Playing With Politics

A Blog on Law, Politics, Planning, Development, and Other Vices

The Peninsula Having its OC Moment

Posted by Roobs on July 8, 2009

Back in 2003, Orange County completely blew its chance to create its own Light Rail Train (LRT) system connecting its downtown business core with the county’s major airport: John Wayne Airport, due to strong opposition from residents. Coincidently, after reading a San Francisco Examiner article, a friend and I discussed how we see the exact same arguments the residents of Orange County are being made by the residents of the Peninsula area of the San Francisco Bay with regard to the proposed California High Speed Rail (CHSR).

What brings me to this subject today are recent events with California’s current budget mess. Not in my backyard (NIMBY) protesting residents of the Peninsula and their legislative allies have thrown language into proposed budget deals forcing the CHSR Authority to run costly alternate route study. Luckily, the language being part of the greater budget fiasco in Sacramento has all but guaranteed the proposed bill and its HSR language to be vetoed by the Governator. But I feel the need to briefly go over this issue in writing.

Back in November of 2008, over 60% of Peninsula residents voted yes on Prop 1A, which allocated over $10 billion in bond funds for the creation of a HSR connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles. Now, residents of cities such as Palo Alto and Mountain View have stepped up their criticism of the proposed route through their towns to the point where there is now litigation between cities and the state.

Some say they don’t want a large train whizzing by and separating their towns with lower grade canals or unsightly elevated tracks. Others fear the threat of eminent domain in areas where the right of way is too narrow to allow both the existing Caltrain and CHSR to run side by side, forcing the state to buy up adjacent land or create those elevated tracks to stack over the exiting lines. Residents also argue that the creation of an HSR through their towns and near their homes would be a nuisance and negatively impact their property values. Most of these arguments are all echoes from OC residents’ revolt against LRT’s.

As possible solutions, the opponents have asked that the CHSR Authority (Authority) run an alternate route study. A possible example would be a route through the Altamont Pass reaching San Francisco through Oakland via a submerged tunnel in the Bay as BART currently does. Another option would be to completely leave San Francisco out of the CHSR picture and end the line in San Jose, leaving the rest of the commute to San Francisco via BART and Caltrain.

First let’s ignore the fact that that these Peninsula residents are opposing something that they approved but a few months earlier, and that they are the cities who lobbied the Authority for a route through the Peninsula vs. the East Bay, and the fact that East Bay cities such as Oakland and Livermore said they would prefer a route through the Peninsula, and the fact that the Authority spent the past decade studying alternate routes, and the fact that suggesting an end of the line at San Jose vs. San Francisco violates the spirit of Prop 1A on a legal level… [Breathe]

Let us look at some of the arguments made by both Orange County residents in the past as well as Peninsula residents in the present.

Alternate Route Study – Altamont Pass
This is at the heart of what brought me to write this piece. Again, let’s ignore the fact that the Authority has already studied alternate routes and concluded the Pacheco Pass and Peninsula routes are the best. Requesting an alternate study now would cost more money because a re-study of a route would delay the project enough that it would disqualify it from receiving Federal stimulus funds, leaving the nations most well progressed HSR project out of the game and giving our share of the stimulus pie to the next in line, likely the proposed routes connecting the Chicago Metro area.

The Altamont Pass was a possible route looked at by the Authority in the early parts of the conceptualization of an HSR in Northern California. However, it was rejected due to excessive environmental impacts and a lack of interest by major cities needed to pass through, such as Livermore, Dublin, and Oakland. Additionally, it served the purpose of the HSR to run through the Pacheco Pass and up the Peninsula more because it would serve more riders traveling to/from San Jose to San Francisco, Sacramento and Southern California. Remember, this is the very spirit of the CHSR. Because of BART’s extensive presence in the East Bay and future connection from Fremont to San Jose as well as the Altamont Corridor Express rail service; the infrastructure for connecting the East Bay to San Francisco or San Jose and their HSR stations is already in existence. So not having an HSR route in the East Bay would have a negligible impact on development and transportation. East Bay riders can get to a San Francisco station the same way they already use BART to get to San Francisco International Airport for intrastate travel.

