My friend Neal and I were in a tall building recently looking out over the city, and noted that there is an interesting phenomenon in Houston. There are now enough tall buildings to almost outline a new zone. If you go from the Medical Center up to Downtown, west along Allen Parkway/Memorial, south along 610/Post Oak, back east to Greenway Plaza, and then southeast to return to the Medical Center (here's a satellite map of the area - sorry I'm not skilled enough to overlay an outline) there is an almost continuous - well not continuous - but a substantial line of skyscrapers. And it's pretty green within that zone, as least from an elevated viewpoint. And we named it "The Walled Garden". Somewhat similar aesthetically to New York's Central Park or Chicago's Millennium Park, but much larger and, of course, not a public park. It does, in my stretched definition, contain the key parks of central Houston: Hermann, Discovery Green, Eleanor Tinsley/Buffalo Bayou, and Memorial (my concept, my boundaries ;). It also contains such key areas as the Galleria, Highland Village, River Oaks, Upper Kirby, Montrose/Neartown, Midtown, the Museum District, Rice University and the Rice Village.
"Inside the Loop" is a very common phrase you'll hear in Houston. I'd like to think "The Walled Garden" could be a similar such phrase describing a narrower zone where young singles want to live (as evidenced by the explosion in apartment construction within it) vs. more family-oriented areas like West U, Bellaire, The Heights, or the various neighborhoods of the east side. It could also be used for branding and attracting young talent to Houston, like the way people talk about the Near North Side/Lincoln Park in Chicago or Santa Monica in LA or Manhattan in NYC. By having a unifying label over the area, it's easier to promote it. And I think "Houston's Walled Garden" has a pretty appealing ring to it.
Now if only they could only fill in the gaps a bit, maybe with a tower somewhere near Ashby and Bissonnet?... ;-)
I'll end with a few small misc items to close out the post:
Finally, I completely agree with the recent op-ed in the Chronicle advocating to keep the Battleship Texas at the San Jacinto battlefield (WSJ story). They attract far more visitors as a combination than separate. Trying to get kids to go see an empty battlefield? Boring. Oh, there's a real battleship there too. Cool!
This piece first appeared at Houston Strategies blog.
Economist Clifford Winston of the Brookings Institution outlines the surface transportation system of the future in a Wall Street Journal commentary, "Paving the Way for Diverless Cars." Winston notes "a much better technological solution is on the horizon" than high speed rail "as an effective way to reduce highway congestion" as the Obama administration in Washington and the Brown administration in Sacramento contend. Indeed, not even the voluminous planning documentation used to justify high speed rail provides evidence that the 21st century edition of an early 19th century technology can materially reduce traffic congestion.
Already Google has conducted experiments with the automated car that have been so successful that they are now permitted in Nevada. Winston suggests that by automating cars, it will be necessary to separate automobile traffic from truck traffic, which will make it possible to provide additional traffic lanes within the existing road footprint. Non-automated cars and trucks would continue to operate in conventional, wider lanes on the same right-of-way. Another advantage would be that with the automated control, more cars could be accommodated in each lane. The need for highway expansion would be largely displaced by substantially improving capacity by upgrading highways with 21st century technology.
Winston has been a critic of overly expensive urban rail systems and transit subsidies. Driverless cars were also the subject of a Wall Street Journal commentary by Randal O'Toole in 2010.
Big cities have been on a bit of a roll in recent years. But sometimes you can have too much success, as we may be seeing in the case of New York. This week the New York Times reported that finance firms are moving mid-level jobs away from Wall Street to places like Salt Lake City and Charlotte.
There’s a lot going on here. First, a lot this is driven by New York’s success, not its failure. New York is increasingly valuable as a site of high end production. As a result, lower value activities get squeezed out and replaced with higher ones. Despite the exodus of Wall Street jobs, New York City has been booming, and a stat from last year showed that the city was within 60,000 jobs of its all time employment high. This sort of churn is somewhat normal when high value and lower value economic geographies come into contact within the same physical space, as I noted regarding California in “Migration: Geographies in Conflict.”
