Does Russell Peterson Know What He’s Doing?
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.