Thursday, June 5, 2008

Gutting the HSR Project

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

The recent concern over AB 3034's emphasis on regional construction and the UP's resistance to sharing its ROW may not be such separate matters after all - once their combined political effect is assessed. And the final piece in this is the State Senate Transportation and Housing Committee's Final High Speed Rail Report which, in my reading, suggests that the core of the HSR project - linking SF to LA - is about to be gutted.

The report argues in its opening summary that recreational and commuter trips are going to make up the bulk of HSR trips. The most revenue is likely to come from business travelers - the folks who have flocked in huge numbers to European HSR lines, and who would dearly love a fast and convenient travel system between LA and SF that helps them avoid crowded airports in favor of wi-fi enabled trains that serve city centers. In fact, the report says that the LA-SF connection is "the most lucrative segment" of the projected route.

So what does the report conclude about how the system should be constructed?

6. Ensure that the Authority stages its construction program so that state funds are used on regional segments of the high-speed rail corridor, before developing the long distance link between the state’s major urban centers, i.e., Los Angeles and San Francisco. It is possible that the rail bond program could be approved by voters before the Authority has an approved financial plan that includes state, federal, and private resources. In that case, it is important that the first expenditures of state money should be used for improving regional travel segments where rights-of-way may be shared with commuter operators, Amtrak, freight railroads, and eventually high-speed rail.


In other words, the State Senate Transportation Committee led by Alan Lowenthal wants to turn the HSR project into commuter rail, and gut the "killer app" aspect of HSR - providing sustainable, non-oil based travel within the state of California. It flies in the face of the stats listed in the study suggesting that the long-distance link is what will make HSR financially viable.

The report raises concerns about ridership and notes that other "mega-projects" have gone over budget, naming the Chunnel, the Big Dig, and the Denver Airport as examples. But nowhere are the successful, on-budget HSR projects mentioned, and nowhere at all are fuel costs or the airline crisis mentioned. It is a document published in 2008 but that reads like something from 2003, or 1995 - almost completely failing to adequately grasp the whole context of the system.

Further, nowhere is the cost of doing nothing examined. As I argued in that post, the cost of not building HSR isn't zero - it's likely to be several times as much as the HSR project alone, once added airport and freeway capacity, fuel costs, lost jobs and lost tax revenue are added up.

Ultimately the report suggests to me that the State Senate Transportation Committee is unserious about HSR. They don't get why this project matters and have not fully assessed the overall context in which HSR would be built and operated. This leads them to head down the path of gutting the HSR project, as suggested above. I'm all for commuter rail, but HSR provided both commuter rail AND intercity rail - which we badly need. Why not do both at once?

The report is not a complete loss. It provides suggestions for risk management and oversight of the CHSRA that are useful. Regarding the UP issue, the report specifically suggests "A venue should be provided to enable the regional commuter rail agencies and the two major freight railroads operating in the state to review and comment on any of the Authority’s plans that would impact their operations," and given the UP's concerns this is a wise suggestion.

But in the report's failure to assess the oil issue, which is putting enormous stress on the state's transportation system and therefore on its economy, the committee has done a disservice to the State Senate and to Californians, particularly in its short-sighted suggestion that the intercity portion of HSR be delayed. This recommendation, when viewed in concert with AB 3034 and the UP's reluctance to share Central Valley ROW, may help create a political atmosphere where HSR's "killer app" - the link from LA to SF - is gutted.

That would be a catastrophe for the state. Californians deserve the chance to vote on the original HSR plan, as they likely have a better understanding of the project and the wider transportation context than do Senators who stunningly did not mention the fuel crisis. Hopefully wiser heads prevail in the State Senate when they debate AB 3034.

28 comments:

Anonymous said...

After this report and reports yesterday about UP not giving up their right-of-way, you don't seriously believe that AB-3034 has a chance in the senate, do you?

Lowenthal is a Democrat, heading a party controlled committee. They need a 2/3 vote to get AB-3034 passed. How many republicans do you thank are going to vote for AB-3034 now?