It might be tempting for city leaders to actually celebrate this, but they shouldn’t. In a city that is desperate for middle class jobs, these are white collar middle class positions that are being lost. New York has stunningly high levels of income inequality – Joel Kotkin has noted it is the same as Namibia’s – and this can’t be making it any better.
Also, is there any precedent for a city being successful and dynamic, over a longer term purely as a production center for ultra-high end activities (with perhaps an associated servant class)? Sure, places like Aspen can do it. Imperial capitals seem to have been able to do something of the sort. Perhaps that’s how New York’s leaders like to see their city, but they are taking an awful risk.
New York is too concentrated in high end activities already, notably the high end of finance, as Ed Glaeser noted in his article “Wall Street Is Not Enough.” This renders it extremely vulnerable to downturns in that sector.
It might seem like exporting finance jobs would be part of that re-balancing, but when they are lower end positions, all you are doing is re-concentrating finance at more elite levels. Because to these types of businesses cost is almost literally no object, they have driven the cost of New York real estate through the roof.
When one industry becomes super-dominant in a neighborhood, Jane Jacobs noted it could lead to a situation she called “the self-destruction of diversity,” where a particular type of user – generally banks – gobble up the land and ultimate sterilize what formerly drew them to the area.
I wrote about this in regard to Chicago in a speculative piece called “Chicago: Corporate Headquarters and the Global City” in which I note a flow of corporate headquarters back into global cities, albeit reconstituted executive headquarters only).
This puts the bigger cities in a tough spot. They have to continue to go up the value chain because smaller cities are rapidly eroding their competitive advantage at lower ends. Ultimately we’ll see where this leads but I don’t think it’s healthy in the long term at all. Figuring this out is just one piece of the rebuilding our overall economy for the 21st century that needs to be accomplished.
Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs based in the Midwest. This piece originally appeared at The Urbanophile
The Economist reminds readers of the economics of housing (or for that matter, oil or any other good or service): constraining the supply of a good or service in demand raises its price. In a 14-page feature on London, The Economist decries the high cost of housing in London. And, for good reason, the 8th Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey showed London to have a median multiple (median house price divided by median household income) 6.9 in the fourth quarter of 2011. This figure, which would be more like 3.0 in a normally functioning market, is exceeded by few other major metropolitan areas, though Hong Kong, Vancouver, Sydney are more unaffordable.
The Economist noted that:
... perhaps the biggest constraint on development in London is the Green Belt. Established after the war, it runs (with perforations) all around London, to a depth of up to 50 miles, and bans almost all building on half a million hectares of land around the city.
Not only has this constraint led to higher house prices, but it has resulted in greater urban expansion and imposed greater costs, in time and money on commuters.
... it has pushed it into the greater south-east, thus spoiling the countryside across a bigger area. It has also raised the cost of housing and forced workers to travel farther. Commuting costs in London are now higher than in any other rich-world capital.
One alternative is to relax the Green Belt controls. The Economist points out that allowing development one mile into the Green belt would add one-sixth to the developable area of London. The Economist also notes that "far more than would be needed to make a huge difference to housing availability" and that opening the Green Belt "might not be an environmental disaster."
The Economist calculates that "the average London worker can buy half an average home." Britain would gain if the interests of those with a stake in a poorer middle class and greater poverty were to finally give way to the general welfare.
The Oregonian reports that suburban Hillsboro's first mixed use condominium development is no more. Washington Street Station, was built near the suburb's small but historic downtown (see Note on Hillsboro).
The project was opened in 2009, one block from the Hillsboro Central station on Portland's Max (photo) light rail line. The four floor building, located in a generally low-rise residential area with detached housing, was to have had commercial development on the street floor and owner occupied condominiums on the top three floors. But the market was not there. As 2012 began, none of the 20 units had been sold.
At that point, new owners decided to convert the condominiums to rental units and to convert the first floor commercial space into apartments as well.
Local planning officials indicate no concern about converting the condominium development to rental units, or the loss of the first planned mixed use development in the city. The Oregonian article indicates, however, that a soon to be built development, located just blocks away, will be required to remain mixed use for at least 30 years.
