residents and elected leaders in other cities are much more supportive of HSR, including Redwood City and Mountain View.

Finally, I think we need to get a better understanding of the different viewpoints out there. A lot of people on the Peninsula want HSR to happen - after all, Prop 1A did get a 67% yes vote in San Mateo County. Their views don't seem to be represented well at these kinds of meetings. There is a small number of NIMBYs who are absolutely opposed to this project, and then there's a grab bag of people in the middle, who aren't opposed to HSR but have concerns about how it will be built. That group is being influenced by the NIMBYs, who have been very effective at getting out their talking points, many of which are misstatements or just flat out lies.

The CHSRA hasn't been able to counter that, primarily due to a lack of funding. This "teach-in" would have been perfect for the summer of 2007 or even 2008. But the CHSRA was fighting for its financial life during those years, as Arnold Schwarzenegger at one point (spring 2007) proposed cutting the CHSRA's budget almost to zero. They'd asked for about $130 million, and ultimately received about $50 million, which itself got delayed by the Legislature's inability to agree to a budget. That didn't help the HSR project get off on the right foot on the Peninsula, and it enabled some mistrust and misstatements to take hold. Much of what is being done now, both on the part of the CHSRA and the locals, is making up for lost time.

And I think that yesterday's teach-in helped push that in the right direction. The NIMBYs and HSR deniers aside, I felt that there is a workable coalition for moving forward on the design process over the next 18-24 months on the Peninsula. Locals need to lay out their preferences and priorities, and project planners need to lay out their own needs, their own priorities, and most importantly, what the limitations are on this project.

If there is a genuine commitment to building HSR the right way - and I felt that many in the room shared that commitment - then this project will bring the benefits to the Peninsula, and improve the quality of life, that it ought to be producing.

I hope others who attended will give their thoughts in the comments. It was good to see you all there yesterday, to those I missed, my apologies. I wished I could have stayed all day.

Finally, thanks to Steve Emslie, Yoriko Kishimoto, Sara Anderson, Nadia Naik, and everyone else who helped make the teach-in happen. It was exactly what the Peninsula needs, and I look forward to participating in future meetings.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

CHSRA and UPRR Are Talking

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Whether it's a prelude to a grand bargain or not isn't clear, but Gary Richards is reporting in the Mercury News today that UPRR and the CHSRA have begun discussions about resolving the dispute over the ROW between San José and Gilroy:

Officials with the railroad and the California High Speed Rail Authority confirmed that they have held discussions in hopes of resolving their differences, which if not settled soon could cost the rail authority $3 billion in federal stimulus aid and state bond money, delay construction in Northern California and leave in doubt the electrification of Caltrain....

"Our position continues to be the same as what we've said in the past," Union Pacific spokesman Tom Lange said from Omaha, Neb. "The high speeds of these trains is simply not compatible in our right of way.

"We've had discussions with them, but the bottom line is that safety comes first and foremost."

There's been a lot of discussion in the comments about whether running HSR trains on tracks near the UPRR tracks, but not in their ROW, would pose a safety hazard of any sort. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't, but UPRR's position is clear, and with the recent ruling in Atherton v. CHSRA it's clear that the issue has to be revisited. So it is good to hear that UPRR and CHSRA are talking, but it is quite unclear what are the substance of the talks and whether or not there's any hope of forward momentum.

One problem is that the judge that issued the ruling in Atherton v. CHSRA, Michael Kenney, did not actually indicate what remedies the CHSRA must undertake to address the three specific problems with the EIR the judge found. Despite claims from Peninsula NIMBYs and HSR deniers like Richard Tolmach, the judge has not ruled that the entire EIR must be redone or that the judge found the choice of Pacheco Pass to connect the Bay Area to the Central Valley was flawed. And as Richards' article makes clear, time is of the essence:

Timing is critical — and that has some officials saying the railroad's stance is a negotiating ploy, partly because the line is lightly used. Currently, just 14 trains run each day between Gilroy and San Jose — six freight, six commuter and two Amtrak trains.