Chances of passage ZERO

The project needs to go back to the drawing board. Contrary to your assertions, I don't think California will dry up and die without HSR.

Robert Cruickshank said...

It very much has a chance of passing. AB 3034 passed the Assembly 60-3.

The project doesn't need to go back to the drawing board - it is a good project. The problems are political - UP needs to be forced to play ball, likely by the feds. Galgiani and the Altamont people need to make like Hillary and concede defeat and help work to build the project as a whole, from LA to SF.

As to "dry up and die" have you checked the price of gas lately? Seen the letter from Continental posted in the comments on the last post? Without HSR it will be very difficult to get around California.

None of your claims make any sense.

無名 - wu ming said...

if they screw the central valley, there go the chances of passing the whole bond measure. people are playing with fire, and the airlines are already talking about their business models not working with $135 a barrel oil.

i guess people are going to crowd onto the starlight express, because they sure as hell won't be flying or driving if gas continues this trajectory.

if one connects the end of cheap oil to the bursting of the housing bubble and decline of commuter exurbs, one could say that california is already beginning to dry up. high speed rail is an economic insurance policy.

無名 - wu ming said...

that should be the coast starlight, not the starlight express.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Speaking of, I'll actually be on the Coast Starlight today for a weekend trip to LA. The train was nearly sold out when I got my last-minute ticket yesterday.

The State Senate report did show that passenger rail in California is booming, even though their numbers only went through 2006, missing the even higher ridership totals from 2007 and 2008. Which makes it all the more odd that the report suggested gutting the system's core purpose.

Eric said...

The way I take the report is a bit different from how Robert looks at it. I feel the report was trying to say that because most of the revenue will come from commuters, the construction should start/concentrate work on the ends of the line and work towards the middle. This was there is a chance of generating some revenue while the rest of the construction/line in being completed.

I personally feel more revenue can be made during construction if the segments that going into major centers like SF and LA are completed first, instead of the central valley. But, I also realize that construction will be a lot faster and easier in the valley, which will enable testing of the new train sets sooner.

So where to start? Somewhere, anywhere!! This project needs to get rolling out of the station with less political interests being involved (which we all know wont happen). And if the project is to be successful, the SF to LA segment NEEDS to be completed without holes. Otherwise, it will fail.

Anonymous said...

As I have to say is that "killer app" doesnt really make sense to me in the way your are describing how crucial the SF - LA route. MVS most valuable segment, or killing selling point. whats an 'app' really?

Rafael said...

@Robert Cruickshank -

after reading the Senate's report, I don't get the impression that it intends to gut high speed rail at all. On the contrary, it is entirely supportive of the idea as a natural progression from existing long-distance passenger rail service.

At no point does it recommend abandoning the objective of eventually running trains at top speeds of 220mph between northern and southern California, nor does it recommend any changes to the route or stations that CHSRA has proposed.

However, it does turn the project phasing proposed by CHSRA completely upside down. For HSR trains to run from San Francisco to Anaheim, it is obviously essential to get from San Francisco to San Jose and from Los Angeles to Anaheim. While the Authority would like to prioritize the many tunneling projects between San Jose and Sylmar, the Senate report suggests it is actually the very ends of the starter line that should be addressed first.

In addition, it suggests the Los Angeles/Anaheim to San Diego spur should be completed before the north-south link is.

It gives multiple reasons for this:

(a) the Authority's funding plan calls for matching funds from federal and private sources. While the report tacitly admits that non-state funds cannot be raised before California voters approve the bond measure, it does highlight the financial risk inherent in the approach.

In particular, what if - in spite of growing bipartisan support for passenger rail in general and HSR projects in particular - federal matching funds turn out to be less generous and available later than CHSRA optimistically forecasts?

For one thing, the FRA has not yet rendered a Decision of Record on the proposal - in part because the book still isn't closed on Altamont vs. Pacheco nor on the secondary issue of Palo Alto vs. Redwood City. Moreover, FRA has not yet given a green light for using off-the-shelf high speed train technology from Europe or Japan.

