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California High-Speed Rail Faces Trouble In Palo Alto — And More In Washington

Skepticism over the funding and logistics of California's largest undertaking has raged from local city council meetings to Washington.

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post on Tuesday, August 23. 

ATHERTON, Calif. -- Walk down Ashfield Road in this well-heeled town of 7,000 on the San Francisco Peninsula and you'll find million-dollar homes surrounded by tall fences and lush, manicured landscaping. Down by the railroad tracks at the end of the street, the post office, the police department, the library and a small town hall cluster together -- a perfectly self-contained unit of municipal government.

It conjures a postcard vision of the way the Golden State was always meant to look, its residents must think -- before politicians brought California to the brink of ruin with decades of financial mismanagement and pie-in-the-sky ideas.

Now this town fears one of those crazy schemes will land right where Ashfield Road meets a commuter railroad's right of way. High-speed rail is coming to Atherton's back yard, and Atherton isn't happy about it.

However testy Atherton may get, though, if a high-speed train does whisk down these tracks at 125 miles per hour, it will be a sign that the United States is still a country that can build big, daring infrastructure projects. And it will be a sign that the country is willing to spend big, on the scale of $60 billion dollars or more, on ambitious public projects that might create hundreds of thousands of well-paying jobs.

The train would prove that Dick Durbin was wrong when he spoke about the death of Keynesian economics during the deficit debate. The project has secured more than $3.6 billion in federal funding guarantees, making it perhaps the most daring recipient of economic stimulus funding under the Recovery Act.

If the train never comes, the moral of the high-speed rail story will be considerably more complex. Residents, legislators and analysts are likely to dispute its meaning for decades, every time bullet trains are offered as a solution to the transportation problems of an America where highways only get more crowded, airplanes less reliable and gas prices more infuriating.

Countries from France and Spain to China and the central Asian nation of Uzbekistan have built high-speed rail lines. In America, however, even Amtrak’s Acela trains often travel at speeds no greater than those once accomplished by steam engines.

Meanwhile, California's high-speed rail program hangs in a state of suspended animation, with boosters confident that ground will be broken in late 2012 as planned, and opponents equally certain they have already killed it.

The critics got more ammunition two weeks ago when California's High-Speed Rail Authority announced that just one segment would cost $3 to $6 billion more than planned -- and the cost of the total project could skyrocket even more in October when the authority releases a business plan.

"The cost of a project of this magnitude are always going to have some variance," said Thomas Umberg, chairman of board for the High-Speed Rail Authority. "In my view this is not a significant variance."

Umberg is confident the project will proceed.

"I do not think the project is in danger," he said. "I think that the leadership exists in California and elsewhere to complete the project. And I think that the popular support for the project in California will also continue."

For now, the leadership to which Umberg referred is toeing the line. Last Wednesday high-speed rail got a vote of confidence from Governor Jerry Brown, who campaigned as a backer but had lately seemed to waiver, when he told the Fresno Bee that he still supported the project. "I would like to be part of the group that gets America to think big again," Brown said.

Just holding on to Jerry Brown, however, might not be enough.

HIGH-SPEED HOPES

The Golden State's dream of a bullet train between Los Angeles and San Francisco started back in 1996, with the establishment of the High-Speed Rail Authority. For years that agency, underfunded and understaffed, had a whiff of science fiction about it. Then in 2008, the state passed a referendum, Proposition 1A, hoping that it could knit together Northern and Southern California while creating jobs to lift the state out of its Great Recession doldrums.

Price tag: $9.95 billion in state bonds, to be matched by federal funds and complemented by private investment, for a total of $45 billion spent. It would be the largest infrastructure project in the nation, something as audacious in its aims as the Interstate Highway System. The pro argument in California's voter guide touted the project's potential to create 160,000 construction jobs and 450,000 permanent jobs.

Daniel Curtin, director of the California Conference of Carpenters, said "the jobs themselves in building it are quite substantial, but more important is the economic engine in it that drives economic development."

If the train is built, he believes, far-flung places like Fresno, which is currently "three hours from everywhere," would essentially become suburbs of the state's two big metro areas. "There are foothills in Fresno that are fabulous, just beautiful, but you can't get there. It's easier to get to Tahoe, for crying out loud, from the Bay Area."

When Prop 1A passed, bullet train boosters were ecstatic. The then-chairman of the authority, Quentin Kopp, said the vote proved Californians were "as intrepid and energetic as the argonauts of the 19th century and our forefathers during the Depression who built the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge."

