Friday, May 30, 2008

The Growing Concern over AB 3034

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

AB 3034, the bill that makes some changes to the November HSR bond, sailed through the Assembly today on a 57-0 60-3 vote. Apparently Mike Villines got the message. The bill heads toward the Senate, where I am told it will be taken up in about two to three weeks.

But there is growing concern among HSR supporters about this bill - specifically, the provision that eliminates the rule that LA-SF had to be built first and replacing it with a nebulous "competitive bidding" process where HSR bond funds will instead go to those portions of the proposed route that can leverage the most funding. Although it's not clear how this might work in practice, it runs a very high risk of leaving us with an HSR system that is built with a missing link in the Central Valley, defeating the main purpose and selling point of the system - that it will connect the state's two largest metro areas, providing an alternative to the collapsing airlines system and the impact of soaring fuel prices.

This blog advocates a clearly planned phase approach, where LA-SF is the first route constructed and opened, but where extensions to SD and Sacramento are guaranteed, not merely promised, as Phase II. This would give Californians the confidence that the system will not only be built as planned, but built to its fullest potential. The ridership projections, and therefore the financial promises, all hinge upon a system that completely connects LA and SF. To compromise that connection, to sever the LA-SF link, is to compromise the entire project.

Unfortunately there is a risk of that happening. For example, this is from today's Fresno Bee:

As envisioned, the rail line would eventually run from San Diego to as far north as Sacramento, with trains reaching top speeds of more than 200 mph. Under the bill, route segments that draw the most financial support from local governments and private and federal sources would get top priority.

The provision could potentially delay some Valley segments -- if nonstate financial support does not materialize. But Mehdi Morshed, executive director of the High Speed Rail Authority, said the Valley remains a top priority because the wide-open region is the only place where trains can reach top speeds.

"We cannot do 220-mile [an hour] service or test the 220-mile-an-hour train .... without building a significant section in the Central Valley," he said.

Galgiani's bill drew support from San Joaquin Valley leaders because it increases the likelihood that a Valley-to-Sacramento route will be included in the first phase.


Since few "local governments" can front the necessary money for this, especially in the Valley, that term seems to me to refer to mass transit agencies, such as Caltrain, VTA, Metrolink, LACMTA, and others.

Nobody can argue that this blog hasn't been aware of this problem - it was in fact the subject of the very first post back in March - but at the same time we missed a chance to amend the bill in the Assembly. We will now need to focus on getting the Senate to fix the bill and ensure that HSR is not built in pieces - and we will also focus on getting some information out of the CHSRA and legislative leaders about their commitment to building true HSR and not glorified commuter rail in a few unconnected parts of the state.

Friday afternoon is a bad time to try and get info out of Sacramento - but it also gives us two wide-open days to organize. Anyone interested in helping put some activism together to help ensure the integrity of the HSR system, send an email to my last name at gmail dot com.

16 comments:

Tony D. said...

The good news: The Bay Area would be served by HSR along the current Caltrain ROW from Gilroy to SF and the Altamont to Sac. In SoCal, serving the MetroLink ROW's, along with the segment connecting LA to SD. Pure, %100 High-speed commuter rail for the Bay Area and LA/SD.

The bad news (as Rober alluded to): no connection between the states largest metro areas; airlines and I-5 remaining as the sole options of travel between SoCal and NorCal.

I'm scratching my head Robert at the fact that I haven't heard anything about AB3034 in the local media (SJ Merc or SF Chron.) or from Silicon Valley/Bay Area head honchos; city's of SF/SJ, MTC, VTA, SVLG, Diridon, etc. No opposition or concerns regarding AB3034 being voiced at all...what do they know that we don't? Wait a minute, do you think VTA is eyeing the HSR bond pie for BART to SJ?!

Rafael said...

Fresno Bee May 30:

"Galgiani's bill drew support from San Joaquin Valley leaders because it increases the likelihood that a Valley-to-Sacramento route will be included in the first phase."

