Editorial: The slow death of high-speed rail

Loss of federal money will be the nail in the coffin of doomed project

Back in 2008, Palo Alto voters, the City Council and the Weekly liked the idea of bullet trains zooming at more than 200 miles an hour between the Bay Area and Los Angeles, providing an alternative mode of travel that was economical and more environmentally friendly.

A majority of voters around the state thought so too, passing Proposition 1A with 52 percent of the vote and setting in motion what today has become what almost everyone agrees is a colossal, mismanaged mess staying alive by just a thread.

The project's only hope is a new business plan that convincingly offers a realistic assessment of the number of riders such a train service would attract, as well as how to attract private investment to replace the federal funds that now appear all but gone in the wake of the nation's economic problems and divisive politics.

In just the last few weeks the California High-Speed Rail Authority has been hit with a series of setbacks that raise new doubts about its ability to manage what would be the largest construction project in the state's history. To have any hope of moving this project forward, it is imperative that the federal government and private industry commit to spend billions of dollars beyond the nearly $10 billion that voters approved in Prop. 1A.

But the likelihood of that happening is withering away as the economy remains stagnant and Congress appears headed toward massive cuts in federal spending. At the state level, Sen. Joe Simitian and other legislators have publicly questioned the authority's business plan as well. These and other recent developments have all put cast the death knell on this project. Consider the following:

■ In a study just made public earlier this week, a highly-respected peer-review group of professors and transportation experts that report to rail authority CEO Roelof Van Ark, said the authority has been using a flawed forecasting model to predict the number of passengers that will use the high-speed trains. The report largely confirms a previous criticism from a UC Berkeley group issued last year.

■ The agency's public relations firm, Ogilivy Public Relations Worldwide, resigned about a month ago after fulfilling less than two years on a four and a half-year, $9 million contract. The firm was pummeled by criticism from Peninsula residents, including members of Palo Alto-based Californians Advocating for Responsible Rail Design, when attempting to defend the rail authority board that often antagonized opponents, rather than hear their concerns.

■ Another public relations faux pas was the unexpected departure of Jeffrey Barker, the rail authority's deputy director in charge of communication, who failed to provide a timely response to a public information request from CARRD that dragged on for months. The group was seeking release of the critical peer-review report, and was successful only after filing a chronology of its request with the authority last week. The report was released the following day, the same day that Barker resigned, saying he is going "to pursue other endeavors."

■ On the economic front, the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives, including the budgeting process, has left little doubt that further federal support for high-speed rail will be drastically cut or eliminated altogether. None of the $917 billion in cuts promised in the debt-ceiling legislation have been identified, but whether the House would vote to spend more than a fraction of that amount on a high-speed rail project appears to be unlikely.

By any yardstick, the high-speed rail project is simply far too financially ambitious for the state to undertake at this time, when basic services have been cut to the bone and additional cuts could be on the way as a result of more federal belt-tightening. The idea of paying debt-service on nearly $10 billion in bonds makes no sense in this fiscal environment.

High-speed rail supporters have enormous obstacles to overcome in order to get this project back on track. They need a convincing business plan, a new management team, and most importantly, reliable funding sources that don't commit the taxpayers to unaffordable subsidies of construction and operation.

HSR is looking more and more like a pipe-dream. It's time for the legislature to take the initiative and either provide the leadership to unwind this project, presumably through passage of another state ballot measure that counteracts the requirements of Prop. 1A, or by finding and embracing a new financing model.

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Posted by it's about time
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 5, 2011 at 11:10 pm

from: Web Link

by Cynthia Ward

High-Speed Train Wreck
California’s multi-billion-dollar bullet-train boondoggle was predictable—and predicted.

3 August 2011

In October 2008, Joseph Vranich, a preeminent authority on high-speed rail in the United States, testified before a hearing of California’s State Senate Transportation and Housing Committee. Vranich, the best-selling author of Supertrains and a 40-year advocate of high-speed rail, had come to offer his thoughts on the state’s plan to build a high-speed rail line from Orange County to San Francisco. “This is the first time I am unable to endorse a high-speed rail plan,” he told the senators, saying that he found the California High Speed Rail Authority’s work to be “the poorest I have ever seen.”

