Monday, November 24, 2008

Fast Tracking Infrastructure Stimulus

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

Former LA Times reporter and author Bill Boyarsky writes in today's Times about the value of public works as economic stimulus - and the barriers to their swift completion. After mentioning the passage of Prop 1A and LA's Measure R, Boyarsky goes on to write:

The Depression projects were built in a hurry, driven by economic need. Will the new crop also be put on a fast track?...

In recent years, neighborhood organizations have fought many such projects and unrestricted development. They, along with environmental groups, have pushed politicians to adopt regulations to protect the environment. Some of their objections were valid. But over the years, great projects have been stopped or stalled.

These regulations are necessary to not just securing the public interest and environmental protection, but they also help ensure that projects get built in the best way possible. At least that's the intention. It's not the rules themselves that slow construction but the lack of bureaucratic funding to help the permit reviews get done quickly and thoroughly.

The best way to ensure this process is expedited - so that the stimulus effects of infrastructure like high speed rail arrive quickly when they're most needed - is to get up-front funding. Arnold Schwarzenegger's preference, to bypass environmental reviews for infrastructure stimulus, is neither sound nor necessary and would probably just delay projects as it makes lawsuits much more likely. But if agencies like the CHSRA were given adequate funding to finish all engineering and environmental reviews quickly, then actual construction could begin that much sooner.

Boyarsky also writes about the rise of NIMBYism. Obviously that is something which will impact the HSR project - already Atherton and Menlo Park have sued the CHSRA on essentially NIMBY grounds, even though Menlo Park voters actually supported Prop 1A. Prop 1A got a considerable margin of victory and the local rail proposals in the North Bay, Santa Clara County and LA County received over 2/3 support, all of which indicate that there is a massive amount of support in California for passenger rail infrastructure projects. That will help overcome NIMBY objections.

So will a clear explanation of the economic value and necessity of these projects. Californians want these projects built - why should a few objectors along the route hold it up indefinitely?

The stick has to be matched with a carrot, however. The CHSRA needs to start working as soon as possible with communities along the route to finalize design and hold public meetings to explain to the public what is going to happen and allow the public to provide their input. An open process that welcomes public involvement is by far the best way to ensure that public support for the project is sustained. It also has the political benefit of isolating the more stubborn NIMBYs.

Some decisions will not be easy - Menlo Park comes to mind. But the sooner a public process begins, the more likely it is that the process can proceed smoothly to completion, saving time and money. For that public process to be as effective as possible, the CHSRA is likely to need lead time and staffing support that a greater infrastructure stimulus package can provide.

Boyarsky's article also describes the social and cultural impact of infrastructure projects during the Depression:

Historian Kevin Starr, in his book, "Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California," wrote of "the power of public works ... as therapy for a battered economy -- and symbol of shared identity and purpose ... millions experienced the healing symbolism of collective action in a time of great social crisis."...

And there should be some appreciation of the historical significance, even the majesty, of the task. During the Depression, the unemployed got real jobs building the schools, bridges, libraries, dams, highways, city halls and courthouses we use today. The water that supports Southern California was delivered through the labor of workers on Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. Or, as Woody Guthrie wrote of another Depression-era dam on another river, Grand Coulee on the Columbia, "Your power is turning our darkness to dawn. So roll on, Columbia, roll on."

Guthrie was in the employ of the Bonneville Power Administration when he wrote Roll On Columbia, Roll On. Dorothea Lange was in the employ of the Farm Security Administration when she took her famous photos. The CHSRA has done something similar in 21st century media with the NC3D animations. I hope they will continue to appreciate the power of the visual image as the project unfolds.

I know we do. In early 2009 this blog will undertake a photo and video trip of Phase I of the HSR route from SF to Anaheim. The high speed rail project is going to be one of the most transformative projects this state has ever seen. We're going to ensure it gets the social and cultural profile it deserves, in addition to the political and financial support it requires.


Alex said...

I'm With Arnold! Can't the planners just use common sense? Let's get this project on the road. How on earth did we get by before all the red tape and paperwork?

Oh and for the NIMBYs? A little something called eminent domain! Complaints? Well its a national economic emergency after all.

