Commuter rail has a perception problem. If everybody wants to live near to a train, nobody wants to live directly on the line. Trains are dangerous, noisy, kick up dust and push down the price of homes bordering the rails — or so we believe. Fear and misunderstanding of the impacts of commuter rail, in fact, have led to some very volatile politics among homeowners, and that, in turn, has led to some unfortunate planning decisions. In Los Angeles, perhaps the world capital of misinformation about light rail, homeowners frightened in the 1980s by the advent of the Metro Rail subway system prevailed on U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) to insert language into an appropriations bill outlawing the construction of the train down Wilshire Boulevard, the city's most important business and cultural corridor. (The actual wording of the bill mentions that trains could not be built near pockets of methane gas, which is nonsense, since the train was re-routed to an area that was equally gassy.) A more recent example of train-fear occurred in the San Fernando Valley, where a group of homeowners have challenged the routing of Metro Rail down Chandler Boulevard — the historic route of the Red Car trolley line — ostensibly because the train would disturb Sabbath-observant worshippers. For some reason, their prayers are not disturbed by the constant flow of sport utility vehicles, trucks and buses down the same street, with the attendant noise, dust and greenhouse gases. The experience of the City of Mountain View, which has created four residential neighborhoods near rail lines, suggests that the fear of the train is overblown. Perhaps the most compelling example can be found at the Whisman Station area, where two home builders developed a residential subdivision of 503 units on a former industrial site with a light-rail line running smack dab down the middle. Residents can easily walk to the station for a train that carries them eight miles to downtown San Jose, where they can catch trains headed elsewhere across the city. Whisman Station is a textbook example of urban infill. Hemmed in by three major arterials, the site was a 75-acre industrial campus owned by GTE. In 1994, GTE sold about 46 acres to a pair of homebuilders, including KB Homes (formerly Kaufman & Broad Home Corporation, the largest homebuilder in the West) and Castle Group of San Mateo. The master plan, designed by Richard Frisbie of San Mateo, is the result of 60 public meetings. In the beginning, city officials envisioned hiding the train tracks behind a thick sward of green, with housing built along the outer edges of the site. Slowly, the current plan emerged, with several different housing types — attached town homes, small-lot single-family, and medium-small lot single-family — arranged around a pair of two small public parks. In this version, the housing is very close to the rail line; some of the houses are as close as 20 feet from the tracks, but they are at least partially insulated by a sound wall. Robert Freed, general manager of KB Home for the company's South Bay and North Bay divisions, is quick to point out that housing, not transit, was the selling point. But if anyone had qualms about living near the light rail, the overwhelming demand for housing in the region helped them overlook it. The new subdivisions sold out very quickly. The town homes were priced from about $225,000 to $350,000 while the single-family houses sold from the mid-$300,000s to the mid-$400,000s. Demand for the units was so high, in fact, "we had lotteries on all the new releases," Freed said. In other words, this is not an avant-garde subdivision to be populated by urban pioneers. This is a more-or-less conventional subdivision, built by a conventional commercial builder, that happens to have a train running through it. The relationship between the railroad and the neighborhood is not perfect, according to Freed. His chief complaint about the train is that the train whistle, which blows when the train is within 100 feet of a major road crossing, is too loud for a residential neighborhood. "Frankly, some railroads could do a better job adjusting their crossing rules," he said. Notwithstanding those problems, KB Homes is currently developing several additional subdivisions near rail stations in San Jose. All this good news needs some qualifiers, however. The Tasman Line of the Valley Light Rail system is a smallish, trolley-style train that runs comparatively slowly on newly laid steel tracks, so the system is very quiet. Major high-speed lines, such as BART or Caltrain, are noisier. And, the acceptability of homes near transit in Mountain View may not be typical of California because the demand for any housing is so extreme in Silicon Valley. Some homebuyers might be willing to tolerate conditions in Silicon Valley they would shun in other locations. That said, the experience in Mountain View suggests that train-fear on the part of homeowners is overblown. The Whisman Station experience seems to be a happy one; Frisbie, who visited the site on the day I interviewed him, reported that neighbors are "very pleased" with the neighborhood, and an executive officer of Castle Group, the home builder, lives in the area. The message seems to be that middle-class homeowners will tolerate rail and, conversely, that commuter rail has a place in conventional housing subdivisions as well as in high-density downtown areas. When several more projects with comparable success in building near rail, the documentation will then exist to reassure those livid homeowners at public meetings that rail will not endanger their property values, after all. And when we fix that problem with the whistle, the train will not disturb the tranquillity of the Sabbath, either.