In 2008, California voters approved Proposition 1A to allocate $9.95 billion of the state’s money to a high-speed rail system. Just two years later, many of these same voters are yelling and screaming at the High-Speed Rail Authority to revise their plans. Why have Californians turned against this project so quickly?
Initially High Speed Rail seemed like a wise investment. The California High-Speed Rail Authority posts a video on its website of President Obama outlining the benefits of high-speed rail systems. However, by now this video seems a bit dated. In this April 2009 speech, Obama claims that not only would high-speed reduce travel time and emissions, but it would also decrease gridlock and save or create 150,000 jobs. It would be faster, cheaper, and easier. As if that were not enough to convince you, he goes on to say that the project is “on schedule and under budget.”
Yet today, the California’s high-speed rail system has stalled. Citizens and state officials alike have lost faith in the rail authority to competently plan, fund, and build a rail line from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The project’s developers continue to scramble to secure funding.
Not surprisingly, the cost of HSR in California has soared well above initial projections. Estimated costs for the first phase alone have risen from $30.7 billion in 2008 to $42.6 billion, adding over $10 billion to the original total of $45 billion. This is a problem. Though it received $9.95 billion in bonds through Proposition 1A, the California Rail Authority still must depend heavily on private business to foot a significant, and likely growing, portion of the bill. California treasurer Bill Lockyer has doubts that the rail authority will be able to sell the deal – due in part to a lack of consistent estimates in ridership or cost – to either potential bond-buyers or California consumers.
Perhaps an even more serious problem has been caused by the hastiness with which California’s HSR is being developed. There often has been little consideration for local public opinion.
A case in point lies on the Peninsula just south of San Francisco. The rail authority is hurrying to build on the Peninsula so that it can qualify for federal funding. But they have run into a flurry of complaints from city governments and citizens. Though it initially proposed building a trench system, essentially a shallow box for the train that would be covered at street crossings, it backed off on the idea in an August 6 application for federal monetary support. Instead, the Authority plans to run the line mainly on aerial structures to save money for later construction. “If the trench solution is selected,” it claims, “then less infrastructure could be implemented.” Since then it has switched to erecting aerial structures in Burlingame as well.
Many cities along the Peninsula have rebelled over these abrupt adjustments. One of the primary arguments for high-speed rail has been to help the environment, but qualms about aerial structures are also rooted in environmental concerns. Menlo Park, Atherton, and later Palo Alto filed a lawsuit against the rail authority in 2008 in a partnership with four environmental groups, complaining that the authority did not conduct a thorough environmental review of the trench system before scrapping the idea. Judges in Sacramento are currently reviewing the authority’s plan to use the southern Pacheco Pass entrance from Merced, which the plaintiffs claim is less ecologically friendly. Decisions like these do not fit with California state environmental laws that require agencies to study several alternatives before approving a project.
This lawsuit only made minor gains in addressing the cities’ complaints. While a Sacramento judge required the rail authority to make some concessions in the 2009 ruling, it sided with them on most of the issues, mainly because the state’s responsibility in this project remains unclear. However, recent developments over aerial structures have stimulated a tsunami of lawsuit threats. In one editorial, Martin Engel, a transportation commissioner for Menlo Park and opponent of California’s high-speed rail, rallies the Bay Area using a mob mentality: “Those towns that have refused to join the PCC out of fear of Atherton, Menlo Park and Palo Alto’s penchant for lawsuits, now have to re-assess their reluctance. Lawsuits are the only genuine legal negotiating tools at our disposal.”
But, in reality, lawsuits are not the only weapons in the Peninsula’s arsenal. Democratic Assemblyman Jerry Hill of San Mateo has threatened to put high-speed rail back on the ballot if costs start to surpass initial estimates. This puts enormous pressure on the California Rail Authority since every day delayed means a rise in costs. If it does not secure the support of Peninsula cities soon, these extra expenses will push costs over the estimate and push the project back to the voters.
San Mateo and Burlingame, though not involved in Atherton and Menlo Park’s original lawsuit, have just as much cause to complain. Almost one-third of the track crossings on the Peninsula would be in both cities. Building will certainly disrupt the businesses in the cities’ respective downtowns, many of which have flourished with locally owned boutiques and restaurants. Burlingame, “The City of Trees,” prides itself on the natural beauty of its neighborhoods. Cement walls carrying clamorous trains will undoubtedly disrupt this bucolic reality. If high-speed rail is put back on the ballot, it is likely that these cities will vote it down.
Communities, not just city governments, are coming together to stop high-speed rail. The Community Coalition on High Speed Rail in Palo Alto, for example, is holding a presentation about the rail authority’s use of eminent domain in this project. The proposed elevated rail structure would displace residents, some permanently, and would lower the value of surrounding homes because of the elevated noise and traffic. The Coalition has been very active throughout the summer and will continue to fight for Peninsula residents.
The already dire situation with Caltrain, the Peninsula’s current rail system, should provide a warning for city officials about the viability of high-speed rail. It has cut costs recently because of decreased ridership, which now averages 2,000 fewer riders per weekday compared to 2009, a 5% drop. Train stops have already been eliminated from Tamien in San Jose down to Gilroy. Caltrain’s experience has hardly shown the viability of expanded rail service.
To some, high-speed rail epitomizes a new era of California infrastructure innovation. Yet a less sanguine reality is seeping in. Project costs continue to rise even as ridership estimates decline. The resulting increase in ticket prices creates even less of an incentive to choose rail over air travel. Even worse, the California Rail Authority is beginning to alienate potential riders from the Peninsula down to Los Angeles, many of whom could conceive of more useful ways to employ the state’s slender resources.
Kirsten Moore is an undergraduate student at Chapman University and native of the Bay Area. She is a double major in history and screenwriting, focusing primarily on US social history.
Photo of high speed rail station groundbreaking by mayorgavinnewsom