Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Sierra Club Loses Focus

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

It wasn't the article I was hoping to read upon my return from my honeymoon, but it's not that surprising to read in the Fresno Bee that the Sierra Club and the Planning and Conservation League are hesitating on backing Prop 1 and even considering a lawsuit - and for the nonsensical reason that the choice of the Pacheco route might "induce sprawl." That objection is bad enough, for reasons I'll discuss in a moment.

But what's really disturbing about this move is that it suggests the Sierra Club and the PCL have lost their focus - instead of looking at the big picture of high speed rail and emphasizing the game-changing environmental benefits it brings, they're focusing on a small non-issue instead. They've lost sight of the forest for the trees and instead of providing leadership on this issue they may instead cast their lot with the far right and leave Californians with no viable alternative to soaring fuel prices and a transportation system that is making our environmental problems far worse.

First, their criticisms as reported by E.J. Schulz:

But the environmentalists are still seething over the selection of relatively undeveloped Pacheco Pass as the route to connect the Central Valley to the Bay Area. They favor the more urban Altamont Pass to the north because they say it would induce less sprawl....

Environmentalists would rather see trains run farther north in the Valley before heading west so that more populated cities are served. They like the Altamont route because it would bring trains closer to Modesto, Dublin, Pleasanton and Livermore in the first phase.

By contrast, the Pacheco route -- roughly following Highway 152 -- is in a less populated area. Environmentalists worry that a planned station in Gilroy would induce sprawl in surrounding rural areas.

These worries are baseless. Gilroy and much of southern Santa Clara County have strict urban growth boundaries. If those places were going to sprawl they would have already done so given their proximity to the job center and hot housing market of Silicon Valley. HSR doesn't change that dynamic.

Nor does it change the fact that sprawl is facing hard times. Sprawl is bad, but it isn't a force of nature. It is instead a product of three major factors: cheap oil, cheap credit, and favorable land use laws. The first is disappearing for good, thanks to peak oil. The second doesn't exist now, and may never return. Certainly land use policies need to change to limit sprawl, but those changes have long ago been made in southern Santa Clara County. Why should HSR alone carry that burden? AB 32 carbon reduction goals should be applied to new housing developments, and ultimately, localities will have to change their ways.

The loss of cheap oil and the shortage of cheap credit together will lessen sprawl dramatically in the coming decades. I fully support land use changes to further kill off sprawl, but it's not worth holding HSR hostage to produce the changes that need to happen anyway at the state and local level.

The death of sprawl has already made itself manifest in Gilroy. The Westfield shopping center developers had a plan to convert a significant amount of farmland acreage east of Gilroy along Highway 152 into a huge mall. The plan aroused the opposition of the community and it was dropped earlier this year. High fuel prices, the credit crunch, and public defense of urban growth boundaries all combined to kill that sprawl project. Those factors will do so again.

A Gilroy HSR station would produce strong incentives for transit-oriented dense development in Gilroy, the kind of development that California cities need to focus on instead of sprawl. Gilroy is already partway there, and an HSR station where the current Caltrain station is located at 8th and Monterey would actually discourage sprawl because there would be viable alternatives to building on new farmland. The combination of infill development and strict urban growth rules are what have made Portland's anti-sprawl plans a success - you need both for the anti-sprawl measures to work. And high capacity mass transit is a necessary component.

Further, since the Authority has rejected plans for a Los Banos stop, and since as Mehdi Morshed explained in the Fresno Bee article that the communities along the Altamont route were not supportive of HSR, what on earth explains the ongoing refusal of the Sierra Club and the PCL to throw their support to Prop 1?

The only answer is a very depressing one, but an answer that is becoming more widely accepted among many environmental activists, sustainability activists, transportation activists, and folks on the left more broadly: the Sierra Club and the PCL have lost their way, and have lost sight of the big picture. In case folks haven't been paying attention, this country faces a climate crisis and an energy crisis. It's not like we have a whole lot of time to be fighting over objections that are not grounded in fact. At Netroots Nation two weekends ago Al Gore explained that we need to stop burning carbon and make a bold move to power our society with renewable energy. An electrically-powered high speed train system won't achieve that 100% renewables goal itself, but it would provide significant environmental benefits:

-Reduce carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to removing 1.4 million cars from the road, and take the place of nearly 42 million annual city-to-city car trips (Final EIR p. 92)

-Reduce CO2 emissions by up to 17.6 billion pounds/year (Quentin Kopp op-ed)

-Reduce California’s oil consumption by up to 22 million barrels/year (same as above)

According to the Final EIR 63% of intercity trips over 150 miles in California are taken by car (scroll to page 12). HSR would provide a huge dent in that figure.

