Viewpoint - July 14, 2010

Editorial: High-speed rail off track

With state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, adding his voice to the growing criticism of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, local challenges to the huge project are gaining credibility.

Though critics are often referred to as NIMBY (not in my backyard) opponents because the planned route would impact many Peninsula residents who live along the rail corridor, recent glitches in the authority's ridership claims and oversight ability has now caught Mr. Simitian's attention.

He told the Palo Alto Weekly that these and other problems reflect "an unfortunate trend that needs to be turned around." He and his colleagues have decided to give the authority until Feb. 1 to present a list of ways to remedy the identified problems or risk losing some state funding for the estimated $43 billion rail link between San Francisco and Los Angeles, he said.

Earlier last week the Peninsula Cities Consortium (Atherton, Menlo Park, Palo Alto, Burlingame and Belmont) issued a statement that said the authority has "an enormous credibility problem" after an independent review uncovered problems in the ridership projections.

The statement from the consortium's chair, Menlo Park Mayor Rich Cline, is highly critical of the authority, citing mistakes found by the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, a professional group commissioned by the state Legislature. Only with a high number of riders can the authority justify the huge construction costs of the project.

And that wasn't all from Mr. Cline, who also noted recent critical reports from the Office of the State Auditor and the Legislative Analyst's Office, and he challenged the authority's assertion that when built, the system would be financially self-sustaining.

The consortium also is concerned that the "key problems may not be resolved because of the intense pressure being exerted by the authority's desire to qualify for federal stimulus funding." Construction must begin by September 2012 on the San Francisco to San Jose segment to qualify California for a $2.25 billion grant. Overall, the authority hopes to get about $17 billion in federal grants, although only $2.25 billion has been committed so far.

"Common sense is absent from the high-speed rail discussion," Mr. Cline said. "Right now the authority plans to select final alignment and release its draft environmental impact report by December of this year under an extremely rushed project schedule that is dictated solely by the desire for federal funds."

"The project is suffering from an enormous credibility problem, due to its widely criticized business plan, faulty ridership numbers and the absence of funding to carry out the project statewide — let alone offer realistic alternatives for the section planned on the Peninsula," Mr. Cline said.

Looking ahead, Mr. Cline and the consortium are concerned that "there is no stated plan for paying to operate high-speed rail once it is built, and we fear local taxpayers may be left holding the bag."

Given the High-Speed Rail Authority's lackluster performance so far, the entire state should be worried about the ability of the authority to manage and build this multi-billion-dollar project on time and on budget. Peninsula residents whose homes back up to the rail corridor may have raised the initial red flags about this project, but now their concerns are proving to be far more than just NIMBY criticisms.


Posted by Martin Engel, a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Jul 17, 2010 at 9:54 am

That there are no comments yet on this editorial, one way or the other, is not a good sign.

The HSR buzz is loud and constant in Palo Alto. Atherton's vocal population is concerned, anxious and highly active.

In Menlo Park, not so much. What are we, asleep? In denial? It's bad enough that high-speed rail will be a fly-over project, leaving a trail of concrete right through the heart of our town.

The Editor of the Alamanac is sounding yet one more clarion wake-up call. Is nobody listening?

Does everyone understand that high-speed rail and Caltrain have an agenda; and that is to build an elevated viaduct from our northern to our southern border? It will be 100 ft. wide. It will divide our town in two. As a vast and imposing concrete structure and psychological barrier, the result will be a "right" side and a "wrong" side of the tracks.

Do the residents East and West of the rail corridor, far enough away to not be aware of the trains, not realize that they will also be adversely affected? What do you think will happen to all the property values of Menlo Park as we become just one more town with a massive railroad structure carrying hundreds of trains each day, dividing us in two? Can't you see the ripple effect of sinking market values on everyone's property, radiating outward in both directions from the rail corridor? As the downtown area becomes more commercial/industrial and strip mall, what do you suppose will happen to the rest of our real estate?

And, that, of course, is not the worst of it. This project MUST become a debt burden for California that we will all be taxed for, we and our children and their children. There is no other way that it can be funded. It will never pay for itself. So, who do you think will be paying for it?

