Getting High Speed Rail Right-Enough

BY GABRIEL METCALF
August 6, 2010

The California High Speed Rail Authority met yesterday in San Francisco. The agenda was packed with many interesting things including a new station area development policy. But the real controversy was about the section between San Jose and San Francisco. I joined hundreds of people during public comment to weigh in on this one small segment.

Over the past few years, a group of high speed rail opponents has been gathering strength in some of the Peninsula communities such as Atherton and Menlo Park, arguing that the train will impact their views, be too noisy, and otherwise ruin their quality of life.

There is certainly a lot of design work to do as the High Speed Rail Authority and Caltrain explore the peninsula segment and figure out how to make "joint operations" work.

But what some of the residents of the Peninsula seem to be asking for is an impossibly expensive project or no project at all. There cannot be a 60-mile subway up and down the Peninsula.

The Bay Area Council penned a strong letter pointing out the flaws with the "build it right or don't build it at all" approach. If "building it right" means addressing every local impact of the project to the satisfaction of every local resident, there will not be enough money in the world to build this project.

TransForm pointed out at the hearing that the issues with the Peninsula communities stem from the fact that the High Speed Rail Authority made the fundamentally correct decision in 2004 to choose an alignment that re-uses existing track where possible and goes through existing cities. (This was in contrast to a cheaper alternative that went through agricultural lands and skirted many existing cities, relying instead on "greenfield" stations.) Having made the big decision the right way, the Authority now faces the political and design problem of actually bringing the train through all of these already-developed communities. Even though the Peninsula creates design challenges it is absolutely critical that the project goes all the way to San Francisco, where the highest ridership stations in the entire state will be located.

I tried to put this project into some larger context in my remarks. California is already the most populous state in the nation (by far). It will grow from 38 million people today to 50 million people by 2030. The real reason we need high speed rail is to provide an armature or framework for organizing this massive growth. Where the interstate highway system was the infrastructure that enabled the suburbanization of America, high speed rail can enable a re-centering of growth. It is the necessary supporting infrastructure for walkable communities in California.

The real question we are facing is whether we are still capable as a society of actually getting something like this built. In the age of CEQA, in the age when we seem to believe that more public process is always better, in the age when we seem to believe that nothing should happen unless there is consensus, can we actually create a transformative infrastructure? As America tries to learn how to compete with "single vision" nations that do not share our democratic values, the question of how we learn how to actually get things done under our political system looms larger and larger as a central problem to overcome.

With every infrastructure project that SPUR supports we face the dilemma of how to be supportive against the tide of opponents while still working constructively to improve projects and make them as good as they can be. We could not be happier with the "big moves" that the High Speed Rail Authority has made thus far. They have picked the right alignment, one that will reinforce center-oriented growth. Now the task is to get the small moves right to find that elusive balance between more expensive designs that address community concerns and the need to keep the project affordable enough to actually build it.

This is the most important project in California. It is a naïve and impossible wish to "get it right" if right means the ideal design in every community. We need to get it "right-enough" to attract lots of riders away from the automobile and enable a new pattern of growth in the state.