Monday, October 20, 2008

Finally, Some Real Experts

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

Michael Cabanatuan's article on Prop 1A in today's San Francisco Chronicle is one of the best articles I've seen from the media on high speed rail - partly because he doesn't just play the "he said, she said" game where someone from the oil company funded Reason Foundation spouts off a bunch of numbers and then someone from the authority responds. Cabanatuan, almost alone among California journalists, actually interviewed longtime HSR experts - people who have spent their careers in the field and who know what they're talking about:

California's system would be the first in the United States. But high-speed rail has been running in Europe and Asia for three to four decades.

"It's a proven business model in many parts of the world. Most of the high-speed rail in Europe is 25 years old," said Roelof Van Ark, senior vice president for North America for Alstom, a French firm that develops and builds high-speed rail trains and systems.

Japanese companies and Alstom are both interested in possibly investing in the California system, [Noriyuki] Shikata [of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs] and Van Ark said. And both are convinced that high-speed rail can fly in California - if voters approve it at the polls.

"The world is booming in high-speed rail," Van Ark said, citing new lines around the world and expanding networks in Europe and Asia. "The model has proven to be successful. It's only a matter of time before it comes to North America. But you've got to start somewhere."

Alstom understands how high speed rail works, and would not be interested in a California high speed rail project if they did not believe it to be financially and practically viable. They also know that California has optimal conditions for high speed rail to be as successful here as in Japan and Europe:

Van Ark and Shikata agree, saying a line connecting the heavily populated Bay Area and Southern California, and running through the flat, more sparsely developed San Joaquin Valley, is ideal.

"That stretch between San Francisco and Los Angeles is such an optimum stretch," said Van Ark. "You want a long stretch where you can actually use the maximum speed of the train."

Cabanatuan's article also points out the importance of having high density around the HSR stations. The Reason Foundation is again quoted as saying California doesn't have the population density period to support HSR but we have disproved that argument before, showing that California and Spain are very similar on that point. Van Ark pointed out that HSR actually spurs urban density as the land around a station becomes more valuable.

The Central Valley will be key to this, as cities along the line will have to shift their land use policies to favor infill density development. It's always been my argument that this is going to happen anyway given the factors that make sprawl less economically viable or practical. SB 375, recently signed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, provides a powerful weapon to make that happen, tying land use law to global warming reduction targets and favoring urban density.

In any event, it's refreshing to see a California journalist write an HSR article that actually informs the reader and provides a thoughtful discussion of the issue, rather than acting as a proxy for the Reason Foundation's anti-transit diatribes. Kudos to Michael Cabanatuan for this article.


Rafael said...

For me, the value of Mr. Cabanatuan's article lies in his articulation of the cultural and demographic dimensions of HSR: for the service to be successful, Californians will have to change their transportation habits and, their attitudes toward urban planning.

Lots of people are pretty set in their ways and views. They generally don't like having them challenged or changing them for any reason. They will point to the recent and rapid decline in the price of oil and argue that there is no need to change, that roads and airports are good enough.

The trouble is that the price of oil will go back up again as soon as the world economy recovers from the present financial meltdown. At that point, cars and planes become a burden on household budgets, triggering mortgage defaults etc. that end up hurting literally everyone on the planet. Most subprime loans were granted in Florida, Nevada and California. "More of the same" isn't an acceptable strategy.

Moreover, California's population is expected to grow by as many as 5 million between now and 2030. Ideally, a disproportionate fraction of these new migrants would settle in the Central Valley (esp. between Sacramento and Merced), because that's where the water and electricity are - and the seismically active faults aren't.

Making that possible would require more than just HSR and transit-oriented development in the CV. It would require cities and counties in both the Bay Area and SoCal to think of the CV not as flyover country but as a demographic relief valve. That doesn't mean turning CV cities into bedroom communities - it means transferring back office operations like call and data centers to the CV instead of to Colorado or India. That isn't happening today because the people who know how to run those don't want to live in today's CV cities.

USGS recently warned that there is a 65% chance of a magnitude 6.5 or greater earthquake hitting the Bay Area in the next 30 years. The Hayward fault is due. Much the same applies to faults in SoCal.

Now that the Delta levees are getting fixed, it would be prudent to diversify the CV's economy well beyond agriculture. You don't want a single quake knocking out half of your economy for any length of time.

Stephen said...

It seems that Californians still need to be educated about the benefits of HSR. I read several pages of comments from the article and a substantial number of them show that many are anti-HSR skeptics. Most of them are narrow-minded thinkers, only thinking about one issue at a time.

It's apparent that there is still a lot of work that needs to be done! Tell all your friends and family about the benefits of HSR. Tell them to tell their friends, and so on. There's no stopping until Prop 1A passes on November 4, 2008!

Spokker said...

Hey Cruickshank, what's with my comments never getting on the California Progress Report site? Is it just "Jay Gould's" personal Prop 1A bitchfest or something? I'm not cursing in them or anything.



Anonymous said...

Hey Spokker:

The Progress report is only for the anointed few.

Anonymous said...

And BTW, Spokker, the anointed few are not trolls.

yes on 1a said...