It’s fair to say that the vast majority of California voters never heard what Vranich had to say. Instead, they relied on faulty and unverified information on their ballot statements, where high-speed rail proponents touted the environmental advantages and fiscal benefits of the state’s plan. Less than a month after his testimony, voters approved Proposition 1A, authorizing Sacramento to sell a few billion dollars in bonds for a project most experts, now including the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst Office and the University of California, say will cost tens of billions of dollars more than the official $43 billion estimate.

With his 2008 testimony now posted on YouTube, more people are listening to Vranich, who predicted just about everything that came to pass, including that the trains would be slower than promised, carry fewer people than rail authorities claimed, and cost much more than officials would admit. “I would like to see high speed rail built,” Vranich told senators. “But not this boondoggle.” Almost three years on, the High Speed Rail Authority has spent $630 million—and the project hasn’t even broken ground yet. The vast majority of those dollars went to consultants and studies.

Vranich explained in 2008 that while high-speed rail “holds great promise in certain sections of the country,” the California HSRA’s work was so deficient that “if the current plan is implemented it has the potential of setting back the cause of high-speed rail throughout the United States.” The Authority, Vranich argued, had learned nothing from failed projects in Texas and Florida (with another failure in the making in the Sunshine State), and aborted plans in Los Angeles and San Diego. The L.A. and San Diego projects had been undone by overly optimistic ridership estimates, pie-in-the-sky budgeting, and a callous disregard for local environmental impacts. The HSRA was repeating all of those mistakes, Vranich argued, “as if they never read a single page of history.” His recommendation: dissolve the HSRA and transfer its power to a different state agency.

“High speed rail in California may be salvageable after all of this poor work, but someone else must be in charge,” Vranich said. “If the authority is unable to conduct studies that have credibility, how will they ever effectively deliver a mega construction project on time and within budget?” His argument tracks closely with a May 2011 report from the Legislative Analyst’s Office, which also suggests that the High-Speed Rail Authority be dismantled.

Vranich skewered every aspect of the HSRA’s proposal. He insisted that passenger estimates were wildly inflated—64 percent higher than those developed by the Federal Railroad Administration and by independent studies from the University of California at Berkeley’s Transportation Center, as well as a thorough report by the Reason Foundation. “The authority’s projection of 117 million annual intercity passengers plus commuters is so far from reality that I have to call it what it is—science fiction,” Vranich wrote in his testimony. Most studies use population density to project ridership, but as a story in California Watch noted last month, “if the measure is population density, Florida and Ohio would be fertile ground as well. Both of those states rejected billions in federal aid for bullet trains, fearing they just couldn’t make the projects pencil out.”

The state’s HSRA assumes a bullet train from Los Angeles to the Bay Area would attract vastly greater ridership among 50 million car-loving Californians than has been achieved in Spain, Germany, France and Japan, where rail travel is commonplace. Perhaps an even better example domestically is Amtrak’s estimated ridership for its Northeast Corridor. “Fifty million people already inhabit the region served by Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor,” Albrecht Engel, Vice-President of Amtrak HSR, told an audience of high-speed rail boosters this spring. “The population is expected to grow to 70 million by 2050.” Even so, Amtrak anticipates carrying just 18 million passengers annually on its high-speed line in the busiest rail-transit corridor in the United States.

Vranich three years ago also dismissed the Authority’s $43 billion cost projection, predicting the real cost to be closer to $60 to $80 billion, not including bond repayment. Since then, costs for the project have escalated far beyond what voters were promised in 2008. “The claims of profitability could not conceivably be credible, under the most optimistic assumptions,” Vranich said. In the unlikely event that the HSRA’s projections were accurate, the trains likely wouldn’t generate enough profit to pay back the bonds anyway—much less build additional rail segments, as planned. The Legislative Analyst verified Vranich’s prediction in its May report, which concluded, “If the cost of building the entire Phase 1 system were to grow as much as the revised HSRA estimate for the 100-mile segment [between Fresno and Bakersfield] construction would cost about $67 billion.” However, the LAO added: “This extrapolation of costs... is based on the cost increase for a relatively straight-forward and uncomplicated segment of the proposed rail line. It is possible that some of the more urban segments could be even more significantly underestimated.”

