Thursday, January 15, 2009

Silly Fearmongering on the Peninsula

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

In today's San Mateo County Times John Horgan paints a ridiculous picture of an HSR project doomed to destroy Peninsula communities. Of course, since this is the same guy who confused Colma and Bayview I suppose we should take his brand of HSR denial with a grain of salt. Still, he's not likely alone in his opinion, and any opportunity to explain how HSR will benefit the Peninsula is worth taking.

Horgan writes:

THERE is a fresh sense of urgency in some San Mateo County communities as plans for high-speed electrified rail along the Peninsula proceed faster than originally anticipated.

Passage of Proposition 1A last November, which provides an infusion of nearly $10 billion to get the project rolling, was just the start. Now, it appears entirely possible that the federal government, which is printing money faster than anyone can spend it to counter a very tough recession, will inject more billions into California, some of it for transportation infrastructure....

The deadline for local comments, concerns and suggestions regarding these efforts is now less than six weeks away.

OMG doom! They're coming to bulldoze your communities tomorrow!!1!!1

Well, nevermind the fact that HSR construction won't begin until 2010 at the earliest, and even then it'll be focused on the test track in the Central Valley. Construction on the Peninsula is several years away at best. We keep hoping here that Obama will include HSR in the stimulus, but that's not a sure thing, and regardless of how the Obama Administration goes about fulfilling its HSR promises, federal money isn't going to accelerate the CHSRA's timetables.

That didn't stop Horgan from trying to create some sense of crisis, and so he goes on:

There is already considerable worry in places such as Menlo Park, Atherton, Burlingame, portions of San Mateo and other hamlets that the new system will dramatically alter their small-town ambiance by widening the rail corridor, walling it off (thus dividing communities in half), exercising eminent domain and installing unsightly overhead electric wires.

They may not have much choice. The high-speed rail poobahs, in concert with the state of California, have a great deal of authority to forge ahead, regardless of cries of outrage from individual municipalities impacted by what's ahead.

Horgan's revisionism here is hilarious. The rail corridor was there before most of those cities were. (And funny how he uses the term "hamlet" to describe one of California's most highly urbanized corridors.) The "small town ambience" is a modern-day fiction, existing only because of the decline of freight traffic along the route and the desire of some residents to pretend they're in rural New England as opposed to urban California.

The litany of horrific things the HSR project will do to these communities is interesting in what it leaves out - an end to diesel pollution, an end to loud train whistles, an end to deadly collisions between train and automobile and train and man.

Peninsula residents will benefit greatly from those amenities as well as the HSR service itself. No wonder cities like Menlo Park, far from expressing "outrage", voted for Prop 1A as did San Mateo County as a whole. The margins were not close.

There's lots to consider. Take the sensitive matter of placing the rails underground, much as BART has done south of Daly City and Colma.

One high-speed rail honcho has warned privately that going underground will be a doubtful and quite expensive alternative here.

"It would cost three times as much (as a surface option)," he said recently. "If the cities want it underground, they are going to have to pay for it themselves."

Lots of luck. But the guy is probably speaking a frank and depressing truth, or at least something close to it.

Finding a fiscal mechanism for miles worth of a pricey underground approach seems like something of a long shot at this point. But you never know.

Maybe the feds can print even more lucre. Hey, why not? What's another trillion among friends? Hope springs eternal.

Anyone who thinks the federal government would pay for undergrounding the HSR/Caltrain route through the Peninsula is out of their mind. The cities most certainly will have to pay for it themselves, as Berkeley did with BART - and as you might say San Mateo County did with BART, as the cost of undergrounding the line south of Colma was one reason among many for the ongoing cost to the county of the SFO extension.

Besides, there's no better way to cause problems for federal HSR funding than to give HSR deniers the notion that the money is going to help rich folks near Stanford have their own Big Dig. Even if that wouldn't properly describe the project, such nuances escape our opponents.

If these cities want to preserve their late 20th century version of "small town ambience" rather than look to how European cities have built quite livable cities with HSR, or to how their own cities lived for nearly 150 years with a busy rail line, then let them pay for it themselves.


Anonymous said...

good comment on looking to Europe for inspiration and examples of rail in cities.

This is built under and around rail lines in London. It is a center, not a wall. The range of food offered meets or beats the Ferry Building in San Francisco.

Clem said...

What gets me is this recurring notion that grade separation amounts to "walling off" and "separating" communities.

How so, really?

It's not like you can cross the tracks today... there are fences nearly everywhere, and where there are no fences it is illegal to trespass on the tracks.

At legal crossing locations, mobility will be improved by grade separation. No more gates. No more waiting for the train.

There is clearly an aesthetic issue (unsightly retained embankments, catenary poles, etc.), but that has nothing to do with mobility and access from one side of the tracks to the other.

The "wall" either already exists, or it is in our imagination.

Andy Chow said...

I disagree with the notion that for whatever the NIMBYs don't like, just put it underground. I frankly don't see trains that disturbing that has to be underground.

People already put up with overhead wires on streets, which are more unsightly than rail overhead wires.

Putting trains underground makes sense if there's no other alternative alignment. Putting trains underground along an existing rail ROW (like BART to SFO) is plain dumb.

Anonymous said...

Imagine...Anti HSR from yet another Media News Group owned paper!

timote said...

Andy Chow-

If the communities in question want to pay for going underground in order to not have the "walled off" issue, I have no problem with that - BART through Berkeley and all. In general, if it's important enough that they are willing to put their money where their mouth is, then more power to 'em (existing ROW or not).

But the fact is they won't, and so it won't.

Andy Chow said...