Note on Hillsboro: Hillsboro is typical for a mid-20th century exurb that has been engulfed by the expansion of a growing urban area. In 1950, the Portland urban area had a population of 500,000 (density 4,500 per square mile or 1,750 per square kilometer ), and Hillsboro was a compact exurb with less than 5,000 population, located outside the urban area. Today, the Portland urban area has approximately 1,850,000 residents (density 3,500 per square mile or 1,350 per square kilometer). Hillsboro, which is inside the urban area has more than 90,000 residents, most of whom are beyond walking distance from downtown and have much more convenient access to the big box stores (including the claimed largest "Costco" in the world), shopping centers and strip malls that do most of the retail business. Hillsboro is also the heart of "Silicon Forest" with its information technology manufacturing (such as Intel). As a result, the jobs-housing balance in Hillsboro now exceeds that of Portland according to 2010 American Community Survey data (1.48 jobs per resident worker in Hillsboro compared to 1.45 in the city of Portland).
Redaction Notice: September 17, 2012
Part of this article from June 28, 2012 has been redacted because of difficulties with the US Census Bureau's 2011 sub-county population estimates. In fact, these were not genuine population estimates at all, but were largely "fair share" allocations of county population change rates based upon the share of population in each jurisdiction. This issue is further described at was revealed on newgeography.com by Chris Briem and our new URL.
However, the fact remains that domestic migration trends continue to be from historical core cities to the suburbs, as the unredacted data below indicates.
Just released United States Bureau of the Census estimates indicate that the urban cores of major metropolitan areas (over 1,000,000) grew slightly faster than their suburbs between July 2010 and July 2011. Overall, the historical core municipalities grew 1.03 percent, compared to the suburban growth of 0.93 percent. Among the 51 metropolitan areas, 26 urban cores grew at a faster percentage rate than their suburbs (Note 1). However, suburban areas continued to add many more people. Over suburban areas grew 1,150,000, compared to 462,000 for the urban cores, indicating that approximately 75 percent of new residents were in the suburbs. Suburban areas had greater population growth in 43 of the 51 metropolitan areas (Table 1).
As was noted in Still Moving to the Suburbs and Exurbs, the core counties of US metropolitan areas, which contain the greatest portion of the historical core municipalities (Note 2) also grew faster than suburban counties between 2010 and 2011. However, that is not an indication of an exodus from the suburbs to urban cores.
Migration Continues from Cores (County Data)
There was net domestic migration (people moving between counties of the United States) of minus 67,000 in the core counties, while a net 121,000 domestic migrants moved into suburban areas between 2010 and 2011. The stronger core growth was driven by stronger international migration and a larger natural growth rate (births minus deaths).
Limited City Data Confirms the Trend
Migration data is not reported below the county level. As a result, historical core municipality migration data is not available, except where cities and counties are combined. A review of such cases confirms the finding from Still Moving to the Suburbs and Exurbs(Table 2). Among the 12 combined city/counties, there was a net domestic migration loss of 49,000 in the historical core municipalities, while there was a much smaller net domestic migration loss of 1,000 in the corresponding suburban areas.
Note: Table 2 is retained since the Census Bureau produced genuine population estimates for counties. Table 2 includes only municipalities that are coterminous with counties, and thus were not subject to the "fair share" population growth allocation method inappropriately applied at the sub-county level.
|Historical Core Municipality Domestic Migration 2010-2011
|(Where Cities and Counties are Combined)
|NOT CLASSIFIED (Due to Hurricane Katrina)
- Among the seven combined city/counties formed before 1950 (excluding New Orleans), the historical core municipalities had a net domestic migration loss of 55,000, while the suburban areas had a smaller net domestic loss of 21,000. In four cases, the historical core municipalities had domestic migration losses. In the three cases in which cities had domestic migration gains, there were also domestic migration gains in the suburbs. In this group, New York had a domestic migration loss of 57,000 despite having an overall population gain of 55,000 (the gain resulting from international migration and natural growth)
- Among the four combined city/counties formed after 1950, the historical core municipalities had a net domestic migration loss of 4,000, while the suburban areas had a net domestic migration gain of 20,000. In two cases, the historical core municipalities had domestic migration losses. In the two cases in which cities had domestic migration gains, there were also domestic migration gains in the suburbs.