Alternate Route Study – San Jose: End of the Line
This is wrong on multiple levels but, the biggest issue is the legality of this idea. Many of us have probably heard the “Spirit of the Law” argument made at some point or another with regard to something constitutional or the like. The same is true of propositions and measures passed. By altering a plan so drastically as to alter the very spirit of what was voted upon, it raises the legality of the proposition itself. Because Prop 1A was to allocate bond funds to pay for a HSR linking Los Angeles and San Francisco, if you take San Francisco out of the picture, then you have changed the very spirit of the proposition people voted on. Had the proposition been written to say that the HSR was to link San Jose and Los Angeles, the vote could have turned out differently, which challenges the legitimacy of the original proposition.

So this is a non-starter. Any attempt to suggest that San Francisco not have an HSR station is complete moot and cannot be entertained, lest you risk the entire purpose of HSR project and, thus, its legitimacy.

Property Values
This was at the core of Orange County residents’ argument against creating an LRT system in their backyards. They insisted that the creation of such a system would depreciate their home values 5-10%. Not surprisingly, the residents of the Peninsula are throwing this same argument as well.

This argument is actually incorrect and far from the truth. During the whole debacle in Orange County, Cal State Fullerton conducted a study in 2002 (How Will the Centerline Affect Property Values in Orange County?) that showed that commercial and residential properties near an LRT station actually experienced an increase in property value by as much as 15% and that the more ridership a system enjoys, the higher the value nearby properties enjoy as well. So to say that a transit station near your home is going to take value from your home is factually incorrect and completely opposite of reality.

Nuisance (Noise, Blight, Crime, Etc.)
Peninsula residents bring up another echo from Orange County residents who also say they did not want a train whizzing by in the middle of their cities, citing it as an increased nuisance to residents. However, this isn’t really that true either, for Orange County or the Peninsula.

Yes, the same CSU-F report showed that areas within a close proximity to stations (i.e, within 1/4 of a mile) will experience an increase in noise and other nuisances, but those past 1/2 mile of the station receive increased capitalization from their proximity, which is even more profound in high wealth neighborhoods, hence the increased property values mentioned above. As a result, the study showed that the increased benefits outweighed any possible connection with negative premiums. But let’s be honest, a train passing through the city is a nuisance the city already enjoys with the Caltrain running through on a regular basis. Current residents near the tracks don’t seem to be complaining about that.

Additionally, the route has been referred to as a “Berlin Wall” type of divider of the city. But this really is more rhetoric than fact. As stated, there already exists a rail route through each city opposing the route: the Cal-Train. It is just as noisy and whizzes by as a proposed HSR train would, except it does it more slowly. So I fail to see how an HSR train would further divide the city anymore than Caltrain already does.

The only point one could concede is the possibility of creating elevated rail tracks. Now, this could be seen as a blight on city streets, which residents demand be maintained as cute and adorable. However, there is no evidence, other than personal aesthetics, that an elevated track would negatively impact local businesses or property values. Again, the existence near transit stations actually increase values of both commercial and residential properties. This leads me into the local areas proposed compromise of tunneling (see “Tunneling” below).

Suburbanization was an interesting argument made by Orange County residents, since suburbanization is linked not to mass transit but highways and car travel. Nevertheless, the CSU-F study did address this issue. The study stated that what will likely happen as a result of a LRT system would be the possible move of suburban dwellings away from central business districts but, at the same time, a clustering of business in downtowns. However, we should contextualize this.

What suburbanization could possibly occur on the Peninsula, or the Bay Area for that matter? Outside of the areas around Walnut Creek and north of San Rafael (which wont even be served by the HSR), there isn’t much room to expand. The only possible area for suburbanization in the Bay Area as a result of HSR is in the far South Bay near Gilroy and Morgan Hill. But that is a possibility that will happen independently of anything being built (or not) on the Peninsula, which essentially makes this argument (should it be made by Peninsula residents) a moot point.

