Wednesday, April 27, 2011

With High-Speed Rail, as goes the Peninsula, so goes the State.

Here's a Wall Street Journal Online article about high-speed rail developments  on the Bay Area Peninsula. To reiterate, as the California high-speed rail project goes, so goes the Nation. And a handful of us are the firemen trying to put out this horrendous fire before it spreads and does its multi-billion dollar damage.

For those of you not living in California and high-speed rail watchers, you should know that the California High-Speed Rail Authority, an appointed Board of politicians, retained Roelof Van Ark, formerly from Siemens/Alstom in Europe, to be the CEO of this project.  Roelof the Ruthless was their "turn-around" guy. Hence this project is being bulldozed across the state despite any and all objections.

When you read Jeff Barker's name in the article, the spokesman for the CHSRA, you should know that he was closely involved with our former Governator's election campaign, he who is now back home in Hollywood whence he came. (California has a bad habit of doing that.)  

Jeff also had a close hand in creating an insiders group of PR types trying to get the rail authority contract for public relations.  Caught at it, they had to cancel the effort and start over, now employing Ogilvy for $9 million dollars. So, Jeff was in the revolving door from Schwarzenegger staffer to PR director for Schwarzenegger's rail authority board.  Incestuous is the norm with this project.

What that means, not to distract you from this article, is that a government agency -- the CHSRA -- hires an expensive PR firm to sell the people of California a government program, and to manage its relationship with the voters and taxpayers to make them accept a totally unacceptable project.  We Californians are being lied to, snookered and scammed on a daily basis;  it's that kind of PR!  Did I mention that the election ballot language for the bond issue in 2008 which kicked off this nightmare was full of distortions, disinformation and lies?

But, I digress.  Living in Menlo Park, the lawsuits that have been mounted against the rail authority are somewhat familiar to me since Atherton, Menlo Park and Palo Alto are the plaintiffs.  There have been suits in the past and there will be more in the future.  My own basic position is, "Sue the Bastards!  

My divergence from my neighbors however, is based on the fact that proximity of the project is merely one concern among many.  The project does not warrant existence in the United States, in California or in either northern or southern California.  It should not happen on the Bay Area Peninsula.  It should not happen, period. This blog is dedicated to telling you why.

One Stanford University professor, Scott Klemmer, is reported to be critical of our HSR objections by appealing to California's traditional willingness to "embrace innovation."  He goes on to decry what he calls our "baseless fear of change in our own backyard."  Well, Scott Klemmer, I can't speak for all Californians, but I for one embrace innovation, as you put it. Innovation brought me to Silicon Valley, like the '49ers, only in pursuit of silicon. 

Contrary to your inference, Prof. Klemmer, High-Speed Rail in California is not innovation; it's an overpriced political boondoggle, and shame on you for not recognizing it for what it really is.  All the parts of this train system will be bought off the shelves of other countries, even if some if them are assembled here.  That's not innovation.  What is going on is a kind of 'Penis Envy' among a lot of politicians who have taken fast train rides in those other countries.  It's even become a Presidential Vision in order to "win the future." When it comes to high-speed rail, we lost that future forty years ago. 

And, about that "baseless fear of change in our own backyard".   It's not baseless. The evidence is there on a daily basis. California is my backyard.  I oppose the construction in the Central Valley just as much as on the Peninsula, and am highly sympathetic to the concerns and plight of the farmers there who have raised a cry of opposition to a project that will cut their farms in two without access from one side to the other. That's not baseless.  I depend on those farms, as do you, Scott Klemmer.  I don't care where you live, Prof. Klemmer, but it's your backyard as well. It's not change you and I fear, it's reckless and completely unnecessary destruction of the urban and rural environment, and we all should fear and oppose it.

There was a time when I believed that tunneling the train would get it out of sight and out of mind.  I now know better.  It really doesn't matter what the route or the alignment is.  It is simply a terrible concept and shouldn't happen.  Despite what many of my colleagues believe -- that it can be done "right" (whatever that may mean) -- or that the words of Eshoo/Simitian/Gordon have substance and will somehow make the project acceptable, is nonsense.  Their political performance is a content-free act meant to ingratiate them with their voters. It will have no consequences.

The article points out the occasional comparison with the beneficial economic impact of the earlier Southern Pacific railroad on the Bay Area Peninsula.  Well, those were primarily freight trains hauling produce from all the Peninsula orchards.  They moved troops to and from the army training camp in Menlo Park during World War II. And, well before Silicon Valley, they moved the rich from weather-challenged San Francisco to visit their summer homes on the southern parts of the Peninsula.  

Today there is a grossly mismanaged commuter rail system there, Caltrain, the management of which needs to be terminated in order to save that under-funded commuter rail service. The Rail Authority seeks access to that rail corridor in order not to serve the Peninsula at all, but to fly over it on its way to San Francisco.  It should be pointed out here that the bulk of the Bay Area population lives in and around the East Bay, where the train is not going.  San Francisco and the Peninsula represent only a small fraction of the total Bay Area population that it is sooo important for the rail authority to connect to Los Angeles.

