Clearing the Air in California’s Central Valley6 min read

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In the May 11, 2008 Fresno Bee edition, columnist Bill McEwen in “Driving a little less can go a long way to clean the air,” offers suggestions to Bee readers for lowering their carbon footprints and more specifically, embracing alternatives to driving; in other words, driving less or fewer miles when possible. Awesome! I couldn’t have said it better myself. However, having said that, still the article left me hanging; something was missing. But what?

I my mind’s eye I reasoned the alternatives to driving the columnist provided are laudable, but what is the likelihood that significant numbers of folks living in these here parts are going to actually follow through on them? For instance, where McEwen wrote: “Walk to the market and hardware store for small items. Ride [a bicycle, (I presume)] or walk with the kids to school instead of driving them. Ride to the gym, thus cutting time on the cardio machines. Car pool to lunch. Take the bus,” noble suggestions these all are but come on, isn’t that expecting a bit much here? The columnist then goes on to provide ways to “help the air without cutting vehicle trips.”

In reference to this McEwen wrote: “Replace a leaky water heater with a new efficient one. Use compact fluorescent light bulbs. On hot days, park in the shade when possible, reducing fuel evaporation and ozone-forming emissions.” That was pretty much the gist of it.

Here’s what’s puzzling. With as bad as the air in the Central San Joaquin Valley is alleged or purported to be, there isn’t a single Central Valley based municipality that has even a semblance of passenger rail service above and beyond what’s provided by Amtrak California, except maybe in Stockton and Tracy which are served by the hugely successful Altamont Commuter Express to and from the south Bay Area. To those folks, that must be a godsend.

What’s amazing is, over the years patronage numbers on Amtrak’s “San Joaquin” trains – right up there with their “Pacific Surfliner” and “Capitol Corridor” train counterparts – have soared! These three services are ranked in the top six in the national Amtrak system. These didn’t attain these noteworthy spots by accident either. And, I’ll bet an even greater number of Valley (and state) residents will be traveling via Amtrak in the days, weeks, months and years ahead even, given gas prices going up the way they are. Yet, understanding this and with as much as people embrace and use the passenger train service, why, it seems, the thinking isn’t directed to electrified light- and/or heavy-rail intracity services in Central California boggles the mind.

With this very thing in mind, below is quoted material excerpted from Environment California’s recently released “Getting California on Track” report. A portion of “Strategy 6.” section of the report subtitled: “Expand and Improve Transit Service,” reads as follows:

“People who use transit can often travel more efficiently, and with fewer emissions, than if they had driven instead. In addition, the presence of high-quality transit service in a community is correlated with reduced vehicle travel—the result of the more compact development patterns that often exist near transit stops and reduced vehicle ownership.

“But for many Californians—even those living in the state’s largest and most densely populated urban areas—access to high-quality transit service is inconsistent or non-existent. The result is that many Californians have few choices for how they get to work, school or shopping—leaving them dependent on cars and resulting in greater than necessary emissions of global warming pollution.

“An analysis of journey-to-work data from the 2000 U.S. Census shows that when Californians have access to transit, they use it. Californians living in Census tracts within one-half mile of a ‘fixed guideway’ transit stop (subway, light rail or commuter rail) in the state’s six largest urbanized areas [San Francisco-Oakland, San Jose, San Diego, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Riverside-San Bernardino] are far more likely to take transit, walk or bike to work than those living farther away. For example, about 22 percent of residents of the San Francisco-Oakland urbanized area who live in Census tracts within a half-mile of a transit stop take transit to work, compared with just 13 percent of those living in tracts more than a half-mile away.” (“Getting California on Track: Seven Strategies to Reduce Global Warming Pollution from Transportation,” Environment California Research & Policy Center, Spring 2008, pp. 29-30).

To be fair there’s a study underway on Fresno’s proposed two-mile-long Fulton Mall/Tower District electric street railway. And, $250K from the city’s Measure C (the half-cent tax for transportation that was passed by voters in 2006) in combination with $250K provided by the California High Speed Rail Authority is paying for the cost of a study to determine the feasibility of incorporating high-speed rail in the limited Union Pacific right-of-way in Fresno, which is supposed to accommodate the BNSF Railway through town as well. This was the subject of one of my previous commentaries. (Whose Line is it Anyway? Cramming Five Railroads Into Area Barely Big Enough for Two, a “Stretch!” in California. Does the proposed Metro Rural Loop mean anything to anyone?

Back to the main point of this op-ed.

There are many times, hours-on-end, in fact, I find myself clearing my throat, which seems to be more pronounced on days the air is dirtier. I’m sure people around me that are subjected to the, not the occasional but, rather, regular throat-clearing, which at times can seem like it’s incessant, get annoyed. I can’t say I could blame them. On that note, what can I the attribute the throat-clearing to? Could it be the Central San Joaquin Valley’s dirty air?

If that’s the case, the advice Mr. McEwen offers via his commentary in my way of thinking, even if followed through on by a good number of people, are but baby steps. The seven strategies offered by Environment California’s “Getting California on Track” report on the other hand, may be just what the doctor ordered and just the ticket. Talk about a prescription for success!

Alan Kandel is a concerned California resident advocating for new, improved and expanded freight (and passenger) rail service. He is a retired railroad signalman previously employed by the Union Pacific Railroad in Fremont, California.

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