- New Orleans is a special case, by virtue of the fact that it is "still rebounding from the effects of Hurricane Katrina," according to the Bureau of the Census and remains 20 percent below its 2005 population. New Orleans is the only case that meets the requirement of historical core net domestic migration gain and suburban net domestic migration loss to demonstrate the likelihood of movement from the suburbs to the city. The historical core municipality had a net gain of 10,000 domestic migrants, while the suburbs lost 90, which could indicate that a very small number of people moved to the city from the suburbs (Note 3).
Moreover, the county data indicates that in 25 of the 49 metropolitan areas with suburban counties, core counties lost domestic migrants between 2010 and 2011.
The Effect of "Staying Put"
As with the previously released county population estimates, the city data that is available indicates that Americans are staying put in the difficult economy. Domestic migration has fallen substantially. Over the past year, 590,000 people moved between the nation's counties. This domestic migration compares to an annual average of 1,080,000 between the 2000 and 2009 (Figure 1). This reduction in domestic migration has made international migration and natural growth more prevalent, and as a result, core growth has been stronger.
Note 1: An article in this morning's Wall Street Journal contains information different from this article. The Wall Street Journal article classifies some cities as urban core that this article defines as suburbs (such as Fort Lauderdale [Miami], Aurora [Denver] and Arden-Arcade [Sacramento]). This article defines urban cores as historical core municipalities.
Note 2: All historical core municipalities are principally in one county, except for New York (city), which is five counties.
Note 3: The Bureau of the Census domestic migration data is limited to a net number for each county, so it is not possible to determine where people are moving to or moving from.
Setting aside my own wishes for the Astrodome, and just looking at the plan recently presented by the HCSCC to Commissioners Court, there is a very simple fix that will make saving the Astrodome *much* more likely.
- $270m to convert Astrodome into multi-purpose venue
- $385m to demolish and rebuild a new Astrohall/Reliant Arena
Net cost estimated to be $523m after tax credits.
MAJOR PROBLEM = getting voters to approve a half-billion dollar bond issue (!)
Tear down an obsolete Reliant Arena and fold whatever functions a new one would have into a renovated Astrodome. It's not like the Astrodome doesn't have enough space. Heck, it could probably do just about everything they wanted to do in it originally and still have room for everything they want to do in a new Arena. We lose a building nobody cares about and preserve a building everybody wants to save at probably less than half the price of the current proposal (something voters might actually approve).
A big win-win, yes? If you agree, please contact your County Commissioner asap and let them know. They're meeting to make some decisions on this plan very soon - possibly this week.
This post originally appeared at Houston Strategies.
The world's largest English language newspaper, The Times of India reports that the Rio 20 Summit has agreed with India that "eradicating poverty should be given the highest priority, overriding all other concerns to achieve sustainable development."
The Times continued: "After a bitter fight with the developed countries, who wanted the objective of poverty eradication be made subservient to creating a 'green economy', India's demand to put the goal of removing poverty above all other objectives in the final Rio+20 declaration — called "The Future We Want" — was agreed to..."
The "G77" group of developing nations sought to ensure that economic and social sustainable developed goals were not secondary to "more green themes — such as renewable energy targets." The United States is reported to have supported the G77 position.
Getting out was essential but I was stuck in Brooklyn until I could plot my escape…
There was no such thing as “diversity” in white, working-class Bensonhurst in the 1950s. Only the Jews and the Italians.
My tribe descending from Yiddish-speaking East European immigrants who settled in cramped tenements and worked in the schmatta trade of Manhattan’s lower east side.
Moving – after the war – across the East River to apartments with bedrooms and bathrooms; a 50 minute commute to “the city” on the west end line of the BMT. Sharing the neighborhood with Southern Italian Catholics, a few Irish and fewer blacks and Puerto Ricans who worked for – but rarely lived among – us white “ethnics.”
My father drove a cab six days a week and my mother typed for a living. We weren’t poor but sometimes for dinner my mother would serve macaroni with ketchup. Sally and Irv enjoyed themselves occasionally – they played penny poker with friends on Saturday night, she watched Liberace, he watched the Yankees, and now and then they would go out for “Chinese.”
