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Who's Killing the Electric Train?

by Amelia Timbers, published

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.

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