Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - August 13, 2010

On Deadline: Putting our national fascination with trains and things in perspective

by Jay Thorwaldson

Most older Americans today grew up when electric trains were the rage for kids, from the high-end three-track Lionel sets to the lighter-grade American Flyers and other brands.

Endless variations of track layouts usually resulted in some kind of disaster-scenario where two engines collided.

Later came the realistic-looking small HO-gauge and even smaller N-gauge model train layouts, mostly built by fathers, sometimes mothers, for their kids — a way to recapture a bit of the childhood train fascination.

The results of this can be seen in the huge train layout in the old depot building in Menlo Park. Look at the faces of kids at such exhibits, clearly the product of people with too much time on their hands yet still a source of enchanted fascination for those who take the time to visit it.

Train songs weave through the canyons of our national culture.

Much of America's train fascination has been displaced by preoccupation with computers and instant-communication programs and gizmos, which some feel may be a net loss to the imagination.

But trains are our history, particularly in the Palo Alto/Stanford area where trains once dominated transportation. A line ran down the coast and one even extended from Los Gatos to Santa Cruz through deep tunnels, cheaper to build back then, one supposes.

So now trains are back in the news, but as full-size super-fast visions of the future, which some residents feel could be a nightmare for Peninsula communities.

As a journalist, I covered the snafu-rich early years of building BART (including waiting aboard a BART train in Union City for three hours for the first press ride under the bay). I was at the ribbon cutting for the Santa Clara County light-rail system, where Rod Diridon — then a county supervisor doing the dedication honors — pushed the controls forward to drive a trolley a block or so (upsetting union officials mightily). Diridon, now a member of the California High Speed Rail Authority board, still holds to his decades-long vision of rail transit, now translated to a statewide platform.

Peninsula cities a century or more ago were described as "knots on a string," the string being the tracks. As decades passed, with boom growth years of the 1950s followed by other decades of increasingly auto-dominated growth in the Bay Area, the cities bumped up against each other.

From a journalistic perspective, today's train debate is both a fascinating question as to what the outcome will be and a race to keep up with developments for an against the plan.

Yes, voters approved a $9.95 billion bond measure that granted approval of a concept to run a high-speed line from San Francisco to Los Angeles initially with later extensions to Sacramento and San Diego.

But yes, voters also voted approval without knowing most of the details, where the Devil lives.

Residents along the tracks were the first to raise alarms, with some switching their opposition from being based on local impacts on their homes and communities to all-out assaults on the concept of high-speed rail itself while others hoped to work with rail authority officials to get them to listen to local concerns about impacts. Law suits followed.

The one consistent message has been that surface or elevated rails are not an acceptable plan for densely populated sections of the rail line.

Supporters, including longtime transit advocates on the authority board, doggedly keep pushing the concept toward what they hope will become reality, but with major missteps and informational gaps that keep catching locals and even state officials by surprise. A series of independent evaluations (including a major one commissioned by the state Legislature) have been uniformly critical of the authority's business plan, ridership estimates and other aspects of how to run, or not run, a railroad.

Steeped in politics, partisans on both sides are engaged in monumental struggle to hash out the future, using today's computer technology to disseminate arguments, ideas, propaganda and opinions in a volume impossible to imagine just a couple of decades ago. High-speed communications is trying to outrace high-speed rail.

The advocate-laden leadership of the rail authority went to Washington, D.C., earlier this month armed results of a recent survey that shows that Californians as a whole still support a high-speed rail system. They were seeking more billions for the project, which has strong support from both Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and President Barack Obama.

But as articles and the editorial in today's paper show, additional surprises keep popping up.

Those include the possibility that one of Palo Alto's major north-south thoroughfares, Alma Street, might lose either one or two lanes because of the need to widen the Caltrain right of way to make way for high-speed trains in addition to the existing Caltrain local commuter trains and the Union Pacific freight operations.

And it turns out that the possibility of a deep tunnel or even a covered trench has been ruled out by engineers, it has now been disclosed with little fanfare in a nearly impossible-to-read document.

The potential narrowing of Alma Street in Palo Alto caught local planning and other officials by surprise when it was disclosed Aug. 5 by the rail authority, along with the ruling out of the tunneling and covered-trench design alternatives that might make a Peninsula high-speed segment acceptable to many residents and officials.

Then came the disclosure that if Palo Alto wants one of the few Peninsula high-speed-rail stations it would have to find a place for up to 3,000 parking spaces adjacent to or within shuttle distance of the station.

Despite a multi-million budget for public-relations assistance, most of the above surprises were announced in the form of a multi-page spreadsheet. The most notable feature of the spreadsheet (other than the stunning news buried in it) was that its printed form had type so small that it put to shame the legendary "fine print" of legal contracts. It took hours to comb through it and cull out the newsworthy findings.

Where were the easy-to-read announcements that could be understood by the public, such as the widely touted favorable survey results, that one might reasonably expect from a government entity?

For those of us in the profession, there's a key difference between "public information" and "public relations," the latter including all kinds of spin and propaganda while the former focuses on getting key information out to the public.

It's a matter of core credibility. There seems to be a huge gap in that core, amid the clutter of shifting facts, name-calling, mishandling of community relations and politics of personalities involved in this epic struggle of wills, competing visions and political positioning that vastly overshadows any train set ever imagined by kids and dads.

Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com.

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