Only Californians Have Veto Power Over the HSR Project
The Peninsula Cities Consortium, comprised of the cites of Belmont, Burlingame, Atherton, Menlo Park and Palo Alto, is considering a new “Core Message” that, if approved, would signal their demand to be given veto power over the project – and that the rest of California be potentially made to pay for an expensive tunnel. The draft states that if these demands are not accepted, “high speed rail should be put on hold.”
While community input is both an important and welcome piece of the process for building high speed rail, it is simply inappropriate and unfair for these cities to consider demanding so much power while leaving the rest of us with the cost.
Suggested Core Message for PCC
Cities belonging to the Peninsula Cities Consortium believe that high speed rail should be built right – or not at all. By “right,” we mean that the rail line should integrate into our communities without disrupting their current livability, according to criteria determined by each city that includes a collaborative process with their neighboring cities.
This is entirely inappropriate. It is not for the PCC to decide whether high speed rail will be built. That decision was made by the people of California at the November 2008 election, and only the people of California can undo that decision. The PCC cities do not, and should not, have the power of life or death over the HSR project.
Further, the notion that their support is contingent upon “livability” is a very vague and, in my mind, flawed metric. One person’s notion of livability is different from another’s. Some Peninsula residents believe a city dependent on oil, choked with traffic, and with an extremely dangerous at-grade railroad that kills dozens of people each year is “livable.” Others believe a city that is more walkable, not dependent on oil, with robust transportation options and a grade-separated railroad that does not pose a danger to residents is far more “livable” than the current situation. For the PCC to implicitly embrace the former definition without public discussion is to arrogate to themselves a power they do not deserve to have.
After setting out that initial statement, the PCC goes on to propose the following specific principles:
We believe that the California High Speed Rail Authority should abide by these principles:
• Provide a valid business plan and financial plan to support the project
• Provide valid ridership studies to support the project
Here, as with “livability,” “valid” is in the eye of the beholder. So far the CHSRA has produced business plans and ridership studies that many, including myself, believe to be valid. Further, you cannot guarantee any ridership model – they are projections that by their very nature come with less than 100% certainty. However, that fact can and probably will be used by the PCC to pronounce any business/financial/ridership plan as “invalid.”
• Increase and enhance local Caltrain service and improve Caltrain infrastructure as a condition of using the Caltrain corridor
This bullet point suggests to me that whoever wrote this particular item has not been following the HSR project very closely, if at all. It shows a complete lack of understanding of the actual situation on the ground.
From what I can tell, the CHSRA absolutely wants to increase and enhance local Caltrain service and improve Caltrain infrastructure. It is Caltrain, not the CHSRA, that is not playing along here. Further, if the HSR project is to improve Caltrain service, that is going to likely require a four-track fully electrified and grade-separated solution that the PCC seems to oppose. So this bullet point is fundamentally inconsistent with the PCC’s apparent desire to prevent such infrastructure from being built.
• Fill all positions on the Peer Review Committee, ensure members review all items detailed in AB 3034, and provide them a budget and a staff to do their job
Does the PCC still oppose the bills in the state legislature that would fund additional staff for the CHSRA? Would the PCC still see a Peer Review Committee as legitimate if they considered all the evidence and pronounced the CHSRA’s current plans as valid and reliable?
• Affirm that design rather than finances, will determine the alignment chosen for each section of the rail line and that the design alternatives balance transportation goals and community values and goals equally
This is unacceptable and illegitimate. The PCC has no place telling the rest of California – and the rest of the country – that they must pay more money to provide the gold-plated infrastructure that PCC members desire. The PCC needs to be willing to put up their own funding if they are going to be making this kind of demand – and no such funding is mentioned anywhere in the proposed document. In fact, as you’ll see in a moment, they expressly say any local cost contribution demand will be cause for them to oppose HSR.
Further, we see again the arrogation to themselves of defining what “community values” are. Most residents of these communities want grade-separated high speed rail. But they’re unrepresented by the PCC, which seems little more than an institution designed to impose a uniform aesthetic standard than a collaborative project to design a good railroad.