Many of the anti-rail coments are from out of state or mcain types..on the sfgate you can click on the poster and see all of the coments they have ever posted..and they all have the same old necon thinking in all there posts

Rob Dawg said...

yes on 1a said...
Many of the anti-rail coments are from out of state or mcain types..on the sfgate you can click on the poster and see all of the coments they have ever posted..and they all have the same old necon thinking in all there posts

You forgot Rush Limbaugh. This is the lamest of guilt by association attacks.

There are problems with 1a. There are problems with CAHSR as proposed. There are even problems with HSR in general. THey all have legitimate basis AND the responses all have legitimate replies. Even Robert will admit 1a is not perfect. It is hardly an argument that perfect is the enemy of good enough. Civil minds can however agree or disagree whether 1a is good enough.

The idea of a function public transportation mechanism twixt SF and LA is an absolute necessity and the sooner the better. Is CAHSR 1a that mechanism? I think not but I don't need to resort to character assassination to make those points.

Spokker said...

"And BTW, Spokker, the anointed few are not trolls."

Speculating about the fate of the Surfliner, San Joaquins and Metrolink is trolling? Fair enough!

Anonymous said...

Ticket too costly for this train ride

Article Launched: 10/19/2008 05:57:59 PM PDT

As with all the state propositions that cost money but provide no funding, we're voting no on Proposition 1A.

That's the measure that would borrow $10 billion and spend it on promoting, not building, a high-speed train system. This is a colossal ripoff with no promises of any results except that the money would get spent.

Worse, it would get spent with no oversight, and participation on the campaign's "finance committee" by nobody other than politicians and bureaucrats. Supporters brag that the $10 billion would not require a tax increase, but what they don't say is the obvious, which is that the money, $20 billion including interest, would come straight from the state's deficit-ridden general fund.

If the project ever actually got built, supporters say the cost would be $40 billion, but skeptics say it would be more like $100 billion. The expectation (which seems more like a fantasy) is that the rest of the money would come from the federal government and the private sector, neither of which is standing in line with checkbook in hand.

High-speed trains are wonderful assets in Europe and Asia, where they whisk travelers to their destinations at speeds of 180 miles an hour or faster without the misery of airport security lines. It's a concept that works well between Washington and New York, or between Paris and the chateau country. But those aren't 400-mile trips. The ideal travel distance for a high-speed train is a couple of hundred miles or less, or, as in Tokyo, less than 50 miles or so from an airport to an urban center. Trying to connect San Diego, Orange County, Los Angeles, Fresno, San Jose, Sacramento and San Francisco is a far more daunting task, and not likely to put any airlines out of business.

Worse, the promoters of this scheme are pushing bad information, such as $50 fares for a 2.5-hour trip from L.A. to San Francisco, when the more likely numbers would be $175 and 3.5 hours. They also claim a potential of 100 million passengers, when the popular Washington-New York-Boston high-speed trains get fewer than 3 million in a bigger market.

Nothing about this plan makes sense except to the promoters, many of whom would profit from it if voters were foolish enough to commit the billions of dollars.

The timing of Proposition 1A is truly awful. California already has a structural deficit as well as $135 billion worth of debt, and the federal government is struggling with a spectacular meltdown of the nation's financial system.

By those standards, $10 billion may seem a pittance. But it is a pittance to be avoided at all cost.

Spokker said...

The more I read that article the more I laugh.

"The ideal travel distance for a high-speed train is a couple of hundred miles or less, or, as in Tokyo, less than 50 miles or so from an airport to an urban center."

Oh, you mean like from Ontario to Los Angeles?

Rafael said...

"the measure [...] would borrow $10 billion and spend it on promoting, not building, a high-speed train system."

I hope the SB Sun's readers are smart enough to recognize a hit job when they see it. AB 3034 explicitly reserves 90% of the $9 billion allocated to HSR as such to its construction, with the state paying for no more than 50% of any given segment. The other 10% are reserved for federally mandated project-level EIR/S work, which also involves a fair amount of engineering.

There are in fact no funds at all in prop 1A for promoting the project to anyone other than Congress and private investors.

Tony D. said...

I always find it ammusing, down right comical, when these spineless anon's quote small-time opinions against Prop. 1A/high-speed rail which, as Rafael alluded to, are nothing but hit jobs spewing downright nonsense. Keep it coming fella's! The voters of CA are smarter than you think (at least most of us are). Yes to Prop. 1A!

juan carlos said...

San Bernadino Sun!? Really! Avg Daily circulation about 71K. Why not cite the Watsonville Register-Pajaronian if we are talking about newspapers more widly used as kitty litter than read.

Robert Cruickshank said...

spokker, I too have that problem sometimes at the California Progress Report. I am going to be taking it over in November or December, so that'll be one of my top priorities.

political-i said...

Let me see an operating cost figure and then you can tell what ridership you need to break even, if the operating cost is 1 billion dollars, then in order to get enough money, 18.5 million would have to travel between San Francisco-LA or Burbank (since fares are slated to be at $55 dollars) Based off of current flight boardings, 157 go in between the San Francisco Bay Area and the LA area on a regular weekday. If a connection is provided to Oakland from the High Speed Rail in San Jose, that might convince higher ridership. Mostly 737s fly in between the two cities and is considered one of the busiest air corridors in the world. If cars have the same statistics for travel in between the two areas or a little less, you got 2/3rds of your riders you need to break even right there. It makes sense to do this project and HSR has proven itself in Spain and Taiwan.