Blended HSR Plan for Peninsula Gains Momentum
A few months ago the “hybrid” or “blended” plan for mixing high speed rail and Caltrain on the Peninsula generated strong criticism from HSR advocates, including on this blog. However, it’s also clear that support is growing for the plan. The Bay Area Council’s recent endorsement of a hybrid plan and call for the MTC to lead its implementation as part of a larger statewide rail plan appears to now be gaining increased momentum:
Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani, D-Livingston, who wrote the language in Proposition 1A, a voter-approved $9 billion bond measure that passed in 2008, told the Daily Journal that a plan offered in May by state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, and two other high-ranking lawmakers may be an acceptable way to get high-speed trains into San Francisco quicker by limiting the system to Caltrain’s right-of-way rather than constructing the full buildout of the system on four tracks.
Galgiani initially opposed the idea because Simitian said back in May that getting just one high-speed train into San Francisco a day would satisfy the legal requirements of Proposition 1A….
“I wrote the bond language and there is nothing that says it all has to be done at once,” Galgiani said.
A blended system could help ridership build up to then determine any additional infrastructure needs, she said.
“It is important to determine the needs of the system and the community,” Galgiani said.
Galgiani is quite correct here, and it may make sense to use a blended approach in the interim to carry high speed trains to San Francisco via the Peninsula while longer term plans are developed to implement fast, high-capacity passenger rail on the Peninsula rail corridor. The current fit of NIMBYism will fade, as those who cling to 20th century fantasies of metropolitan life will be replaced with those who realize that passenger rail is essential to high property values and a good quality of life.
If a blended plan can provide access to downtown SF for a significant number of trains, carrying enough passengers to make the HSR system pencil out financially, without preventing longer-term fixes for the system on the Peninsula, then yeah, it’s probably worth considering. The details matter a lot, and HSR advocates need to be at the table for any such discussion.
Will the blended plan be enough? Maybe not. The San Mateo Daily Journal article linked above indicates HSR critics may shift the goalposts, in an effort to undermine the project no matter the details:
Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, said the California High-Speed Rail Authority, however, needs to present a feasible business plan for the project come October or face calls of ditching it outright.
Cost estimates have gone from $30 billion to $40 billion and now to more than $60 billion to fund the project, a figure taxpayers simply cannot afford, Hill said.
“Escalating cost overruns are outrageous. Who is going to pay that when there is no guarantee for a private partnership? This project could double the state’s debt service,” Hill said. “If the third business plan in October doesn’t pencil out, it is time to pull the plug on the project.”
How will “pencil out” be defined? Will Hill include the costs of doing nothing? Will the $80-$160 billion cost to expand freeways and airports to handle the traffic that HSR would carry? What about the cost to the economy of gas prices? What about the lost productivity that comes from sitting behind a wheel or on an airplane? What of the financial costs of carbon emissions that would be spewed in the absence of HSR? What about the lost jobs that would have been created for HSR and the tax revenue those jobs would have been created?
I’m guessing Jerry Hill wasn’t even thinking of those costs at all, and his accounting is probably unbalanced and deeply flawed.
And that does give me pause about embracing a “blended” approach on the Peninsula. If this is to be a compromise, then HSR critics need to have some skin in the game. They need to stop attacking the project, stop calling for it to be defunded, and start working with us to find ways to make it work. If a “blended” HSR plan is just a way to bait HSR supporters into backing some NIMBY-friendly plan while the critics run around making nonsensical claims and trying to destroy the project itself, then that’s no compromise at all, and HSR advocates should stay away from the effort.
If the Peninsula wants a “blended” solution and are asking HSR advocates to give up some things, they need to meet us halfway – and that includes, at a minimum, a cessation of the misleading and evidence-free attacks on the project. If they’re serious, they should have no problem at all agreeing to those terms.