High speed rail is one of those game changing proposals. How can the Sierra Club and the PCL overlook the cars taken off the road? How can they overlook the CO2 reductions? How can they overlook the reduction in pollution, especially in the Central Valley?

Four years ago Michael Schellenberger and Ted Nordhaus criticized the Sierra Club directly in their seminal essay The Death of Environmentalism. In their view the environmental movement, by focusing on small battles, has totally failed to address global warming, and that organizations like the Sierra Club "have little to show" for nearly 30 years of environmental activism after the big victories of the late '60s and early '70s. One of their specific criticisms is that the Sierra Club, for example, often eschews big policy changes for a niggling incrementalism that has done nothing to arrest the rate of warming. This has led them to refuse to articulate a bold vision for addressing the global warming crisis that of course hurts the natural environment, and it has led them to ignore the politics of producing change.

The Sierra Club's failure on high speed rail proves each of Schellenberger and Nordhaus' controversial charges. Instead of helping change the way Californians get around their state, shifting them away from oil-burning methods of travel to clean methods of travel that limit sprawl and generate urban densities, they are focusing on a small objection that doesn't even hold up on close examination. They have endorsed the concept of high speed rail in the past but if they don't endorse Prop 1, what other opportunity will they have to get it passed? If the HSR bonds don't pass this year, they aren't coming back anytime soon. It might take 10 years to revive the project - it's taken 15 in Texas - and that means completion of the line wouldn't happen until close to 2030.

By then it may be too late. Instead of refusing to support Prop 1 out of pique that they lost the Altamont vs. Pacheco argument, the Sierra Club and the PCL should follow Van Jones' advice and move from opposition to proposition. We have a proposition - literally - before us. Instead of being on the constant defensive the Sierra Club and the PCL can help California take a bold step in the right direction with Proposition 1. If we pass these bonds in November it will then be a signal to other states and to Congress that HSR is a politically popular project and it will spur similar projects around the country - projects that we desperately need.

Why would the Sierra Club and the PCL oppose these things? They have let their opposition to the Pacheco alignment blind them to the bigger picture. That decision has been made and even though the Sierra Club and the PCL lost, they can still be big winners. Let's hope they recognize the pressing environmental need for high speed rail before it's too late.


Morris Brown said...


You and I are never going to agree on many issues in this debate. You write:

It is instead a product of three major factors: cheap oil, cheap credit, and favorable land use laws.

Your three factors are all economic incentives for home buyers to purchase in outlying areas. You leave out the most important factor. Low cost of land, which leads developers to purchase and promote development in outlying areas.

Then you quote:

"Further, since the Authority has rejected plans for a Los Banos stop, and since as Mehdi Morshed explained in the Fresno Bee article that the communities along the Altamont route were not supportive of HSR, what on earth explains the ongoing refusal of the Sierra Club and the PCL to throw their support to Prop 1?"

Well Morshed's comments are really cynical, as pointed out on our web site.

He ignores opposition along the peninsula in Atherton and Menlo Park with others to follow.

Senator Ashburn is pursuing a delay in the ballot measure. Advocates should join in this effort. The leadership of the CHSRA has been lousy -- it needs to be changed.

Robert Cruickshank said...

You don't support a delay, you want to kill the project. Be honest about that. Atherton and Menlo Park's opposition is going to exist as long as there are plans to build along the Caltrain corridor.

The difference is that those two cities' opposition is easily countered by the support from other cities on the peninsula and by the fact that California voters aren't exactly sympathetic to wealthy homeowners.

The low cost of land does not alone produce sprawl. The outlying areas are where the land is cheap, and besides, if there's no cheap oil, nobody can drive to these places, and if there's no cheap credit, nobody can afford to buy homes there. The collapse of the California housing market, where the steepest drops in values are in the newer sprawling subdivisions, proves the point.

bikerider said...

For someone who claims to be an historian, Robert is quite oblivious to the historical context of environmentalist concerns. Going back 20 years there is enormous historical precedent that political meddling by Kopp and Diridon (and other players in this project) will do more harm than good.