Modesto Bee May 7:

"Democratic Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani is pushing a bill that could win about one-tenth of the bond money, or $950 million, to upgrade Altamont Commuter Express trains taken by some valley workers to the East Bay. Bullet trains could use improved ACE rails to zip from the valley to the Bay Area in a fraction of the time required by cars, Galgiani said." [emphasis added]

So what does this mean? Here's my own reading of the tea leaves.

Possibility A:
What Gagliani has in mind is spending roughly $95 million on upgrading the existing UPRR alignment in the Altamont Pass, presumably so ACE trains can achieve better on-time performance. The remark that bullet trains could then run there was based on her incomplete knowledge of HSR technology.

Possibility B:
Asm. Gagliani knows full well that bullet trains cannot possibly run at high speed on the twisty UPRR alignment. Indeed, she may even be aware that FRA would never allow the use of off-the-shelf European or Japanese HSR trainsets on an alignment shared with freight trains.

Rather, beefing up ACE would be no more than a temporary fix. Her real intent is to use AB 3034 as a crowbar to force CHSRA into early construction of what is now called the "commuter rail/HSR overlay", a.k.a. the original Altamont Pass option minus the Dumbarton rail link. If that gets built first, it would completely eliminate any need for the Authority's preferred Pacheco Pass option.

The upside would be that the trunk line would serve more communities in the Central Valley. The future spur to Sacramento would branch off near Manteca, well north of Chowchilla. Plus, East Bay residents could take BART south and board HSR trains in Fremont Irvington instead of San Francisco.

Implications:
Possibility A could easily be cleared up by asking Mehdi Morshed to explain to the politicians why gauge compatibility alone is not nearly enough for HSR.

However, I strongly suspect that possibility B is the more realistic interpretation of Asm. Gagliani's statements and actions. CHSRA's decision on the route out of the Bay Area may not have been the final word after all.

Indeed, the Authority has stated that in terms of cost, the two route options were comparable. Ridership would actually have been a little higher via Altamont because of additional long-distance commuters from Modesto and Merced to Silicon Valley. Basically, it appears to have picked Pacheco primarily in response to political pressure - and could reverse itself for the same reason.

The cities of San Francisco and San Jose were adamantly opposed to the original Altamont Pass option, which called for trainsets to be split or merged in Fremont - a time-consuming process, especially for articulated trainset designs. Either that, or the number of trains serving each of these cities would have been cut in half. There would have been no HSR service between SJ and Redwood City.

Moreover, constructing a new HSR-capable dual-track rail bridge at Dumbarton that would both meet modern seismic code and preserve the shipping right-of-ways would cost several billion dollars - especially given the sensitivity of the Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge.

The Bay sediment is still chock-full of mercury deposited during the Gold Rush, as a result of extensive cinnabar mining in San Jose. Tailings are still leaching hundreds of pounds of the stuff into the Bay each year today.

Note that the mayors of Livermore, Pleasanton and especially, Fremont, also expressed opposition to the original Altamont Pass option, which called for new tunnels not only at Altamont but also near Niles.

The latter could perhaps be avoided by tunneling through Patterson Pass along the existing road there, running tracks south of Livermore along Vallecitos Road to Sunol and following I-680 to Fremont Irvington - but that option was apparently never considered. With the EIR/EIS already at the FRA, it may well be too late to do so now.

Other issues were that running HSR trains south from Fremont, through north San Jose and then up the peninsula would increase line haul times to LA and, bypass San Jose Diridon station in favor of one in Santa Clara.

Given all the opposition to the Altamont Pass option in the past, it is actually surprising that AB 3034 was approved so overwhelmingly. Perhaps I've got this all wrong and possibility A applies after all.

Then again, perhaps many representatives did not realize that possibility B even exists or, they chose to ignore it because the governor threatened to kill the entire project outright if AB 3034 failed to achieve the required 2/3 majority.

harold said...