On Oct. 2, the rail authority plans to submit its application for federal stimulus money. It needs approval of those funds soon to meet Washington's requirement that construction be under way by 2012.

If the judge rules that the entire environmental study be revisited, "that could be the death knell for construction on the Peninsula," said high-speed board member Rod Diridon. "If it's a remedial action, we can deal with that."

The recent ruling may also delay Caltrain's long-range plans to expand commuter service by converting its diesel trains to electric. This would enable the agency to speed up service and run more trains more quickly. It is relying heavily on stimulus cash to bankroll the $785 million initiative, $516 million of which is still unfunded.

Some will surely quibble, as they have in recent comments, that this shows the flaws of Diridon's insistence on including the Peninsula corridor in the CHSRA application for federal HSR stimulus funds. Personally I think the CHSRA was right to be aggressive in pursuing these funds. But this does make clear that more than the old Altamont vs. Pacheco dispute is at stake here. Federal stimulus funds are necessary to get construction underway on the Peninsula - construction that, as Mike Scanlon pointed out Wednesday night, is vital to Caltrain's survival.

As I have repeatedly predicted, the parties to this lawsuit have decided it is acceptable to risk the future of passenger rail in the Bay Area - including the HSR project and the very existence of Caltrain - to pick a fight over what is a comparatively small matter. True supporters of HSR would have accepted the Pacheco choice, worked to ensure it was built properly and with respect to the environment, rather than use that choice to try and blow up the whole project.

Still, it is good to see that CHSRA and UPRR are trying to be sensible about this and are talking to each other about the matter. These discussions can take quite a long time - UPRR has been dragging its feet on selling the Davenport-Pajaro line to Santa Cruz County for over 5 years now.

Tough negotiations with freight companies are nothing new. Twenty years ago, it took more than two years of talks before Caltrain agreed to buy the San Jose-to-San Francisco tracks from Southern Pacific for $242.3 million. Talks between the Valley Transportation Authority and Union Pacific dragged on for four years before the VTA agreed in 2002 to pay $80 million to run the BART-to-San Jose extension down the UP corridor between Fremont and San Jose.

"We've negotiated with them on several acquisitions, and they are very difficult negotiators," VTA General Manager Michael Burns said. "They are a private company out to protect their interests.

"But I will be very surprised if at the end they don't reach an agreement."

This is why I believe a federal role is absolutely necessary to ensure these negotiations conclude quickly and fairly to all sides. Current federal law gives UPRR all the negotiating power, enabling a freight railroad whose operations often seem stuck in the middle of the 20th century to hold up the development of a modern 21st century passenger railroad network.

President Barack Obama has made high speed rail a key part of his administration's vision for America's future. But so far he seems to have emphasized HSR funding over the other key policy aspects of implementing HSR. Now I'm not going to complain that Obama wants to change 60 years of federal transportation policy and finally direct some real funds to HSR. And yet that's not going to be enough to ensure HSR happens.

While I recognize that it is not Obama's style to force or pressure anyone into doing anything, both the White House and the Congress - particularly California's two powerful US Senators - need to be examining ways to modernize US railroad policy and legislation. In particular they need to redress the balance of power between the freight railroads, which are essentially private contractors for the federal government and who owe their very existence to the federal government, and the state and local passenger rail systems that the federal government wishes to promote and expand.

The best way to accomplish this would be to have Senator Feinstein or Senator Boxer help mediate these conversations, potentially alongside the Secretary of Transportation or even Vice-President "Amtrak Joe" Biden. They can encourage UPRR and CHSRA to quickly come to an agreement that satisfies both sides, while letting UPRR know that if they do not come to a quick agreement, then perhaps it would be time to change federal law to help provide entities like CHSRA a more level playing field - starting with eliminating the obsolete ban on states using eminent domain on federally-chartered railroads.

