Eshoo, Simitian, Gordon Oppose Aerial Structures
So the big announcement from Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, Senator Joe Simitian, and Assemblymember Rich Gordon is here and the gist is this: they oppose any aerial structure on the corridor, want tracks either at or below grade and fitting within the existing Caltrain ROW (without considering that the ROW has a variable width) and want to explore terminating HSR service at San José, although they are cagey in how they explain that. Oh, and they want to abandon the current EIR process.
I’ll add some details and analysis shortly, but I’ll post this now so you all can take a look before I get my thoughts organized.
OK, here are my thoughts:
Big picture: Nobody here is showing real leadership. Eshoo, Simitian, and now Gordon have all been cowed by a small group of NIMBYs into opposing an aerial solution which, as we’ve talked about before, works perfectly well for other Bay Area communities such as Albany and Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood. These three elected officials do realize that large majorities of their constituents support high speed rail and clearly they’re trying to find a middle ground between the vocal yet unrepresentative NIMBYs, and the silent majority who actually matter.
Some of these proposals are worth considering, others might not be. But it’s unfortunate to see all three of these electeds basically giving in to the NIMBYs on some core points, and ignoring and even mocking the support for HSR that their constituents and the people of California as a whole have shown.
Let’s take a look at the details of the statement:
Since the passage of Proposition 1A in 2008, each of us has expressed our support for “high-speed rail done right,” by which we mean a genuinely statewide system that makes prudent use of limited public funds and which is responsive to legitimate concerns about the impact of high-speed rail on our cities, towns, neighborhoods and homes.
This is already troubling, because it frames HSR as having a negative impact. It actually has a positive impact on these communities, but nowhere is this acknowledged or mentioned. That impact includes things like reduced carbon emissions, elimination of diesel emissions, elimination of train horns, significant reduction of if not outright elimination of deaths along the rail corridor, and improvements that come from better, faster, even more reliable Caltrain service. By framing HSR as something that negatively impacts the communities, these three elected officials are showing they don’t really understand – or care to acknowledge – the important benefits HSR brings to their constituents.
To date, however, the California High Speed Rail Authority has failed to develop and describe such a system for the Peninsula and South Bay. For that reason, we have taken it upon ourselves today to set forth some basic parameters for what “high-speed rail done right” looks like in our region.
We start with the premise that for the Authority to succeed in its statewide mission it must be sensitive and responsive to local concerns about local impacts. Moreover, it is undeniable that funding will be severely limited at both the state and national levels for the foreseeable future.
This is simply wrong. For the Authority to succeed in its statewide mission, it has to deliver the promised project on-time and on-budget in a way that meets the needs of Californians as a whole. Yes, the Authority must be – and has been – sensitive and responsive to local concerns. But those concerns do not, and must not, trump the interests of the people of this state as a whole. A balance can be found. Unfortunately, the tone of this statement indicates no such balance is sought or achieved. The statement indicates they’re siding with a small, parochial group of people, who don’t even represent the communities in question.
Much of the projected cost for the San Jose to San Francisco leg of the project is driven by the fact that the Authority has, to date, proposed what is essentially a second rail system for the Peninsula and South Bay, unnecessarily duplicating existing usable infrastructure. Even if such a duplicative system could be constructed without adverse impact along the CalTrain corridor, and we do not believe it can, the cost of such duplication simply cannot be justified.
That’s an open question. Caltrain has not exactly been doing its part to ensure interoperability (hello, CBOSS!) and the HSR infrastructure includes tracks for Caltrain too. What the Authority is proposing is a second rail service for the region – which is exactly what voters mandated. HSR is NOT Caltrain, nor should it be Caltrain. It’s something different, serving a generally different set of riders, although there is possibility for overlap with the Baby Bullet service. Still, this strikes me as a misleading premise at best, one that does not fully articulate the complexity of the situation and certainly does not acknowledge the work that has been done to ensure Caltrain benefits too.
Further, HSR service from LA (and other points south) to SF, the Peninsula, and San José is not duplicative at all, and anyone who says so is being duplicitous.
If we can barely find the funds to do high speed rail right, we most certainly cannot find the funds to do high speed rail wrong.
This is a veiled threat. It’s also an empty one. Eshoo, Simitian and Gordon will not actually cut off funding to the HSR project. Will Eshoo actually cross Nancy Pelosi on this? Will Simitian cross Jerry Brown? Will Gordon cross the unions? I think not.
Accordingly, we call upon the High-Speed Rail Authority and our local CalTrain Joint Powers Board to develop plans for a blended system that integrates high-speed rail with a 21st Century CalTrain.
To that end:
• We explicitly reject the notion of high-speed rail running from San Jose to San Francisco on an elevated structure or “viaduct”; and we call on the High-Speed Rail Authority to eliminate further consideration of an aerial option
I’m all for a sensible integration of HSR and Caltrain, and am open to a “blended” system. And I’ve always said that I don’t really care what vertical alignment is chosen there. I’m driven more by the ridiculous and indefensible criticisms of an aerial structure. If they want a below-grade solution, I’ve always been fine with that. But its proponents need to help find the money for it. Nowhere in this letter is that funding discussed.