The article cites the work of one of our 'opposition' colleagues, William Grindley, whose papers have appeared on these blogs. Grindley's basic premises -- that this rail project simply doesn't pencil out -- are substantiated with empirical data and analyses from highly competent and successful financiers, academic economists, and leading businessmen from Silicon Valley and elsewhere.  His case is that this project will be a permanent major drain on the state's economy and its taxpayers.  It will serve too few people, create too few jobs, mitigate no traffic congestion or fossil fuel consumption and can never, ever see its capital costs recovered.  Grindley's substantiated grounds are sufficient to justify the termination of this high-speed rail project in California.

APRIL 28, 2011
Fast Train Hits Snags in Silicon Valley
Atherton, Menlo Park and Palo Alto Say High-Speed Rail Will Hurt Property Values; 'We Just Hope the Project Dies'

California's high-speed rail project is moving ahead despite waning enthusiasm in Congress, but opposition by several Silicon Valley cities threatens to slow the network's construction.

Atherton, Menlo Park and Palo Alto this week filed new legal briefs in their lawsuit that seeks to challenge the proposed bullet train's route through the peninsula. They claim the elevated track structure proposed for their communities would be unsightly and threaten property values in some of the wealthiest enclaves in the country.

"We have many houses close to the railroad in the multiple millions in value," said Atherton Mayor Jim Dobbie. "We just hope the project dies."

Last week, U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, a Democrat whose district includes the three cities, issued a joint statement with two state legislators calling for the elimination of the elevated structure and characterizing the project's ridership estimates as "less than credible."

Such strenuous opposition to a high-tech rail line from the capital of high technology strikes some proponents of the system as ironic. "The success of Silicon Valley and California as a whole has been an ability to embrace innovation," said Scott Klemmer, a Stanford University assistant professor who is a member of the group All Aboard Palo Alto. "It's a real shame that we're seeing a baseless fear of change in our own backyard."

Some opponents suing the state's High-Speed Rail Authority would like to see the bullet train—designed to link San Francisco and Los Angeles in under three hours—killed entirely. Others advocate placing the line underground in a tunnel or running it in the East Bay.

California voters in 2008 approved the sale of nearly $10 billion in bonds to fund the rail project, which has a total estimated cost of $43 billion for the San Francisco-Los Angeles leg. The electrically powered trains would travel over 200 miles per hour in less populated regions but slow to under 120 mph on the peninsula, where the line would follow the path of the Caltrain commuter-rail system.

The initial construction is slated for next year in the Central Valley. The risk of litigation was a factor in selecting that starting point rather than one in a more populous area, said California High-Speed Rail Authority spokesman Jeffrey Barker.

Atherton and Menlo Park, along with other plaintiffs, originally sued the rail authority in 2008, challenging the environmental plan for the railway. That forced a more detailed explanation from the authority about the proposed path of the rail line. Last fall, the plaintiffs, joined by Palo Alto, filed an additional complaint that, among other things, contends the trains might be excessively noisy and that ridership estimates are unrealistic.

Mr. Barker said the ridership estimates are simply trying to account for the "broadest possible scenario" for potential ridership.

He said that options such as running the trains through an open trench instead of on an elevated structure in the peninsula are being discussed. The trains' slower speeds within the peninsula likely will mitigate the noise, he added, but placing the line underground in a tunnel could be prohibitively costly.

Some supporters of high-speed rail in the area said the project could be a boon for the local economy, in the same way that the peninsula's earliest rail line helped foster growth in emerging communities more than a century ago.

"The vast majority of people in those communities are staunchly in favor of building high-speed rail," said Rod Diridon Sr., who served on the High-Speed Rail Authority's board of directors for a decade until January. The authority initially did a poor job of explaining the project in Silicon Valley, he added, but said the effort had since improved.

Rosanne Foust, a member of the Redwood City city council and a supporter of the rail plan, says interest in transit-oriented development could end up increasing some property values near the future line, though she said the impact will hinge partly on whether the Silicon Valley segment of the project has two tracks, or four, which would require a larger elevated structure.

But opponents say an aerial structure will be a blight on the region. Larry Klein, a member of Palo Alto's city council, said he has told lawmakers the planned train line would inflict "severe damage on our community."

One of the project's most vociferous critics, Atherton resident William Grindley, suggests the total price to build the rail system from San Francisco to Los Angeles will climb to some $66 billion, $23 billion more than the authority's estimate. Mr. Grindley, a retired management consultant, said he doesn't officially represent Atherton in his campaign against the rail line. He adds that a network of other residents, including Intel Corp. Chairman Jane Shaw, have helped vet economic analyses used to lobby against the project. Ms. Shaw declined to comment.

Mr. Barker, the rail authority spokesman, said he didn't believe Mr. Grindley's estimate, though he added that costs could rise if litigation delays the project.

The rail line faces pockets of opposition in other parts of the state. Meanwhile, federal budget cuts have pulled funding for high-speed rail for the remainder of fiscal 2011. Mr. Barker said there has been no immediate impact in California from the cuts, though the project's timeline could be affected.
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