That would require a greater level of leadership from California's federal representatives than we have yet seen on HSR. But it is now time for them to step up and prevent a signature project from falling into a morass.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Thoughts from the Menlo Park Town Hall

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

First off, it was a pleasure to meet so many of you in person last night at the Menlo Park town hall event. For those of you who were there and who I didn't get to talk to, my apologies, I'm sure we'll reconnect at the Palo Alto HSR "teach-in" on September 12. I even got to say hello to Morris Brown and Martin Engel, and they were cordial and friendly to me as I was to them. It's not about personal attacks to me - I think they're wrong on pretty much everything to do with HSR, but that doesn't make them bad people.

I also don't know how I would have gotten through the whole meeting without being able to let off steam by making snarky comments about stupid questions to Bianca, especially since my iPhone died with about 20 minutes left in the evening (if you were following the twitter feed and noticed that the tweets didn't go to 9pm, that's why. Don't worry, you didn't miss anything important).

Overall Anna Eshoo deserves credit for hosting this event, and for bringing together folks from Caltrain and the CHSRA to talk about the high speed rail plans. Eshoo ran a good event - folks submitted questions or comments on cards, and Eshoo worked her way through an impressive amount of the hundreds of cards submitted. She promises that either her staff, Caltrain or the CHSRA will respond to each and every card that didn't get answered in person.

Eshoo also did a good job of pushing the panelists to answer the questions that were asked as directly as possible. That was necessary to help build some trust between the audience and the panel, although as I'll explain, that was an uphill battle from the start, as many in the audience had already made up their minds about the CHSRA.

Unfortunately, Eshoo's skills as a moderator did not outweigh her overall lack of familiarity with the project. Eshoo is a Menlo Park homeowner who lives very close to the tracks - "few people live closer to the tracks than I do," she explained several times during the evening. At times her perspective seemed to be that of a typical local - she said "I want less noise, I don't want a 40 foot wall, I don't want to lose my home." Of course, she should have known that there would be less noise, that a 40-foot wall was highly unlikely, and that she wouldn't lose her home. Caltrain and CHSRA officials made those points repeatedly during the night, but I am not quite sure Eshoo understood those points.

I get the sense Eshoo called this meeting in response to numerous constituent complaints about the project, because Eshoo did not show she really understood the HSR project in any detail. One of the evening's most stunning moments came when she realized that the CHSRA already made the decision about the route for the trains before Prop 1A was approved. Eshoo seemed to have it in her head that the whole route itself was still up for grabs, and not just the details of its implementation.

Further, she seemed to be dismayed that Prop 1A included a detailed routing based on the Final statewide EIR. Which is equally stunning to me. Did she expect people to vote for vaporware? To give $9 billion to a project that had no details nailed down?

Eshoo's apparent surprise that a route had been selected before Prop 1A went to voters, and her claims that she didn't know about it, really do not make her look very good. As a sitting Congresswoman she should have known these things. The route debate got widespread media coverage last year, including on the Peninsula. For her to miss that rather key detail suggests she wasn't really paying close attention to what goes on in her district.

And as it turns out, Eshoo did know of these key details - at least she did as of August 2007, when she signed the following letter to the CHSRA, alongside other Bay Area Congressional representatives including Zoe Lofgren, Tom Lantos, Mike Honda and my own rep, Sam Farr:

Title: Letter to Mehdi Morshed, Executive Director, California High Speed Rail Authority
Date: 08/24/2007
Location: Washington, DC
Letter to Mehdi Morshed, Executive Director, California High Speed Rail Authority

Five California Members Sign Letter Calling for Pacheco Pass Route

Washington, D.C. - Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), joined with Representatives Anna Eshoo (D-Palo Alto), Sam Farr (D-Monterey), Mike Honda (D-Campbell), and Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo) in signing a letter strongly endorsing the Pacheco Pass route for California's High Speed Rail Project.

The complete text of the letter is below:

Mehdi Morshed
Executive Director
California High Speed Rail Authority
925 L St., Ste. 1425
Sacramento, CA 95814

Dear Mr. Morshed,

We are writing to express our strong support of California's High Speed Rail Project. We believe that the project will transform the state's transportation network into a much safer system that will serve our growing population for this century and the next in a way that can boost our economy while protecting our environment.

