Monday, December 13, 2010

The Central Valley is not our problem


You can tell from the tone of the article that the CHSRA doesn't give a damn about anybody it's trains will run over or through. Everything and everybody to them are obstacles to be overcome, by brute force if necessary. That goes for the LA Basin, the Bay Area Peninsula, and now, the barely existing villages in the Central Valley. Time to round up the villagers with their torches and pitchforks. Time for them to stop this imperial juggernaut.

Jeff Barker, spokesman for the CHSRA, frequently makes the point that the initial construction for the high-speed train in the Central Valley of California is just that, the initial construction. The rest of the train construction, he assures us, will follow. That is, it's merely the first sixty or so miles of a 800 mile project. You have to start somewhere.

That makes sense only IF there is the likelihood of funding for the rest of the train. And, there isn't.

There are lots of other IFS:

•If this project had been conceived and designed initially by rail engineers experienced in high-speed rail construction rather than by back-room politicians who know nothing about rail but know how to squeeze dollars out of governments and obtain political benefits for themselves.

•If the CHSRA Board had been transparent and honest about what it wanted to build.

•If the CHSRA Board had begun the entire process in close and genuine collaboration with all the urban environments that were to be impacted.

•If a well designed project began in short sections that had high transit demand, such as from Los Angeles to San Diego. Both California population centers, meant to be connected with the HSR, themselves are deplorably deficient when it comes to urban and regional public mass transit. First things first.

•If the project had been initiated when the economy was healthy, capital development was affordable, and it was suitable and attractive for private investment. People like to cite the Interstate Highway System, Hoover Dam or the Golden Gate Bridge as projects that came in on budget and on time. Well, yes and no. Indeed, some were built during the Depression.

But, that was then, and this is now. And what is proposed is clearly, unambiguously, a pork-barrel, boondoggle project meant to distribute funding rather than build a cost-effective and useful vision. Think of it as a parallel to the fact that if BART had been built entirely around the Bay, north and south when it was being developed, we would not have many of the transit challenges we have now.

•If California already had a successful inter-city regular rail transit system. Indeed, the Coastal rail line was profitable in the '30s and 75% of its traffic was tourism. But, rail, other than urban and regional transit, is nearly non-existent and what does operate under Amtrak is totally irrelevant to inter-city transit traffic.

To make my point, it would be better for everyone if Disney ran the north-south train lines in California rather than Amtrak. European HSR is built on top of an already highly effective rail system that has been the backbone of the Continent's transit culture for several centuries. California has nothing of the kind.

•Add you own ten other IFS.

As an avid opponent of this project, it's not that it will begin in the Central Valley that concerns me. But that it will start ANYWHERE at all. That's my problem with it. I am very fearful of the foot-in-the-door effect. That is, it will become much harder to stop it when construction has started. And stop it we must!


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Herhold: To understand high-speed rail's first leg, look at politics and engineering

By Scott Herhold

Mercury News Columnist

Posted: 12/12/2010 03:09:23 AM PST

Updated: 12/12/2010 06:39:45 AM PST

CORCORAN -- Ask barber Armando Mata whether he likes high-speed rail and he'll talk about how badly his Central Valley town needs the economic boost. "Moneywise, we're in a hole," he said. "If it creates jobs and causes fewer cars on the road, it'd be good."

Ask Mata whether he rides trains himself and the bluff, friendly haircutter will give you the kind of bemused look that surfaces after a suggestion to eat snake meat. "Oh no," he said. "My daughter has. But I haven't."

The barber's verdict summarizes the view toward high-speed rail in this suffering farm community, which has suddenly become the front line for California's battle over whether to build the $43 billion bullet train: People desperately want jobs. But there's no groundswell to board the train.

The real reason for laying the first track in the Central Valley -- and this will be no big surprise -- has to do with two powerful forces: engineering and politics.

This month, the California High-Speed Rail Authority board designated the first leg of the controversial project, a 65-mile sector between Corcoran -- a town of 15,000 about 50 miles south of Fresno -- and a dot on the map called Borden, a freeway interchange just south of Madera.

It's been derided as the "train to nowhere." Cost: $4.3 billion. Time from place to place: 17 minutes or so at top speed. High point: downtown Fresno. Catch the Grand Slam breakfast special at the Hanford Denny's before taking the train to buy your fertilizer at Britz Grower Solutions in Borden.

Yet the train clearly has an audience. In an area where unemployment hovers above 16 percent, the promise of 83,000 new jobs offers a powerful reason to embrace the line. At the same time, a flat stretch of land lets the planners and engineers hone their stuff.

Jeff Barker, the deputy director of the high-speed rail authority, points out that the system has to start somewhere: Inevitably, there will be a learning curve for engineers (the planning kind). And it's better to start on a flat stretch.

"You want to take a first chunk that's pretty easy," he told me. "You want to start where you can have some success. Land here is relatively inexpensive."

On Thursday, the rail authority announced that the federal government had agreed to move $624 million from other states to California, which could allow the first leg to connect with a bigger urban center. I read that as an attempt to escape the "train to nowhere" label.

Amtrak connection

Even if all goes badly for high-speed rail -- it is not fully funded now, and spear-rattling Republicans have seized control of the House -- Barker says the first 65-mile stretch could be used by Amtrak.

By laying the first section from Corcoran to Borden, the high-speed rail authority sticks the camel's nose under the political tent. It will create an argument to rescue the train to nowhere by finishing the line to the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

The competition here will not be toward the middle, as it was in the famous Central Pacific-Union Pacific meeting in Utah in 1867, but toward the edges. In effect, the rail people see the Central Valley track as a goad to the big urban centers to connect.

The rail planners are keenly aware that a Central Valley line faces less resistance from the NIMBYs, or not-in-my-backyard forces, who have vowed jihad in the Bay Area.

Corcoran chatter

That doesn't mean controversy won't surface. In Corcoran, a town of discount storefronts and empty sidewalks where loudspeakers blare Christmas carols, the early but polite talk centers on where the trains will go.

Though the small city isn't scheduled to have a stop, it will be affected: Some residents don't want high-speed rail running on elevated tracks through town, which already has 25 freight and Amtrak trains a day.

The other option, a bypass to the east of Highway 43, will irritate farmers.

"We're in the same boat as everyone else. We heard it on the news," said city planner Kevin Tromborg about the route.

"They're talking about breaking ground in 2011, so you'd think they'd let us know pretty soon," he added dryly.

History offers a rhyme to all this: In 1898, Corcoran was the place where the northern and southern branches of the San Francisco and San Joaquin Valley Railway met. But few people seem to be holding their breath for the new trains.

"This whole thing, they really don't know what they're doing," said Bill Hoffrage, a pilot from Madera who has followed the issue. "It just boggles my mind that they've gone this far with things. What's it gonna do for us?

They're talking about building a terminal in downtown Fresno. Why? Nobody goes to downtown Fresno."

Contact Scott Herhold at or 408-275-0917.