The issue isn't whether cities should pay the difference, but that putting underground in an existing rail ROW just doesn't make sense, no matter who pays for it.

Berkeley had a better cause because it didn't want an elevated structure hanging above city streets. HSRA isn't proposing that anyway.

The BART-SFO line set a bad precedence and a false expectation for other cities.

Rafael said...

Forget about the fearmongers, there will always be people who are afraid of change. As the Nov 4 vote showed, a clear majority of Californians want not just fast passenger rail service but also the benefits of electrification and grade separation.

Fwiw, mote detail is now emerging on the first draft of the stimulus package, weighing in at a hefty $825 billion, i.e. already $50 billion more than just a few days ago. Highlights relevant to this blog:

$31 billion for transportation
$10 billion for rail and mass transit

Note that it says "transportation", which is more general than "roads, road bridges, runways and airport gates". Perhaps road-rail grade separations can be accounted for under the "transportation" rather than "rail and mass transit" heading. Similarly, bicycle lanes and routes are "transportation" infrastructure. The devil is in the details.

Total spending commitments in this first draft of the bill add up to $569 billion.

Rafael said...

The UK's Labor Government has given the go-ahead for a third runway at Heathrow Airport, possibly in addition to a new HSR hub and an HSR line up to Scotland.

The opposition Conservative Party has proposed building only an HSR line as far as Leeds and just a spur to Heathrow. The third runway project is very unpopular with nearby residents because of the extra air and noise pollution plus road traffic that it will inevitably bring. Heathrow is already the third largest airport in the world, serving 68 million passengers in 2007.

For reference, that year LAX came in at 62 million and SFO at 36.

timote said...

Andy Chow-

You're not saying why it is a bad idea, just that it is. Are you saying it is a bad idea cause it limits the railroad? Because it is a poor use of money? Because of the risk of delays and overruns? There is plenty of questions and risk around such a proposal, but you're not stating what your exact opposition is, just your general opposition.

So long as not a penny of CHSRA's money is used, I don't mind if they want to improve their community. Personally, I'm willing to accept the schedule risk and budget risk (assuming everything is well researched and well documented of whom is responsible for what).

Andy Chow said...

You already explained the reasons.

Rail should be an asset for the community and should not be something that needs to be hidden.

The whole point about putting trains underground has mostly to do with unwarranted fear.

Rafael said...

@ timote -

as a rule of thumb, you don't want to go underground unless you have to. Digging a trench involves rerouting underground infrastructure, especially water and sewer pipes, storm drains and gas mains. Sewer pipes in particular are sometimes very old and in terrible shape, broken and partially blocked by roots. In addition, changes to the ground water level can cause subsidence problems for nearby buildings.

Tunneling permits deeper alignments, but it is often even more expensive. It depends on the geology. In the case of the BART extension to SFO, it became necessary when permission to move some of the remains in the cemetaries in Colma was denied. That said, it was San Mateo county's decision to extend the subway section almost all the way to SFO.

However, some communities manage to insist on an underground alignment even when none was planned. Typically, that results in a late engineering change orders, severe cost escalations and completion delays.

Ergo, CHSRA ought to make it very clear early on what it has planned, why it made that decision in that location and what (roughly) an underground alternative would entail. If the community wants the more expensive solution and is willing to chip in, it should be given a reasonable chance to raise the funds. Otherwise, plans should be considered final no later than when ground is broken.

Unknown said...

The press release of the stimulus is available on, with more of a breakdown of the transit funding:

Highway Infrastructure: 30 Billion

New Construction (Light and Commuter Rail): 1 Billion
Upgrades & Repairs: 2 Billion
Transit Capital Assistance: 6 Billion

Amtrack & Intercity Rail: 1.1 Billion

Airports: 3 Billion
TSA: 500m
Coast Bridge Removal: 100m

and a whole lot more, but more details than the AP article

Anonymous said...

Anyone who uses words like "honcho" and "poobahs" doesn't strike me as a professional journalist.

Spokker said...

I don't get how he thinks the CHSRA is this all-knowing all-powerful entity with enough clout and resources to get the train built tomorrow.

High speed rail in California is entirely possible but let's not pretend there are hurdles. This organization is not the powerhouse this commentator Robert pointed out thinks it is.

I wish it was!

Spokker said...

Let's not pretend there aren't hurdles, rather.

Anonymous said...

Again I see no reason for tunneling CHSR down the Peninsula. For me the big cost would be the infrastructure of water, sewers &c. Then the water table, meaning having to need pumps to take care of leaks/seeping water ALL the time.
Grade separation á la BART in Hayward and E. Bay are more sensible.
Never have understood the 'ugly poles and wire' thing.
Maybe they should be designed to look like christmas candy sticks........
"Hamlets" down the Peninsula? HA! Best check the air at this guy's office, may be something in it.

無名 - wu ming said...

i'm still laughing about the assertion that a multi-county stretch of endless suburbia can be called "small towns" or "hamlets" with a straight face.

compared to what, tokyo? small towns and hamlets generally have large swaths of green space in between. what the peninsula has is sprawl.

Anonymous said...

Non of the communites affected along the ROW are very aesthetically pleasing to begin with. The peninsula cities are old, loaded with overhead wires, bad architecture, bad roads, and a hodgepodge approach to development. The addition of hsr catenaries is hardly going to change the look.

Clem said...

Telling residents that they're wrong about the character of their own town is a counter-productive tactic, sure to rub the NIMBYs the wrong way and redouble their determination to make trouble for HSR. If you want residents to consider your views even for a second, calling their cherished community such names as "ugly" and "sprawl" will probably not help you.