Has the Bay Area “Missed the boat” on Passenger Rail?
It’s about time more people started challenging the grip that NIMBYs appear to have over passenger rail projects in the Bay Area. At a time when Northern California appears to have abandoned mass transit, as Southern California and the Central Valley take leadership in building passenger rail infrastructure, the Bay Area might be left behind at a crucial moment in history. Rising oil prices, the costs of traffic congestion, and the need to address climate change through sustainably-powered transportation are all combining to make development of improved passenger rail, including high speed rail, a necessity for the Bay Area’s future prosperity.
The increasing ability of a few privileged NIMBYs to obstruct the construction of that future is starting to get noticed beyond this blog. Drew Voros, business editor for the Oakland Tribune, has a new column up today that directly confronts the NIMBYs and reminds the Bay Area of the need to think about the whole region’s economy, and not just of a very small number of critics:
Trains in 19th century California literally dictated frontier fortunes. If railroads bypassed your town, economic doom was inevitable. Begging and bribery were not out the question; it was a matter of survival.
But in the 21st century, the Bay Area’s civic love for one of our most important transportation ingredients has faded like an old newspaper photograph. The rail industry still delivers economic benefits, it’s just that our civic leaders’ pipedreams don’t include train tracks.
This mentality is to our economic detriment.
Last year, Peninsula cities dismissed and dissuaded billions of federal and state taxpayer dollars from being spent here on the $10 billion, voter-approved, high-speed rail project that will be built somewhere in California.
Maybe you missed the headlines on this economic debacle.
NIMBY cities built a legal roadblock to prevent the first portion of the California High Speed Rail Project from starting in the Bay Area. The unsightly infrastructure didn’t pass their architectural sniff test.
Voros hits on an important element of the problem. NIMBY arguments against trains get traction not because of any sympathy for wealthy landowners on the Peninsula, but because a surprising number of people in the Bay Area do not see passenger rail as being a significant part of the region’s mobility or its future prosperity. The marginalization of trains, even in the Bay Area, has opened the door for NIMBYs to claim that high speed trains won’t make money (they will), or that people won’t ride them (which is absurd, as anyone who’s been on BART, Caltrain, the Muni Metro, or the Capitol Corridor knows). They claim the project might go over budget without ever offering any actual detailed analysis of the project plans to explain this charge – and yet other Bay Area transportation projects that went over budget, like the East Span of the Bay Bridge, had their costs covered through means that did not cause mass suffering (people are still able to pay bridge tolls, after all).
There’s no doubt that the question of how to best build the HSR project, particularly its vertical alignments, is an important one to get right. There are legitimate differences about whether to build a trench, a tunnel, or a viaduct on the Peninsula. Each has their pluses and minuses. But those should be assessed rationally and sensibly. Instead, NIMBYs and their allies prefer to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt and to attack the entire project as a whole, even though polling shows large majorities of their neighbors still support HSR. This does not help matters, and makes it more difficult to produce effective planning and budgeting for the project.
So it is good that people like Voros are speaking up in support of the project and against the NIMBYs who do not have the region’s interests in mind. There’s still a lot of work to be done to build this project the right way. Let’s rally Californians together to make that happen, rather than let the NIMBYs slow the project’s construction any further.