For another, the two presidential candidates appear to have very different views on the merits of spending taxpayer dollars on long-distance passenger rail service. Whatever the outcome of that election, the next POTUS will want to make numerous changes to the federal budget - if only to stamp his imprimatur on it.

Realistically, developing high speed rail will be not be a top priority unless activists turn it into an explicit issue in the national campaign, a litmus test of candidates' policies toward public investment in infrastructure, energy policy and environmental stewardship.

Add to this the new issue of actually obtaining rights of way from freight companies and, it is far from certain that any private investors will actually sign on the dotted line before the federal government does.

The report suggests that the notion of parity funding can be preserved, but this will obviously depend on securing both federal and private matching funds very soon after California voters approve the bond measure (assuming they do).

If raising matching funds ends up taking several years, construction costs may escalate to the point where the private sector would eventually be asked to foot well over 33% of total project cost - with obvious implications for project control and revenue sharing.

To improve the chances of success, the report suggests the Authority urgently update and refashion its year 2000 business plan - intended to market the project to voters - into a prospectus designed to attract sufficient private investment. This document would have to include a much more thorough and complete assessment of project risks.

b) in the meantime, the risk to the California state taxpayer is to be reduced by investing in the portions of the HSR network that the Authority's own ridership study suggests would serve the largest number of people as a social service - as opposed to maximizing operating revenue to help fund network expansion.

The implicit argument is that attracting sufficient private investors will only be possible if they can also be offered a sufficient share of the lucrative long-distance business travel market.

There is real merit in focusing state spending narrowly on the sections where the construction of grade separations, tunneling and viaducts will require the closest collaboration between CHSRA, existing rail operators, road traffic planners and nearby residents - to put it charitably. Unless issues such as capacity constraints between the City of Industry and Fullerton are addressed early and head-on, HSR might be hamstrung by serious bottlenecks for decades to come.

Eliminating those will yield tangible benefits for commuter and freight rail services in the medium term, even if scraping together matching funds for constructing the San Jose to Sylmar section of the HSr mega-project turns out to take longer than expected - or proves impossible.

Indeed, an early focus on the worst structural bottlenecks would allow the state to claim it is putting its money where its mouth is and substantially reduce investment risk for the federal government as well as private investors.

In the same vein, it should be easier to keep a lid on cost escalation if the state's contribution is applied early on toward a set of run-of-the-mill highway grade separation projects. Evidence of successful project management early on should also prove very helpful in securing matching funds.

Also, keep in mind the following: experience in France and Spain suggests that spending on high speed rail can come at the expense of the less glamorous - and loss-making - commuter and regional rail services. It will be much easier to keep allocating operating subsidies for these in future state budgets if ridership is substantially higher than today - something that will only happen if they are safe, comfortable, fast, frequent and punctual.

c) the Authority is currently relatively autonomous, subject only to intermittent oversight by the state legislature. This was perhaps appropriate during the preparation of the EIR/EIS, but the report raises a red flag about yielding similar autonomy in awarding very-big-ticket contracts during the construction phase.

Reading between the lines, the concerns relate not just to the risk of poor decisions with far-reaching implications but also - sotto voce - that of graft. Financial probity is obviously critical to securing matching funds.

---

The report studiously avoids explicitly giving priority to any one section of the HSR network. However, the overall tenor strongly suggests a preference for concentrating the state's portion of overall funding in the SF peninsula, Orange County/LA and perhaps, on the spur to San Diego.

There are good reasons for doing so, but phasing the project this way would yet again short-change the legitimate transportation needs of Central Valley residents jeopardizing the success of the ballot initiative.

Allocating a significant fraction of the state bond to shoehorning all rail traffic into a single corridor through Fresno would be consistent with the Senate report's tenor - even if the fancy station will have to wait. Spending money in the Central Valley would also send an unmistakable signal that the ultimate goal of building a statewide HSR network remains intact. It's just that $10 billion simply isn't enough to achieve it - not even close.

Robert said...

