High-Speed California Trains Spark Environmentalist Infighting

Published January 21, 2010

Plans to transform California’s transportation network by adding high-speed trains throughout the state have run into opposition from environmental activists.

The effort to halt a plan designed to reduce automobile use is shaping up as a classic battle between competing environmental activist interests.

Concerns for River Conservation

Opponents of the plan are focusing their anger on efforts by the California High Speed Rail Authority to construct part of California’s new bullet train network near the Los Angeles River. Some environmental activists claim positioning train tracks near the river will hurt river conservation efforts.

Proponents of the plan claim the trains will not harm the river and will improve the environment by taking cars off the road, something environmental activists have long advocated.

Daren Bakst, a legal and regulatory analyst at the John Locke Foundation in North Carolina, sees some irony in the activist infighting and hopes the conservationists succeed in blocking the plan.

“This train wouldn’t have been a possibility but for the fact that the federal government is spending a lot of our hard-earned money to fund these wasteful rail projects. So I’d be glad to see the train shot down because then my federal taxes might go to a less wasteful project, such as building pyramids,” Bakst said.

Real-World Burdens

Randal O’Toole, an urban development expert at the Cato Institute in Washington, DC, believes the battle between the California High Speed Rail Authority and California environmentalists reveals a deep schism in the environmental movement that will not go away.

“The environmental movement has always been stressed by global vs. NIMBY [not in my back yard] concerns,” O’Toole said. “People want to spend more money on transit, but they don’t want to ride in it. People want cities to be denser, but they want to live on their quarter-acre–or five-acre–lots. People want high-speed rail, but they don’t want it near their house if it is going to make a lot of noise.”

Bakst agrees. “This is a real quandary for the environmental extremists. On one hand, they love costly trains that nobody rides. On the other hand, they love restricting development by pushing for open space. It is kind of fun watching their bad ideas conflict with each other,” he said.

Federal Funding Is Key

O’Toole hopes the conservationists succeed in derailing the train project. The best hope for that outcome, he says, is the federal government pulling the plug on the large subsidies necessary to support the project financially.

“High-speed rail is an expensive project that will cost all taxpayers a lot of money and serve only a small elite,” O’Toole said. “It would be nice if the NIMBYs could stop this project, but I suspect it has too much momentum. The real halt will come if the feds don’t put up a lot of money to support it.”

Thomas Cheplick ([email protected]) writes from Cambridge, Massachusetts.