Finally, Vranich debunked the HSRA’s claim that riders could make the trip from Anaheim to San Francisco in a remarkable two hours and 40 minutes—noting that the required average speed of 197 miles per hour is a feat yet to be accomplished anywhere in the world. In fact, train speeds in urban areas would be limited to around 60 miles per hour, due to safety and noise regulations. “It is unclear that any train redesigned to meet U.S. safety requirements and crashworthiness standards, which will make it heavier, can also meet the CHSRA speed and performance requirements,” Vranich said.

Declaring that voters were deceived in 2008, Republican state senator Doug La Malfa sponsored Senate Bill 22, legislation that would end bond purchases on January 1, 2012—thus reducing the state’s indebtedness to the amount contracted by the High Speed Rail Authority before that date. La Malfa noted that the High Speed Rail Authority still hasn’t submitted an acceptable business plan, despite a legislative requirement to do so before the November 2008 election. Putting an end to bond purchases would help prevent future damage to a fiscally imperiled state.

The Vranich testimony video certainly lends credence to La Malfa’s effort. Sadly, Bill 22 was voted down in committee in May, but it’s eligible for reconsideration. Perhaps it’s time for Joseph Vranich to reprise his appearance in Sacramento.

Cynthia Ward is a writer in Anaheim, California and a regular contributor to Red County.

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Posted by CrunchyCookie
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Aug 6, 2011 at 1:56 am

Who cares? L.A. by car = 5 hours, L.A. by Southwest = 1 hour (ok, 2 counting airport hassles), both options easily ducking under $100. Having a third, 3-hour inbetweener solution, while kinda cool in concept, is not critical, especially when it comes with a $40,000,000,000 price tag and we're already, what, $25,000,000,000 in the hole?

Also, please raise your hand if you can name even 5 people who commute to SoCal on even a monthly basis. Anyone? Hello?

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Posted by CrunchyCookie
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Aug 6, 2011 at 2:01 am

PS - Fill that car with 4 people and it's more like $25 apiece. No train fare will beat that.

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Posted by Ron
a resident of another community
on Aug 6, 2011 at 3:30 pm

Let's understand something right now: You people in Palo Alto do not get to overrule the will of the people of the entire state. We're going to build this railroad, and if it means ramming it through your front yards, so be it. Get out of the way.

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Posted by Chuck
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 6, 2011 at 3:48 pm

"We're going to build this railroad, and if it means ramming it through your front yards, so be it."

You wanna bet the ranch on it, Ron?

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Posted by Folly
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Aug 6, 2011 at 6:54 pm

HSR=yoriko kishimoto and larry klein's folly. They campaigned for it it. They supported it. They drafted a colleagues memo for the council to sign. They now look like fools. The weekly should do a story on it and interview them for their comments now.

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Posted by Chuck
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 6, 2011 at 7:16 pm


Excellent point, and good idea!

PA Weekly, where are you on tracking down the culprits in this lousy deal?

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Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 7, 2011 at 11:34 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

How about an incremental plan?
1: Eliminate all grade crossings on the entire route.
2: Electrify.
3: Reduce speed restrictions and double track.
4: Evaluate status and re think next steps.

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Posted by Donald
a resident of South of Midtown
on Aug 8, 2011 at 9:34 am

Prop 1A passed with a majority of votes statewide. You can't blame that on Kishimoto and Klein.

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Posted by svatoid
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Aug 8, 2011 at 9:44 am

"Prop 1A passed with a majority of votes statewide. You can't blame that on Kishimoto and Klein."

And you do not think that they should have to explain their big push for it and then an about face a few months later?? Time for local politicians to be held accountable for their actions. Saying that they were "misled" or did not know is no excuse

I also think that the Weekly should do an article with interviews with Klein and Kishimoto about this. Time for them to explain themselves to their constituents. If they refuse, the Weekly should make it known that they do not feel they owe their constituents an explanation.

