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On a Roll

By Paul Bendix

About this blog: A 32-year resident of Menlo Park, I regularly make my way around downtown in a wheelchair. This gives me an unusual perspective on a town in which I have spent almost half of my life. I was educated at UC Berkeley, and permanentl...  (More)

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Railing about our Future

Uploaded: Oct 8, 2013
Bouncing down Live Oak Avenue, my wheelchair fairly flies, the joystick fully forward, pedal-to-metal velocity being all of 6 mph. I can feel a breeze on my face. Enough to give me a sense of speed, which being rare in the average quadriplegic life, is always welcome.

I am late for lunch. I am late for everything. I was late to acquire an iPhone. I was late to appreciate chocolate with sea salt. Perhaps I am late because I am retired. No longer under the mercantile gun, I have time to generate the occasional blog, now and then a book. But mostly I generate lunch.

Quite essential to have lunch when you don't have work companions. So I keep in touch with the old ones. Frank is on time because he has his act together. And mine? Perhaps it never has been together. How I survived two decades as a Silicon Valley marketing writer is no longer clear.

Nothing is clear except that the button for the crosswalk at the corner of Santa Cruz Avenue and El Camino Real was designed by evil gnomes who hate wheelchairs and their occupants. Never mind. I wait for the traffic light to change, dispense with the pedestrian-signal niceties, and moments later roll into the Turkish place. It has a name, Sultana, but after 32 years in Menlo Park, the culinary geography has been reduced to generic descriptors. I find Frank waiting at one of the sunny outdoor tables.

Now that I am a former consultant, and Frank is a part-time consultant, what is there to do but consult each other? Being on the Caltrain Citizens Advisory Committee, my favorite topic is regional trains. I can't help bringing up the California High-Speed Rail project. The state's own website keeps me reasonably up-to-date on HSR.

Oh, that, Frank says. High-speed rail is all messed up. They've got the Peninsula route wrong...he thinks the line should be built along 101. The train is never going to pay for itself, he adds. People are never going to ride it.

I have little to say to Frank that will cheer him. And this matter of "cheer" is important. What has happened to our capacity for facing tough times with optimism?

As for High-Speed Rail, we could learn a lot from the not so distant history of BART. Today, the Bay Area subway system moves almost half a million people a day. Regional life would be unthinkable without it. Yet in the 1960s, BART construction ran afoul of such massive cost overruns that Sacramento had to bail it out with emergency bonds. The system manager received death threats and people picketed his home.

Once BART opened, passengers experienced a decade of delays from "ghost trains." BART cars occasionally burst into flame. Broken down trains couldn't maneuver out of the way, because the system was built without sidings. BART promoter Bill Stokes, remembered by some as the PT Barnum of urban mass transit, insisted that sidings weren't necessary.

Frank lived through the history of BART. He should know better. But we all should. We are prisoners of strange times. America is at an awkward stage. Meanwhile, we still have stuff to do, transportation to modernize, a future to build. And for that we need something simple and essential?hope.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Margaret, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown,
on Oct 9, 2013 at 9:38 pm

An enjoyable read: thank you! I laughed about the evil gnomes at Menlo traffic intersections. Don't think you get special attention just because you're in a wheel chair, they have it in for the rest of us too!

Posted by Bob the Builder, a resident of another community,
on Oct 9, 2013 at 10:00 pm

Hello Paul, Reading and enjoying - please get to the juicy creative stuff as often as you can. My world is a wider and better place when you do. Thanks...

Posted by Darlene, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows,
on Oct 10, 2013 at 3:32 pm

Such a pleasure to read your blog and find out what is happening in a corner of my town. As for high speed rail, I totally agree with Frank that it should be routed along 101 where there is already plenty of noise and traffic to mask the intrusion we were never fully informed of when we voted on this issue. I like the perspective you offer, comparing the current hullabaloo with the BART hysteria back in the day.

Posted by Ron, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Oct 10, 2013 at 4:08 pm

Great description of transit, from your own personal Ferrari to hi speed rail. I was born in England and as a child loved trains, I still do. A great hobby there was collecting train numbers and riding our bikes from station to station when the latest rumor was that the "streamliner" would be coming through. Sevweral years ago I was lucky enough to ride the "Chunnel". It's too bad the U.S doesn't have a good passenger train system, although I understand the geography and economics are now much different. Most are opposed to high speed rail because of the noise, when in fact, staying in a hotel in England, next to the high speed rail line, we found the trains rather quiet. So Paul, as I spot you in your chariot, going to choir practice, I shall be reminded of my youth, and the time spent "train spotting". Thank you!