Actually the vote was 60 yes 3 no. What this bill means is problematic.One thing it seems to have stopped is corruption and fraud by developers and speculators who were looking to make a killing with an un-needed station between Gilroy and Merced.

With this much free money to be had, there will be plenty shady deals being made. One of the prime suppliers, Siemens is in trial in Germany right now for millions of dollars being used in bribery.

Robert Cruickshank said...

I've always suspected the same, rafael, that Galgiani is trying to use this to reverse the choice of Pacheco Pass. As I've explained here, I never much cared which alignment was chosen as long as we picked something and sticked with it. Galgiani seems to not be happy with that, and while I don't mind building Altamont instead if that's the price of getting this thing done, it needs to not come at the expense of a guaranteed LA-SF connection. And your point that the Livermore Valley isn't exactly enthused about HSR in their backyard is also worth noting.

As to why legislators voted for it in such big numbers - I am not at all convinced most Sacramento legislators even understand the details of the HSR project. From what I have heard there are only a dozen or so of the 120 members of the legislature who really have a firm grasp on this. So I don't know that legislators were really in on the Altamont vs. Pacheco machinations.

Harold, thanks for the correction - the Fresno Bee reported the vote was 57-0, and I'll update it to 60-3. At this blog we strongly support the other aspects of AB 3034, including the ban on a station between Gilroy and Merced.

Rafael said...

@ Harold -

I'd be careful about throwing innuendo about criminal intent or activity around like that. If there is evidence to that effect, it should become public knowledge. However, unproven allegations, especially if they are not directed at a person who can then defend him- or herself, strike me as unfair and counterproductive.

As for Siemens, there is indeed a major scandal brewing in Germany, but (a) there is no indication that this also involves the transportation systems division, (b) there is no indication it involves the company's US subsidiary and (c) CHSRA doesn't have any dealings with Siemens at this time. It's good to be vigilant wrt Siemens, Alstom and other key players in the HSR biusiness, but please don't jump to conclusions.

Wrt to land speculation, note that most of the alignment will be on land that is already owned either by a railroad company or the state of California. Parcels near the proposed stations are expected to appreciate, but anyone buying now is taking risks, e.g. that voters may reject the whole project. This is called capitalism, the worst economic system save for all the others.

Rafael said...

@ robert -

I don't really have a preference for one or the other, either. If switching to Altamont Pass is the price for getting the system built - trunk line first! - then so be it. It's just that San Jose, Fremont and others may not be nearly as sanguine about such a change of plans. In particular, none of the alignments considered bypassed Diridon station. If San Jose gets its subway, getting to Santa Clara or Fremont Warm Springs stations would be easy enough, but south city can easily throw a spanner in the works if it wants to.

For the reasons I gave above, building a Dumbarton rail bridge for HSR is just not going to happen. The detour via the South Bay could add 15 minutes or more to the trip time, but even that may be a compromise that many passenger may be willing to make.

Harold said...

@robert

From your post:
defeating the main purpose and selling point of the system - that it will connect the state's two largest metro areas, providing an alternative to the collapsing airlines system and the impact of soaring fuel prices.

Do your really believe the airline system is collapsing? If so and if your perception becomes reality, California, the west coast and the whole country are "in the toilet"

Just think about the implications. Long haul travel efficiently gone. It will take 2 days minimum to go from California to the east coast even with HSR spread coast to coast. Boeing and other aircraft related industries, which are among the few industries which provide large positive balance of payments for the US, will fail.

I don't know, but are you an airline hater?

This State sponsored project is clearly going to affect intra-California airline flights. The airlines need intra-state flights to connect conveniently to longer haul trips. If HSR takes one-half their business, I guess it won't kill them, but it won't do them any good and it might make your prophecy of collapse more likely.

The most likely scenario then is true subsidies for the airlines, because quite frankly, they cannot be allowed to fail. So then we will be subsidizing both the airlines and HSR. Great outcome.

