In the end, while every other major population center in the state is to be served by the mythical beast known as high-speed rail, Oakland is stuck with actual rail.
And it’s all Jerry Brown’s fault.
Yes, it was our newly minted attorney general who gave the California High-Speed Rail Authority the legal opinion that they didn’t need to actually vote to deep-six the idea of running their 200 mph (recently downgraded by 20 mph) trains past Tracy, Livermore, Dublin, Pleasanton and those other communities that suffer from a gross lack of transportation alternatives.
It’s not really Jerry Brown, or even the attorney on his staff who actually figured out the legal niceties that dictated the HSRA board’s lack of action. This decade-in-the-making battle was over three years ago, when the board made its initial decision to go with the Pacheco Pass.
It was the East Bay against San Francisco and San Jose, and that’s a tough battle to win. But since then, it’s become clear that the Tri-Valley didn’t want high speed rail in their backyards anyway, owing to the aerial structures and land-taking that we’re told would be involved.
When I arrived at the HSRA meeting Wednesday, anyone who had been following this for any amount of time (I was a relative newbie, having just arrived in 2006) knew that this thing had been decided long ago.
Whether it was decided on its merits or not, I’ll let the political types fight over that. I’m just a dispassionate observer, after all.
The one thing that was clearly lacking was anyone representing Oakland, unless they snuck in while I was listening to Mayor Gavin Newsom wax poetical about how now was the time for high-speed rail, even if there’s never really a good time to hit up the state for $40 billion, minus whatever can be dragged out of the feds and private partners.
Other countries, he said, were leap-frogging over America with their cool HSR programs. Assemblywoman Fiona Ma was there as chair of her house’s High-Speed Rail Caucus, bragging about being the only person the room to have been on the recent speed-record-breaking Train à Grande Vitesse trip in France. Oddly, I didn’t notice her mentioning whether she preferred Altamont or Pacheco.
In the end, the Altamont Army was down to a rag-tag collection of train people, who see the advantage of Sacramento-Stockton-San Francisco over Sacramento-Merced-San Francisco, the San Joaquin Valley people who see that Modesto won’t get a stop on the first leg of this plan and environmentalists who don’t like the fact that the Pacheco route cuts through what they’re calling the state’s biggest contiguous set of wetlands and the issue of making it easier for people to live in what are now undeveloped areas in the South Bay when the aternative would have served already developed areas near the Altamont Pass.
Alan Miller, the honorary general of that army and executive director of the Train Riders Association of California, expressed some disgust with the repeated refrain from Pacheco backers.
Over and over, we were reminded that the point of HSR is to get from the Bay Area to Southern California fast enough and cheap enough to attract people away from the airlines and freeways. What it isn’t they said, was an improvement plan for commuters, such as those who would clearly benefit from an Altamont alignment and those who could commute from Gilroy under the board’s chosen route.
“Why,” he asked, “are they adding something that’s going to add 42 miles to the trip if they don’t care about commuters?”
He’s referring, of course, to the Palmdale diversion, which I’ve always thought could be for no other reason than make the Antelope Valley into a viable bedroom community for LA.
A well-versed colleague of mine said he believed it was for the stated reason of avoiding tunneling through the Tehachapi Mountains and saving a bundle of money.
Even if that’s so, looking at the HSR map of SoCal, I see a lot of commuting possibilities, especially on the Inland Empire-to-San Diego leg.
The theme that plays in my head about this whole thing is that California generally needs something radical in the transportation arena. Maybe this is the thing, although it seems you could improve the existing rail system a whole lot more with a quarter of the money.
What’s also amazing is that no one comes to these things to speak against the idea of high-speed rail. I know they’re out there, but I guess they figure the thing will expire under its own weight, like the Soviet Union.
I think Newsom was charitable when he said he wouldn’t give the program a 50-50 chance of survival. I don’t think it was theatrics when the authority board chairman, former San Mateo judge Quentin Kopp, said delaying the ballot measure set for next November a third time would amount to the last nail in the coffin.
Meanwhile, I’m watching to see how those Moroccans do with their HSR project.