Ok,
First off I'll just say that oil surged $9 per barrel today. It closed at a record high of over $137. Partly on a Morgan Stanley study that said it could easily hit $150 by the 4th of July. IMO, this as much as anything else is one of the biggest macro-economic forces that will drive the construction of Californias HSR system. People are already cutting back on driving, and every day brings new news of airlines cutting back.

In todays LA Times, which I believe Robert referred to, Continental is going to eliminate 3,000 jobs and trim their capacity by 11%. They will mothball a total of 67 planes. Their stock is down 10% TODAY, and down over 60% in the previous 12 months. Anybody with the foresight to short the airlines stock is making a killing. Not to mention any names :-)

Concerning the building of the system. I have to confess that I haven't read AB-3034 to see what effect it might have on the construction planning for the system. No doubt in my mind this will change numerous times before the first shovel full of dirt is ever turned. When $40 billion is up for grabs, there will be no end to the antics that will be coming up.

Having said that, and I posted along similar lines previously, I see no reason why building the system in phases would be such a bad thing. And I don't necessarily think that LA-SF in phase 1 is an absolute must like many here believe.

I think that building the urban segments first would be a great idea, provided they could be ready sooner than if they tried building the entire LA-SF segment at once. The LA to Palmdale link could be built, along with maybe a Gilroy to SF segment. Assuming that there would be rail yards at both ends, this would allow you to get the local users actually riding the system and seeing what is in store for them. The expansion beyond those first two segments would be to connect them with each other, opening each station as the track is laid to it. North from Palmdale would be Bakersfield, and South from Gilroy would be Fresno.

An added benefit of doing it this way is that as construction progresses, we will get a very good idea of whether the system will have the massive overruns that some people project. If you can build those first two segments within a reasonable % of the estimated cost, it makes it a lot easier to sell the rest of the segments.

By then, people in SF and LA can take a jaunt on the local segment and see for themselves what the future holds, compared with $150 oil or whatever it is then. I believe there is more risk in attempting to make the public swallow the entire project at once, and demand that the full $40 billion be accounted for before breaking ground. I could easily see that delaying construction as the CHSRA tries to get that all lined up. I'm not a financial expert, so perhaps I'm missing something as to why the LA-SF segment in it's entirety would need to be constructed first.

Robert, perhaps this would be a good opportunity to have a blog post concerning why it is that you believe that the LA-SF segment should be done first? Then we can all chime in and get an idea of what everyone else thinks and why.

When the LA subway was built the first segment completed was called the MOS (minimum operational segment). It had 5 stations starting at Union Station and ending at MacArthur park. It was then expanded outward from there in 2 or 3 different projects.

Other Robert

Robert said...

Rafael,
Good post. I would also update my previous post and say that I could also envision the LA-SD segment being built in a similar manner to the LA-SF segment. Whether you would start at both ends and build toward the center, or just start at either LA or SD and build toward the other is debatable.

By building out from LA to both SF and SD at the same time, it allows for a larger initial segment than if you built toward SF alone. Sylmar to the Ontario Airport is only 66 miles and would have 5 stations, 2 on either side of LA. That could be the IOS in LA.

Other Robert

Matt in SF said...

With any large project, there is going to be an inherent amount of risk. It is generally also true that you can reduce that risk by breaking that large project up into a series of smaller projects, i.e. avoiding the big bang approach and going with a phased approach.

The risks that are mentioned in the report are not surprising nor a reason to delay the passage of the bond measure, but anything that can be done to minimize the risks of CAHSR deserves serious consideration. If you were to break this project up into smaller chunks, it would then make sense to focus on the line segments that could best stand on their own, which would almost certainly be the urban/suburban sections that would have the highest population density and the greatest potential ridership.

I think most would agree that the Caltrain baby bullet project has been a success and has demonstrated a strong demand for express light rail service along the SF peninsula. A true high-speed rail service offering trips between SF & SJ in only 30 minutes (exactly half of the baby bullet's ~60 minute trip) would be very likely to be an even greater success, and I would imagine the same could be true for a similar segment in southern California.