But much of the time they were frustrated and miserable. Irv was known to friends and cousins as “easy going” and – though he didn’t drink – could “snap” and do a lot of damage. Sally was always worrying and felt ashamed of her divorce in the 1940s. Her daughter, my “half” sister, twelve years older, lived with us and hated my father (for good reason).
I was acting out at home – yelling, cursing and defiant – and in junior and senior high: cutting classes and on my way to becoming an official “truant” and dropout. In the grip of adolescent anguish, by 14 I would ruminate incessantly about girls, particularly the local Italians, whose appeal was intensified by a taboo that would prevail into the 1970s and beyond.
Even my pre-pubescent preferences leaned in that direction, stimulated by those lusty Italian ladies of Bensonhurst. Cleavaged, tight-skirted and toe-nail polished, they seemed more overtly libidinal than the Jewish women in the neighborhood. My fascination was a distraction from family problems and a way to imagine my escape. I enjoyed other diversions, as well: scooting around the corner to play punchball or pedaling my bike to the Cropsey Avenue Park or buying an egg cream – for twelve cents – on Bay Parkway and 86thStreet.
Rivalries erupted from time to time between the Jewish and Italian boys. I was involved in some of these courtyard fist fights. Though the violence was minimal (no weapons: just a few punches in the face, a headlock and then a submissive “I give.”), these neighborhood battles would not only contest virility but would reveal an ethnic-based class resentment.
While many of my Italian peers became very successful academically, professionally and financially, it was the Jewish kids who were most eager to leave the old neighborhood (this is decades before the borough became trendy for Gen X bohemians). This ethic of upward and outward mobility, built into Jewish cultural DNA, has fashioned a Jewish-American Diaspora – from Hester Street to the “outer boroughs” to the upper west side, Hempstead Long Island, Southern California and points in between.
For a time, I resisted the traditionally available route for a smart Jewish kid to get ahead. Depressed and anxious, I was flunking out of school. Developing instead the style of free spirit, a malcontent and a wanderer; a persona which required that I reject my parent’s values with a simplistic, snotty and condescending critique of them as vacuous and conventional.
This fit right in with “generation gap” rhetoric and prevailing notions of liberation pulsing through the counter culture in 1967. I could distance myself from my painful past and pathetic parents, disparage their “material values” – appalled, for example, by their choice to cover their sofa with clear, thick, sticky plastic – and fashion myself as superior.
It would take awhile before I would better understand how my parent’s lives shaped my political values. By my late teens I saw as merely incidental the fact that they had joined the ranks of New York’s unionized civil service. My father was forced out of taxi driving by his health, becoming a clerical for the state insurance fund; my mother putting her fast fingers to work for the city’s board of education.
But a lonely 17-year-old had no time for such reflections. On nights when I had trouble sleeping, I would slink out of my parent’s apartment to wander the streets. There was always the faint hope of an exotic sexual encounter, but most of these three-in-the-morning outings were a time for thoughtful solitude.
Walking past the Coney Island Terminal – the last stop for Brooklyn-bound trains from Manhattan – just a few blocks from the Atlantic Ocean and the famous Boardwalk, Aquarium, Cyclone and Nathan’s, I was ruminating over my academic circumstances.
In a few hours, I would be starting a new high school. (My parents and I had, in fact, deserted Bensonhurst – but only barely – relocating a few neighborhoods south to Brighton Beach which, ten years later, would take in thousands of Soviet émigrés and gain national fame as “Odessa by the Sea.”)
I stayed up all night, walked along Surf Avenue as far as “Seagate,” (one of America’s oldest gated communities on the western edge of Coney Island) and – somewhere along the way – decided to stop screwing around in school.
I could tell this was a big deal. Later in life when I started to chart these pivotal events, I would mark my Surf Avenue expedition as the first of many.
That semester in Lincoln High I stuck to my resolve, dropping bookkeeping and merchandising, flipping back to a college prep curriculum, re-taking failed classes – geometry, biology – and planning an extra year in high school.
