Saturday, January 9, 2010




Infrastructure has become a magic word for government as politicians try to lower unemployment with a new wave of public projects.

Development spawned in large part by federal economic stimulus and recovery dollars goes beyond traditional projects like adding carpool lanes to freeways, water purification and creating parks. There are also high-tech and “green” plans for things like high-speed rail, more wind energy and huge new solar energy projects covering thousands of acres.

But almost all these new proposals are drawing old-style opposition. Call it NIMBYism – for Not In My Back Yard.

NIMBYism arises among people of all kinds when they don’t want a big new public project placed near them. Until fairly recently, the rich did far better than the poor at fighting off LULUs (Locally Unwanted Land Uses). Example A: Less than three months after Ronald Reagan become governor in 1967, a freeway long planned to link Pacific Coast Highway and the Hollywood Freeway in Los Angeles via the toney Pacific Palisades (home to Reagan and many of his friends), Bel Air and West Hollywood areas suddenly disappeared from California’s highway blueprint.

But poorer people have also learned to stiff arm LULUs, as when the newly powerful Latino caucus in the Legislature fought off plans for two large prisons in East Los Angeles during the 1990s and early 2000s.

NIMBYism remains alive and thriving all over California today.

In San Bernardino County, where a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. contractor plans a huge solar power plant in the Ivanpah Valley southwest of Las Vegas, advocates for the desert tortoise are rising up. Never mind that this project could help PG&E meet the state mandate for producing 33 percent of its electricity from renewable sources within the next 10 years. Never mind that it would create hundreds of jobs.

Go elsewhere, say county Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt and several environmental groups. “It’s habitat for a lot of critters,” a Sierra Club San Gorgonio chapter spokesman told a reporter. No one, however, says what site might be better than the almost-always sunny Ivanpah.

The same alternative energy mandate spurred plans for two putative wind farms along Interstate 8 in southeastern San Diego County, where strong gusts blow almost continually. By itself, one project called Tule Wind could produce 200 megawatts – about one-tenth of San Diego’s typical daily electric consumption.

But NIMBYs complain that most of its power would be used 60 miles away. “The energy won’t be used in this area,” one resident griped during a public hearing. “If they want power to the coast, let them put up windmills offshore.” Somehow, we don’t hear these same folks objecting to water that comes from hundreds of miles away.

One legitimate question for the NIMBYs in these cases: If renewable energy development can’t go into some of California’s most deserted, desolate places, how can the renewable mandate ever be met?

But high-speed rail is the single planned project that brings out the most NIMBYs, primarily because it is a LULU in the most places. This rail line ultimately would stretch from San Diego to San Francisco, with branches running to Las Vegas and – perhaps – Sacramento. For anyone who has ridden bullet trains in Spain, France, Great Britain and Japan, it’s enticing to think of riding from Los Angeles to the Bay Area in less than three hours without leaving the ground.

Plenty of voters loved the idea in November 2008, when a high-speed rail bond issue passed by a 52-48 percent vote. But some are now beginning to feel bait-and-switched, as they learn the project’s pricing and ridership might not be as advertised and as they discover more about the routes.

NIMBYism over the rail project is active in Los Angeles, the San Joaquin Valley and Orange County, but strongest on the San Francisco Peninsula, where bullet trains of the future might zip from San Jose to San Francisco at about 200 mph using either the current Caltrain right of way or something adjacent. That’s a region where the $45 billion bullet train proposition won 60 percent approval.

Now activists urge tunneling under much of the Peninsula for fear of noise, collisions with cars or trucks and worries about two-level stacks of train tracks splitting their communities. The cities of Atherton and Menlo Park would like the route off the Peninsula altogether. They prefer it to run through East Bay cities like Oakland and Livermore, reaching San Francisco through a new underwater tube. Some activists have even suggested slowing trains to 5 mph for one stretch. Some bullet.

The bottom line: If California wants to continue leading the world in green energy and technology as well as create many thousands of new jobs and open new transportation options, the NIMBYs will have to compromise. If no one ever accepts a LULU, the problem of how to bring progress and recovery will become even more of a lulu than it already is.


Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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