To be honest, the gist of the Senate report and AB-3034 seem to be right on to me. My only concern would be that any and all construction as part of CAHSR must be done in such a way as to support the goal of the complete rail build-out from end-to-end. I would not want to see this be the first step towards building conflicting or inefficient spur segments which would lead to slower travel times or just plain unrelated rail systems. As logn as the CAHSR controls the purse, that should not be a problem.

Just my two cents.

Rafael said...

@ matt in sf -

I think the idea is to keep CHSRA in charge of the project but to subject it to closer and more frequent scrutiny during the implementation.

The State Senate report stresses several times that the objective is to implement the initial portion of HSR using the bond money, with valuable fringe benefits for other rail operators. The fact that those fringe benefits will actually be realized first does not detract from the overall goal.

Caltrain's separate but compatible Project 2025 indicates a preference for lightweight off-the-shelf double deck electric multiple unit (EMU) trains - e.g. the Siemens Desiro or the Talgo 22. Among other benefits, EMUs are compatible with the 3.5% gradient planned for the entrance to the tunnel between 4th & King and the future Transbay Terminal.

However, those EMUs were designed against international, not US crash safety specs. Caltrain's computer simulations to date suggest these lighter, more advanced designs actually outperform the much heaver FRA-compliant locomotive-based alternative in medium and high speed collisions with heavy-duty trucks. See Appendix C of the latest interim report for details.

Caltrain will soon petition FRA for a waiver on this basis, but it is unclear if it will get one without first conducting very expensive real-world crash tests. The waiver is required for EMU operation between Santa Clara and Gilroy.

How the FRA rules on the petition will strongly influence Caltrain's choice of rolling stock, which it would like to make at the end of 2008 to avoid knock-on delays. The preferred EMUs would be compatible with the off-the-shelf very high speed trainsets that CHSRA prefers, whereas a choice for FRA-compliant equipment would not.

Metrolink, Coaster and Amtrak as well as other regional rail operators elsewhere in the US will surely also pay close attention to the FRA decision.

Rafael said...

KPIX article discussing the State Senate report.

Anonymous said...

Then you have a much more negative
article titled:

Senate report pokes holes in bullet train plan

from Erik Nelson

Tony D. said...

Rafael,
Respectfully, I disagree that the book "still isn't closed" on Altamont vs. Pacheco. I believe the new funding plan, with emphasis taken off the main LA-SF line, will make BOTH Altamont and Pacheco a reality; Bay Area HSR lines from SF/SJ to Fresno via Pacheco (future LA line) and SJ/Diridon to Sacramento via Altamont. I'm with R.C. in that I support the original goal of linking north and south, but the reality is that from where I'm at in Gilroy, I'd be making a lot more HSR/Caltrain EMU trips north to SJ/SFO/SF than south to LA. Perhaps, as many have already asserted, the CHSRA and state government are putting the commuter aspect in front of linking north and south. By the way Rafael, great EMU links!

Robert Cruickshank said...

These are excellent comments and I wish I had time - and a more reliable wifi connection - to get to them all. Tomorrow I will write as other robert suggests why I believe the LA-SF link is so crucially important to the success of HSR. I don't oppose a phased approach - but phased approaches only work if there are guarantees you will finish all phases.

What worries me is we're seeing a move away from those guarantees, away from ensuring that we fill in the gap, and away from HSR as a long distance travel solution.

wu ming's point is not to be forgotten - if the Central Valley sees this morphing into a bond to provide improved commuter rail, they will not support it. It's that simple. That lack of support will manifest itself in the legislature but especially at the ballot box - and although earlier polls suggested we had strong support, those numbers will become closer as the election nears. I do not believe we can pass a bond if we don't have the Central Valley's votes.

In any case, more on this later on Saturday. Ironically I'm going to be spending the day using the SoCal rail system, such as it is...

Rafael said...

@ Robert Cruickshank -

I don't understand why you claim the State Senate report undermines the concept of an SF-Anaheim starter line.

