Dan Richard’s Evolution on High Speed Rail
Last Thursday night, California High Speed Rail Authority board chairman Dan Richard made a very interesting comment while on a panel discussion about HSR:
Before taking the helm of California’s High-Speed Rail Authority, Dan Richard told Gov. Jerry Brown that the plan was “really screwed up and going to end up biting you in the ankles.”
Richard didn’t like the idea of sending it up the Peninsula to San Francisco as opposed to traversing Altamont Pass. He also was in league with those who thought laying the rail along a stretch of the Central Valley was a bad beginning to the ambitious $69 billion project.
But that was then. Thursday, Richard told about 60 people gathered at San Jose State for a high-speed rail forum that he no longer has “the luxury of being a guy throwing stones.”…
Richard said he changed his mind about the path the train should take because the route must have a terminus in San Francisco, and swinging across from the Altamont would take longer, require a costly bridge crossing and trigger legal challenges.
As far as the Central Valley start, he said the existing stretch of rails from Stockton to Bakersfield sees a million riders a year, which would bolster paying passengers as the system builds up to high-speed rail.
He also emphasized that it’s not just about transportation, but also changing cities along the route and revitalizing them by bringing in more density.
Richard’s journey is that of someone who came to HSR without very much information, who took a close look at both the project and its context, and understood that the existing plan is sensible and valuable given California’s needs.
Legally the project has to terminate in downtown San Francisco, and that makes sense given that it is the main destination in the Bay Area. So the problem with Altamont was that to get to SF, you would have to either go out of your way to hit San José or give up the huge ridership pool that resides there, or build a new bridge across the San Francisco Bay. That would raise a great deal of quite legitimate environmental concerns, as opposed to the parochial and self-interested concerns raised by the Peninsula NIMBYs.
Starting in the Central Valley is also something that may seem strange to people who haven’t really thought about passenger rail in California very much. Sure, construction costs are cheaper there so it makes sense to start there, but for many coastal Californians, the Central Valley is simply less important in their minds – an attitude this blog, founded by someone whose life in California was spent on the coasts, has consistently opposed.
More importantly, we know what happens if you focus initially on upgrading rail in the coastal metro areas – you never finish the middle sections. California lacks fast, reliable rail service between the Bay Area and Southern California precisely because the money has so far gone to invest in those regions and not to connecting them. We already tried the “build on the ends first” strategy and all it’s gotten us is an unclosed gap through the Tehachapis and a glacial pace in starting up the Coast Daylight service.
Finally, Richard came to understand that this isn’t about simply moving passengers from Point A to Point B. Like all other transportation systems, it’s about economic growth and bringing the state closer together economically for the decades to come.
Even Elizabeth Alexis, who was also on the panel, understood this, albeit as a point of criticism:
She said the train will more likely turn areas surrounding Fresno into a “suburb of San Jose,” gobbling up agricultural land in favor of development when there’s an hourlong commute to work.
She’s right in the big picture, that Fresno would become linked to San José, but she’s wrong to assume it means agricultural land would get “gobbled up.” A high speed rail station in the middle of Fresno would attract growth closer to it, rather than further away. Fresno is willing to add density in that area, so there’s no need for people to live on the edge of town. And with ever-rising gas prices, there’s little financial incentive to do so.
Still, it’s good to see that Dan Richard has made the evolution and become a strong defender of the project. And I think that path makes him all the stronger of a leader. He knows how most Californians, who haven’t had the time or inclination to look closely at these issues, view the project. That means he knows how to speak to them and how the Authority can orient itself to address those common concerns.
Some concerns, of course, will never go away. The event made it quite clear that many on the Peninsula are dug in for the long haul when it comes to opposing improvements to the rail corridor there. Adina Levin’s comment was interesting:
Adina Levin, member of a Peninsula-based Caltrain advocacy group, said “lingering distrust” remains toward the rail program.
“There’s a lot more acceptance of the (new) system,” she said. “But people still feel really nervous about how the High-Speed Rail Authority acted several years ago.”
She’s no Peninsula NIMBY. But her comment does indicate that the battles will go on. I would read what she sees as “lingering distrust” another way. In 2009, when Peninsula residents began taking a close look at this project they’d ignored until voters approved it, they were shocked and angry to learn that it would mean changes to the configuration of the Peninsula Rail Corridor. Those changes are good ones – grade separations and more tracks are beneficial to them and to their communities as well as to rail passengers – but some on the Peninsula reacted very negatively, not wanting to see any change at all.
But they also knew that if they spoke out as NIMBYs, nobody would pay attention to them. So they instead tried to undermine the credibility of the Authority, accusing them of violating trust. But they never did any such thing. The problem was that the NIMBYs expected the Authority to behave the same way their local governments did – to immediately cave to their demands. But the Authority did no such thing, and proceeded ahead with the mandate given to them by the Legislature and by the voters. That infuriated the NIMBYs, who claimed it was some sort of violation of trust. They’ve never quite gotten over their sense of entitlement, or their constant string of political and legal defeats.
And so they will continue fighting:
Alexis acknowledged that “at this point it’s very hard” to fight the rail plan, but added that even if the funds are found and the entire project comes to fruition, she would wait before calling it a victory for the state.
“Is that success?” she asked. “Success is a railroad that turns out to be a good investment for California rail. Too often, success is did you get to the ribbon-cutting, not did we build the right project, just did we get the damn thing built?”
The key is that to Alexis, “the right project” is “one that doesn’t change her neighborhood.” By that metric she’ll be consistently disappointed. But by the metrics that matter most to the people California – quality of service, speed, reliability – the project as envisioned will be a success not just for the state as a whole, but for Palo Alto too.