Open spaces and High Speed Rail

Posted on 30 May 2012

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By RL Miller

Monday was the 120th birthday of the Sierra Club, founded on May 28, 1892 by John Muir with a goal to “do something for wilderness and make the mountains glad.” The Club originally focused on protecting and enjoying the Sierra Nevada range of California, but has grown throughout the years to become the best known environmental group on the planet.

Muir dreamed of wilderness untrammeled by human footprint. Today, the Wilderness Act protects not only Muir’s beloved Yosemite but spectacular, lonely, wild lands throughout America. But, just as the Sierra Club has evolved beyond a focus on the Sierra Nevada range, environmentalists’ visions have evolved.

We are in the Anthropocene Age – the Age of Man, an era marked by humans’ influence on the planet. We can’t protect the entire planet from the human race. Instead, we interact with it, for good (sustainably) or worse (skyrocketing carbon emissions). Visionary environmentalists focus on how we interact with the physical world. Do we tread lightly? Do we trample over what was precious? Or do we blaze smart new trails?

One of the smartest new trails in California isn’t a footpath, but a train: electric high speed rail that can take Californians from Los Angeles to San Francisco in less than half the time is takes to drive. Governor Jerry Brown sees it as his legacy, just as his father built the California higher education system. Voters approved it as Proposition 1a, but second thoughts are being fostered by NIMBY/Blue Dog Democrats such as Alan Lowenthal and tea partiers (with, one suspects, ventriloquism support from fossil fuel interests). The bullet train’s environmental benefits are legion, from cars removed from the road to development of smarter local transit options.

Yes, the train will be expensive. Yes, building it will increase carbon emissions for its first 30 years, whines the Wall Street Journal. Yet high speed rail is becoming a litmus test for environmentalists contemplating the Anthropocene.

A couple of examples highlight the difference between easy environmentalism – preservation of pretty places – and environmentalism in the Anthropocene. Darrell Issa (CA-52) has introduced H.R. 41, to protect the Beauty Mountain area, but he’d never be confused with an environmentalist. And near me, a local RINO-turned-independent candidate for Congress, Linda Parks (I-CA-26), developed an environmental reputation because she worked on open space preservation. Yet she considers high speed rail to be a “costly boondoggle.”

Open spaces matter a lot. The human spirit needs the idea of a place to roam far from roads and civilization. However, the human spirit also needs civilization. Preserving open spaces while ignoring environmental impacts of the built world is not the hallmark of a true environmentalist. The Sierra Club supported Proposition 1A. Clear-eyed environmentalists in the age of the Anthropocene will eagerly set forth on the trail of California’s high speed rail vision.


This is a post from RL Miller, a climate activist based in Ventura County, that was originally published on the California High Speed Rail blog.

Really now, RLM -

Such panegyrics about California High Speed Rail on its deathbed. That is so commendable of you.

The problem with CHSR - which you so perfectly demonstrate - is that it has become so divorced from reality that is was doomed to fail. And by failing, it dooms another generation of passenger rail alternatives for California.

So, in actuality, people who have wanted CHSR to be all things - environmental salvation, urban redesign, economic restructuring - have essentially guaranteed that it will be nothing. They have ignored the fundamental issue - that for a rail initiative to succeed, it must first be viable transportation.

Instead of working for a direct (Grapevine, Altamont) route with a six-hour schedule, CHSRA produced a politicized circuitous route, assumed train speeds in excess of the French TGV even though it has never so much as pulled a little red wagon, inflated ridership estimated to absurd levels, and predicted ticket prices that could hardly cover interest expenses - let alone operating costs.

You are about 4 years late and $60 billion short.
So I am not surprised.