It merely recommends, in the absence of firm commitments of matching funds from both the federal government and the private sector, that the money put up by the state be spent on the end sections of that line - rather than the middle.

You appear to have lost all faith that these matching funds will eventually materialize and that the starter line will in fact be completed. I'm not sure why you're suddenly so pessimistic.

I do agree with you that perception is reality and, that Central Valley residents must be presented with tangible evidence that the goal of building the entire HSR system, remains intact. This includes high speed trains eventually running between Sacramento and Bakersfield, so spending state funds to deal with the bottleneck in Fresno would be a sign of good faith.

By contrast, constructing both Pacheco and Altamont as full-fat HSR-ready corridors would add another $6 billion to a total tab that is already at $40 billion. Where is this additional money supposed to come from?

In a recent radio interview, Rod Diridon explicitly stated he thinks Altamont needs to be a commuter rail corridor. Full stop. That implies top speeds of 80-110mph, with minimal tunneling and level crossings allowed. If so, it really ought to be scoped out of the HSR project.

The double corridor idea was an entirely political fudge that CHSRA has marked "under consideration", i.e. it is explicitly not recommending it. That hasn't stopped Asm. Gagliani et al. from continuing to push for Altamont HSR, though they have shied away from explicit demands that Pacheco HSR be eliminated to make the numbers work.

Ergo, right now, the book is unfortunately still not closed on the route(s) out of the Bay Area. I wish it were, but I don't think it is. All AB 3034 does is postpone resolution until after the November ballot, which to my mind is an act of political cowardice.

Anonymous said...

Right now the whole project is right in the middle of the political arena. What makes everyone so sure AB-3034 is going to pass. The recent two major events, ROW problems with the UP and now the very negative committee report have changed the whole ball game. It like AB-3034 was a baseball game going into the bottom of the ninth inning with a 4 to 0 lead and all of a sudden a grand slam home run has tied the game.

Without AB-3034 the Governor will not support the bond measure. No Governor support, voter rejection is assured the fall. If the bond measure fails this fall, no HSR for at least 20 years. That's political reality.

Now I don't understand the whole working route in the senate, but I note that Lowenthal's committee has yet to put AB-3034 on any agenda for June. The deadline to get AB-3034 passed by the senate is June 26th. How in the world can this possibly happen now?

I think the bond measure is going to be pulled once again. Just my take. HSR supporters should probably support delaying this once again.

Rafael said...

@ anon @7:42pm -

the safety concern UPRR raised does need to be addressed more professionally than CHSRA has done to date. After all, if the project goes ahead, they will be neighbors on much of the network. However, the Authority had already factored in the possibility that that particular company was going to resist ceding any of its land, at any price.

The State Senate report is critical of CHSRA in a number of respects, but constructively so. It is not fundamentally negative toward the project, just very concerned about the funding risks it entails. While CHSRA considers it very likely that federal and private matching funds will materialize if California voters approve the bond measure, there is no ironclad guarantee that really will happen.

Primarily for that reason, the report suggested that the state's contribution to the HSR mega-project be spent on capacity and safety enhancements, in effect getting the ends of the starter line "HSR-ready".

These enhancements will bring tangible benefits to existing freight and passenger rail operators as well as to HSR - if and when the rest of the money for that becomes available. Road users, too, will benefit from the elimination of level crossings in heavily populated areas.

Delaying the bond by yet another two years would increase construction costs by an additional 15% - effectively putting the whole project out of the state's reach for a generation. No proposal is ever going to be perfect, but at some point you just have to press ahead or cut your losses.

You may be opposed to HSR, but don't think for a minute that the alternative - more roads and runways, more dependence on expensive oil, more air pollution - is going to be a prettier picture. Twice as expensive, too.

bikerider said...

I agree with the Senate report. I find it highly interesting that of all the qualified international firms out there, with decades of real-world experience building high-speed rail lines, the authority instead decided to go with Bechtel.