• We fully expect that high-speed rail running from San Jose to San Francisco can and should remain within the existing CalTrain right of way; and
Here’s the problem: the right of way is uneven. In some places it is clearly wide enough for four tracks side by side. In other places, like San Mateo, it isn’t. Imposing a “no widening of ROW” rule makes the at-grade and even many of the below-grade solutions impractical or very costly.
• Third and finally, consistent with a project of this more limited scope, the Authority should abandon its preparation of an EIR (Environmental Impact Report) for a phased project of larger dimensions over a 25 year timeframe. Continuing to plan for a project of this scope in the face of limited funding and growing community resistance is a fool’s errand; and is particularly ill-advised when predicated on ridership projections that are less than credible.
So Eshoo, Simitian, and Gordon just called the people of California “fools”? The Authority is planning the system the people of California voted to build.
This whole bullet point is full of misstatements. Limited funding does require us to be thoughtful about how to build infrastructure. But the community resistance is still very small even if it’s growing – and tellingly, the statement totally ignores the clear majorities of the members of the community who still back the project. It’s as if those people don’t exist.
I’ve met with Senator Simitian to discuss this project. He saw the poll that became public last August – and I know Gordon is very familiar with that poll too. Both Simitian and Gordon have no plausible reason to write the huge numbers of HSR supporters out of this story. But that’s exactly what they have done here. It’s a huge slap in the face to their own constituents.
Especially when they make the false claim – and yes, it is a false claim – that the ridership numbers are “less than credible.” The Berkeley ITS report said no such thing. It said the numbers might be right and they might be wrong. But Eshoo, Simitian and Gordon are buying the anti-HSR spin put on that report. This is not just a slap in the face to their constituents, but a slap in the face to the people of California.
Within the existing right-of-way, at or below grade, a single blended system could allow high-speed rail arriving in San Jose to continue north in a seamless fashion as part of a 21st Century CalTrain (using some combination of electrification, positive train control, new rolling stock and/or other appropriate upgrades) while maintaining the currently projected speeds and travel time for high-speed rail.
If they can promise the latter objectives are met, then this can be explored. One key stipulation is that there be a one-seat ride from LA to SF. This “blended system” cannot require a transfer at San José. It is not credible for these three to talk about concerns regarding ridership and funding and then propose a system that would dramatically lower the ridership by forcing a transfer at San José. I’m disappointed that wasn’t acknowledged here. It will have to be, because a one-seat ride is essential. It’s not practical or workable to expect long-distance travelers to change to a commuter railroad to finish their journey into downtown San Francisco. Eshoo, Simitian and Gordon need to declare that option to be off the table.
The net result of such a system would be a substantially upgraded commuter service for Peninsula and South Bay residents capable of accommodating high-speed rail from San Jose to San Francisco.
All of this is possible, but only if the High-Speed Rail Authority takes this opportunity to rethink its direction.
Over the course of the past 18 months the Authority has come under considerable criticism from the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, the Bureau of State Audits, the California Office of the Inspector General, the Authority’s own Peer Review Group and the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. The Authority would do well to take these critiques to heart, and to make them the basis for a renewed and improved effort.
Why? Those criticisms, save for the Peer Review Group, have all been flawed (see here for an overview). The Authority is absolutely not bound at all to act on flawed analysis.
Frankly, a great many of our constituents are convinced that the High-Speed Rail Authority has already wandered so far afield that it is too late for a successful course correction. We hope the Authority can prove otherwise.
This is probably the most clearly, demonstrably false statement in the entire release. There is no evidence whatsoever that this is the case. There is a small but vocal group of people who are complaining from a basis of NIMBYism. What of the clear majorities who still support the project? The Menlo Park residents who welcome grade separation, no matter the vertical alignment? The Redwood City residents who would welcome a mid-Peninsula stop? The Palo Alto businesses who would welcome a fast way to get clients to and from their offices to points around the state? The bias against HSR in this statement is really quite shocking to behold, and does their cause no favors.
An essential first step is a rethinking of the Authority’s plans for the Peninsula and South Bay. A commitment to a project which eschews an aerial viaduct, stays within the existing right-of-way, sets aside any notion of a phased project expansion at a later date, and incorporates the necessary upgrades for CalTrain – which would produce a truly blended system along the CalTrain corridor – is the essential next step.
If Eshoo, Simitian and Gordon want these proposals to be given serious consideration – which they deserve – they need to give serious consideration to the fact that huge majorities of their own constituents, as well as a majority of the people of California, want this train built because they see its benefits. It’s time we heard more from these three about the benefits of the project, if they want our trust in helping them craft a compromise.
UPDATE: It’s also possible that the tone of the release is intended as an act of appeasement – keep the NIMBYs happy while assuming HSR backers will be on board. Speaking for myself, I won’t mind the tone at all if the actual policy content is good for HSR. And if you look closely at what I’ve said, the only real concern I have is regarding San José. There’s a bright line there: no forced transfers, no termination of HSR service at Diridon. HSR must continue all the way to Transbay Terminal as originally intended. If Eshoo, Simitian and Gordon support that too, then there’s a lot of opportunity to collaborate here.