Though I would finish Lincoln with a weak overall record, my academic performance improved substantially the final two years – enough to let me shop around for a college which would recognize my potential.
The last stop on my exit from Brooklyn would be the NYU psychology clinic for nine months of analytic psychotherapy with a grad student who would later become a successful New York analyst. Nowadays, concerned and proactive parents who detect problems in their kids are quick to refer them to psychologists for therapy and psychiatrists for medication. But this was my initiative and I jumped at the chance to see a “shrink.” Twice a week I rode the subway into lower Manhattan and – for 50 cents a session – began what would be decades of various forms of psychotherapy (including a brief period in which I aspired to be a therapist myself).
Coincidentally – and ironically (given my ultimate career choice) – in 1970, the NYU psychology clinic building was located at 23-29 Washington Place which, 60 years earlier (then known as the Asch Building) was the site of the Triangle Shirt Waste Factory fire which killed 146 immigrant garment workers – mostly young Jewish women.
I didn’t find out until years later that the building held such enormous historical significance; that this epic tragedy – which triggered fire code and workplace safety reforms across the country – took place at the spot where I was preparing for my life as an adult.
Though oblivious to quite a bit happening around me (preoccupied with, among other things, overcoming my awkwardness with girls), I was however starting to absorb some of what was going on in the world.
I could recount stories here about my cultural and political “awakenings” – tying my personal development to iconic historical events: the M.L. King and Bobby Kennedy killings, Woodstock (I was there), the Democratic National Convention police riot (I wasn’t there) – but I’ll save for another time my detailed reflections on this period in American culture and politics. Hasn’t enough already been said about how sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll changed our lives?
Though I was linked to prevailing counter-culture sentiments – appropriately appalled by the War in Vietnam and other U.S. “atrocities” – my political views were confined (or should I say restrained) by a mainstream liberal tendency that I’ve maintained to this day.
Sure I was impressed by Ivy League SDSers taking over the dean’s office – I respected their dedication to social causes (and the fun they seemed to be having). But my own working-class resentments may have been surfacing in reaction to what was then perceived – not always correctly – as the “privileged” student protesters of American middle class families.
My working-class “liberal populism” reflected my parent’s political values pretty closely (though I couldn’t know this at the time). One example would be my lack of resistance to Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 presidential. The “no difference” argument didn’t hold as I lined up happily with New Deal Labor Dems to try to beat Nixon.
I also took an intense interest in the reform movement in Eastern Europe against communist totalitarianism. While I assume most American liberals and radicals at the time aligned with Czechoslovakians in their protest against Soviet tyranny, I felt a particular affinity for the young reformers. My revulsion to Soviet Communism was sealed for life when Russian tanks and troops crushed Alexander Dubcek’s Prague Spring.
I don’t want to make too much of all this – I was just a kid – but I always felt a slight pull to the political center and couldn’t quite wrap my head around radical-chic notions about the Panthers, Mao or a range of utopian ideas espoused by elements of the new left. Though I might have looked like one, I was not a revolutionary.
Twenty years later, I would find a very nice fit within the American Labor Movement, navigating comfortably among the so-called old guard and the new generation of union militants. I would develop a revisionist view of Sally and Irv, less critical of their values and more appreciative of how a few extra dollars in their pockets – thanks partly to the New York public sector unions – could make a big difference in workers’ lives.
I would also take on a more balanced – you could say compromised – view on the potential for personal transformation and social change. Economic conditions do shape peoples lives, but individual choice enters the mix. America – at its best – gives you a shot (at least it used to) and you make of it what you will.
As a Brooklyn, working-class, Jewish American – introspective and inclined toward progressive (but practical) politics – I feel lucky to have come as far as I have.
I’ve spent my life trying to overcome an agitated mother and angry father. By 10, I was bratty and foul-mouthed; by 13, sexually-fixated and withdrawn; by 16, defiant and delinquent. To compensate, I would develop very subtle behaviors to conceal my feelings of isolation.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. By the end of the 1960s, these formations were incubating. In the 1970s I would work on my narrative: success on my own terms and an ongoing struggle for American justice and personal salvation.
