Commentary, High Speed Rail

High Speed Rail Board Comes to Burbank

CHSRA Board Meeting November 15, 2018 Burbank

While I was not able attend the recent Board meeting of the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) I did view the video and as President of the Rail Passenger Association of California (RailPAC) I wanted to provide my impressions of the meeting and public comments.  The overall emotion projected by the public was one of being overwhelmed, stressed and thrust into a universe they did not chose.  However, the reality we face, traffic and gridlock, is the result of decades of independent decisions from the first subdivision in the San Fernando Valley, the arrival of Mulholland’s water, growth of the movie industry, the aerospace industry, the impact of freeways in generating suburban sprawl, etc.  California is the 5th largest economy in the world and much as we might want we can’t roll back the clock or freeze it in place.  I think a comment made by a landowner at Northern California CHSRA Board sums up the situation pretty well.  That landowner, who is losing part of his property to high-speed rail, said “there is no good route; there is only the least worst route.”  That phase applies not only to the route segments in Southern California but to the choice of high-speed rail made in 2005.  Other mode improvements, more highways, more airport runways, maglev and the no project alternative, all were found wanting.  High-capacity, high-speed rail was found to be the option with the greatest benefits with the least impact on the environment.

So in dealing with the statewide issue of infrastructure investment, the task falls to the public along the Southern California high-speed rail route segments working in collaboration with Authority staff to address key lineside issues.  Making the current situation worse is that while the high-level regional trade-offs have decided that the Refined SR-14 and existing rail corridors is the” least worse route”, the local neighborhood impacts, the ones that really impact people’s lives (noise, concerns regarding vibration, Valley Fever, dust, wildlife impacts, etc.), are now front and center.

Resolving these issues with design strategies and mitigation is the key task in the next phase of the environmental study.  The public provided excellent input on the issues and they are to be congratulated.  RailPAC encourages members of the public to remain involved because the result will be a better less impactful railroad.  As Chair Dan Richard and Board Member Tom Richards outlined at the end of meeting, this type of collaboration has taken place in the San Joaquin Valley with projects to improve wetlands, easements to protect farmland from development, replace old polluting diesel water pumps, tractor and bus engines with new cleaner engines, initiatives to protect wildlife, etc.  This effort is collaborative requiring creativity and compromise.  So using the San Joaquin example, the focus now should be on how to develop designs and mitigations that offset the rail line’s local impact.  For example, is there critical wildlife habitat now in private hands that could be protected?  What is the best location for the Santa Clara River bridge supports, how can dust be minimized, how can homeowners achieve confidence in the risk of tunneling under their homes, etc.
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Ironically, the greatest threat to wild areas and equestrian neighborhoods is auto driven suburban sprawl with its huge demands for space.  The pressure for more land is tremendous and history clearly shows that what might be safe now may in fact not be.  High-speed rail and improved commuter rail with its focus on urban core development may, in fact, be the best ally to rural landowners and those who want to protect wildlife.

Finally, I was disappointed by the statements provided by national, state and local public officials.  In my opinion they did not show the leadership and creativity that the issue requires.  All claim to support efforts to improve transportation and fight carbon emissions, yet when a transformative project is presented to deal with these issues, they uniformly supported the politically safe option, an extremely expensive tunnel from Sunland to LA.  These legislators are creating false hope for their constituents.  A full-length tunnel will not generate the benefit that justifies the cost and potentially leaves in place the current rail line with surface crossings, blaring warning horns and diesel exhaust.  The current CHSRA proposal is the “least worse” option.  It focuses at improving the corridor as a whole eliminating dangerous grade crossings and warning horns, with targeted mitigation of noise issues.  RailPAC also feels the project lays the foundation for converting Metrolink and Amtrak trains to clean electric traction.  By integrating high-speed rail tracks and current rail tracks into one unified high-capacity 4-track rail line, additional Metrolink and Amtrak service can be operated.  RailPAC recommends stakeholders between Burbank and Anaheim also should work with Authority staff and begin focusing on targeted on affordable mitigation and tradeoffs.

The Rail Passenger Association of California concurs with the Board’s vote on Thursday November 15th and supports the forward movement on high-speed rail in California.

Paul Dyson, 11/19/18

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