Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | June 14, 2004

No bullet trains in Coe Park

Gilroy City Councilman Bob Dillon’s recent unequivocal rejection of the high-speed train proposed for California prompted me to research the topic further.

Dillon’s comment that “This is the time to drive a stake through this project’s heart” followed by a subtle hint on how he’d vote on any bullet train bond measure (“I say not only ‘No,’ but ‘Hell no.’”), sent me to the California High-Speed Rail Authority Web site.

The High-Speed Rail Authority has recommended that California build a 700-mile bullet train system. Trains would travel at speeds up to 220 miles per hour to connect San Diego, Los Angeles, the Central Valley, the Bay Area and Sacramento. A trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles is expected take about 2 hours and 30 minutes.

State legislators disagree – at least for now – with Dillon’s assessment. Despite facing a yawning budget gap, earlier this month they approved spending $720,000 to fund completion of the project’s environmental impact report. It turns out that cash-strapped California can afford the expenditure because of increased sales tax revenues from high gasoline prices. Oh, the irony.

Liberal-leaning person that I am, I will admit to a tendency to favor public transportation systems. Public transportation reduces our country’s dependence on foreign oil and reduces the number of vehicles on our roads. Less foreign oil means sending less money to countries that produce so many anti-American terrorists. Fewer vehicles mean fewer pollutants pumped into the air. Republic or Democrat, Libertarian or Green Party member, who can disagree with the benefits of less foreign oil and less pollution?

I’m willing to bet that if Bay Area residents could turn back the clock to December 1961, when San Mateo County supervisors decided it was too expensive too run BART through the Peninsula, a vast majority would reverse that decision.

Given the escalating price tags to connect San Jose to BART today, the lack of foresight in deciding not to run the trains down the Peninsula is regrettable.

But those same escalating price tags for the BART-to-San Jose extension are fueling Dillon’s fears that the bullet train will be a “boondoggle.” When I read about low public transportation ridership and high subsidy rates, I empathize with Dillon’s concerns.

On the other hand, the current $37-billion estimate to build a bullet train system is far lower than the cost to upgrade highways to move the 68 million riders the train is projected to serve by 2020.

“To move the same people by car and/or plane would require $82 billion of upgrades, including 2,970 additional miles of freeway lanes, 60 new airport gates and five new runways,” The Christian Science Monitor reported on Feb. 4, citing a report issued by the California High-Speed Rail Authority, admittedly a biased source of information.

Why does all this matter? Because at some point in the next few years, Californians will be asked to approve a $9.95-billion bond to begin funding the bullet train project.

Given the state’s heavy debt burden and poor fiscal condition, the “no” vote that Dillon’s advocating might seem to be a no-brainer.

But we also know that building a bullet train later rather than sooner means spending more money for it. We know that oil prices and California’s population are both increasing. That “no” vote that looks so simple now might not look so smart with 20/20 hindsight in a few decades.

I haven’t decided yet how I’ll vote when a high-speed rail bond measure appears on a ballot. Until that happens, I’ll keep listening to both sides of the issue.

I am, however, adamant on one important aspect of the project: Bullet trains should not run through Henry W. Coe State Park or any other protected lands.

The rail authority is considering several routes, two of which would run through pristine wilderness in Coe Park. I can’t believe planners are even considering it. The irony of damaging the Orestimba Wilderness in Coe Park to build another project touted to help the environment must be lost on them.

The project’s draft environmental impact report is currently being circulated for comments. You don’t have to be an environmentalist, a lawyer or an urban planner to comment. Anyone can tell the High-Speed Rail Authority what they think of the bullet train proposal. Visit the High-Speed Rail Authority Web site, read the draft EIR and submit your comments. The deadline is Aug. 31.

High-speed rail in California? Well maybe. Bullet trains in Coe Park? Hell no.

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