Standing Athwart Progress Yelling "STOP!": The Palo Alto Tree v High Speed Rail

Despite the parlous state of California's finances, it's full speed ahead on the high speed rail project. We already know it's going to cost tens of billions of dollars. We also know that it will end up costing more than anyone will admit. And if this headline is repeated down the length of the state, we all know that our grandchildren will be in their dotage before the final spike is nailed: Historic Tree Stands In The Way of High Speed Rail.

Towering 10 stories above the banks of San Francisquito Creek, the El Palo Alto redwood predates the U.S. Constitution by more than 800 years. It is widely believed to have been a campsite for explorer Gaspar de Portola when he discovered San Francisco Bay in 1769.

It has endured everything from ecological changes to economic shifts, all of which left marks on the ecology of this venerable tree. Now it’s entangled in the debate over high-speed rail.

The tree stands within 10 feet of existing Caltrain tracks between the Menlo Park and Palo Alto stations, with commuter trains passing by 90 times every weekday. Initial plans by the California High-Speed Rail Authority called for widening the tracks to accommodate the new rail line, which would put the tree in jeopardy. Proposed alternatives included a trench or raised track.

To be sure, critics cite many reasons for their opposition, including the costs. But in Palo Alto and neighboring communities, the tree has become a budding symbol for why high-speed rail — approved by a majority of the state’s voters in 2008 — needs to be evaluated carefully. Dave Dockter, Palo Alto city arborist and current steward of the tree, said, “I think all of the alternatives have a potentially significant and catastrophic potential to impact the El Palo Alto redwood.”

There's a good example of why California is bankrupt. This tree has its own steward, while I don't even have a manservant. Talk about a misallocation of resources!

More important, it's a good example of how California's inflated sense of self leads to absurd results such as a "historic" tree - did it run for president, or something? - standing in the way of a rail project that the state can't afford; would replace an already cheap, speedy form of transport (it's called an airplane); and would be going through some of the least developed, sparsely populated land in the country (the idea that CA is a densely populated, over-developed place is a myth. Most of the state is rural, if not wilderness). Bonus gag: there's already a rail line going by the tree.

The fact is that California has some of the least historically significant territory in the country. Maybe it's my East Coast bias, but I lived in Northern Virginia for many years. Half the Civil War was fought within a two hour drive of my house. And some scolds in Palo Alto are worried about a tree? Get a grip.

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