Kopp neglected to mention that the vote approving the Golden Gate Bridge happened long before the Depression. The California State Legislature created a bonding authority to finance the project in 1923. Another ten years passed before construction began, then another four years before the bridge was finished. Nobody expected California's train to be done before 2020, but if Kopp's analogy is more apt than he intended, it would be 2018 before the state breaks ground.

The Golden Gate Bridge's design employed a novel design that allowed it to sway in the wind, and perfecting that innovation, along with the manifold other challenges involved in engineering the bridge, took years of hard work. The high-speed train project has taken so long, however, not because it is engineering innovative new trains -- the state can simply buy those off the shelf from Europe or Japan -- but because it must assemble the nuts and bolts of financing and a route plan.

A typical week on the authority's calendar from last year highlights some of the many political stakeholders who need to be placated or at least disarmed along the railroad's 800-mile stretch: a meeting at the Rancho Cordova Rotary Club, a public information meeting in Fresno, a meeting with the Southern California Association of Governments, a scoping meeting in Stockton, a community meeting in Anaheim, another scoping meeting in Merced, and a legislative hearing held by two state senators in Palo Alto City Hall.

High-speed rail is an all-state effort, but if California is ever going to build the system, it will have to break ground in some smaller section of the state. Yet what might seem natural for the first phase -- putting tracks along the highly populated areas near San Francisco and Los Angeles, so trains could start running immediately and making money -- isn’t what will happen.

In order for the high-speed rail project to receive federal stimulus money, it needed to prove that it could start building quickly, before the 2012 deadline included in the Recovery Act. For that reason, the state will have to break ground along the path of least resistance. And one reason why a San Francisco spur won't be where high-speed rail debuts: the angry citizens of Atherton and its partners on the peninusla, Menlo Park and Palo Alto.

PALO ALTO'S BERLIN WALL

Most people involved in the rail debate seem to agree that while the High-Speed Rail Authority was busy drawing up its routes and negotiating with federal officials, it was doing an abysmal job of communicating with the people whose homes would soon neighbor its tracks. There weren't enough meetings on its calendar, and the ones that were happening weren't going very well, especially on the San Francisco Peninsula's shoulder.

Take Atherton. The strange thing is, this town already has trains. It's had them for a long time, and they've always been ugly and noisome. At least nine passenger trains an hour blow through here at peak times. Cars halt at the railroad crossing. Horns blare so Caltrain can ferry its loads of commuters to and from San Francisco. Discussions in the town hall -- including hearings aimed at killing high-speed rail -- pause when the trains come through.

Despite all that, there seems to be something about the train Atherton doesn't know that is scarier than the one it does.

And it's not just Atherton, even though this Republican outpost in an otherwise liberal congressional district has always served as a convenient poster child for intransigent conservatism. In nearby Palo Alto, which supported the high-speed train referendum by a 2 to 1 margin, signs of dissent were surfacing just five months later.

At a meeting in the city, the Metroactive paper reported "protesters holding signs saying 'Deceived by Prop. 1A' ... charging that elevated train tracks above cross streets, and proposed security barriers, will divide their community like a Berlin Wall."

Some of those protesters, of course, had opposed high-speed rail from the start. But others were taken aback by the realization, prompted by the authority's environmental review process, that it could take a hulking viaduct, hoisted 40 feet or so in the air and bearing four tracks, to send the trains through their town without slowing down for road crossings.

Thus began the Berlin Wall metaphor, which has likely done more than anything else to curb enthusiasm for fast rail on the peninsula. Rod Diridon, the executive of the Mineta Transportation Institute and the chair emeritus of the High-Speed Rail Authority Board, acknowledged problems with the effort's outreach efforts.

For one slice of Californians, he said, that part of the "the conservative group who are going to oppose any major investments, especially investments that are going to undermine the automobile," there was no way to save high-speed rail. They are part, he said, of an effort promoting "carefully choreographed skepticism on high-speed rail across the nation."

But for other people, the "maybe 15 to 25 percent that want high-speed rail, but are skeptical of the way it's being pursued," the authority fell down on the job. One public relations group was contracted to handle the statewide outreach, engineers were left to talk to people in cities and towns, and the result was a mess. Locals criticized .

State Senator Joe Simitian, who represents the area, said that part of the problem was that "you have a relatively small agency" -- which at one point just a few years ago had only 11 employees -- that "woke up one morning, after the election was over, and discovered they were responsible for the design, development, operation and financing of a $43-billion megaproject, and that has not been a smooth transition. And perhaps with benefit of hindsight, we should not have expected it to be a smooth transition."

Others agree.