Consider, for example, Diridon's other pet-project, the BART-SJ extension, which was also opposed by the Sierra Club. They predicted that the EIR grossly overstated ridership, and that the agency (VTA) had not identified any source of revenue for actually running trains. Well, they lost at the ballot box (voters approved the project in 2000), but were ultimately proved correct in their predictions: It has been 8 years and the project still has no identified source of funding to run trains, and an FTA "not recommended" rating. If VTA had resisted political pressure and simply stuck with their original plan of running European DMU as a Caltrain service (as per the 1996 Plan), that service would have been up and running a decade ago, and Santa Clara riders would not be subjected to the massive transit cuts of the last 4 years.

A very similar thing happened when Quentin Kopp (as Chair of State Transportation Committee) prevailed in getting BART to build that ridiculous "Wye" configuration in the BART-Milbrae extension. This too was opposed by the environmentalists, leading to a lawsuit against the EIR by a broad coalition. They lost their lawsuit, but their claims were also validated: the extension did go 100% over budget, the ridership was less than 1/3 than predicted. In the end, SamTrans lost so much money on the project, that it had to make massive cuts in bus service, and eventually pulled out of the venture altogether (and having to forfeit several decades worth of transportation funds as penalty for early termination).

So here we are now again with another ill-advised rail plan, by two charlatans who have an extensive history of screwing up otherwise good projects. Even if the bond passes and Pachecho is selected as the route, history will repeat itself. Due to an invalid EIR (which overestimates ridership and underestimates costs), the project will have great difficulty qualifying for Federal funds, leading to huge delays. As well, the decision to build directly over the UP ROW in South San Jose and Morgan Hill is also going to tie this thing up in knots. Thus, I see no advantage in rushing to get a bad plan approved.

nikko pigman said...

Morris -- I was just looking at your website and basically, all of your charges against HSR have no factual basis. All you've said is that "they are lies". You say we have no factual basis, yet we can pull statistics from any analysis showing otherwise.

All of your claims have before been factually refuted and all you can come up with is "don't believe them".

I also noticed that unlike this blog, you don't leave any room for opposition to comment, perhaps because you do not wish to be made fools of in your own website.

Judging by this article

your motivations are purely NIMBYism. Your history shows your opposition to projects in Menlo Park simply because they would change the city. Traditionally, NIMBYs are known for opposing construction projects of all kinds regardless of the benefits it may bring because of somewhat selfish intentions with stinging cynical charges. But is it right to subject rural farmland to the harm of urban sprawl simply because you are trying to defend the 'pleasantness' of your Menlo Park neighborhood?

Cal said...

The Sierra Club has alot bigger problems coming up.. oil drilling and Nuclear power (Mccain) If they fight this they have no resaon to complaine if someday there is a freeway between 101 and I5 thru there..and no need to worry about grass lands because ..No high speed rail= more cars and in 30 years 101degree daily temps and it will be dirt

Morris Brown said...

@nikko pigman

Why you would bring up my leadership in the local Derry project referendum is a bit beyond me, but just let me lay down the facts on that project. I apologize to Robert for putting this into this blog, as it is completely off point.

The original Derry project (a residential and retail/commercial project in downtown Menlo Park) as approved by a previous council, needed General Plan and zoning changes to accomodate a project that was 50 fifty feet in height (where 30 feet was allowed)and at a density of very close to 3 times that allowed on under the existing zoning.

We collected the needed signatures (2800 in total) and the issue was to be settled by either the City council rescinding the approved project or by sending the issue full vote of our City.

Our group and the developer chose a third pathway,which was encouraged by the new City council, that of seeing if a negotiated settlement could be reached. Indeed after a tough series of talks a new project as a compromise was agreed between the referendum proponents and the developer.

This compromise has been submitted to the Menlo Park Planning commission, which approved the revised project and it will come before the City council in the near future. The revised project has been reduced in height by 20% and in density by 12%. Additional commercial development has been added. Finally, a $2,000,000 payment from the developer to the City as a public benefit has been guaranteed.

Please note, this project will even at its reduced size, be the most dense project ever approved in Menlo Park. Anyone wanting to learn more, can Google -- Derry project, Menlo Park.

As for being a NIMBY, that project is about one-half mile from my home-- does that still qualify me as being a NIMBY on that issue?

Aa for the criticism of our website on HSR, again we did want to go the blog route. This blog can concentrate the views.

Robert, I again apologize for this long winded digression.

Morris Brown said...