This will also go a long way to distance the Weekly from the feelings, held by some people, that they are either mouthpieces for the local politicians and/or afraid to upset advertisers.

This is an issue that has torn apart the city for almost 3 years. Let's get some of the facts behind it out into the open

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Posted by Elizabeth
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 8, 2011 at 10:27 am

The fact that Kishimoto and Klein did an about face doesn't provoke any need in me to place the blame on them. Circumstances change and wise people adjust their changes in response to the changing landscape.

This definitely will not meet the needs of the majority in the current economic climate.

I'm all for shelving it in favor of investing in more critical needs.

The economy is not pretty. We "common" people make adjustments as needed when financial scenarios shift. Makes sense for governments to do so as well.

As an artist I support the arts, however it still makes me crazy to see Palo Alto spend chunks of money on sculptures to "beautify" the city when the roads are full of pot holes, or patched when they scream to be resurfaced.

Intelligent money management is the key.

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Posted by Mike Cobb, former Mayor
a resident of Greendell/Walnut Grove
on Aug 8, 2011 at 10:56 am

The only remaining unknown associated with the proposed HSR project is why our legislators ... Simitian, Hill, Gordon, et. al. ... cannot face the facts that have, in most cases, long been on the table: (1) The ridership numbers have always been grossly inflated, and are probably high by an order of magnitude; (2) we don't, and won't, have the money — numbers that are off by many tens of billions of dollars, and to the extent that we try, it will be at the expense of critical programs like education; (3) it has never been demonstrated that the project can even come close to the Prop 1A requirement that it be self-sustaining; (4) the project management, at best, has been, incompetent, insensitive, and less than honest; (5) the routing plans are misconceived and highly destructive to impacted communities throughout the state, including farm lands in the Central Valley; and (6) Prop 1A. misled the voters with pie in the sky data which never did pass the most basic smell test. With these facts clearly before them, the Legislature and the Governor should do the responsible thing and kill the project. Or, failing that, send it back to the voters with with an honest representation, in which case we can be confident that the voters would kill the project for them.

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Posted by svatoid
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Aug 8, 2011 at 11:05 am

"Mike Cobb, former Mayor"

What does the fact that Cobb was once mayor of Palo Alto (an honorary position aka winner of a popularity contest within the city council) have to do with the issue.
In fact, I always wondered why our former mayors feel the need to include that fact in their postings/letters to the editor. DOes it give added weight to their words for some people?

That said, I agree with his statements above--they stand alone without the embellishment of former titles

"Prop 1A. misled the voters with pie in the sky data which never did pass the most basic smell test."
More importantly it completely misled our elected officials, who wholeheartedly encouraged the public to vote for it. Did they not care? Where they completely clueless? Or did the green glasses they had on blind them to the facts?

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Posted by JM
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Aug 8, 2011 at 11:06 am

Finally people are coming to common sense.

We just spent sometime in Europe traveling around quite a few cities, where we exclusively depended on public transportation. Public transportation has it's pros and cons. But the bottom line is, US is different from Europe.

Very few people among my circles would travel down LA even once a year. And when they do, they all still need a car down there. It's California in US. You have no choice just transfer from train to subway and to your destination efficiently. Even less people in my circle down LA ever traveled up here. And yes they still need cars here unless they only stay in SF.

HSR simply makes no economic sense in CA.

I agree Weekly should interview Kishimoto and Klein on this whole mess. Granted they have the choice to say things change and they change too. But we should question them nonetheless.

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Posted by KP
a resident of South of Midtown
on Aug 8, 2011 at 11:11 am

LOL!! I'm with you...we got the power!
Good luck stopping us Ron!

Sounds just fine to me!

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Posted by Robert
a resident of Stanford
on Aug 8, 2011 at 11:19 am

@ Ron

Had you been around in the early 20th century, you'd have been screaming "the Titanic is unsinkable!"

As happened with those facile optimists a century ago, you'll soon see how wrong you are.

Your agressive arrogance perfectly mirrors that of CAHSR, including Diridon and Kopp.

