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Rail News Home High-Speed Rail

8/26/2010



Rail News: High-Speed Rail

The community backlash against HSR, and how states are coping


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Throughout the country, state departments of transportation are attempting to move forward with high-speed rail plans — applying for federal funding, performing environmental studies and planning and designing the systems.

But in several states, residents and elected officials in the communities the trains would run through continue to voice concerns about specific proposals and plans — and even the HSR program itself.

For example, in California, anti-HSR sentiment ran high in the city of Gilroy, where members of the Gilroy City Council strongly oppose the California High Speed Rail Authority’s (CHSRA) plans.

“I wish they would go away. I’ve been against it since the get-go. It stands no chance,” Gilroy Councilman Bob Dillon told the Hollister Free Lance newspaper.

Other council members have complained about presentations CHSRA officials have given on the proposed system, saying the information tends to generate more questions than answers.

CHSRA’s plan for a 123-mile San Jose-to-Merced stretch of its high-speed line would run through the Pacheco Pass and include a station in Gilroy. However, CHSRA has not told Gilroy officials where the alignment will run in the city, how the tracks will be configured or how much the city will be expected to pay, the council members told the Hollister Free Lance.

However, Gilroy officials aren’t ready to take any formal action opposing the plan, according to published reports.

The Orange, Calif., city council unanimously passed a resolution opposing the proposed high-speed train, and Gilroy Councilman Dion Bracco said in a July 19 city council meeting posted on the city’s website that he would “definitely support” taking a similar action in Gilroy. But the opinion is not quite unanimous in Gilroy.

Councilman Craig Gartman has said the council should wait until after the November election, when the new council is elected, to decide if it should take a stand against the project.

Gilroy Councilman Perry Woodward, on the other hand, told the council that he doesn’t think it’s the council’s place to go against the “will of the voters,” who voted in November 2008 to authorize the sale of $9.9 billion in bonds to support the project.

“As someone who initially was very encouraged by the prospect that the high-speed rail was coming to our town, I have grown increasingly worried and skeptical of the ability of this particular agency to build a good model,” Woodward told the council. “I have real concerns about the high-speed rail and the people running it, but I don’t think it’s our place to be telling the voters of California that we don’t want something that they’ve approved.”

One of the major concerns — for Gilroy officials and others in California — is the proposed design of the system.

“I think it’s a great concept and would love to have that kind of a train until I found out it could split the downtown,” said Gilroy Mayor Al Pinheiro.

Meanwhile, in San Mateo County, Calif., controversy continues over a proposal to put trains on elevated platforms. Residents from cities such as San Mateo and Burlingame have asked CHSRA officials not to operate the trains on aerial viaducts due to fears that the structures will divide communities, cause economic problems and increase noise pollution, according to an Aug. 6 report published in the San Francisco Examiner.

Similar concerns have been raised in North Carolina over the state’s plan to build a grade-separated high-speed rail line connecting Raleigh, N.C., and Richmond, Va.  Grade separation would require the building of about 100 bridges and underpasses, but in some places, streets where there are crossings would be turned into dead ends, according to an Aug. 3 report published in the Charlotte News & Observer.

Residents in towns such as Youngsville, Franklinton, Henderson and Norlina, N.C., would feel the effects of the grade separation changes, but see little benefit to the high-speed line since there are no plans for stops in many communities, according to the report.

In Wisconsin, some residents and officials view the project to connect Milwaukee and Madison as a bad investment. Project opponents have said the money could be better spent on road and bridge improvements, or tax cuts even though the HSR money cannot be reallocated for other uses. Others argue that the system won’t be used enough and isn’t necessary to make the 80-mile trip between Milwaukee and Madison.

Recently, state officials nixed a plan to build a station in Oconomowoc, Wis., because they believed the town hadn’t expressed enough interest in the project, according to an Aug. 18 report from WISN ABC News 12.

Meanwhile, project supporters continue to say the new high-speed rail line could create thousands of jobs.

"In the next two and a half years, over 5,500 construction workers, engineers, machine operators and others will be working hard to make track improvements, build train stations, and improve the roads around these tracks. You are going to start seeing a lot of hard hats and neon vests around here and that is good news for everyone in this state," said Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle during a press conference in Watertown, Wis., on July 29.

Arguments in favor of the project also include clearing up congestion on the state’s highways, providing a better connection between Milwaukee and Madison and reducing the state’s dependence on fossil fuels, according to a July 30 report on news website examiner.com.

Amid the occasional hue and cry, state officials continue to push ahead with their programs and projects. Many states are holding town meetings and extensive public comment periods to generate input before finalizing their plans.

To date, the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) has received “a range of feedback,” on the proposed alignment, says NCDOT Rail Division Director Patrick Simmons.

However, the sentiment that Simmons says best sums up the feelings about the project came from a woman at a meeting in McKinney, Va., near where the North Carolina route would join with Virginia’s HSR line.

The woman told Simmons, “I don’t mind that fast train coming here. In fact, I think it ought to be. But please, slide it back away from my house.”

NCDOT will continue collecting comments through the end of August. Once all the comments have been collected, Simmons says NCDOT will “listen first. Second, we’ll think about it. How do we incorporate all the comments and how can we use that to improve our plan?”

In the meantime, NCDOT will continue to work with the communities to mitigate that impact as much as possible, Simmons says.

And in California, CHSRA’s regional teams have been coordinating community outreach meetings throughout the state, conducting more than 100 meetings in July alone, says CHSRA Press Secretary Rachel Wall.

The meetings have served as an opportunity for residents to learn more about CHSRA’s plan — which is an 800-mile high-speed rail system that will provide service between Sacramento, the San Francisco Bay area, Central Valley, Los Angeles, Inland Empire, Orange County and San Diego. Trains would operate at top speeds of 220 mph on a fully grade-separated alignment, mostly on exclusive right of way, with shared passenger-rail operations on the Caltrain corridor in the San Francisco Bay area, says Wall.

“A lot of people are still unfamiliar with it,” she adds.

The law does not require that the alternatives analysis process be public, Wall says, but CHSRA decided it should be in order to engage public input.

And although CHSRA officials are trying to minimize the impact on the communities along the route, Wall says the biggest thing to remember is that “for an 800-mile system — for an infrastructure system of this magnitude — there are going to be impacts.”

“But it’s important to communicate to minimize those impacts wherever possible,” she adds.

— Katie Berk


Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

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