I want to be clear. At this time I support a delay of Prop 1 as being advocated by Senator Ashburn.

A HSR project that has been done right -- route preference, business plan, risk management and many of the points raised by the Lowenthal committee report -- might well have my support.

I don't understand why anyone, who has who has delved into the details and knows the facts about what is being proposed here, would want to send this to the voters.

Ashburn is on the right track -- his efforts at delay should be supported.

Rafael said...

I don't mean to rain on anyone's parade here, but is the Fresno Bee's reporting on this even accurate?

The Sierra Club website still sports a page urging people to write to their representatives in support of High Speed Rail in an effort to stop sprawl.

Similarly, Gary Patton of the PCL also supports High Speed Rail, with the proviso that it not lead to sprawl (i.e. suburbanization) in the Central Valley.

Whatever the route out of the Bay Area, some LA and Silicon Valley worker bees will move house to distant towns because real estate is cheaper there and, the earthquake risk lower. Exurbanization has already happened in France thanks to the TGV network, where navetteurs a grande vitesse live in scenic Tours (Loire Valley) or Reims (Champagne) and work in Paris.

Perhaps Fresno and Bakersfield can't quite match these French towns' savoir vivre, but some exurbanization will still happen. Whether that leads to additional sprawl away from the I-99 corridor depends on local policies that the state of California - by way of the CHSRA - can influence but not dictate.

Note that it is absolutely in the state's interest to shift future population growth away from the Bay Area and SoCal and toward the narrow I-99 corridor, especially in the Delta counties. Simply put, that's where the water is and the major seismic faults aren't. Summer heat is an issue, but it could be addressed with appropriate architecture, both private and urban.

Unfortunately, a big problem in this context is that Amtrak's San Joaquin service uses the BNSF alignment in the Central Valley, whereas HSR will run either on or very near to UPRR's ROW. Unless the San Joaquin's alignment is switched to UPRR and more stations are added, it will not be an effective HSR feeder service for the numerous small towns in the Central Valley.

Most likely, moving the San Joaquin alignment would involve turning the BNSF ROW into a dual track freight-only corridor shared with UPRR (cp. Alameda Corridor in LA). That's a daunting proposition well beyond the planning and funding scope of prop 1, but it would turn the existing UPRR corridor into a passenger-only ROW.

As for prime farmland in the Central Valley, it is threatened mostly by a chronic lack of water. However, some 80% of the total fresh water supply in California is still dedicated to crop irrigation. far from all farmers use efficient drip irrigation and, some continue to grow thirsty crops like alfalfa and rice that yield low margins per unit of water. Dairy farming also consumers large amounts of water. Ergo, there is plenty of room for improvement - more than enough to make up for the expected population growth up and down the Central Valley.

Robert Cruickshank said...

morris, we've gone over this plenty of times before. Ashburn's objections are 11th hour and most of them have been covered. The business plan is a perfect example: AB 3034 would mandate a new one. So what does Ashburn do? He blocks the bill. Not exactly the best way to get an updated business plan!

bikerider, the Sierra Club is not claiming that the HSR EIR overstates ridership. As I have repeatedly explained, the concerns that HSR ridership will not be high are absurd on their face as they ignore both the impact of high gas prices and the global success of HSR. But then Matt Melzer's fact-filled post didn't seem to convince you.

Further, the Sierra Club has repeatedly acknowledged that the HSR project is valuable to the state and necessary for environmental improvement, pollution reduction, and energy independence. So why they're withholding support over an unfounded and ultimately minor point is befuddling and suggests to me they have lost their focus.

cal, I agree that McCain and the odious "drill drill drill!" mantra coming from the GOP is a big priority for the Sierra Club to stop. But I think Van Jones was absolutely right when he said - in the context of how to counter the "drill now" nonsense that we need not just opposition but proposition.

There is NO way we can convince the public that drilling isn't going to solve their problems unless we have identified alternatives. We need to not just say drilling is bad but that here is a vastly superior solution. In our case, that's HSR.

The Sierra Club is not doing themselves any favors on drilling by dragging their feet on Prop 1.

Robert Cruickshank said...

As I read the Bee article the objections from the Sierra Club and the PCL do exist. A threatened lawsuit is not the same as an actual suit, and some comfort could be taken from the fact that nothing has yet been filed. Unfortunately the Sierra Club HSR link is from 2001, and the PCL has long been threatening to sue, especially Stuart Flashman who is representing them to the CHSRA.

