Viewpoint - November 19, 2008

Guest opinion: High-speed rail takes dollars from real transit

by Martin Engel

The Almanac carried an editorial about the high-speed train last week. It points out the challenges facing Menlo Park if and when the construction teams take over the swath of land around the 8,500 feet of rail corridor that bisects our town.

The editorial also identifies me as an opponent of this project, and a critic of the consequences that will befall our city when the development process begins. I acknowledge that position and regret that my frequent words failed to convince a large enough number of voters to see the project for what it really is in the cold light of day.

In the past and in this newspaper I have sought to present a position about urban mass transit, its importance and its current inadequacy on the Peninsula and in the Bay Area.

The Almanac carried a powerful and compelling lead article about all this in July. Not only is the development of such a mass transit system critical to the economic well-being of our region, it is where the investments, intended for the high-speed train project, should and could have been directed. If the high-speed rail is what I oppose, urban mass transit is what I support.

The rail project claims that it will mitigate the environmental damage and traffic congestion of the state's highways. That is a false claim since a train running between San Francisco and Los Angeles won't reduce Bay Area traffic problems, or those in the Los Angeles Basin, for that matter. Each population center suffers from severe transit difficulties and the billions of dollars earmarked for this luxury train would be far better invested in relieving our overburdened local highways with a comprehensive urban mass transit system.

The point here is to suggest not only how misconceived this particular high-speed train project is, but what a genuinely productive investment could have been made. It's not about what we are against, but what we are for, and aren't going to have.

It is uninformed thinking to posit one transportation mode against another; to suggest that a train, such as this high-speed train, is superior to cars or airplanes. They don't do the same job. It's apples and oranges. These are different modalities. As any craftsman knows, there is a right tool for the right job. Each of these "tools" will undergo dramatic technological development over the next several decades with the awareness of carbon-based fuel problems. There is a critical role for all of them.

This high-speed rail project has been a solution looking for problems. It has discovered so many, including a solution to the current economic disaster, that at least a little skepticism ought to appear even among the most enthusiastic supporters. Although sections of it can be a necessary and useful component of regional mass transit in both population centers, in its current configuration it is outrageously expensive and unnecessary between those population centers.

We are about to start building the wrong solution to our state's transportation problems, and for the wrong reasons, at that. By the same token, we are not building what we ought or where we ought; a networked, multi-modal regional transit system, with highly distributed connectivity. And, that's a shame.

Martin Engel lives on Stone Pine Lane in Menlo Park and has written frequently in opposition to the California high-speed rail bond measure, which voters passed on Nov. 4.


Posted by G, a resident of another community
on Nov 18, 2008 at 5:06 pm

Martin Engel seeks urban mass transit in lieu of the high speed rail system. While it nice to imagine getting to suburbs on mass transit he's likely aware that any transit requires higher densities than suburbs were built for. I would much prefer to go from SF to LA by high speed rail than by car or plane; I expect much less dead time (compare the hours I currently spend waiting to go through to check my bag(s), security screens, then to taxi / takeoff).

Furthermore, since I won't be operating the vehicle, I expect to enjoy walking around, using wi-fi, books, or any variety of board or card game on the way.

While I do not recall the current LA terminus, it would be fantastic to then take my bike I brought on board and ride to my final destination.

So while everyone realizes that modalites are different, HSR is very compelling for distances like SF to LA (Paris to Marseilles)- particularly as they are from city center to city center. This train will also suffer less network effect (storms a thousand miles away can leave airline passengers stranded for days).

Besides, the last times I've been driving to LA the traffic on I5 has been horrendous.

While local mass transit is admirable, it requires higher density housing to drive enough use to justify costs.

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