Bechtel has no qualifications in the field, and the few times it has built passenger rail, they almost always went 100% over budget. Add to that their "Big Dig" fiscal black hole, the inevitable overruns from a PPP, and a clearly fraudulent EIR ridership analysis for the Pacheco decision, the Senate is right to be concerned about the fiscal risks.

Since the vast majority of voters are more concerned with their daily commute than long-haul LA-SF travel, it seems the Senate is way ahead of the authority in setting priorities.

Rafael said...

@ bikerider -

the Bechtel connection is news to me. Do you have a reference for that?

Regarding your claim that the EIR process on Altamont vs. Pacheco Pass was "fraudulent" - an accusation of serious criminal misconduct - please provide supporting evidence.

The Bay Area to Central Valley EIR/EIS was prepared by consultants from Parsons, Parsons Brinkerhoff Americas, Architecture 21, Geotechnical Consultants and Jones & Stokes.

Afaik, no contract for detailed engineering work or construction has yet been awarded to date. The Authority cannot begin the tender process until and unless voters approve the November bond measure.

bikerider said...

Here is a reference to the announcement of PB getting the contract:

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BATN/message/32781

Their record is well established (100% cost overrun on BART-SFO, 100% cost overrun BART-Dublin, and 100% cost overrun on construction of the original core BART system).

Regarding your claim that the EIR process on Altamont vs. Pacheco Pass was "fraudulent" - an accusation of serious criminal misconduct - please provide supporting evidence.

EVERY major environmental group has lambasted the EIR. The ridership numbers are simply not credible. Dropping the Sacramento-Bay Area market simply cannot result in increased ridership. Adding 100 miles of extra track (the equivalent of an entire BART system) simply cannot result in lower operating costs.

Rafael said...

@ bikerider -

1. Afaik, Parsons Brinkerhoff is not part of the Bechtel group, that's why I was confused.

2. As for cost overruns, BART extensions is a notoriously expensive. Part of that maybe lowball estimates by politicians trying to push such projects down voters' gullets, setting unrealistic expectations.

In the specific case of the SFO extension, the main problem was that San Mateo county insisted on a number of stops and a lot of tunneling, neither of which were part of the original project scope.

Contracts are usually structured such that that there is a contingency fee to cover unforeseen risks. Most cost escalations occur because the customer changes his mind about what he wants or, because of delays beyond the contractor's responsibility. Since contractors have to submit aggressive bids to get contracts in the first place, they slap hefty margins on each and every change order they can justify.

In some projects, there are also kickbacks that lead customers to sign off on inflated invoices. However, you need to be very careful about pointing fingers unless you have prove.

3. It is quite possible that CHSRA stacked the cards in favor of Pacheco from the outset, perhaps because two of the most powerful members on the board, Quentin Kopp and Rod Diridon, hail from San Francisco and San Jose, respectively. Rumor has it the city of San Jose threatened to sink the entire HSR project if it did not get its way - though I can offer no reference to corroborate that.

Pensinsula politicians absolutely do not want HSR to generate an army of long-distance commuters, because their budgets depends on property and sales taxes. They refer to this phenomenon, which is evident in e.g. France, as "sprawl" - but it's really "exurbanization". The French are fine with it because local officials there receive their budgets from the central government - a huge difference to California.

Consider the following circumstantial evidence for this interpretation:

Residential development in southern Santa Clara county is severely constrained by law. Caltrain has not (yet) been extended to Hollister, Watsonville, Salinas or Monterey.

Back in 1994, SamTrans bought the Dumbarton Rail bridge for a song. It only has a single track and two now-operational swivel bridges that preserve shipping rights of way. In 1995, Caltrain unveiled a blueprint for service to Union City. CHSRA was constituted in 1997. The western trestle of the existing Dumbarton rail bridge was destroyed in a 1998 blaze that the local fire chief suspected called "very, very suspicious". No charges could ever be brought. CHSRA apparently stopped working the Altamont Pass option in 1999. Voters actually approved a rehabilitation project for the bridge in 2004, but almost immediately, the cost estimate went through the roof: any rehabilitation would have to meet current seismic code and pass an EIR/EIS for construction in a National Wildlife Refuge. Is all this just coincidence? Who knows?