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Posted by Buzz
a resident of University South
on Aug 8, 2011 at 11:34 am

Note: 48% of the voters did the math, calculated the cost of existing trasportation modes, including expansion to airports and freeways, and realized that California was NOT the place for HSR on the terms described in the ballot measure. Let's pull the plug and spend any remaining funds to improve the Cal Train service, including the elimination of grade crossings to improve local traffic - and put some locals to work in the construction industry.

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Posted by P.A. Native
a resident of Mountain View
on Aug 8, 2011 at 12:28 pm

Here's some more math for you, 48% isn't a winning majority. Aggressive arrogance!?!? Not as arrogant as Palo Altans who would sabotage a statewide ballot initiative because they're concerned it would create a "Berlin Wall" in their city. That comparison is not only laughable, it's completely delusional.

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Posted by Adolph
a resident of Menlo Park
on Aug 8, 2011 at 12:55 pm

The fact that a slight majority approved Prop 1A doesn't carry much weight with me. You could get a slight majority of Californians to pass a proposition declaring that the earth is flat if you spent enough on "marketing." If anything Prop 1A demonstrates that such propositions should have to meet a higher standard than a simple majority.

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Posted by Bill
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 8, 2011 at 1:04 pm

Amazing that those few who still support the HSR as structured do not refute statements by Joseph Vranich in Cynthia Ward's article.

No organization has stepped forward to buy the private participation bonds which are required. Businesses did their homework which too many private citizens do not do before they vote.

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Posted by David Pepperdine
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 8, 2011 at 2:10 pm

People who compute gasoline-based transportation costs without considering the environmental impact are delusional. Not only is there a climate change impact, there are also increasing financial and environmental stresses from accessing deep-sea petroleum deposits.

A one-time $10B investment (that's $270 per Californian) is not that high compared to the 12 billion gallons of gasoline per year (approx. $40B per year!) that California consumes every year. It's like our gasoline expenses for 1 quarter.

Based on 100,000 1-way trips per day on I5 between LA and the Bay Area, the annual gasoline cost on this highway alone is around $3B.

The clock is ticking on gasoline-based transportation. HSR will happen. We can embrace it and influence it, or continue to resist every step of the way, until... we accept it.

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Posted by Richard
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 8, 2011 at 4:35 pm

Wikipedia lists the 6 stages of a big project:
Web Link

1 Enthusiasm,
2 Disillusionment,
3 Panic and hysteria,
4 Search for the guilty,
5 Punishment of the innocent, and
6 Praise and honor for the nonparticipants.

We have clearly moved beyond stage 2. From comments above I gather that some readers are at stage 4 and are anxious to move to stage 5, while some are already at stage 6.

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Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 8, 2011 at 5:10 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

On accountability:
1. Voters: By the time of the Nov 2008 vote, the country was well into the Great Recession and the state budget battles had persistently failed to resolve a deficit of tens of billions of dollars, even after various accounting tricks. Why would people vote to take on more debt in such circumstances?

2. State Senator Joe Simitian: The first comment presents testimony before the California’s State Senate Transportation and Housing Committee and a web search indicates that Simitian was a member of that committee at that time, but the YouTube video doesn't have the resolution to determine if he was present at the meeting (there are several empty chairs), but that doesn't excuse him from not being aware of the testimony.

3. Local politicians: HSR was dominated by Rod Diridon who was responsible for the local Light Rail system, which is the worse light rail system in the country by each of the standards used to measure effectiveness. And Diridon had a well-established reputation for the arrogance and bullying that has characterized HSRA. "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me."

3. Palo Alto voters and politicians: The route of the HSR tracks along the Caltrain tracks had been known for years and was repeatedly covered in stories on the first page of the local section of the SJ Mercury News. Claiming ignorance of this is muted somewhat by there not being a good reason to read the SJMN much of the time.

4. Palo Alto politicians and activists: I was at several of the early meeting where Diridon presented the vision. I distinctly remember Kishimoto being present for _part_ of these meetings, but this was before Klein re-engaged in PA politics. At these meetings, the plan to elevate tracks and to widen the right-of-way (taking properties) was part of the presentation. I and a few others raised questions about the ridership projections that Diridon couldn't answer (Mine was about how they counted the various categories of air travel between SFO&SJC and LAX, and the assumptions about how much would transfer to HSR). But it was clear that most attendees were interested only in grand concepts and not about to worry about details. This has been a persistent problem in Palo Alto, not only for the activists, but among the voters who put them in office and other positions of influence.