Rafael said...

@ harold -

the airline industry in the US is hurting badly as a result of rapidly rising fuel costs. Several smaller carriers have already gone bust and American is flirting with disaster. It's highly unlikely that the industry as a whole will collapse, but something has to give.

Assuming that the price of fuel won't magically come back down again, why wouldn't airlines cut their losses on short-haul shuttles and connecting flights if they could resell train tickets instead? Quite a few European train stations already have IATA codes so they can be referenced in airline reservations systems.

Some bare-bones discount airlines in Europe still perceive HSR as competition, but many regular carriers look at co-operation as an opportunity to improve their balance sheets. That's because HSR frees up scarce slots at major airports, allowing airlines to shift their business toward the more profitable long-haul end of the civilian aviation business.

Besides, what's to keep airlines from getting into the business of operating intercity trains, cp. Virgin Trains in the UK? CHSRA has stated that the operation of the California HSR system will be put out to tender and that bids from airlines would be welcome.

Bottom line: HSR supporters don't hate airlines at all, rather they're promoting a means to help them become more profitable.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Harold, if you read this post you'll see I love air travel. But I'm a realist - US airlines are in serious trouble. Four have gone bankrupt and the big carriers have to merge to survive, and even that might not work. They face serious longterm problems from soaring fuel costs, and even Southwest CEO Herb Kelleher has said air travel might become the province of the rich.

So yeah, I think airlines are in crisis. I don't particularly like it, but it is what it is. If/when that crisis is resolved, it will be by cutting back dramatically on short-haul flights in favor of long-haul flights.

European carriers have survived HSR - they just adapted. I wrote about this last week when discussing Iberia's reaction to Madrid-Barcelona HSR. And since US carriers are already starting to cut back on intrastate shorthaul flights, and with the permanent end of cheap oil, it is clear that unless we build HSR we will never be able to move around our state quickly.

As to longer trips, the reconstruction of a long-haul passenger rail system is going to be necessary. I happen to think Herb Kelleher is right, and as a consequence we're going to return to the pre-1950 method of traveling around the country, where most Americans get around via rail. It will work out fine. We'll manage.

Harold said...

@robert

Thanks for the link to your previous post.

However, let me take great historical factual exception to your statement in that post

"SFO: No new runways possible as permits to fill bay will never be approved"

Living in the Bay area for years and knowing what opposition there would be to Bay fill and more runways, years ago I would have been willing to make the statement you have written.

In point of fact, however, this was then and most probably even now is not reality. Before 9/11, on a fast track was exactly that
proposal "fill in the bay -- add more runways."

This was not a pipe dream. It was on a fast track and if not for 9/11 those runways would have been built and operational by now. All the political powers in SF were on board.The grease to pave the way, was supposedly neutralizing the environmental effects by providing protected areas further south in the bay. It was going to happen

So please don't dismiss, such an expansion. I was then and am now opposed to such an expansion, but I am just one guy.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Although my impression had always been that the SFO third runway was never a certainty, I think that even if it was closer to reality than I ever assumed in 2000 and 2001, it is highly unlikely to ever happen today. SFO is going to have its hands full with managing a rising sea level, and none of the current SF political establishment has shown any interest at all in a new runway.

And of course there are new obstacles. A new runway there - or at OAK, SJC, even LAX - would have to not only be vetted by the usual suspects, but also would likely have to comply with AB 32 carbon emissions targets - something I just don't see happening.

Any one of the crises facing airlines - soaring fuel costs, aging planes, inability to expand airport capacity in urban CA, fiscal problems - wouldn't be enough to knock them out. And the airlines will survive this crisis - but in a very, very different form, a form that suggests if we want to get from SF to LA via anything other than a 8 hour train trip, we will need HSR.

無名 - wu ming said...

the most likely airport to add runways would be sac metro airport. of course, even that airport would be a lot more convenient to use if there was a decent HSR link between sac and the bay area/central valley.

not to mention if it was connected to downtown sac by RT.