"From 2008 to 2010, we went from playing fantasy football to playing in the NFL," acknowledged Thomas Umberg, the chairman of the High-Speed Rail Authority's board.

As the planning process dragged on from 2008 to 2010, opposition along the peninsula and elsewhere in California deepened.

"SHOULD WE BUILD PYRAMIDS?"

On January 28, 2010, President Obama announced the winners of the competition for the billions of dollars for high-speed rail included in the Recovery Act. California applied for $4.7 billion; it received $2.25 billion. That fell far short of the $17 billion to $19 billion in federal funds the authority said it would eventually need, but it was a start.

Last fall and winter, the federal government gave the program additional funding boosts of more than a billion dollars. But that money was something of a double-edged sword. For starters, California only got some of it because Republican governors had launched a national assault on high-speed rail.

In Wisconsin, Scott Walker campaigned on a pledge of refusing $810 million in funding from the feds, calling it a "controversial train boondoggle ... that taxpayers literally cannot afford." In Ohio, Governor-elect John Kasich's spokesman referred to a "so-called" high-speed rail project that was "wildly unrealistic." Kasich, presaging this year's deficit battle, requested that the money be used to pay down the federal deficit, not to create public works programs that might generate jobs.

State officials in California were ecstatic about the windfall those governors' decisions represented for them. But the new federal funds came with a catch: California would have to start construction in the state's Central Valley, better known for its grape growers than its cities.

The feds had gotten wind of the peninsula's high-pitched agita over high-speed rail and feared it could prevent speedy construction. The benefits of turning to the Central Valley instead: flat land and a desperate need for jobs, which translated to increased support from local politicians. The drawback: There weren't many people ready to ride trains in the Central Valley.

Diridon, the chair emeritus of the High-Speed Rail Authority, defended the decision to build in the Central Valley. If people on the peninsula "decide they want to raise hell, they can do so, and they have in previous years and it's caused huge delays," he said. So it was better to start in the Central Valley, and to try and work out a compromise on the peninsula in the meantime.

That compromise, if it is to come, will need to work around a pending lawsuit. In October of 2010, just as California was getting more money for rail, the municipalities of Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Atherton did raise a little hell. They sued the High-Speed Rail Authority, alleging that its ridership and revenue forecasts were so off-base that they were fundamentally flawed, . They made particular use of alleged violations of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), long a friend of those determined to thwart development in the state.

In interviews with HuffPost, two Democratic Palo Alto councilmen who voted for Proposition 1A vented their frustration with the high-speed rail program and described the growth of their opposition towards it.

Palo Alto Councilman Larry Klein is a Democrat who was endorsed by the Sierra Club in his last election. But in the months after Prop 1A's passage, he became concerned -- at first, about that Berlin Wall of a viaduct. But then his concerns grew to cover more "macro" issues.

"The more you get into this -- as many of us have over the past two years after the voters passed the bond measure in the '08 election -- the numbers just don't work," Klein said. "The people who were the chief proponents, I think, were more enthusiastic than realistic."

Klein's opposition to high-speed rail is not on the ideological level -- he doesn't deny that economic stimulus spending can create jobs -- but he does share the GOP's skepticism over high-speed rail projects.

"There are infrastructure projects and there are infrastructure projects. You can't just look at all of them and say they're all the same. Egypt three or four thousand years ago had a big infrastructure project called the pyramids. Should we build pyramids just because that'll create a lot of jobs?"

Decrying the "mad rush to chase federal dollars," Councilman Pat Burt said, "We don't have the money to have one of the best local commuter train systems survive, because we're borrowing all this money to pay for things like high-speed rail, which is looking more and more like a boondoggle."

Concerns like Burt and Klein's marked a shift in opposition to the rail project. Whereas complaints over ridership estimates had previously been the province of conservative and libertarian outfits like the Reason Foundation (which released a highly critical report just before the Proposition 1A votealleging that the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line would lose $4.17 billion a year), opposition was now filtering down to relatively liberal local politicos.

THE WASHINGTON QUESTION

The metastasis of this argument against high-speed rail, as typically pushed by Republicans -- that it simply cannot make money in the United States, or maybe just not outside of the Boston-Washington corridor -- creates a formidable hurdle for the project within California. The peninsula's politicians are among the most well-connected in the state.

Local politicians U.S. Representative Anna Eshoo and state Sen. Simitian have proposed "blending" high-speed rail with the local commuter service Caltrain, which has been undergoing dire financial problems. Caltrain says it could work. If the High-Speed Rail Authority agrees, that could go some way towards smoothing local opposition -- but at the cost, potentially, of sending fewer fast trains all the way to San Francisco.