And now the Sierra Club made sure that no station could ever be built at Los Banos. They'll tell you it was because of wildlife this or wildlife that, but IMHO that's mostly smoke and mirrors.

bikerider said...

Afaik, Parsons Brinkerhoff is not part of the Bechtel group, that's why I was confused.

Parsons Brinckerhoff and Bechtel form various partnerships on large transportation projects, including the entire BART system, and the Big Dig.

In the specific case of the SFO extension, the main problem was that San Mateo county insisted on a number of stops and a lot of tunneling, neither of which were part of the original project scope.

Not true, though that was one of the cover stories given at the time to a gullible press. In fact, it was Quentin Kopp himself (as chair of the Transportation commission) who threatened to withhold all funding unless BART gave in to some crazy last-minute demands that ended up adding hundreds of millions to the final cost. Interestingly, he has done the same thing all over again with HSR, with a switcheroo on the Bay Area - Central valley routing.

Robert Cruickshank said...

"EVERY major environmental group has lambasted the EIR"

That's news to me. I know that the Sierra Club had questions and concerns about the impact on Pacheco Pass, the wetlands east of the pass, and development in the Los Banos area, but those were specific concerns that did not lead them to "lambaste" it.

As I have repeatedly argued here before concerns over ridership do not take into account the long-term impact of high oil prices. There's little point to quibbling over the exact projections - we have every reason to believe ridership will be sufficient to make HSR a financially strong system.

rafael's points on cost overruns are key. There are many rail projects that are delivered on time and on-budget. Seattle's light rail project is one example. The new Metro Gold Line extension is another. Those who believe these projects will inherently have high costs are cherrypicking a few high-profile examples caused by bad oversight or political meddling that got in the way of sound project management.

And rafael's Pacheco theory is plausible, although I'd love for someone to dig up more confirming evidence.

bikerider said...

There's little point to quibbling over the exact projections - we have every reason to believe ridership will be sufficient to make HSR a financially strong system.

So now we're quibbling? I mean we're only talking tens of billions and millions of riders. There is no reason to expect a poorly planned system to be financially successful.

There are many rail projects that are delivered on time and on-budget.

Actually, I would say the vast majority of rail projects come in on-budget. That is what makes the selection of PB so insane -- with so many good firms out there with good HSR experience, why pick PB?

Anonymous said...

I've been thinking about staging, it's actually obvious what the first stage should be: Bakersfield to LA.

No current train service exists Bakersfield-Palmdale. That (Tehachapi) section should be sufficiently far from the UP tracks, just thanks to changes related to planned straightening and flattening, that UP should be easy to shut up.

Palmdale-Sylmar needs massive realignment works to straighten it for high speed, which would also benefit Metrolink (who obviously won't cause trouble the way UP will).

The route can be put into place 'from the north' before the high-speed trainsets are ready, and already be an improvement, by beating the runtime of buses and existing trains over the same connections.

At that point, the joint Metrolink/CAHSR improvements from Sylmar to an improved LAUS can be finished, and with electrification to LAX, a functional high-speed route will be ready to run -- serving the Central Valley-LA market, and picking up connecting passengers from the San Joaquins.

Bakersfield-LA has the further advantage of doing one of the hardest sections first (thus making future expansions noticably 'cheaper' by comparison) and also providing an impressive showpiece section.

At that point it can be expanded incrementally, to the north as the alignment issues are settled, and to the south as funding become available.

Caltrain electrification and preparation for HSR should of course be done at the same time, since the Bay Area is one of the two areas (along with San Diego) which wouldn't get clear benefits from the LA-Bakersfield section (although everyone would get some interconnectivity benefits from a passenger rail link between the San Joaquins and LA, probably only Sacramento, the Central Valley, and LA would really notice). I realize this will keep the Altamont/Pacheco argument going, but frankly there are some benefits to that; every politican can believe that they still have a chance to get their preferred connection.

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