I tried to not make my post too condemning of these groups - I want them to do the right thing and believe they should do the right thing and support Prop 1.

Growth WILL happen in the Central Valley and it will happen if we build HSR. But there's nothing that says growth necessarily means sprawl. The Sierra Club and the PCL are wrong to assume that it would for the reasons I explained. And if stopping sprawl was their concern then they should be supporting state and legislation to that effect - an effort I have and will continue to very strongly support.

Stopping sprawl is important. But it should not be a cause for withholding support from HSR.

Anonymous said...

@Rafael and Robert

I believe indeed the FresnoBee reporting is accurate and that will beome clear very shortly.

In particular, Robert's statement:

Unfortunately the Sierra Club HSR link is from 2001, and the PCL has long been threatening to sue, especially Stuart Flashman who is representing them to the CHSRA.

should be taken seriously

Spokker said...

Until recently the alignment in and out of the Bay Area was just a blotch of crosshatching. The decision between Altamont and Pacheco took a long time and I doubt the decision was made lightly. Some may be disappointed by the decision but the CHSRA is damned if they do and damned if they don't.

I wonder if long time opponents of HSR, who wouldn't like it if either corridor was used, latched on to the Pacheco decision and started saying, "They should have built Altamont! That's it, I'm now AGAINST this project!"

You never know on this wonderful world of Internet :)

If there's one thing about me it's that I'm consistent. It's HSR or bust, even if a million puppies have to be sacrificed to our high speed train Gods.

Robert Cruickshank said...

That's probably it, spokker. These people got so wrapped up in the fight over the alignment that they have missed sight of the big picture. Pacheco had its pros and cons, so does Altamont. What matters most, however, is that we get this built. If the Sierra Club and/or PCL are willing to sue over this, it suggests to me they do not have their priorities in order - especially since the specific objections are so baseless.

It's like the Hillary vs. Obama thing for Democrats. Both had their merits and demerits but what really mattered is picking someone and winning the general election. What matters for HSR supporters, and I would argue for all environmentalists in California, is winning the fight for Prop 1 this November. Opportunities to revolutionize transportation in California do not come often.

Spokker said...

I think it's difficult for anyone who supports this to believe that their region isn't the most important beneficiary of high speed rail. Those in the Bay Area think the train is primarily for them. Those in Southern California think the train is primarily for them.

But based on everything I've read is that equally important as SF-LA is creating better connections to/from the rapidly developing Central Valley.

Demand for rail travel in California is evidenced by the three state supported routes. Even when it's slow or inconvenient, ridership continues to increase.

With faster speeds, increased frequency, and better connections, rail travel won't be so taboo here. Among the people I know here in Orange County, one of the most anti-rail regions in the country, rail travel is for the poor, the dregs of society.

The Surfliner has done its part to change that perception in some ways, but I think that HSR will really turn that stereotype up-side-down.

Spokker said...

Here are some fun graphs that I think are relevant to high speed rail!

Never say Californians aren't overachievers.

Electric trains, in MY California??? Get out of here!

32 MPG by 2016? We can do it!

Whoops, how'd this one get in here?

Spokker said...

This one is my favorite.

Brandon M. Farley said...

I am going to fall into the camp that ... the Sierra Club and PCL will be non-factors on Proposition 1.

PCL is easy to address... who are they?

To me, they sound like another trumped up advocacy group... 'ad hoc'.

So many groups seem to come and go that the general public doesn't know if they are legit or not. The PCL wil fall into this group and I doubt if we'lll ever see "PCL" in the headline of a daily paper... maybe a free weekly.

The Sierra Club... I do appeciate them. I am considering becoming a member as I have some environmental values.

But, what has the SC done lately?

To me, there should be a public referendum on the Sierra Club. They should come forward and express why they are legitimate.

And of course, they are not doing themselves any favors from the public perspective by supporting a project in one hour... and in the 11th claim foul.

The time for them to weigh in was by supporting AB 3034 more virgorously. And instead of faulting Prop 1 by picking up their marbles and going home, they should be outspoken about those that blocked AB 3034 from moving forwad.

Anonymous said...

@ Brandon M. Farley

You write:

"PCL is easy to address... who are they?

To me, they sound like another trumped up advocacy group... 'ad hoc'."

I doubt that Rafael or Robert take that attitude.

