The Loma Prietan - July/August 2009

The Debate over High Speed Rail

by Irvin Dawid

This freeway sound wall demonstrates aesthetic features that could be used with a HSR embankment. Photo: John Carpent
This freeway sound wall demonstrates aesthetic features that could be used with a HSR embankment. Photo: John Carpent

On April 16, President Obama unveiled his plans for the nation's high speed rail (HSR) network. He likened the change this network will bring in American's travel patterns to the creation of the Interstate Highway system in 1956. In addition to $8 billion in funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Obama has promised at least $1 billion per year in subsequent budget allocations. US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood recently commented that, "California and Florida are way ahead of the curve," indicating the anticipation that California will play a prominent role in the nation's HSR system.

In July 2008, the High Speed Rail Authority (HSRA) certified the Program EIR. (See "What the #!?HSR is Going on Here, Anyway?" for a discussion of the process and the terminology.) The Program EIR chose the southern Pacheco Pass route (Merced to Gilroy, then up the middle of the Peninsula on the Caltrain right of way). In November 2008, California voters passed Proposition 1A, a bond measure that provides the first $9.6 billion for a $40 billion, 800-mile system that will initially connect Los Angeles to San Francisco.

The Club and the Chapter support HSR, but still recognize that the project will have its share of negative impacts. Building and running a 125-mph HSR line through the heart of the Peninsula may involve the destruction of trees, noise, land use issues, and visual impacts. Different combinations of these problems could arise, depending upon whether the HSR is built in a tunnel, at grade level, on an embankment above grade, or on a viaduct.

Perhaps because of these concerns, the cities of Menlo Park and Atherton filed suit in August 2008 against the HSRA over the Authority's acceptance of the Program EIR and the choice of route up the Peninsula. Sierra Club would also have preferred a different route. However, after considerable deliberation, Sierra Club California chose in January 2008 to focus on influencing AB 3034, which became the basis for Proposition 1A, and, ultimately, to support the measure on the November ballot.

Given the concerns about the route up the Peninsula, it may seem odd that the cities' lawsuit at this juncture is over the Program EIR rather than the route itself. (See "What's the Problem with High Speed Rail?" for some of those concerns.) However, it is not yet possible to litigate over route details, because proposal of those details is pending release of the draft Project EIR in 2011.

Following the Process

The Chapter Transportation Committee is carefully following the progress of the HSRA and its consultants as they conduct their environmental study process. This process will determine the details of HSR construction as it follows the Union Pacific and Caltrain right of way from Gilroy to San Francisco. The Chapter is concerned about the impacts the multiple track system will have as it transforms the Caltrain line into a 21st-century system. Other interested groups include the five-city (and growing) Peninsula Cities Coalition, composed of elected city council members, and the citizen-led Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design. These two groups are monitoring state legislation and following the design process.

While the impacts on the Peninsula may be considerable, the Club solidly backs HSR. The alternatives—freeways and airports—also cause significant impacts, and the reduction in carbon emissions that can result from replacing auto and plane travel is important to consider. These critical issues have played a role the Club's long-standing advocacy for HSR. This support began in 1993, when the resolution that initiated the process to build HSR passed the state legislature.

Having Chapter members, concerned citizens, and elected leaders involved in the process will ensure the greatest benefit and the least impact as California transitions to what President Obama envisions as a modern transportation system and a model for other states to follow.

Irvin Dawid is co-chair of the CA/NV Regional Conservation Committee's Bay Area Transportation Committee and a member of the chapter's transportation committee.