Posted by Elaine, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Oct 10, 2013 at 5:14 pm

Thanks, Paul, for putting things in perspective. Always appreciate your wry humor.

Posted by Casey, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Oct 15, 2013 at 8:47 pm

Considering that BART has the dubious distinction of being one of the most expensive systems to build per mile of track due to it's bizarre non-standard track system, some of the most expensive rail cars anywhere in the world, again, thanks to the non-standard rail system, and is one of the most expensive to operate with BART employees enjoying wages and benefits at the top of the scale relative to other transit agencies Web Link I fail to see how BART can be held up as a favorable forecast for the CA HSR project.

The lesson from BART regarding the CA HSR project is that tax payers should expect a poorly run and overly expensive high speed rail project that will empty their pockets for decades to come.

Posted by Louise68, a resident of Menlo Park: other,
on Oct 16, 2013 at 12:19 am

Paul --
I enjoy your blogs a lot, You are an excellent writer, and I really enjoy your creative turns of phrase. I am glad the Almanac chose to include you in its blogger list.

But:!! CA HSR is a complete waste of money. It is of, by, and for the 1%. Your friend is right -- it is a mess - an overpriced boondoggle. And "Casey" is spot on.

The state of California is broke, yet we taxpayers are metaphorically being asked to pay for a Rolls Royce when we barely have the money to buy a used Ford. We live in a time when even public safety people and teachers are being laid off -- yet we are being told that we have to spend scarce tax dollars on this boondoggle? That is not right. IF there really IS enough money in the state's coffers to pay for this incredibly expensive train, it should be spent, instead, on hiring back police and firefighters and teachers, and on repairing our deteriorating infrastructure -- and not on an overpriced high-speed train, that we can get along very well without.

For those who still are in favor of this train, I have two questions:
1.: Where will the electricity come from to run this thing? For some time now, all of us have a place on our PG&E bills that tells us which "rotating outage block" we are in. This, and the reading I have done over the yearss, tells me that the state often runs perilously close to running out of energy to make electricity
2. And where on earth will we get the money to run it safely and reliably, and to properly maintain the tracks and rolling stock?
No one in the CHSRA has ever said one word about either of those two issues.

As a rule I like trains and enjoy riding them, but not this California High Speed Rail system. It is too expensive and will never ever have even a fraction of the riders the CHSRA initially promised it would have. To do that, it would have to have many more riders than the entire NorthEast Corridor! And there is no place to put it that would not destroy homes and businesses, or take lanes away from already congested freeways, such as US 101.

CA HSR is really about MONEY. "Follow the money" and you will see that all the CHSRA has ever done is take billions of our hard-earned tax dollars and use them to line their pockets and those of their consultants. I am convinced that no one in the CHSRA really cares at all if this thing ever gets built, as long as they keep getting billions of our tax dollars. (Sorry to be so repetitious, but the money for this project does not come out of thin air or grow on trees; it comes right out of your pocket and my pocket and ever taxpayer's' pockets.)

Comments, anyone?

Posted by peninsula resident, a resident of Menlo-Atherton High School,
on Oct 16, 2013 at 5:54 pm

I agree with Louise68.

Respectfully, the comparison with BART is flawed in many ways. One of the big ones is that BART was a byproduct of funding bills passed by the legislature.

HSR, on the other hand, came as a result of Prop 1a, which has strict conditions that must be met for HSR to use the bond money. This language was a part of the proposition to PROTECT TAXPAYERS. And HSR has either not met ANY of them (full funding in reserves for the initial segment...full EIR clearance...2hr 40min between LA<->SF...must run profitably with no funding from taxpayers for operations...the list goes on), or has blatantly lied (there's no way they meet their projected passenger numbers. Complete fiction. SF and LA just don't have the population density to support their projections).

Propositions are not the same thing as legislation bills. They are much closer to being contracts than legislative bills. How would you feel if you signed a contract with a car dealer to pay $400/month for a BMW, but what you received was a Chevy Citation for $1200/month. I think that you would ENFORCE the contract.

And that is exactly what taxpayers are doing: forcing HSR to honor the contract, AS PASSED. Or don't use the money at all.

If HSR wants to build a HSR system in california, then try to pass a bill that actually matches what they can deliver, which is:

1) will always need taxpayer funding for year-to-year operations (it will never be profitable);
2) will cost about 80billion;
3) will take 3 hours between SF<->LA (and that's being charitable);
4) will figure out where the money will come to build it later;
5) will want exemptions from EIR requirements (which is ironic that liberals would want environmental considerations waved, but that's a topic for another day)

Pass THAT, then HSR can build their choo choo train. Otherwise, we want our prop 1a bond money back, since they clearly cannot meet the requirements of the contract.

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