• Empower community leaders to be an integral part of the decision-making process regarding the final alternatives
This where they are demanding veto power, something they have no right to demand. Community members and community leaders already are an integral part of the design process. They are being consulted and will continue to be consulted. However, it is not for them to decide the final alternatives. Because this is a statewide project, it must be a decision made by the representatives of the people of California – or in this case, the representatives of those representatives, the members of the board of the CHSRA.
The CHSRA is almost certainly going to place great weight on what the communities want, but cannot make that the sole determination. They have a responsibility to deliver the best project for an affordable price, a responsibility the PCC proposes to ignore if they adopt these principles.
• Secure funding that will allow the full range of alternatives to be considered without expecting local cities to contribute to the cost
In other words, they want people in Redding, San Bernardino, South-Central LA, and Santa Barbara to pay for their tunnel, even though a perfectly workable and much more affordable alternative exists. This is ridiculous and should not be given any serious consideration.
Further, if the PCC really wants to secure funding, they can start by stopping their talking down of the HSR project. Have PCC members signed the Four Billion for HSR message? Have they lobbied our Congressional delegation to approve the $50 billion for HSR in the new Transportation Bill? Or have they been dismissing the federal stimulus and criticizing the HSR project?
• Provide funding to allow cities to hire experts to study reports requiring feedback
• Provide funding to allow cities to engage community members and accurately capture their concerns and suggestions
This is not appropriate for the CHSRA to fund. If the cities want to hire experts, they must do so at their own expense. The PCC has been doing that for some time now, and clearly they can afford to do that instead of spend that money keeping other services open. Further, it sounds like the PCC wants a poll of their constituents? Why not do that themselves?
• Clearly define the points at which the public can influence the process, the deadlines for comments and the decision-making process
This has already been done.
• Allow adequate time (a minimum of 90 days) to fully involve the public in Alternatives Analysis and EIR discussions, and conduct these reviews at separate times
The current time allotted is more than sufficient to allow for all of this.
• If Context Sensitive Solutions is employed, allow sufficient time to carry out this very thorough eight-step process and explain how this work will be integrated into the high speed rail plan
And how does the PCC propose to make up for the loss of stimulus funding for the corridor if this means the project can’t make the September 2012 deadline?
• Answer questions from community members promptly and accurately, and post these answers on a website where others can read the answers
That’s what the EIR process is for. Responses to comments and questions are posted online when the EIR is completed. So far, from what I can tell, the CHSRA has been very responsive to community requests for information.
• Provide for realistic renderings of what the various alternatives will look like in each community and sound/vibration simulations that accurately reflect their impact
This demand should not even be considered until the PCC permanently abandons any “Berlin Wall” framing of an above-grade solution. Of course, the way this demand is written indicates that the only renderings and simulations that will be deemed “realistic” and “accurate” are those that meet their preconceived notions.
• Treat community members with respect and refrain from labeling them
I don’t even known what this is about – I’ve never seen CHSRA officials treat community members with anything but respect. Perhaps they’re thinking of me and this blog, but if that’s the case, they should say so. Besides, my labeling of many of the HSR critics as “NIMBYs” seems to be proven by the list of demands made here.
The proposed “core message” document closes with this:
Until these principals [sic] are in place, we believe high speed rail should be put on hold.
Overall this is a very unfortunate and disappointing proposal, one I hope the PCC rejects in its entirety as being entirely inappropriate for the project and for the PCC.
The PCC itself serves a valuable role in mobilizing community input on the HSR project. That input is not only welcome, it’s necessary to an effective project.
But the PCC appears to have lost sight of what constructive engagement with the HSR project looks like. Under the influence of the NIMBY tendency on the Peninsula, the PCC seems to be considering eschewing a collaborative approach to the project. They seem to forget that successful planning requires compromise, not a list of “our way or the highway” demands.
It is my hope that the PCC scraps this document in its entirety, and instead focuses on the Alignment Alternatives before it, offering their feedback and constructive solutions as to how the Peninsula Rail Corridor should be improved for the benefit of all Californians – including, but not limited to, their own constituents.