May 3, 2011

High Speed Rail

All opinion today, no humor.

The high speed rail proposal is quite controversial here in California. We live in a community, San Mateo, through which the high speed trains would pass.  All the communities down the center of the San Francisco peninsula would get high speed rail passing through: Daly City, San Bruno, Millbrae, Burlingame, etc. all the way to San Jose.  Access to the system would be available in San Francisco, the airport, Redwood City, and San Jose. The accusation is that the wealthy communities on the peninsula are anti poor and crying not in my back yard!

So, let's look at some facts.  Would high speed rail be disruptive to the communities on the peninsula?  You bet.  Downtown San Mateo sits along the Caltrain track.  Several major streets cross the railroad track and access to 101 is on the Eastern side of the track.  Long term construction of a new rail would cause traffic delays and noise in downtown.  San Mateo's downtown is about a four block square so you have to wonder how much impact a high speed rail will have on such a tiny town.  The same is true of Burlingame/ Hillsborough.  Some peninsula communities, like Belmont and San Carlos, are farther from the Caltrain tracks and the tracks have underpasses for automobile traffic so they would be less affected by an addition or expansion to existent tracks.

Palo Alto has had a high profile in opposing the high speed rail.  We are looking to move to Palo Alto. One home we are considering sits six doors from the existing rail track.  The noise seems minimal from Caltrain but a high speed track might be elevated, placing the resulting noise above the buffer of trees and other, even closer, homes.  The construction would of course take a long time and cause a lot of noise as well.  The end result may be a reduced property value after putting up with the construction noise for years.  All a big if. The end result may be aesthetically pleasing, who knows.

Is opposing high speed rail synonymous with denying the poor access to a community?  Absolutely not.
I assume Caltrain is cheaper than high speed rail will be and Caltrain makes many more stops, including San Mateo, where high speed rail will not stop.  High speed rail passes through, it mostly doesn't stop. So these supposedly nefarious poor people aren't getting off in my current or future community unless they jump.

Would the train at least benefit the peninsula towns and California overall?  I doubt it.  High speed rail will get you from San Francisco to Los Angeles in about two hours and forty minutes, longer than most flights.  When you factor in how many people might use high speed rail and the cost of building the high speed rail system, you have to wonder if the impact on the affected communities, where a wide variety of people live, mostly middle class and working class people along the rail lines, is worth the cost.  How about we put some shoulder and money into repairing roads, bridges, tunnels, all the existing broken infrastructure that so needs attention and would benefit all citizens, rather than putting our money into this section of high speed rail?

For what it's worth.


  1. Oh, I know. But you're wrong. :-)

  2. In Boston, the Central Artery Tunnel project just recently (2003, $14 billion) finished replacing Fitzgerald Expressway, an elevated freeway through the city, with a network of freeway tunnels. The tunnel system was first proposed in 1909, but the money could never be found, so they built the elevated highway instead, starting in 1930. It was a tragic mistake -- both an eyesore and an earsore -- that wasn't corrected until 2003, when the tunnels were built.

    It seems that with each new transport technology project, we repeat this same error. Instead of insulating the environment from the impact of the project, we try to insulate the project from the impact of the environment. Elevating the high-speed rail bed makes the high-speed rail project cheaper, but it degrades the environment through which the rail bed passes. In effect, the elevated design exports project costs from the project to the locales through which the project passes. That's what was done in Boston with the Expressway. And just as with the Expressway, it will have to be corrected eventually by moving the rail bed into tunnels.

    At first blush, it seems crazy expensive to construct hundreds of miles of rail tunnels instead of an elevated rail route. But “seems” is the operative word. In assessing the relative costs of these two options, we tend to look only at the financial model of the rail system, rather than the financial model of our entire society. If we charge the rail system with the cost of depressed property values along its route, instead of charging the property owners, it becomes obvious that the cheapest alternative for society as a whole is to go direct to tunnel.

    The mistake we’re making is that we persist in dividing our society into silos that don’t really exist, beyond the imagination of accountants. The rail project and the communities through which it passes are part of the same system. It is the cost to the entire system that we should be trying to minimize, not the cost of just the rail project.

  3. Well said, Rick! Tunnels in the urban areas would certainly solve the quality of life issues in the long term.

    It seems that the U.S. transportation system is poorly thought out, or in the case of the old streetcar system, deliberately sabotaged. The federal government now seems to have this pot of money for high speed rail rather than a pot of money to improve the transportation system and infrastructure on a case-by-case basis. Ohio rejected funds for high speed rail to connect Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland. Florida rejected their federal high speed rail money and California scooped up the Florida money to add to our pot. The California plan will now extend north and west into some additional areas. I have no idea if those areas want or need the high speed system.