Even if the peninsula can be placated -- still a big "if" -- the High-Speed Rail Authority faces mounting opposition in D.C. that could prove far more life-threatening than the give-and-take over a viaduct in Palo Alto. Though California has already received more than $3 billion in federal high-speed rail funds, Republicans in Congress are trying to get that money back. The GOP recently attempted to use high-speed rail monies to cover emergency relief in flooded areas along the Mississippi -- surely a worthy aim, but one intended more to deal President Obama's big ticket infrastructure project a fatal blow.

At a meeting of peninsula cities in July, Pat Burt, the councilman from Palo Alto, seemed to treat the bullet train's death as a foregone conclusion. Even Governor Jerry Brown's spokesman has admitted that funding the project will be an uphill battle, given the GOP's hostility at the national level.

If high-speed rail dies, some will say it was because Atherton, Palo Alto, Menlo Park, and all the other well-off towns nearby couldn't see past their own backyards. They will blame California's onerous environmental review process, which was more or less designed to let local communities stop big projects and has created a culture of lawsuits.

That argument upsets Elizabeth Alexis,  who volunteers with Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design.

"Too many people want to make it a referendum on trains or NIMBYs or whatever,” Alexis said, using the acronym for 'not in my backyard.' "Those are convenient scapegoats for opposition to things you don't like."

For her, the numbers for the project simply do not wash. She feels vindicated by the radically increased cost estimates for the Central Valley, which she says are in line with her group's estimate that the overall cost of the project will rise to $65 billion. Factor in inflation and the price tag might be as much as $100 billion.

Even somebody who has been critical of the way California handles environmental reviews for big projects does not think the peninsula deserves the blame if high-speed rail goes down. Gabriel Metcalf, the executive director of San Francisco Planning (and) Urban Research (SPUR), said, "The Congressional Republican chokehold on America is the real threat to this project. They seem to dream of 1955, when highways and suburban tract homes were the only kinds of infrastructure you had to worry about."

In October, the California High-Speed Rail Authority must release a long-awaited business plan. If California is to take advantage of stimulus funds, the last opportunity for federal assistance in the foreseeable future given that Congressional Republican "chokehold,” the clock is ticking: It must break ground on that Central Valley segment before the end of next year. Whether it will get in under the wire is an open question, as is the question of what will happen next.

For now, high-speed rail's future funding is unclear, particularly the $14 billion or more in additional federal funds California will need to finish its project. Even if construction on a segment in the Central Valley does beat the federal deadline, Atherton may ultimately get its wish: the Republican majority in the House may try to kill the project. If the project's costs do increase, federal inaction could be enough to finish the job. Despite engineers’ dire warnings that the U.S. infrastructure is falling apart and roads are overcrowded, much to the detriment of the economy, Congress has shown little inclination to fix the nation's transportation deficit.

If the project dies in a few years, critics have pointed out, the decision to build first in the Central Valley instead of near San Francisco or Los Angeles will be doubly regrettable, since the tracks will be good for nothing more than a "train to nowhere," or at best, a train from Merced to Bakersfield. They say that's a reason to stop the project now, before billions are wasted.

Rail boosters paint a bleak picture of what the end of high-speed rail would mean for the state and the country. California is projected to see its population soar from 37 million today to some 50 million by 2035. All those extra people will be crowded into a state that seems to have already added as many freeway lanes and airport gates as it possibly can. But if California must add more, rail backers claim, the costs will outstrip those of the project, since "the cost of doing nothing is not zero." They believe population growth would require $90 billion to $100 billion more in highway and airport investments.

The country is nearing a breaking point, rail authority chairman Umberg argues, and rail is the only way out.

"I think we should take a look at countries like Afghanistan and decide whether that's where we want to end up," said Umberg, who recently served a tour there with the Army.

"I think that's where we end up without investments in infrastructure, if we don't maintain our transportation infrastructure and improve it to keep pace with population and the rest of the world. That's where we end up. I know that sounds like hyperbole -- but we have hard choices to make."

Carter Willhelm August 28, 2011 at 04:29 PM
Anyone who refers to a railroad viaduct as a "Berlin Wall," in my opinion, immediately loses all credibility. I was in Berlin and saw the real Berlin Wall when it was still in place in the 1980s. It was a vile product of totalitarianism that divided families for their entire lives. How many people died tried to escape across its mine fields, machine gun emplacements, barbed wire, and asbestos-laden concrete? You want to say the Viaduct will be ugly, fine. But to compare it, in any way, to the Berlin Wall, reveals a level of ignorance that disqualifies you from serious consideration in public discourse.

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