The June 2015 California High Speed Rail Authority board meeting in Los Angeles felt more than a little familiar:
During more than six hours of public comment by about 150 people, one speaker after another attacked the project as the eight-member California High-Speed Rail Authority board listened quietly. The testimony came from residents and leaders in small towns and growing suburbs along proposed routes through the mountains north of the Los Angeles basin. Many speakers said the project would devastate their quality of life or their local economy.
Residents of several low-income and predominantly minority communities, including San Fernando, Pacoima and Sylmar, complained that their neighborhoods would be divided by 20-foot-high sound walls along the high-speed train corridor. Some said their areas had been already been chopped up by three major freeways and a dozen dumps.
These concerns sound almost exactly like what some residents of Palo Alto and Menlo Park were saying back in 2009 when the first real public opposition to HSR emerged as planners began looking at the details of building out HSR and Caltrain expansion on the Peninsula rail corridor.
So turn off that episode of Lost, put some Lady Gaga on your iPhone 3G, and let’s take a closer look at yesterday’s board meeting.
The first thing to note is that while I think the criticisms of the CHSRA’s public outreach in 2009 and 2010 were overblown, the current CHSRA is doing a very good job of handling these concerns with respect and fairness:
Rail board chairman Dan Richard said the meeting was the biggest protest he could recall during his tenure.
“What you saw here was the high-water mark of all the different communities affected,” Richard said. “It’s human nature to look at this from the standpoint of the biggest negative impact.”
The SR 14 route, which generated the most outcry among speakers at yesterday’s meeting, has been on the books for over a decade. It was shown on the maps used that year to describe and promote the HSR project and Prop 1A. It would have been entirely fair for the CHSRA to say “you had your chance” and look at only minor changes to that route.
But to their immense credit, the CHSRA has instead agreed to conduct a study of a completely new alignment to connect Palmdale and Burbank that would consist of a long tunnel bored under the San Gabriel Mountains. The cost could be enormous and the technical challenges would be significant. Yet the CHSRA is giving it very serious consideration, which I take to be a genuine sign of respect for the concerns being raised by residents in places like Acton, Santa Clarita, Pacoima, and San Fernando.
While Ralph Vartabedian is still trying to spin this story as some kind of portent of doom for the project, his story – co-written by Soumya Karlamangla – does make it clear that planners and officials are fully aware that there will be a spike in vocal opposition to HSR routes once detailed planning begins in their neighborhood:
Opposition to large transportation projects, such as rail lines and freeways, often intensifies as the plans become more precise and the effects on surrounding residents and businesses more evident, experts say.
“When you get close to an environmental document and a decision point, that’s where concern grows,” said Mark Watts, interim executive director of Transportation California, a Sacramento advocacy group for transportation projects. As for the opposition emerging in L.A. County, he said, “I can’t even fathom what their response is going to be.”
That said, while this kind of opposition is now to be expected, it’s not necessarily any easier to handle. The situation on the Peninsula remains screwed up, as the early protests led state officials to agree to punt on the question of how to build a wider rail corridor. The result was a phased plan that would include some HSR trains using the existing tracks to get to and from San Francisco. That in turn means a longer travel time from SF to LA, and while this is merely a temporary situation, some HSR critics are seizing on that to claim that the project now violates Prop 1A.
Southern California political leaders would like to bury as much of the tracks as possible. And given that more opposition came from folks along the SR 14 route than the eastern routes, one might conclude that the outcome here might indeed be a long tunnel under the mountains.
But the LA Times article did a good job (no, really) of pointing out that there were speakers at the meeting who opposed those eastern routes as well:
But other residents were strongly opposed to the underground routes, which would be bored through the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument. Speakers from Kagel Canyon said they depend on wells that could be harmed by tunneling. Some warned that train tunnels could disrupt water supplies that are critical to both the city and county of Los Angeles.
Environmental groups have been some of the project’s biggest supporters, saying high-speed trains could reduce pollution. George Watland, director of the Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club, said his organization is still backing the route along the Antelope Valley Freeway because it has the least effect on water tables, wildlife and critical habitat. He said many of his members would object to a tunnel beneath the forest and national monument, even if it were not visible.
“The tunnels have a bigger footprint and high costs, all of which make the project less likely to happen at all,” Watland said.
Even if the CHSRA had a blank check to build whatever they wanted, a tunnel under the mountains comes with significant technical challenges – and its own share of strident local opposition.
Many speakers made personal appeals to the board:
You’ve got to be sympathetic to these concerns. Losing your home sucks, even if you’re going to be paid a fair market value for it.
At the same time, we should also have sympathy for the thousands, perhaps millions, who could lose their home to rising seas or drought. Losing a home or a view sucks, but HSR benefits millions with cheaper travel, more jobs, less pollution, and fighting climate change.
While these residents have concerns, so too does the state as a whole. And it’s worth keeping in mind that after years of bad publicity, a majority Californians continue to support high speed rail. They continue to vote for pro-HSR candidates and end the statewide ambitions of those who oppose it.
In many ways, the most challenging problem HSR faces is local opposition like this. When some locals tried to block the Expo Line, it was easier to roll over that because the line brought tangible benefits to so many neighborhoods. Sure, you might not be wild about a new overhead crossing in your neighborhood, but you’ll also get a station close to your home that can take you to, in the Expo Line’s case, the beach, Third Street, USC, the Coliseum, Staples Center, downtown LA, and so much more.
HSR’s challenge is that it’s going through these neighborhoods and not offering the benefit of a station. There had been discussion in years past of putting a station in Santa Clarita or Sylmar. That might be worth revisiting. On the other hand, Palo Alto residents and elected officials flipped out even though the CHSRA was offering them a station, so maybe this isn’t much of an answer.
The tracks have to go somewhere, and they can’t be buried the entire length of the state. Someone is going to be unhappy with the final decision. Whatever that final decision is, it needs to be made in the best interests of the state as a whole, and with as much respect to neighbors as is financially and practically possible.