We recently reviewed the Northern Mountain Crossing Corridor Study you released concerning different possible routes from the Bay Area to the Central Valley. We all agree that the High Speed Train network should serve all three major cities: San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose. However, upon reviewing the document it is clear that the Pacheco Pass alternative provides a better level of service with a greater number of trains stopping in San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose on a daily basis. The Pacheco Pass route is also the least damaging to our region's natural resources.

In order to connect the Bay Area to the Central Valley using an alternative option, the Altamont Pass, would require building a new high level bridge over the San Francisco Bay. The Altamont Pass option would also require construction through the Don Edwards Wildlife Refuge with additional impacts on the San Francisco Bay and Palo Alto shore of the Bay. This alone is a good enough reason in our opinion to reject the Altamont Pass outright. The impact the Altamont Pass would have on the environment could well make us rethink our support of any federal funding for the project.

We believe there is sufficient and compelling data to determine that the Pacheco Pass is the best option for the High Speed Train to serve the Bay Area. We thank you for your consideration and will continue to follow the issue closely.


Zoe Lofgren
Michael Honda
Anna Eshoo
Sam Farr
Tom Lantos

So I don't know what Eshoo is talking about when she expressed surprise about the routing choices. True, Eshoo did not come off last night as a pro-Altamont person. Instead she came off as someone who really didn't understand some of the key project details. I hope she had some private meetings with Caltrain and CHSRA staff before the town hall, and that the town hall wasn't her first encounter with some of these issues.

Eshoo did have some other very good points, including the need for the CHSRA to improve its outreach. But if I'm a Peninsula resident, I'd be somewhat annoyed and troubled that my Congressional rep gave off an impression that she hadn't been paying attention to the details 10-year long development of a project that would bring significant change (for the better) to my region.

Two of the panelists were Caltrain staff - executive director Mike Scanlon and project advisor Bob Doty. Both of them were very, very impressive. Scanlon showed he clearly understands the need for the project as well as the locals' concerns. He emphasized that this is about survival for Caltrain, and that without electrification, Caltrain may not be able to continue operations. Caltrain needs partners to do the electrification, which will dramatically cut their costs. The state of California is no longer able to be that partner. So Caltrain needs CHSRA and its federal funding.

I don't quite think the Peninsula NIMBYs understood this point (and they would probably refuse to accept it even if they did). Their vehement opposition to the HSR project could well destroy Caltrain. These towns are already choked with traffic as it is, including Menlo Park. They desperately need Caltrain to not only stay, but to improve.

Bob Doty was another very impressive speaker. He has project management experience on HSR projects around the world, from the Channel Tunnel to Korea. Like Scanlon he was able to give quick and direct answers to questions, connecting with the audience even when the audience didn't want to hear what he had to say. Doty reminded the audience that tunneling is an extremely complex and difficult undertaking, that the decision to do it is not nearly as simply as the NIMBYs have made it out to be.

I would love for Doty to wind up with a major position at the CHSRA. He has the expertise and the credibility to help provide the kind of leadership that the project needs. UPDATE: According to Clem, Doty is already working for the CHSRA:

Bob Doty is already working for the CHSRA. He reports 50% to Mike Scanlon (Caltrain) and 50% to Mehdi Morshed (HSR), in a dual-reporting arrangement initiated by the MOU between the two agencies.

Wonderful news. Back to the original post...

Mehdi Morshed and Dominic Spaethling represented the CHSRA. Spaethling didn't get many occasions to add comments, though he did a good job of explaining the upcoming public interaction process.

Morshed was on the hot seat most of the night. His performance was mixed. It's worth keeping in mind that Morshed is not a public speaker by training - he's a project engineer. Morshed acknowledged that he's been getting some help on public outreach, and he did his best to answer questions directly. Most of the time he did this well, even if his more determined opponents in the audience refused to accept his answers.

One example is a question a self-described Palo Alto NIMBY asked about the business plan. This question was highly misleading and was a clear attempt to sow disinformation. She asked whether the CHSRA was hiring a PR consultant to write the new business plan. Her implication was that the business plan would be a dishonest product full of spin and devoid of fact.