Rafael said...

@ Harold -

whatever dreams of expansion SFO may once have had, it's just not on the table today. Same for OAK, SJC and LAX.

From the Letters to the Editor of the Sacramento Bee, April 17:

"Air exec's case for bullet trains

In light of recent legislation that will require public-private partnership financing to construct the high-speed train system, columnist Dan Walters was right to highlight the governor's support for high-speed trains ("Does state really need zippy train?" March 31). But Walters is wrong to suggest that airports in California have plentiful capacity.

Kirk Shaffer, the Federal Aviation Administration's associate administrator for airports, has publicly stated that by 2025, San Francisco International Airport's passenger traffic will have grown 60 percent, Oakland International's 80 percent and San Jose International's by a whopping 100 percent. The FAA projects that demand will exceed capacity at SFO and Oakland. Given the physical, environmental and financial constraints, none of these three airports has plans for new runways.

High-speed rail offers tremendous potential benefits in shifting passenger traffic away from congested airports. The Los Angeles region accounts for 15 percent of all flights from SFO and 36 percent of all flights from both Oakland and San Jose airports. Any reduction in air service between the Bay Area and the Los Angeles region opens much needed capacity.

As the California population continues to grow, airports will simply not be able to meet traveler demand. High-speed rail offers an effective, efficient and environmentally friendly alternative to meeting traveler needs and therefore the economic needs of California.

- John L. Martin, San Francisco

SFO Airport Director"

This is precisely why it is important to construct HSR in such a way that operating profits from the trunk line can help finance the spurs to Sacramento and San Diego. Patchwork construction as envisaged by AB 3034 is a surefire way of running out of money before you can make any.

a. pilot said...

History has proven that almost every study the FAA has made regarding future airport capacity in the last 25 years has proven to be incorrect and always on the side that their expected needed future capacity never materialized.

Its part of the culture. Forecast major future needs, generate more jobs and salary hikes. I'll take history as my guide, not phony predictions. The FAA has been misguided for at least the past 25 years. Why can't they get a director who is non-political and knows something about aviation.

Robert said...

A pilot is right on the money in him comment about the difficulty in predicting the future. Any predictions currently on the books for airline flights out of California airports in 2025 are surely based on oil prices of < $100/barrel. As the price of oil goes up, airlines will cut unprofitable flights, ticket prices will go up, less people will fly. It's basic economics.

Now, to what extent that will play out depends on what the price of oil does. If it continues to rise, or even stay at the current level, airline traffic growth will certainly be less than expected. I could certainly see a future where less people are flying around than before.

Assuming that air traffic starts shrinking, there is even less of a possibility that anyone will be proposing to expand the California airports. Spending all that money to expand an airport while traffic is declining would be pretty stupid.

For those arguing that "The extra people are going to have to find some way to get around the state", I would say that to a large degree the price of getting around the state will dictate how many people are going to be traveling. Higher cost = less travel, as evidenced by the gas prices on the recent Memorial Day travel weekend leaving more people at home for Stay-cations.

Other Robert

Matt Spencer said...

I don't see what all of the fuss is about re: this bill. I think the SF to LA section will always be the core trunk and the one with the highest ridership. It is inevitable that it will be built.

Rather, I see this bill as a sign that legislators see the bond measure passing and would rather try to get in on the groundfloor than just to oppose it in hopes of getting another improved measure passed later. Important state-wide initiatives like this require broad, almost unanimous support and if this is the price to pay, then I can live with it. Legislators would not be doing their jobs if they did not work to benefit their own districts on such a once-in-a-generation investment in transportation.

The much larger concern as I see it would be to go with an inefficient alignment that substantially delayed north-south travel times, promoted additional sprawl, or reduced service into SF by splitting trains between multiple destinations. Thankfully the Pacheco Pass alignment is still leading.