High Speed Rail: Detriment or Benefit to the Environment?

While California's high speed rail project will be beneficial for the environment by turning polluting car and plane trips into zero-emission travel by train, there are formidable environmental challenges it must overcome in the construction phase.

Ralph Vartabedian reports on the environmental challenges the high speed rail project faces that will affect the cost and the timeline for what "would be the largest infrastructure project in the nation".

Potential threats to endangered species, diesel emissions from construction equipment, and wetland impacts, are a few of the obstacles the High Speed Rail Authority must confront.

"A wide array of state and federal agencies is examining those effects and, over the next several months, will issue scientific findings that could affect the cost and schedule of construction. Beyond the regulators, environmental lawsuits brought by the powerful California agriculture industry are threatening to further delay work". And the large environmental groups have already voiced their opposition to streamlining the state's environmental law.

Among the most difficult issues will be air quality, which is regulated across eight counties by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. The district worries that the construction project would exacerbate already problematic levels of nitrogen oxides, particulates and volatile compounds.

The district is taking the position that the rail construction should make no net increase in emissions. If the cleanest diesel equipment still adds to emissions, then the district wants "financial mitigation" so it can reduce pollution from other sources, a SJVAPCD spokesman said. Even the increased population that the rail project would generate would need to be mitigated, he said."

In addition to air quality are the impacts to wetlands and other bodies of water - regulated in part by the Army Corps of Engineers.

"We anticipate there to be unavoidable impacts, given the sheer magnitude of the project," said Susan Meyer, a senior project manager at the Army Corps of Engineers. The law requires that any impacts be avoided or minimized. The Army could require "compensatory mitigation" under its permits, Meyer said.

Earlier, The Fresno Bee reported on the delayed improvement the electric train will have on air quality. "But any reductions in air pollution won't start for at least a decade, when the trains would start carrying passengers between Merced and the Los Angeles Basin. Meanwhile, building the system in the San Joaquin Valley is expected to pump tons of dust, greenhouse gases and other pollutants into the air. International experts warn it could take years for the benefits of train ridership to make up for the harm caused during construction", wrote Tim Sheehan.

Full Story: Environmental objections in path of bullet train

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Irvin Dawid's picture
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Learning From Spain: HSR's Detrimental Impact on Environment

"The story does not begin the day that high-speed lines begin service: The story with the environment begins the day on which the first work began", said Germà Bel, a professor of political economics at the University of Barcelona and a former deputy in the Spanish parliament.

Tim Sheehan of The Fresno Bee interviewed Bel who warned that unless the rail captures enough patronage from planes and highways, the investment would be questionable from an environmental perspective. Bel speaks about the Alta Velocidad Española high-speed trains.

"Disregarding the construction effects gives the environmental effects of high-speed rail a kind of mythological value," he said.

Read more from Sheehan in Planetizen: California High Speed Rail Could Use Some Spanish Lessons.
Irvin Dawid, Palo Alto, CA

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