Some of you may be wondering why I went to the California High-Speed Rail Authority board’s final hearing on its environmental impact documents and didn’t write a story. There will be a story, but only when the board votes to approve the final EIR-EIS tomorrow morning at 10 a.m.
Of course, if they vote it down there will also be a story, but improbable tale will be on page 1.
But here’s the scoop on high-speed rail, which I found in a British newspaper article today, which describes the crush of passengers trying to get to Paris through the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras station in London:
The airline industry has been crushed by the price of kerosene and deserted by passengers fed up with delays. After decades of disappointment, false dawns and virtually bankrupt Channel Tunnels, we have finally arrived at the age of the train and the evidence is in the crowd at St Pancras.
Only eight months after opening its doors in November, the new station is choc-a-bloc at peak hours, an exciting but slightly nerve-wracking development for Eurostar and its biggest shareholder, SNCF, the French state railway.
Traffic growth on Eurostar is accelerating like an Alstom locomotive, increasing by 21 per cent in the first quarter, compared with the same period in 2007, and revenues are up by a quarter. Those figures were no flash in the pan, a boost from all the hooplah at last year’s opening of St Pancras. Traffic in the second quarter has grown at similar rates, insiders say.
Say what you want about how the California bullet train enterprise has operated until now, but it’s difficult to deny the spot we’re in.
High-speed rail has become the only viable alternative to short-hop airline trips. And you can’t run airplanes on wind, nuclear or coal-fired power. Yes, a million unemployed journalists could, in theory, spend their days turning hand cranks to generate power for high-speed rail.
In the end, all that matters is that it’s one of the few modes of mass transport that doesn’t require some sort of petroleum or distilled foodstuffs to make it go.
On the other hand, you could buy 450,000 Teslas for the current top estimate for the HSR system. Granted, they can’t go quite as fast, what with speed limits and traffic jams, but they’d be loads of fun.
So at today’s hearing I saw the usual chorus of supporters ticking off the reasons we need such a system and the usual counter-chorus of people who don’t want the thing shattering the tranquility of their peninsula neighborhoods, who don’t like the choice of the Pacheco Pass over the Altamont Pass or who simply say they don’t believe the authority’s estimates that this grandmother of all public works projects is going to turn a profit.
I will single out David Schonbrunn, president of the Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund, a.k.a. TRANSDEF.
Here’s a guy who cares enough about transportation in the Bay Area to start up a website, print out business cards and, most importantly, spend more time poring over the draft environmental impact study for high-speed rail than just about anyone.
He was the only person at the hearing to notice that the final impact statement didn’t show what changes had been made as a result of comments people made during 10 public hearings. His conclusion: It didn’t matter what anyone at those hearings said, because the process was more political than public.
While I may not share his conclusions about the project, I think he deserves points for caring enough to not only show up, but to show up with something relevant to say.
So what does he get for his trouble? He gets the chairman of the authority’s board, Judge Quentin Kopp, questioning his credentials.
“How many dues-paying members to you have?” the judge asked as Schonbrunn was introducing himself. Not to be cowed, he jousted briefly with Kopp, telling him that if he wanted a list of the group’s board members, he could find them on file with the Secretary of State.
Good answer, I thought.
I must admit that I’ve never met anyone else who gives out TRANSDEF business cards, but what of it? Do Schoenbrunn’s comments deserve to be slapped down because he’s not accompanied by the Verizon network?
Too much of the public’s business is conducted with no one watching. Not because it’s necessarily done behind closed doors, but because no one cares enough or has time enough to show up to the meetings.
Lord knows, I get paid to go to these things and I’m selective about which ones are worth going to. But there are a few people like Schonbrunn who do show up, self-appointed representatives of those of us who can’t be bothered.
I probably don’t quote them in stories as much as others who represent organizations with sizeable constituencies of dues-paying members or perhaps people who were even elected to represent a constituency.
In spite of my neglect, these concerned citizens perform the very useful function of alerting me and people who are paid to serve the public to important developments that occur when the rest of us are looking elsewhere.
Not long ago, I got a call from the vales of Yosemite from one Ken Gosting. He has an interesting voice and finds it necessary to announce whenever the road to the park is in danger of closing even though most of the reporters in the Bay Area couldn’t care less.
But something in the back of my mind told me that one of these days, this concerned citizen and transportation activist of Mariposa County might come up with something critical, and I kept listening.
That call back in late May was just that. He found out that Union Pacific Railroad had told the High-Speed Rail Authority that it wasn’t going to give up any of its right-of-way for HSR track.
So important was this development that it came up in a Senate Transportation and Housing Committe report on the work of the authority. Judge Kopp said it’s not a big deal, but the news raised some serious issues that the authority has yet to lay to rest.
The judge has a distinguished career in public service and I tip my hat to him for that. I just want to point out that there are other ways of serving the public that deserve our respect, if not our agreement.
Photo from Renewable Energy Journal.