Guest opinion: Heavy rail not the solution for regional transit needs | July 11, 2007 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Viewpoint - July 11, 2007

Guest opinion: Heavy rail not the solution for regional transit needs

by Martin Engel

Usually, I disagree with Henry Riggs. And usually I agree with the editorial positions of the Almanac. This time, it's the other way around. (Editorial and guest editorial, July 4, 2007)

Mr. Riggs has it right. Heavy rail, as proposed by Caltrain/Dumbarton, is good for moving freight and bad for moving people. Heavy rail has become the hammer to which every people-moving problem looks like a nail. Caltrain is pushing for Dumbarton because they believe that they are competing with BART for rail dominance in the entire Bay Area. The various transit agencies are competing, each one saying that they can do it better. Financial resources available to one are therefore denied the others. It's a pointless zero-sum war of transit empires.

The rail bureaucracy suffers from a malignant rail gene and egocentric shortsightedness. At the risk of repeating myself for the millionth time: Rail and transit are not the same. Equating one with the other is deceptive and misleading. Rail is one — and only one — modality of mass transit. Transit systems incorporate a large variety of modalities, including light rail, buses (both high speed and local), subways, shuttles, taxis, and yes, private cars.

The perpetual argument about rail being better than cars or buses (cheaper, less polluting, etc.) is a mindless discussion. The real and substantive issue is urban mass transit. What the Bay Area needs is an urban mass transit system built into an integrated network of multiple modalities. Rail is not the answer to everything. And heavy rail is the least appropriate technology for people moving. Bus-rapid-transit, light rail, shuttle and local buses (and adequate car parking at transit stations), all connected and run on coordinated schedules, managed by a single urban transit authority that is accountable to the government and to us, the taxpayers and commuters. That needs to be the subject of discussion; not whether Dumbarton rail should go to Union City or Newark.

Frankly, everything about Dumbarton is counter-indicated and our own Public Works Director Kent Steffens and Mayor Fergusson have written a wonderful letter (staff report # 07-098) to the Dumbarton/Caltrain group specifying many of the problems and concerns that have not been yet explained.

Finally, the Almanac, like many newspapers, tends to consider the content of press releases a source of factual data. When the Dumbarton people say the projected costs will be $600 million, how do you know that is in fact the case? There are other cost estimates that suggest that a seismically appropriate new bridge alone will cost much more than the present $600 million figure. Low balling construction costs is standard operating procedure for rail and other large infrastructure promoters. Will we ever learn? Bay Bridge Eastern Span: 2001 = $2.6 billion; 2006 = $6.3 billion. Boston Big Dig: 1985 = $2.8 billion; 2006 = $14.6 billion. Palo Alto Homer tunnel? Ditto.

This is NOT a NIMBY issue, the Almanac's allusion to the contrary notwithstanding. For all of us living in the Bay Area, the Bay Area is our backyard. And we want much better urban mass transit in our backyard than what Dumbarton has to offer.

Martin Engel is a resident of Stone Pine Lane in Menlo Park.


Posted by Curious, a resident of another community
on Jul 21, 2007 at 6:42 am

Heavy rail "least appropriate for people moving"? Please elaborate, providing citations or examples, as appropriate. Also, please define precisely what you mean by heavy rail? Which of these are heavy rail (why or why not?):

DC Metro
LA Red Line
LA Blue Line
NYC subway
Metro North
Chicago Metro
Chicago El
Atlanta's MARTA
Paris RER and/or Metro
San Diego "Trolley"
London Tube

How about places, like in Karlsruhe, Germany, where LRVs share tracks with faster, long distance heavy rail trains for part of their route?

Web Link

Is that heavy rail or light rail? Thanks in advance for clearing all this up, and for filling us in on the bit about how heavy rail is least appropriate for moving people (would this include all the heavily-used trains in Japan too ... how about the Shinkansens or the French TGVs?)