Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

Making high-speed rail work with the community and the urban form

Over the past month or so there’s been quite a fuss in Palo Alto and the San Fransisco peninsula about how the CA high-speed rail project is going to affect those communities. The issue is that quite a number of misinformed citizens have the idea that HSR is going to be a blight on their community, and destroy their property values. Some are even suggesting that the route should be terminated somewhere on the peninsula before even reaching San Francisco. Travelers would have to take BART or Caltrain or another, slower, form of transportation to finish their journey. This would effectively neuter the HSR plan, the most ambitious in the country. As you might expect, our friend at the CAHSR blog, Robert Cruickshank, has been all over this issue.

His most recent post on the topic is particularly interesting: it highlights various ways that high-speed rail can be implemented in an urban setting without becoming a “Berlin wall,” as some opponents have phrased it. He includes a number of photos of successful executions of elevated HSR in communities, including one with shops integrated into the structure.

One might wonder why we’re having this debate at all. High-speed rail stations are an economic boon to towns, as demonstrated last year in Spain. The only thing these California cities have to lose is wads of tax dollars. But when a CAHSR Authority representative told Palo Alto residents that the rail service would obviously increase property values, they actually laughed at him.

The United States has an unfortunate history with land acquisition for transportation purposes, and it’s not not helped by what seems to be a stubborn refusal to look at the larger economic picture. After all, the Interstate highway system tore through urban neighborhoods as a “renewal” project, contributing to the disastrous decline of American inner-cities. No one wants that to happen to their community, and people are automatically going to distrust anyone who tells them that this time it will be different.

Of course if the pockets of rail authorities were simply overflowing with cash, it would be best to just tunnel through every single town, this is the option the Palo Alto dissidents prefer. A tunnel brings all of the developmental benefits of HSR with none of the pitfalls. Unfortunately, the funding situation is quite the opposite, and tunnels are prohibitively expensive. The best option then is to make sure that HSR uses as much existing ROW as possible (something CAHSR is definitely doing) and, when that can’t be done, spend a little extra money to make elevated tracks tasteful, resilient, and as unobtrusive as possible. Work with architects, local planning agencies, keep the public involved.

If the CAHSR Authority can navigate through this issue using these strategies, it will set a great precedent for future projects and communities. We know how useful HSR can be on the local scale. It’s just a matter of spreading this knowledge to the community and taking the extra steps to help towns squeeze the most from those benefits.


Filed under: Passenger Rail Politics, Regional USA Passenger Rail, United States High Speed Rail

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March 2009