PCC Calls For HSR To Be Suspended
Well, we could see this one coming from a mile away. The Peninsula Cities Consortium, after spending the better part of a year criticizing the HSR project, is now calling for it to be suspended, despite the will of the voters, including at least 60% of Peninsula residents, for the project to go ahead, and despite the enormous costs of suspending the project. From the Sacramento Bee:
Five cities on the San Francisco Peninsula called today for suspending planning for the state’s high-speed train project until vexing environmental and economic issues are resolved.
The demand by the Peninsula Cities Consortium – Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton, Burlingame and Belmont – follows a report by the University of California’s Institute of Transportation Studies that’s highly critical of the High-Speed Rail Authority’s projections of ridership on the proposed bullet train that would link Northern and Southern California.
I am shocked, shocked to hear that the PCC would seize on the flawed Berkeley ITS report to use to justify their demand to stop the HSR project.
Seriously, this move should be no surprise to anyone following the project. PCC members, including Palo Alto Mayor Pat Burt and Menlo Park Mayor Rich Cline, have been using an unrepresentative planning process to ignore the widespread public support in their communities for HSR and advance their own anti-HSR agenda. Pat Burt called for project planning to be suspended all the way back in January.
The cost of this move would be enormous. Despite the fact that the cost of both borrowing and construction are at their lowest in decades, and despite high unemployment on the Peninsula, and despite the availability of federal stimulus funds, and despite the need to provide sustainable, affordable passenger rail service to promote economic recovery, the PCC apparently believes that everyone can afford to not build the HSR project until it is done exactly the way the PCC wants – which is apparently “not at all.”
This is made worse by the fact that the PCC statement is based on flawed principles:
In a statement issued July 6, the five cities – Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton, Belmont and Burlingame – announce, “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 harming their current livability. The best design and community values, rather than finances, should determine the alignment.”
In other words, these cities, among California’s wealthiest, are saying they want the rest of the state to pay for their gold-plated trains. Although the current plans do call for the tracks to be integrated into the community and enhance livability by reducing traffic, reducing noise, and reducing the number of suicides and deaths along the tracks, the PCC has been taken over by a small and unrepresentative group of homeowners who are convinced, against the available evidence, that the HSR project will undermine their property values. These NIMBYs believe it is the job of everyone in California to subsidize their already-considerable property values.
Unfortunately, the PCC takes a disingenuous approach to the issue of planning and cost:
PCC Chair Richard Cline, mayor of Menlo Park, explained that the five cities are concerned that key problems with the project may not be resolved because of the intense pressure being exerted by the Authority’s desire to qualify for federal stimulus funding. Construction needs to begin on the project by September 2012 and finish by September 2017 in order for California to qualify for a $2.25 federal grant.
“Common sense is absent from the high speed rail discussion. Right now the Authority plans to select a final alignment and release its draft environmental impact report by December of this year under an extremely rushed project schedule that is dictated solely by the desire for federal funds,” Cline said.
This is not true. There is plenty of common sense in the HSR discussion. But the PCC has shown a systematic desire to undermine that common sense in the interests of slowing or stopping a project they don’t like. The project schedule is not “extremely rushed” – it is a sensible and standard timeline used across the state. Federal funds are important – without them the trains cannot be built, and the Peninsula will continue to stagnate in the depths of a recession.
He added, “The project is suffering from an enormous credibility problem, due to its widely criticized business plan, faulty ridership numbers and the absence of funding to carry out the project statewide – let alone offer realistic alternatives for the section planned on the Peninsula. There also is no stated plan for paying to operate high speed rail once it is built, and we fear local taxpayers may be left holding the bag.”
This is also untrue. It is as if Cline called someone a liar and then told the press “that person has been accused of lying.” The ridership numbers are not faulty – the Berkeley ITS report did not say that – and there is a stated plan for paying to operate HSR once it is built. Cline may not agree with the business plan, just as he may not agree with the project, but his disagreement alone does not invalidate either the plan or the project.
As to “local taxpayers left holding the bag,” Cline instead seems to believe that Californians as a whole should be paying for the gold-plated system that his city wants. This does not strike me as appropriate.