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Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 8, 2011 at 5:23 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: David Pepperdine

On Greenhouse Gases (GHG): The advocates of HSR routinely ignore the GHG costs of HSR. Start with construction: I saw an article which reported a computation of the GHG costs of HSR construction across essentially flat open prairie (in Texas) and it had a payback period of at least 20 years (ignoring any improvements in efficiencies for auto and airplane travel). The primary reason: HSR requires massive amounts of concrete to provide a stable base, and the production of cement is fossil-fuel intensive (primarily natural gas) -- you are baking the water out of limestone. I haven't seen any estimate of how much more concrete is involve in a seismically active area or in a populated area (more over/under passes).

And when you compare individual trips by HSR to auto or plane, you cannot treat HSR as requiring no energy to run.

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Posted by John
a resident of Meadow Park
on Aug 8, 2011 at 10:26 pm

This says it all:

"High Speed Rail Authority has spent $630 million—and the project hasn’t even broken ground yet"

Its a con and we are the marks

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Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 8, 2011 at 11:22 pm

Doug Moran,

All very good points; I would add a few:

1) Sierra Club endorsed HSR, and the city council members who paint themselves "green", sing chapter & verse from the Sierra Club in order to get their endorsement for elections.

2) PA Weekly endorsed the HSR - this really baffled me, because as journalist, one would assume they would have done studied the ballot issue; instead they appeared to have done the same superficial analysis as the city council.

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Posted by svatoid
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Aug 9, 2011 at 6:43 am

Doug--thanks for the information. Very interesting.
Your final comment:
(But it was clear that most attendees were interested only in grand concepts and not about to worry about details. This has been a persistent problem in Palo Alto, not only for the activists, but among the voters who put them in office and other positions of influence.)
is spot on. That pretty much describes Yoriko!!!

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Posted by galen
a resident of Ventura
on Aug 9, 2011 at 10:44 am

I've seen many contemptible politicos in my 29 years in Palo Alto and Kishimoto is up there high on my list. I witnessed her smarmy performance at one of the "outreach" meetings where people were told they were going to lose their homes and i felt sick to my stomach. I'd very much like to see her interviewed by the Weekly.

As for the imminent death of the HSR boondoggle, i say drive a stake through this thing's heart! ...the sooner the better, before we waste another penny on a gravy train to nowhere, other than the coffers of Diridon's cronies. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

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Posted by Ron
a resident of another community
on Aug 9, 2011 at 11:11 am

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

You can't stop the project. If you like, you can force the state to use eminent domain. All that means is that the state still gets immediate possession, but you wait years to get your money. If that's how you want it, fine by me.

What this comes down to is a few people in Palo Alto, Atherton, Menlo Park and a few other places who were stupid enough to buy land next to an active railroad line and think that things will never change. That's your problem, not ours. It also comes down to city governments that were stupid enough to try to cram every possible square foot of taxable land next to the railroads and allow construction on that land. Blame them, if you like.

Bottom line is simple: You were outvoted, not only statewide but by a the voters of the Peninsula. We in the majority are not going to allow a few to dictate to the rest of us.

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Posted by John
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Aug 9, 2011 at 1:57 pm

Sorry, but HSR is having the same problems all over the place. Not just on the peninisula.
It's flawed and won't be built. We are being conned.
No money.
It's going to run over $100 billion and no way will that kind of money be raised for someone's toy.
People living along the tracks needn't worry.
Now if we could do something about Caltrain....

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Posted by Chuck
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 9, 2011 at 2:51 pm

"You can't stop the project"

Ron, in case you have not woken from your dream, the project is already stopped (de facto). All your ranting and raving will not sublimate your dream into reality. There is an intermediate step, usually known as the liquid state (politics of the local people), and that is where your dream died.

Time to stick a fork in this turkery, and just be done with it. We can eat it for this upcomming Thanksgiving...and be thankful.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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