PCL ( has a huge presence in Sacramento; they have been responsible for much environmental legislation. They are a "heavy weight"; they should not be taken lightly.

In point of fact, they were the driving force behind Prop 116 some years ago, which enabled CalTrain to buy up the UPRR in the North.

Others on this blog ,must know more than I about them; but they are extremely respected and in many cases, more active than the Sierra Club on legislative issues effecting the environment.

bikerider said...

The Sierra Club has alot bigger problems coming up.. oil drilling and Nuclear power (Mccain)

You are confusing the National group with the California State chapter. In terms of relative importance, a $40 billion plan that determines all passenger rail and ALL discretionary transit spending for the next 4 decades is going to be the highest priority for the State chapter.

If they fight this they have no resaon to complaine if someday there is a freeway between 101 and I5

The Club has actually been very much involved in preventing new highway construction through that sensitive habitat, most recently Richard Pombo's 2004 plan to tunnel a new freeway through Henry Coe (it seems the highway has been replaced by a rail line to make it more palatable to Democrats).

Robert Cruickshank said...

The PCL has done good work on other issues, such as the Delta. But their strange opposition to high speed rail - which is what they'd be doing by suing - stands in contrast to that legacy. HSR is smart planning and promotes environmental conservation. If there were truly serious environmental damage that HSR would cause I'd understand their concerns, but it won't, and as I explained the concerns regarding Gilroy don't hold water.

The Sierra Club's problem is deeper. They also continue to do some excellent work, but have totally failed on global warming. They eschew a broad-based agenda of change and focus on small-scale issues, while the environmental movement and the crises it now faces are demanding a more visionary and holistic approach.

Both these groups should be lined up strongly behind Prop 1. That they are not suggests they have lost focus on what the core issues are that face our state.

mike said...

bikerider -

SFO BART was 25% over budget ($1.167B budget, $1.488B actual). I have no idea where you came up with the "100% over budget" figure.

Furthermore, ridership is currently on track to hit around 45,000 in 2010. That will put it at 66% of the most optimistic projections (68,000 by 2010), which is certainly a shortfall. But it's nowhere near the "less than 1/3rd than predicted" that you claim.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: the fact that "it might turn out to be as bad as BART to SFO!!!" is the worst case scenario for HSR basically guarantees that HSR will be a success.

bikerider said...

Budget for BART-SFO started out at $750m (actually $550m if you want to be picky about it). As they kept going over, the "official" budget kept getting revised upwards. And in any case, it is absolutely absurd to be spending over $1 billion for a mere 8 miles of track on an EXISTING railroad ROW. By comparison, Spain builds hundreds of km of new HSR track (on completely new ROW) for that amount.

Note that with regard to ridership, BART inexplicably and fraudulantly includes Colma and Daly city (i.e. all San Mateo county stations), even though the EIR only looked at the 4 new stations actually built. Counting only those 4 stations (i.e. apples-apples), the ridership has been hovering around 25,000. I don't see 20k new riders materializing in the next two years at the current growth rate.

mike said...

Supposedly the groups have 30 days to file suit after the final approval (which occurred July 9), so if they are going to do so, they will have to do it this week.

mike said...

bikerider - How could the budget be only $750 million? That doesn't even make sense. The Federal government pledged $750 million in June 1997 before construction began. Since Federal funds are matching funds, it would literally be impossible for BART to secure $750 million in Federal funding with a budget of only $750 million (or, even more incredibly, $550 million).

As for ridership numbers, they do NOT include Daly City (which has much higher ridership than Colma). That is absolutely false. They do however claim Colma. Omitting Colma changes the trend to 38,000 in 2010, or about 56% of the most optimistic projections. Note that this is still far better than the less than 33% you claim. For comparison, if CA HSR came in at 56% of its most optimistic projections, it would still attract 65 million riders. I believe that, in today's terms, that would make it the 3rd highest ridership in the world (after Japan and France - it would basically be tied with Germany).

Jason32 said...

An article in the SF Chronicle has quite a lot of data on BART to SFO.

it has been a bumpy ride for BART to finance the $1.5 billion airport extension.

The federal government pledged $750 million in 1997, but each year BART must compete for money with other transit projects around the nation. BART has not fared well, and at the same time the price tag has grown from the original estimate of $1.1 billion.

1992: Release of first environmental report on BART-SFO extension. Costs range from $585 million for a basic, above-ground line that does not enter the airport to $1.2 billion, depending on the design and route.

