Who’s Killing the Electric Train?

The California bullet
train, a high speed, electric train running a two-hour route between
Sacramento and San Diego, is a grand dream.

It is a grand dream brought
closer to reality by the passage of Prop 1A in November, allowing for
bonds to finance part of the project. It got even closer to reality by
an $8 billion cut of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed earlier
this year by Congress. The bullet train is a real possibility,
accelerating the speed of travel, commerce and communication in
California. However, it is slowly getting mired in predictable and
narrow-minded resistance from NIMBY communities through which the train
would pass.

NIMBY stands for “Not in My Backyard.” NIMBY protestors resist
projects — good and bad — on a spurious environmental basis when their
true motive is to prevent a project in their neighborhood that may hurt
the value of their property or quality of life. NIMBY communities are
most often wealthy enough to fight projects, leaving large
infrastructure concentrated in less empowered neighborhoods. NIMBYs may
be happy to benefit from the fruit of the project- power from a
powerplant, in this case, transportation from a train– as long as some
other community has to house the infrastructure.

While defending one’s community from a malicious or careless
development is rational, and often does yield higher environmental
quality, it is important to understand that planning (especially of
large infrastructure) is a community project in which compromises must
be made. Boycotting a project without participating in the public
process around developing it is rarely useful. This is particularly
true when there are so many genuine structural, engineering issues to
deal with first.

The communities legally fighting the bullet train are predictably
Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Atherton. These communities are fighting the
train because they can; the main track does not even go through their
cities. They are fighting the project because they want bargaining
leverage; they want to hold the state hostage for their approval. This
is not an environmental argument — it is a power play.

The other argument these communities claim is that the
environmental impact report and assessment failed to adequately account
for, or mitigate for, the displacing people in the path of the route.
That is salient; the government should generously compensate people
they need to displace so we don’t get the situations created by BART,
where the train kisses the roofs of homes in Oakland. Dislike of
eminent domain is not an environmental argument, though NIMBYs house it
that way.

The problem is that these communities are litigating the
environmental impact report as a venue for political and economic
concerns. This misframes the issue. The environmental benefits of the
bullet train are unquestionable. The bullet train does notable things
to protect the environment, not harm it. There isn’t anything
technically wrong with the environmental impact assessments or
reports. Environmentally, the bullet train will take hundreds of cars
off the road daily and can be powered through renewable energy,
reducing tons of emissions every day.

These indirect attacks on development projects of all kinds kill
good and bad projects, eschewing rational, cooperative dialogues. A
project like the bullet train is especially vulnerable because it can
be attacked by every community along the line for valid and spurious
reasons. The project is also primed for power struggles as communities
jockey to influence the planning, and consequential fiscal
distributions, of the project.

That some communities feel the bullet train may be loud or
unsightly need to come to the table and work with the state on it than
sue to obstruct it. Lawsuits not only drain already strained state
coffers, but they are a bad faith move without exhausting other avenues
of less formal negotiations. Governor Schwarzenegger can avoid
finishing out his term as a lame duck by showing strong leadership on
the bullet train project, negotiating with communities into cooperation
and support. Schwarzenegger must keep the states’ focus on the
collective benefits of the bullet train, which are enormous.

A San Jose Mercury poll still shows the majority of those polled
indicating disbelief that the bullet train will ever happen. Their
pessimism is more and less validated by state unity on the project and
the stifling of wasteful NIMBY lawsuits.