I would also figure out that blaming parents or “society” for low self-esteem – even if it opens the door to self-acceptance – can only take you so far.
Decidedly, early June has not been the best of times for the California high-speed rail project.
On June 2, came a new poll showing that fifty-nine percent of voters would now oppose building high-speed rail if the measure were placed on the ballot again. Sixty-nine percent said that they would "never or hardly ever" ride the bullet train if it were built. (USC Dornsife/LA Times survey). The poll made news throughout the state, and indeed nationally. The public was treated to headlines such as "Voters have turned against California bullet train" (LA Times); "California high speed rail losing support" (Bloomberg); "California high speed rail doesn’t have the support of majority of Californians" (Huffington Post); "Voters don’t trust state to build high speed rail" (CalWatchdog) and "Poll finds California voters are experiencing buyers' remorse" (Associated Press).
Then, on the heels of the poll, came news that Central Valley farm groups have filed a major environmental lawsuit asking for preliminary injunction to block rail construction slated to begin later this year. Plaintiffs include the Madera and Merced county farm bureaus and Madera County. Still more agricultural interests in the Central Valley are reportedly threatening to sue.
The Sierra Club, traditionally a loyal supporter of Gov. Brown, announced it was "strongly opposed" to Brown’s proposal to eliminate California environmental (CEQA) requirements for the high speed rail program and its Central Valley construction project. The Brown administration has made its proposal despite a solemn promise to the legislature by the Authority’s Chairman, Dan Richard, that they would never try to bypass CEQA ("We have never and we will never come to you and ask you to mess with the CEQA requirements for the project level").
The multi-billion dollar HSR program is exactly the sort of large scale public works project that CEQA was designed to address, wrote Kathryn Phillips, Sierra Club’s Director in a June 5 letter to the Governor. "By removing a large-scale project such as high-speed rail from full CEQA coverage, the proposal grants the state a status that suggests it does not have to fully and seriously consider and mitigate environmental impacts. ... In the interests of the environment and in the interest of rebuilding public support for rail in this state, we urge you in the strongest possible terms to abandon the proposal to weaken environmental review for the high-speed rail system," the letter concludes.
Nor was this the end to unwelcome news for the Brown administration. A series of editorials and opinion pieces by some of California’s most influential columnists has reinforced the public’s growing disenchantment with the bullet train project and with the Governor’s stubborn determination to defy public opinion.
In a June 3 commentary, the Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters, a longtime observer of the legislative scene, refuted the Governor’s attempt to compare the high speed rail project with the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Both projects, the Governor had said in a ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the bridge, took much political courage and foresight, and both will go down in history as remarkable gifts to posterity.
"Nice try, Governor," wrote Walters, but the comparison is misleading. The need for the Golden Gate crossing was clearly demonstrable and the bridge used revenue bonds to be repaid with bridge tolls. The need for a bullet train, on the other hand, "exists only in the minds of its ardent backers" and the Governor assumes that the federal government will finance nearly two-thirds of the project’s cost—an assumption that is nothing more than wishful thinking. Asked Walters, if the train is as financially viable as Brown and the Authority insist it is, why wouldn’t they do what the bridge builders did — float revenue bonds to be repaid from the train’s supposed operating profits. "Public works projects make sense when they fit well-documented needs. When they don’t, they are just political ego trips," Walters concluded.
Daniel Borenstein, columnist and editorial writer for the Contra Costa Times, came to a similar conclusion. In pushing for the bullet train, he wrote, Gov. Brown is motivated by a quest for a legacy. But, the columnist warned, while the Governor strives to be remembered like his late father for the capital projects he leaves behind, he could derail the November tax measure by his "reckless exuberance for spending billions on high speed rail." "Does he really want to anger [the voters] when he needs them the most?" Borenstein asked.
Perhaps the most devastating criticism of the Governor’s high speed rail initiative came in a June 8 editorial in the San Jose Mercury News, one of the Bay Area’s most influential newspapers. Entitled "High Speed Rail Plan is Delusional" the editorial has been syndicated in a number of Bay Area and Los Angeles Sunday papers. Follow this link to read it at the Mercury News website.