I guess it depends on what point you want to start from, as to what the original cost was supposed to be. In any case, it was well over cost when completed, just like all projects seem to be, and it certainly is a disaster in terms of ridership.

You take a 56% of projected estimated ridership on HSR, and where have your guaranteed profits gone? This project just like all "pie in the sky", "peaches and cream" promises will fail to deliver and California will be left footing annual deficits of a large magnitude. That's if, of course, they will ever be able to get it built in the first place, as cost over runs of at least 100% develop.

jason32 said...

Talk about expensive. How in the world did the CHSRA manage to spend $58 million for the study and EIR for this project? The EIR is 3000 pages.If it cost $50 million that is $16,666 per page. WOW!!! Not even on gold leaf.

Spokker said...

"If it cost $50 million that is $16,666 per page. WOW!!! Not even on gold leaf."

Yeah. They should have used a coupon.

mike said...

jason32 -

Um, $585 million is for a "basic above-ground line that does not enter the airport." That is not what they chose to build, nor is it what they budgeted for. You can't go overbudget on something you never built. The budget was for the preferred underground line that does enter the airport. That would be the $1.2 billion figure.

I mean, come on, trying to use the $585 million figure for the comparison doesn't even pass the laugh test. The above-ground line that doesn't enter the airport doesn't even meet most people's definition of what a BART SFO extension would be. Lots of people might think that an SFO extension would actually, you know, serve the airport.

Ultimately, your argument is equivalent to saying, "I know CA HSR will be 100% over budget because someone once proposed a line that ran only from San Jose to Santa Clarita for less than $20 billion, and compared to that we know the actual system will be at least twice as much!" You're free to say that, but do you think anyone is seriously going to find it convincing? I really don't understand what your goal is.

bikerider said...

Um, $585 million is for a "basic above-ground line that does not enter the airport." That is not what they chose to build, nor is it what they budgeted for.

$585m was the preferred option that the professional transportation planners recommended. Then Quentin Kopp got involved (as Chair of the Transportation Committee) and threatened to withhold funding for the project. Ergo, it became a $1.55 BILLION project.

From any standpoint (convenience, travel time, and cost), the original $550m intermodal station plan was the most desirable, because it put the PeopleMover, Caltrain, BART, (and one day HSR) at the same stop. But now look what we have instead: to transfer from HSR to the airport, one first has to buy a BART ticket and take a 1-stop ride to SFO, and only then transfer to the PeopleMover to get to your final terminal. Brilliant!

For those of us who followed the whole fiasco, Kopp's involvement in HSR is like seeing a bad movie all over again. Note that the BART SFO-extension was supposed to have such high ridership, that it would be profitable, and pay for future BART projects. (Sound familiar?)

mike said...

"You take a 56% of projected estimated ridership on HSR, and where have your guaranteed profits gone?"

Oh, that's very easy: It will merely be quite profitable as opposed to really, really profitable. With 56% of the optimistic projections, I would forecast revenue of around $2.3 billion/year (in today's dollars). I'm assuming an average SF-LA fare of $55 (lower fares are of course available with advanced, non-refundable booking, etc.), but not all trips will be SF-LA, so the average overall fare would be $30-40. The HSR detractors would predict revenue of $9.8 billion because they seem to believe that the average high speed passenger in Europe pays $100-200 each way, but that is untrue, so I won't consider the $9.8 billion figure.

Costs are the other part of the equation. We have a 1400 track-mile system with probably 800-1000 train-hours of operations per day to carry 65 million pax/year. One obvious comparison is the NEC, which is a ~1200 track-miles with 500 train-hours of operations per day. That cost Amtrak $568 million to operate in FY06 (most recent figures), so if we double that to get 1000 train-hours then we are talking $1.1 billion in operating costs. This may be an overestimate since the NEC is in much worse condition than the HSR system would be and requires a lot more upkeep. Erring on the side of caution, though, you're probably talking about an operating profit on the order of $1 billion/year or more ($2.3-1.1). Which should be no surprise since every HSR system in the world is profitable.

mike said...

bikerider - Okay, so you agree that the project was nowhere near 100% over budget, but you would have preferred that a different project be built than the one that was selected. Fair enough.

Now, how does that map into your HSR concerns? Are you just saying, "I wish they would have chosen Altamont over Pacheco."? Or are you saying, "Right now this project is a 90% above-ground project with stations at Transbay and an LA Union Station, but I expect that after the bond passes it will be a 90% underground project with stations at Fisherman's Wharf and Rancho Palos Verdes."? That doesn't seem like a realistic scenario to me, but I don't know how else to interpret what you are saying.