Cline explained, “Our cities have been frustrated with the Authority’s inability to answer questions and a contradictory message that we should select the alternative we most prefer while, at the same time, being told by board members that our cities will have to pay for anything other than the cheapest alternative.”
That is not a contradictory message. It is consistent – if the cities prefer a more costly alternative, they should pay for it – and it is also realistic considering the need to exercise fiscal responsibility on this project.
Instead, the five PCC cities say high speed rail should be part of a comprehensive regional public transit plan and that the California High Speed Rail Authority should:
* Provide a valid business and financial plan that supports the full range of alternatives proposed and satisfies the requirements of the state Legislative Analyst’s Office
This is already under way.
Demonstrate to state leaders that the plan will not require operating subsidies from local taxpayers in the future
This has already been demonstrated.
Provide ridership studies to support the project that are validated by an independent peer review body that is responsible to the state Legislature
Next time, let’s select a peer review body that is not headed by a known project critic, shall we?
Increase and enhance local Caltrain service and improve Caltrain infrastructure as a condition of using the Caltrain corridor
This definitely needs to happen, but it has been inherent in the proposal all along. The PCC could help by brokering meetings between CHSRA and Caltrain staff. Instead they appear to prefer sniping from the sidelines.
In the statement, the five cities also ask that local communities be empowered in the decision-making process by giving transportation goals and community goals equal weight, and by affirming that the best design with the least impact on communities, rather than finances, will determine the alignment chosen for each section of the rail line.
But who defines “community goals”? A small and unrepresentative group of NIMBYs? These nebulous “community goals” cannot be allowed to undermine a statewide project of this importance. And unless these cities plan to pay for the project, they cannot seriously expect the state of California or anyone else living in it to agree that cost should be no object.
They ask for sufficient time to evaluate proposed alternatives and environmental impacts and to carry out the Context Sensitive Solutions (CSS) community consensus-building process. While high speed rail officials have endorsed using CSS for the Peninsula section of the project, Cline noted, “CSS is not working. The sped-up timeline for the project has short-circuited and compromised this very thorough eight-step process.”
From my perspective, the PCC has not been willing to participate in CSS in a truly open and engaging fashion. Their frequent statements against the project undermine the spirit of CSS.
The cities also ask for funding that “will allow the full range of alternatives to be considered without expecting local cities to contribute substantially to the cost” and request reimbursement for city expenses related to evaluation of project proposals.
Again, the PCC – which includes some of the state’s richest cities – wants everyone else to pay their bills.
Cline credited the PCC for calling attention to many of the problems with high speed rail that the state Legislative Analyst’s Office, the state Auditor’s Office and numerous state legislators are now focusing on. “Congresswoman Anna Eshoo said it well in a recent editorial,” Cline noted, “when she said, “The High Speed Rail Authority has to hit the reset button, improve its reputation and assuage Peninsula residents, who have every reason to fear that this project will be a nightmare.”
In fact, the PCC is the source of many of these claims that have been regurgitated without question by these offices and individuals. So it’s disingenuous for the PCC to cite those as independent validators when the PCC itself has generated much of what those “validators” have said.
Once again, we see the PCC acting in an inappropriate manner, unrepresentative of their constituents who still support HSR, and willing to undermine the project and saddle everyone else in California with the costs of either their gold-plated preference, or the cost of delaying the project, or the cost of not having HSR at all.
To be clear, I’m not opposed to a tunnel, never have been. But we’ve never seen any clear business plan for how it will be paid for come from the PCC. In fact, while the PCC is levying charges at the HSR project, those charges can be turned right around on the PCC:
• If cost is to be no object, how will costs above the current budget be paid? Where is the financing plan for this?
• If federal stimulus money is abandoned as the PCC proposes, how will that funding gap be closed?
• What is their justification for making the rest of California pay for the preferences of five of California’s richest cities?
• Can the PCC specify “community values” that are to be used in the planning?
• Will the PCC support a truly inclusive community outreach process, or will they continue with their unrepresentative and exclusive process?
It is very unfortunate that the PCC has chosen to take the path of obstruction, when a path of collaboration remains open to them. But then, the path of obstruction is the one you’d expect a group that has never really supported HSR to take.