Will SoCal Cities Try to Slow High Speed Rail?
On the San Mateo County peninsula, a small but determined group of people were able to mobilize NIMBY attitudes to force the California High Speed Rail Authority to postpone plans to fully upgrade the Caltrain corridor to accommodate high speed rail service. Now they’re trying to do the same in Southern California, and they’ve enlisted our old friend Ralph Vartabedian to help.
Vartabedian’s latest article is an attempt to mobilize residents living along the proposed HSR route from Los Angeles Union Station to Palmdale to organize to try and slow the trains down:
Groups opposing the project say sentiment may change after upcoming environmental studies detail all of the homes, schools, businesses and other locations that could be affected. Next year, the rail authority will issue two key environmental reports that will begin the legal process of defining the exact route between Bakersfield and downtown Los Angeles.
“Just wait until they understand what it is going to do to them,” said Elizabeth Allen, a co-founder of Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Development, a Bay Area group that has sharply criticized the project.
I think he meant Elizabeth Alexis, but accuracy was never Vartabedian’s strong suit. In any case, the article is full of efforts to try and convince readers that OMG this project is going to be hugely disruptive. But if you look closely, the argument just doesn’t hold up against the evidence. He wants readers to see the Peninsula NIMBYs as heroes, but neglects to point out that their “victory” is quite temporary:
The Bay Area eventually won that demand for a “blended system,” which will sharply curtail speeds to about 110 mph or less from San Jose to San Francisco, and limit the number of peak-hour bullet trains that can operate. Essentially, true bullet train service will end at San Jose.
Of course, what Vartabedian doesn’t mention is that these limits are temporary in nature, that they exist as part of the overall phasing of the project and that eventually true bullet train service will go all the way to Transbay Terminal in downtown San Francisco.
Another voice trying to rile up members of the public, and a likely instigator for the article, is LA County Supervisor Mike Antonovich:
There are no such speed limits planned in L.A. County, but Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich would like to see one.
Antonovich, whose district covers miles of the route from Palmdale to the San Fernando Valley, wants the bullet trains to use existing Metrolink tracks and limit speeds to 110 mph.
“This has to be realistic, and in these urban areas you can’t have 220-mph trains with safety and community support,” said Antonovich, who is also chairman of the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. “They are completely misinformed.”
Sure you can. It depends on the design of the tracks and their location, but it’s entirely possible to hit 220 mph safely and with the support of the community. It’s not the operations of the trains that are the problem, it’s where to put the tracks, and as we’ll see even that doesn’t seem to be too problematic. I don’t exactly know why Antonovich is waging a campaign to scare his constituents, but he ought to be helping resolve concerns rather than stoke them.
Many of the concerns raised in the article are spurious or not exactly unsolvable. For example, there’s this claim that is quite easily debunked:
The line also would pass about a football-field length from the Sulfur Springs Elementary School, creating a noise and safety problem, said Michael Hogan, a school board trustee and chairman of a local rail group.
Huh? This is nonsense. At a football field’s length away, noise will be minimal. And there won’t be any safety problems since the tracks will be secured, not just sitting there for anyone to walk on. As chairman of a local rail group he ought to at least have that level of basic knowledge of high speed rail operations to not be making such obviously flawed statements.
Santa Clarita has raised concerns about the tracks’ impact on their town, but the impacts don’t look all that serious to me:
So far, Santa Clarita is not officially opposed to the project, said Michael Murphy, the intergovernmental relations officer.
But after a meeting in June, which attracted about 200 concerned residents, the City Council sent a letter to the rail authority saying it had “serious concerns.” Included in the letter was a request that the authority extend an 8-mile-long tunnel under the city by 2 miles to avoid a future development the city hopes will create new jobs, Murphy said.
About two dozen homes in the city are in the projected path of the bullet train, Murphy said. Where the rail line would emerge from a tunnel in the affluent Sand Canyon area of Santa Clarita the effects would be significant.
I don’t think a “future development” that the city is expecting really counts as the same sort of disruption as two dozen homes and a church in the path of the proposed route. Even then, it’s not uncommon for homes to have to be purchased in order to build a transportation project, whether it’s widening a freeway or building a new one. The proposed Centennial Corridor in Bakersfield would take up to 400 homes, which is significant, yet that project still has community support. And I refuse to believe that unspecified “effects” on an affluent neighborhood are worth the city of Santa Clarita opposing the project.
At least Vartabedian offers some balance to his article, pointing out that Tehachapi residents are supportive of the project:
The views are quite different an hour’s drive away in Tehachapi, where the main line of the Union Pacific runs through downtown and the town embraces its 125-year-old railroad culture.
Each day a couple of dozen freight trains announce their arrival with blasting horns that echo for miles. Aiming to fix the apparent nuisance, city officials negotiated with the railroads several years ago for “quiet zones.” But the initiative fell apart when residents protested that they liked to hear the whistles blow.
Such sentiments bode well for the bullet train, which would run through the city’s northern boundary.
Councilwoman Susan Wiggins, part of a political clan that includes her late brother Michael Deaver, President Reagan’s deputy chief of staff, says it’s a non-issue in Tehachapi.
“I can’t think of one person standing up at a City Council meeting fussing about it.”
I’m sure that there will continue to be discussions and debates about how to best implement high speed rail in Southern California. But perhaps those discussions and debates will be more constructive and less full of fear, invective, and misleading claims than what we saw on the Peninsula. Perhaps it’s a forlorn hope. But Tehachapi’s sensible attitude could just be a harbinger of a new day.