Source: WIRED: Zach Rosenberg
Democracy, it has been said, is two wolves and a sheep voting on what to eat for dinner. We’re seeing that in California, where resistance to a planned high-speed rail line is mounting in three affluent cities. A vocal, and influential, grassroots movement has sprung up to reroute the line around the San Francisco Bay Area communities or have it run underground.
There is tremendous support — not to mention a concrete plan and $10 billion to get the project started — for a high-speed line linking San Francisco and Los Angeles. But disgruntled residents of Menlo Park, Atherton and Palo Alto could make things very difficult. The cities are home to some of the Bay Area’s wealthiest residents, and they’re suing. Their NIMBY opposition could turn the project into a mind-bogglingly expensive and impractical boondoggle.
This issue goes beyond the Bay Area and California, because other proposed high-speed lines almost certainly will face similar opposition. The plaintiffs simply do not want the trains running through their neighborhoods, and such views are not unique to California. The Obama Administration set aside $8 billion in stimulus funds for high-speed rail and our next transportation spending bill could include as much as $50 billion for it.
As high-speed rail becomes a national reality, planners of potential lines can expect fierce resistance in the courts and intense local political pressure.
The California resistance comes from communities that voted heavily in favor of Prop. 1A, the 2008 ballot initiative that allowed the state to issue bonds worth about $10 billion, or roughly one-quarter the total cost of the project. The measure passed with 52 percent of the vote. Gov. Schwarzenegger has sought another $4.7 billion of the $8 billion set aside in the stimulus package. Forty states are pitching projects — some 272 applications in all — totaling $105 billion.
California’s project is well into the planning process, and the cities of Atherton and Menlo Park have joined some environmental groups in suing the California High-Speed Rail Authority and Caltrain. They’re the two major bureaucratic forces behind the project. The suit alleges two things: first, an improper environmental assessment; second, infringing on Union Pacific’s track ownership.
The first issue is relatively straightforward — the plaintiffs argue studies of the environmental impact the project would have on their communities weren’t handled correctly and therefore underestimate the noise, vibration, displacement and other problems the line would create. Much of this was settled in an earlier lawsuit, but the judge sided with Atherton on a few minor issues, allowing for further suits.
The second point requires a little history: Southern Pacific once owned the tracks California hopes to retrofit for high-speed trains. In 1991, Southern Pacific, which became part of Union Pacific in 1996, sold the tracks to Caltrain for use as commuter tracks, but it retained the exclusive right to use them for freight and to hire an operator for intercity trains. The latest suit claims Caltrain lacks the authority to allow intercity high-speed trains on the tracks because Caltrain is dealing with the High-Speed Rail Authority, not Union Pacific. Union Pacific, which has been happy to allow high speed rail as long as it can still haul freight on the lines, seems puzzled by the lawsuit.
Assuming the plaintiffs aren’t actually outraged at the creek displacement or wholly overlooked violation of California contract law, this appears to be, at its heart, a case of NIMBYism. The plaintiffs worry about the noise, vibration, increased traffic and loss of privacy — and decreased property values — high-speed rail might bring. They also argue that no one involved in the project adequately or honestly studied alternatives, which, in fairness, is true. These are legitimate issues.
So the proposed solutions are to reroute the rail line or run it through underground tunnels (or both). The proposed reroute might require passengers to stop at an Amtrak station and transfer to Amtrak. Burying the line would be extremely expensive, while rerouting and burying it makes it more expensive and impractical.
Huge projects like this always inflame passions and incite litigation. It is a usual and occasionally necessary part of the process. But California’s high-speed rail line, which is currently the country’s best shot at a credible and useful high-speed intercity train, will be built one way or another.