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Rod Diridon Moves Full Steam Ahead

By Lily Bixler | 12 Nov 2009

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Known as the “father of modern transit service in Silicon Valley,” Rod Diridon orchestrated the Guadalupe Corridor Rail Line project in 1988, despite strong opposition from Californians content to drive their gas guzzling cars. The line from San Jose to Santa Clara was Diridon’s first rail project, and only the third of its kind in the western United States, but the people of Silicon Valley wanted it squashed.

Diridon built his career by tackling unpopular transit projects and now he faces the ultimate battle: California high-speed rail. As one of the main figures behind what he describes as “the largest construction project America has ever seen,” Diridon is again the center of controversy.

In the late 1990s, Gov. Gray Davis (D-CA) asked Diridon to get the high-speed rail project going. He agreed. At the first California High-speed Rail Authority meeting he attended, the board of trustees elected him chairman. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (D-CA) appointed him to a second four-year term in 2006.

The high-speed rail faces opposition by Not In My Back Yard enthusiasts and grassroots organizations alike. Residents of Peninsula communities from Menlo Park and Atherton alongside environmental organizations have gone so far as to sue the California High-speed Rail Authority. They contend that the Authority moved too quickly in establishing a route through the Peninsula.

Diridon’s previous chief of staff Susan Fitts said her boss pushes when it’s unpopular but “his tenacity has resulted in a whole new transportation system in the Silicon Valley.” Fitts worked with Diridon for 13 of the 20 years he served as chairperson of both the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors and the Transit Board. He is the executive director of Mineta Transportation Institute, a federal transportation think-tank based at San Jose State University. Jose’s train station, at 65 Cahill Street, bears his name.

Diridon’s success belies his humble origins. The first sounds Diridon says he remembers were the big engines coming through Dunsmuir, the railroad town by Mount Shasta where he grew up in the 1940s. His father was an Italian immigrant and Diridon remembers him coming home in his overalls after working long hours as a brakeman on the railroad smelling like oil and dust. His Scotch-Irish mother was a concert pianist and vocalist. He says railroads are in his blood.

After earning a B.S. in accounting in 1961 followed by an M.S.B.A. in statistics in 1963 from San Jose State University, Diridon’s launched himself into city politics by saving a local park with his homeowner’s association. Voters then elected Diridon to Saratoga City Council in 1971. Once on the council, Diridon represented the city on rapid transit. In 1976, Diridon campaigned for voter support of the half-cent sales tax as a basic revenue source for valley transportation. This tax continues to produce approximately $100 million per year for transit.

Diridon is motivated by a simple goal: To clean up the environment. More than a politician or transit administrator, Diridon says he identifies as an environmentalist. But his critics see Diridon less for his investment in the environment and more for his “fascination with power.” A fascination that one person, who has known Diridon for years, said makes him “almost a Democratic Nixon.”

In the late 1980s, a San Jose resident articulated both the respect and criticism Diridon has garnered during his career in mass transportation. He told San Jose Mercury News, “In 2020, when the trolleys are bulging with passengers, people will erect a statue to [Diridon.] They’ll put the statue on the site where he was lynched.”

These days, similar public sentiment has erupted among Silicon Valley communities outraged by the thought of high-speed rail racing through their cities. Once again, Diridon is caught in controversy.

Palo Alto City Council member Pat Burt said Diridon uses “an old school approach that doesn’t seem to empower the community and doesn’t trust that people can bring in good constructive and valuable input,” Burt said Diridon’s “heavy-handed” method has upset people in Palo Alto.

In Oct. 2008, Diridon campaigned in support of the high-speed rail on the grounds that the community would have opportunities to give extensive input on decisions about the train’s route. The Palo Alto City Council agreed and voters passed proposition 1A in November to provide almost $10 billion for the project.

During a City Council meeting in March 2009, Diridon told the council he would listen to their comments, but the California High Speed Rail Authority had already chosen a corridor during the initial, “program level” environmental study that summer. He said the Authority wouldn’t negotiate with local cities about parts of the plan already set in stone because now the goal was to decide what to do in the corridor.

YouTube videos sprouted up in March and April of 2009 with snippets from these heated City Council meetings where residents and city officials refer to the Authority as “duplicitous.”

Diridon said tactics “some consider to be dishonorable” are being used in a lawsuit Menlo Park and Atherton filed against the Authority. “To bring legal action before studies are even done […] seems politically motivated and doesn’t seem to be the proper thing to do.” He added that, “High-speed Rail Authority has precisely followed the law and the Attorney General’s office conducted an outside review.”

One of Diridon’s biggest fears with high-speed rail is delay. He worries that community dissent will keep the Bay Area from being competitive with other regions for state high-speed rail funding. If the initial environmental study that determined the San Jose to San Francisco corridor were re-opened, he said, California High-speed Rail Authority would have to stop the project, possibly for up two or three years. If sections of the Peninsula corridor fail to meet a Sept. 2012 deadline, the communities within those segments will not be eligible for state funding.

Diridon’s goal is to move full steam ahead so that high-speed rail in California becomes a reality. As Fitts, his prior employee said, When Diridon is convinced that something is right, he will not let anything stop him.

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