What will likely happen as a result of any transit station on the Peninsula is the clustering affect described with regard to businesses as well as with residential developments. For example, a station in Redwood City would likely create a new business hub surrounding the HSR station and existing downtown, with new mixed use developments going up as well with increased presence of apartment and condominium units. But the effect outside of the area surrounding the HSR station and downtown will likely be negligible due to zoning rules. So your three or four bedroom (or more, it is the Peninsula) single family home will likely be unthreatened by any station.

Additionally, the cities of the Peninsula are already developed as commuter cities with residents already traveling from their homes to either San Jose or San Francisco and back home again. The existence of an HSR station will only serve to reduce the traffic conditions on the 101 Freeway where residents would need only travel short distances to the station and take the train the rest of the way.

Peninsula residents brought up a related point which is that HSR would lead to an increase in traffic congestion when residents drive between their homes and local stations. I find this issue to be moot for a few reasons.

First, you already enjoy the congestion of vehicles leaving for work regardless of a nearby train station or not. This is because, whether you’re driving 5 miles to the train station from your home or 50 miles from your home to your work in San Francisco or San Jose, you’re still driving with the same people on the road. Your destination is just closer. Second, residents closer to the train station will enjoy the benefit of being able to walk to the train station or, at least, take a very short local transit (bus) ride, completely removing them and their vehicles from the road you drive on, actually lessening congestion. Third, a way to discourage people from driving to a train station from home vis a vis taking a bus is to charge for parking. Proceeds from parking can be used to support local road improvements and maintenance or even to subsidize local mass transit fares, making it more affordable to take the bus.

Eminent Domain
I will give this concern the most legitimacy of any concern raised by residents on the Peninsula, as there is little that one can say to assure that the state will not come in and take your property other than to say… the state will not come in and take your property. There are many places where the tracks can exist side by side. In places where the route becomes too narrow is where the possibility of elevated rail tracks may need to be created to stack over the existing Caltrain route. This leads into the next concern and compromise raised by Peninsula residents: Tunneling.

In all reality, I don’t mind this option. Ignoring the fact that a tunnel through the Peninsula would be prohibitively expensive, environmentally detrimental and dangerous, residents of the Peninsula should be willing to pay for their excessive aesthetic needs.

The way I see it, the cities of the Peninsula knew what the CHSR project was. A simple Google search leading up to Nov. 4, 2008 would have provided any person a map and models of what the Authority was proposing, not to mention the many community meetings held in the region on the issue. Claiming ignorance now is not the fault of the State but of local voters. So if they want a tunnel, that’s cool. But they have to be willing to foot the extra bill and this should be made excruciatingly clear to them. The state can cover the cost up to what it would have cost to do their original plan. After that, the city residents should foot the rest of the bill, likely through local tax.

It is not the responsibility of San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland or even Los Angeles and San Diego residents to pay for the Peninsulas extravagances, the same way it was not Southern California’s responsibility to pay for the Oakland span of the Bay Bridge replacement after it went ridiculously over budget due to poor management.

The issues raised by Peninsula residents in opposition to the proposed CHSR route are too eerily similar to the opposition that successfully ended Orange County’s attempt to create an LRT system to be ignored. However, the benefit that the current fight between Peninsula residents and the Authority is that they have recent history to look at and plenty of tangible proof to back them up. Bottom line, NIMBY Peninsula protestors are wrong.

The study conducted by CSU Fullerton shows how wrong the Orange County LRT opponents were and how equally misguided NIMBY Peninsula residents are as well. The HSR is a great benefit to California for many reasons, only some of which are mentioned here. Linking the major metro areas of California together will help elevate California’s economy out of a rut and increase efficiency and productivity of California’s workforce. There needs to be a call for both advocacy and leadership in the movement for a high speed rail through the Peninsula. State legislators like Senator Joe Simitian and Assemblyman Ira Ruskin should be encouraged to vocalize their support for HSR and against NIMBY protesters.

It is my hope that this opposition will not last so that California can move on the greatest infrastructure project the United States has seen since it first worked to create both its original railroad and highway systems.


One Response to “The Peninsula Having its OC Moment”

  1. […] the Golden State’s HSR project, there are still significant obstacle to overcome, such as strong NIMBYism in Northern California’s Peninsula corridor.  Also, the cost to complete the system is estimated at $42 billion.  Yes this is a lot of money […]

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