But as Morshed explained, that's not actually the case. The Authority is hiring a PR firm to design the final publication of the business plan - the typesetting, the pictures, the printing. NONE of the content will be produced by the PR team - that comes from the financial and project contractors who rightly have the skills and knowledge to produce that information.

It's not at all unusual for that arrangement to exist, whether it's a private or a public sector business plan in question. You want someone who knows PR to ensure that the plan is readable. The only reason anyone would make an issue out of this is if you wanted to undermine the public's confidence in the CHSRA.

Morshed did less well when asked about the tunnel. He tried to reassure people that it would be given a fair hearing, but he may have gone too far in that by saying that tunnel costs "would be the last thing considered" when looking at a tunnel. Obviously it needs to be as much a factor in the choice as anything else - the CHSRA needs to ensure that it is going to build a cost-effective system. I understand Morshed's dilemma here, but the CHSRA needs to make it clear to Peninsula residents that unless they are planning to pay for the tunnel themselves, it is not appropriate for the CHSRA to be reckless with public funds.

Overall, I don't think the town hall changed any minds. These things rarely do. Especially when there is a loud group of people who have already decided to believe that numerous myths are actually facts - and that if you point out that they aren't facts, the person who believed it will become indignant at the person doing the debunking.

In that way the HSR debate resembles the health care debate in many ways. Just as "death panels" and "socialized medicine" started to dominate the conversation around health care despite there not being any evidence to support those claims, we now have arguments about a "Berlin Wall" and people convinced that numerous houses will be lost even though a cursory glance at the ROW shows that takings will be very, very, very few in number (especially in the Atherton-Menlo Park-Palo Alto area).

What the town hall also showed is how difficult it has become to focus on the big picture. To their credit, Eshoo and Scanlon both pointed to the need for sustainable mass transportation, and Scanlon in particular understood that the 20th century model of transportation, relying on freeways, was no longer viable. The Peninsula was built on the railroad. It's time to give that railroad an upgrade.

The Peninsula needs political leadership that is determined to build HSR, and determined to build it right. My question of the night was oriented toward that very matter. I wanted to hear that those in attendance, Eshoo in particular, would see to it that critics of the HSR project would not be allowed to overturn the will of the voters, that HSR would be built in a way that was cost effective. Eshoo took issue with my claims about "HSR critics" and said that everyone in the room wanted HSR built, the question was instead about whether or not it should happen.

I don't think that is accurate. Judging from the questions Eshoo herself read, there were a lot of people who still questioned the basic premise of HSR. A clear statement that "this WILL be built and it will be built the right way" would have gone a long way toward pushing everyone toward constructive solutions. Instead I'll have to be content with Eshoo's claim that there are no HSR opponents. I'm going to hold her and the Peninsula to that claim. You too, Morris!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Initial Ruling in Atherton v. CHSRA

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

As I wait here in Menlo Park for the HSR town hall to get underway, we have a ruling in the frivolous lawsuit Menlo Park, Atherton, and the PCL filed against the CHSRA. It's a mixed bag for everyone - the judge ruled that most of the Federal EIR on the Pacheco alignment was sound and that most of the petitioners' claims about it were "without merit."

But there were three specific points that the judge DID rule had merit:

1. EIR claim that vibration from tracks can be mitigated to a "less than significant level" is "not supported by substantial evidence"

2. EIR inadequately described land use impacts from HSR (though the judge did throw out the arguments that HSR would produce sprawl)

3. EIR needed to have been "recirculated" based on Union Pacific's refusal to share ROW in the San Jose-Gilroy corridor area.

See the ruling for yourself:


The outcome is that the "writ of mandate" the petitioners sought is granted. In practice this is likely to mean the EIR will have to be revisited to consider the three points above. Other points that the court rejected, including the argument that US-101 and I-280 needed to be considered, or that Altamont itself needs to be reconsidered, do not appear to be reopened by this ruling.

More as it develops.