"Note that the BART SFO-extension was supposed to have such high ridership, that it would be profitable, and pay for future BART projects. (Sound familiar?)"

No, it doesn't sound familiar at all. I did read that they were hoping it would cover its operating costs, but I never read any claim by BART (or any other authority) that it would provide a significant funding source for future capital expansion projects. Please provide a citation for this.

Anonymous said...

Don't build a station there and you don't get sprawl, right? Is it that difficult to comprehend?

bikerider said...

"BART/SMCo dispute imperils Fremont BART extension", San Mateo County Times, March 13 2004 (

"What is now clear is that BART's next extension -- to Fremont's Warm Springs -- could fall victim in the legal crossfire. The $634 million project depends on a $145 million contribution from
SamTrans, which would come from operating surpluses on the SFO line."

mike said...

bikerider - Thanks for the cite - the funny part is that there is still ~$54 million of SFO operating surpluses tucked into the Warm Springs extension funding plan (though it's irrelevant to this conversation, I should note that I'm not a fan of BART to SJ).

So how do you think the BART SFO experience will map into HSR? Are you just concerned that it will mirror SFO's experience: 25% over budget with only 56% of ridership projections? I think that is certainly a plausible scenario, but, again, it would still generate a handsome operating surplus at that rate. Are you truly concerned that they are actually planning a subterranean railway with totally different terminuses than currently proposed? Or is it simply that you really wish they had picked Altamont instead?

I guess another way to put it is, what is your proposed alternative system (a la the above ground BART to Millbrae only that you prefer) that would cut capital costs by $20 billion and/or double the potential ridership?

Robert Cruickshank said...

BART to SFO and HSR from SF to LA are completely different projects. Those who are convinced that BART to SFO is the model for ALL passenger rail projects in California are guilty of some of the worst cherry-picking imaginable.

cal said... guys better about Asburn...he tried today and failed
to delay that proposition..he says he will try again later this week

mike said...

Those who are convinced that BART to SFO is the model for ALL passenger rail projects in California are guilty of some of the worst cherry-picking imaginable.

I agree that it's definitely cherry-picking, which is why it's even more remarkable that BART to SFO isn't nearly as bad as the revisionists attempt to portray it. You'd think that since they're cherry-picking a bad project, they wouldn't have to resort to falsifying the data to make their point - its badness should be able to stand on its own merits! (e.g., the Big Dig)

Pat Moore said...

@robert -- did you BOTHER to actually ask anyone at the Sierra Club why they would oppose the Pacheco Pass? Or at The Nature Conservancy? Or the Audubon Society? Or any other environmental group?

Probably not. Seems like in your view anyone who is not a rah rah cheerleader of the current HSR project is just backwards and not with it.

Sorry to say that building HSR will not help with global warming. People riding the train will help. But this project will go overbudget as it is currently "designed". Going over budget means other projects cannot be built. Money is not infinite. I rather have it defeated this year if that means Morshad is gone and we can have a decent HSR that actually goes where the people are.

You actually *need* something called passengers for the train to be anything other than a ribbon cutting ceremony.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, with all this arguing,JUST MAKE A $*#&! DECISION ALREADY!!!

Robert Cruickshank said...

Pat, please explain to me how HSR is going to return anytime soon if we pass it this year. Do you really misunderstand the politics that deeply? It's taken years just to finally bring it to ballot. If you think it will return in 2010 after being shot down in 2008 you're out of your mind.

Nobody has shown that the Pacheco alignment is inherently bad - they instead argue it's not as good as Altamont. What you and the others are doing is using a small objection to try and block the larger project.

You don't seem to realize that the endless tweaking you prefer will mean the project never gets built. The best way to ensure we go over budget is to delay approval of the bonds and delay the construction.

I have to question your commitment to sustainable transportation in California. Obviously you don't realize that we don't exactly have a great deal of time to waste with these perfectionist objections. Gas prices are soaring, the airlines are in crisis, the climate is already changing - and you want us to do nothing because you didn't get the alignment you wanted.

You're almost as bad as the LA County Board of Supervisors.

Robert Cruickshank said...

That should read "please explain to me how HSR is going to return if we DON'T pass it this year..."

sexy said...