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By Paul Bendix

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.