Wake up, Menlo Park and don't let them shove this self-serving luxury train up our city.

Posted by Thelma, a resident of Atherton: other
on Jul 18, 2010 at 11:57 am

The peninsula dead ends in San Francisco with no where else to go--the absolute dumbest idea ever!
If the construction interest succeed in building this train to no where-it will just become a reason for building all the high density housing that Cargill wants to profit from, and filling in the rest of the bay so that their are people to charge train fares from.
Once the bay is paved over there will be no more revenue from bridge tolls--just a whole lot of very expensive parking lots.
Invest now in the water lot futures market already being auctioned off in some back room in Sacramento.

Posted by Alex Haselden, a resident of another community
on Jul 18, 2010 at 1:09 pm

Menlo Park is already divided by RR tracks, Martin. Once HSR is built we will have grade separated crossings and going from one side of the tracks to the other will be easier.

I doubt there will be a significant effect on property values. They could increase if the local economy is boosted by improved transport.

San Francisco is not nowhere, Thelma. Don't forget that Atherton used to be the playground of people who lived in San Francisco. Your town exists because of a railroad that went to San Francisco. This is on Atherton's official website.

Posted by Thelma, a resident of Atherton: other
on Jul 18, 2010 at 1:52 pm

Thank you Alex -I am actually aware that San Francisco is not no where and would like it to remain so.
But once you get there, there is no bridge to continue on. to anywhere else.....better to have a main artery up the east bay side with a connecter across for Hetch Hetchy water and Bart

Posted by Martin Engel, a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Jul 18, 2010 at 6:50 pm

Alex, a comment I hear very frequently is yours, or a variant thereof. "You bought your house with the rail corridor, now you have to live with it." " If the rail corridor doesn't "divide" Menlo Park now, two more tracks won't make any difference."

Comments such as these reflect a complete denial of what will be built, what it will look like and what its effects will be. The current, at grade, two track corridor, with it's fewer than 100 trains each day (including Union Pacific) is characteristic of many suburban towns across the US. As such, they are no big deal. The horn noise is what most people object to.

What's coming is a whole order of magnitude more intrusive. Elevated concrete structure, around 100 ft. wide, 40 ft. in the air, with a jungle of wires and cables above that. Well over 150 trains daily. The streets will run beneath the tracks as they do now. The rail authority will tell us that this is a great improvement. None of them, of course, live anywhere near any of this construction.

The difference between what is there now and what will be constructed is both quantitatively and qualitatively different and enormously consequential. The impact will be horrendous.

You say that you doubt that there will be significant impact on property values. An amazing statement. The impact is already significant and there has been no construction yet. Properties along the corrridor are not selling. How prices are taking a double whammy; both the decline in property values as the aftermath of the housing bubble, and the impending rail construction. It's easy to determine if you use Zillow as a tracking mechanism and see the graphic display of property value decline well beyond the rail corridor, vs. those contiguous and nearby.

Posted by R.Gordon, a resident of another community
on Jul 19, 2010 at 3:05 pm

What this entire Peninsula does not understand, is that HSR is not about creme de la creme in California.
It is about the masses of unemployed and the fact that soon a lot of angry people are going to be frustrated and do BAD things....sort of a mini Russia.....I suppose you read about the man that was shot who was driving a fancy Mercedes convertible?.......Just because he was rich and the shooter was pissed off at the idea and had not had work in nearly two years.
Instead of having these endless fears about an HSR, I would put money into security and high walls......truly.
HSR is now going to thud, but not because of you wanting to keep your area special....but because the U.S. is dead broke and getting broker.
All of the "let them eat cake" spoilers, are now going to have something very expensive to protect their homes and families in the coming future.
I will be in Argentina and my house near Tuscany and my last home here will probably be burned because it is so lovely and takes a lot of maintenance. I bought a speedboat in Italy for the island home and will not miss the selfishness and lack of planning that all of the people who grouse so much.
Don't even worry about the chance of anything being done for the working classes. Police departments, sadly, will begin to close all over Nostradamus, or just the paper.

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