The Biggest Obstacle to HSR in California
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.