Thoughts from the Menlo Park Town Hall
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
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:
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.
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!