Caltrain MOU Vote Delayed As Lynn Schenk Voices Concerns
Usually California High Speed Rail Authority board meetings are interesting for the information learned about the project’s development. Rarely can I remember any genuine disagreement among board members over something substantive. But there was disagreement today and it was enough to cause a delay in approval of the agreement with Caltrain to share its tracks.
At the meeting in Redwood City today, Vice-Chair Lynn Schenk voiced her concerns about the so-called “blended plan” – the interim solution for sharing tracks with Caltrain and high speed rail on the Peninsula. Because there are three vacancies on the board, Schenk’s opposition meant that there weren’t the votes to approve the memorandum of understanding with Caltrain, and it was delayed to next month’s meeting:
Board Vice Chair Lynne Schenk, a long-time skeptic of the “blended” approach championed in the Peninsula, appeared to surprise her colleagues by playing the role of runaway bride and taking a stand against the new agreement. Since the nine-member board has three vacancies and because another board member, Michael Rossi was out of town, Schenk’s opposition effectively deprived the board from having the five votes it needs to ratify the new agreement.
Schenk, a former Congresswoman from San Diego and the board’s senior member, said she would be voting her “conscience” in opposing the new agreement. While her colleagues, most of who have been appointed in the past three years, have largely embraced the blended system first proposed by then-state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, and U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, Schenk has not been swayed. She said Wednesday that she cannot support the electrification of Caltrain “at the expense of the ultimate goal of high-speed rail.”
“I owe the people of California nothing else than voting my conscience,” Schenk told her colleagues at the Wednesday meeting in Redwood City, to which she jokingly referred as the “lion’s den.” “I hope you all expect that this is not something that is reflective of the work you’ve done and your very legitimate goals here.”
Schenk has been called the “mother of high speed rail” for having taken the lead in the early 1980s to propose the first high speed rail route in California when she was Secretary of Business, Transportation and Housing during Governor Jerry Brown’s second term. Schenk strongly supports the original concept of high speed rail – Shinkansen style trains operating on dedicated tracks enabling them to hit top speeds.
The “blended plan” is a shift away from that model, at least for a short period of time. And it was adopted at the behest of anti-HSR politicians such as Joe Simitian, catering to wealthy NIMBYs along the Caltrain route.
I have never liked the “blended plan.” I would much rather see a full four-track buildout happen as soon as possible. And yet I have been willing to go along with the “blended plan” as a political move. By punting the ultimate decision about building a four-track system several more years into the future, it’s possible, in theory, to wait the NIMBYs out and once gas prices have soared higher, ridership and demand on the corridor start pushing limits, and as communities along the track realize their mistake, we revisit the four-track system then.
There’s a risk to that, of course, and in the meantime we’re left with a “blended plan” that isn’t as ideal as we deserve. So while I’m willing to support it (and I do, let me be clear about that), I also respect Lynn Schenk’s reasons for dissenting. She’s right to raise concerns and I won’t criticize her for doing so. Her goal is to preserve the original vision of the high speed rail project, which is exactly what she ought to be doing.