Wednesday, March 02, 2011

SPUR's high-speed rail fantasy

Of course Metcalf is a bike guy

Like all the smart growth, dense development, pro-highrise, new urbanist groups, SF's SPUR is anti-car, which is reflected in their recent report on high-speed rail and development in California (SPUR's Executive Director, Gabriel Metcalf is a bike guy). The report has a January, 2011, publication date, but it was "reviewed, debated and adopted as official policy by the SPUR Board of Directors on October 20, 2010," which makes it inexcusable that it completely ignores all the criticism of the project before publication, like this detailed critique of the project's finances published last October 12.

That means that SPUR assumes that the California high-speed rail system will be built, which is increasingly unlikely given the financial and political realities affecting all sources of funding for construction---federal, state, local, and private---the sytem is relying on.

But the high-speed backers sold the system to California voters in 2008 based on the lie that those who use the system would pay for it, and that it wouldn't require the state's taxpayers to subsidize its operation once it was built.

The California High Speed Rail Authority implicitly acknowledges that that promise was a lie in its 2009 business plan, wherein it repeatedly says that some kind of government guarantee to private investors is the only thing that will encourage them to invest.

State Treasurer Bill Lockyer adressed this reality last year, when he told the San Diego Tribune that the project was going to have problems getting private funding, that the state couldn't even sell the $9.95 billion state bonds authorized by voters in 2008 (“I would be reticent[sic] to try to go to market to issue bonds to finance the state’s share.”) The problem is that the legislation voters passed to authorize the bonds prohibits the state from subsidizing the system, which precludes the state from guaranteeing a return to bondholders.

SPUR ignored the financial issues when it endorsed the high-speed rail fantasy in 2008, seeing the boondoggle as essentially an opportunity to further its "transit-oriented" development ideology: "High-speed rail provides a major opportunity to reshape the surrounding environment to reflect principles of good urban place-making."

That means that cities have to prevent the stations from becoming "islands surrounded by parking," that the areas around the stations should instead be developed as "high-density" population and employment centers. But the report occasionally touches on reality when it admits that the more "suburban, more commuter-style station areas will undoubtedly need a lot of parking, but for them to be successful it is essential that that's not all they have." So what about stations in the cities?

Few cities have adequate rail networks linking surrounding cities or destinations to high-speed rail stations. This problem is much more acute in California than it is in the Northeast corridor of the U.S., where Amtrak’s Acela line links Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington. The simple fact that most of California’s urbanization occurred later in time means that we are inserting this rail system into a built environment that is more sprawling and less walkable than most places in the world that have successful high-speed rail systems. We are, therefore, faced with the daunting challenge of retrofitting the buildings, streets, transportation systems, and land-use patterns to be more transit-supportive (page 10).

Well, yes, that is a "daunting challenge" (not to mention the fact that Amtrak gets a $1 billion annual susidy from the federal government). Cities on the Peninsula are already litigating the issue, since the system will tear through existing communities, raising huge right-of-way and property issues and conflicting with Union Pacific's existing freight rail system.

But not to worry, the main thing is that

...high-speed rail forces a conversation about future infrastructure and planning needs for the state. It challenges residents to think about mobility in a way that does not always privilege the automobile...Parking should be extremely limited and not built with public funds. Most direct station parking should not be in the immediate station area and travelers should arrive at the station on foot, by shuttle, or in a drop-off zone (page 11).

SPUR acknowledges that its recommendations for transit connections and dense development around the stations will be expensive and require a lot of planning, land acquisition, and capital, so it recommends that the State of California---which has a $26 billion deficit---put another bond on the ballot to pay for it all!

Like the city's bike people and the Bicycle Plan, the report worries that pesky environmental review could hinder the implementation of its "vision," so the state would need "an abridged environmental impact process under CEQA, or selective CEQA exemptions in the station area and/or a total CEQA exemption for a period of years for projects consistent with the station area plans."

The report includes extensive discussions about state and local zoning and preserving farmland in the Central Valley, but it all has only a theoretical relationship to the economic and political realities in California or the rest of the country.

A recent story in the Chronicle (BART to open its 44th Station) on the new BART station injects some reality into the transportation "conversation" that SPUR wants: "The West Dublin/Pleasanton Station will feature nearly 1,200 parking spaces---721 in Dublin and 468 in Pleasanton---relieving pressure on the end-of-the line Dublin/Pleasanton Station, where spaces typically fill by 7:30 a.m."

If people in California are going to get to train stations, they have to have parking, since, as the SPUR report notes, the state doesn't have the kind of infrastructure to enable most people to get there any other way.

But building that kind of statewide infrastructure is a fantasy on the same scale as California high-speed rail itself.

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