If the Chinese can plan, build, and put into service their High Speed Rail lines, so can we darn it!

bossyman15 said...

well china have different laws than USA. China goverment may be able to just kick people off so they can build something but we can't do that.

michael in sf said...

The legal hassles are there for good reason and I don't believe we should sidestep them. However, we should avoid getting bogged down in 10 years of studies and reports and lawsuits (1/2 Oakland Bay Bridge Replacement - 1989-201?). We can be inspired by what we have done in the past (Oakland Bay Bridge, from scratch (roughly 1931-1936, although there was some planning and engineering going on prior to that, similar to what CHSR has had. Actual construction was 1933-1936).

I feel like we have an excellent plan in place and the timing is perfect for us to use CHSR for infrastructure stimulus. However, we need our elected leaders to be a little more inspirational. We need a strong leader or group of leaders to be absolutely evangelical about this. We need to break through the natural apathy and widespread cynicism in our culture and get our state working again towards a shared and prosperous future.

Bueller....? Bueller....? Come'on Arnie, Dianne, Barbara, Moonbeam, Tony, Gavin, Willie.. come'on, get in our face about this.

Rafael said...

It's actually not at all easy to invest hundreds of billions in infrastructure intelligently in a short space of time.

Legislators need to overhaul federal agencies that are set up to maintain the status quo, i.e. dependence on oil for virtually all transportation, cheap & dirty electricity etc. The present crisis was caused by consumers that thought they could rich fast by flipping homes in ever-more distant exurbs, a classic asset bubble that supply-siders and bankers eagerly facilitated. The bubble burst when the price of oil and hence, gasoline and diesel, shot up much faster and further than anyone had anticipated.

Now, county, state and federal agencies don't have enough qualified staff to execute the necessary EIR/EIS work for a slew low-carbon electricity and transportation projects and the urban redevelopment needed to make them viable. Vendors and contractors don't have enough engineers, skilled laborers an equipment to implement a huge number of projects. Construction materials suppliers worldwide are already having trouble keeping up with demand from China.

Meanwhile, everyone else will have to focus on substantially increasing the number of people with the right set of skills to implement those solutions. That means targeted scholarships/post-graduate programs for jobs that require higher education (especially engineers, project managers and project comptrollers) and, trainee programs/re-skilling efforts for jobs that require high school diplomas or vocational skill sets.

It also means creating a fast track to temporary work visas and green card status for well qualified foreigners. Canada and Australia already use points systems to size up applicants.

Ergo: it's time to face facts. Recovering from the burst housing bubble is going to take years not months. There is a need for a sustained stimulus program in the US, with a new, well-drafted bill to inject a manageable $25-50 billion into the real economy every month for a year or two, unless economic conditions warrant slowing that down.

The Kerry-Specter HSR bill still needs modification to enable an intermediate level of rail services between Amtrak and bullet trains to serve the needs of those MSAs that are too spread out (Midwest, Southeast) or too sparsely populated (Pacific Northwest) to justify the construction of many hundreds of miles of all-new electrified dual track. The US needs to leverage decades of technology development in rapid rail (passenger and freight) at regional distances, not just bullet trains technology. And it must do so while also enabling an increase the volume of slow but low-cost, energy-efficient long-distance freight rail operations.

A large fraction of the aforementioned bills should therefore focus on infrastructure upgrades that structurally reduce demand for oil. However, it's important to avoid creating yet another asset bubble. Other industries, including manufacturing, health care, education and social services all need to be beefed up as well because at some point, investments in infrastructure will have to be ramped down again.

Meanwhile, banks should get back to basics and competing for plain old deposits and quality borrowers. It's ok if they are stingy with making new loans for a while, US consumers in particular need to learn to live within their means and not take on too much personal debt. Eventually, tax rates will need to rise to pay off all this additional collective debt. In short, like it or not, the US will have to become a little more like Canada and other industrial nations.

There is one silver lining in all this: people generally recognize that the situation is now so bad that radical changes are warranted to avert complete disaster. Rapid, radical change is scary and there will be expensive mistakes. But this is no time to dither, the US just needs to go for broke in a massive, complex effort with three fundamental goals:

- creating a fairer society with an adequate safety net for everyone, especially wrt health care and retirement.

- creating a substantially greener US economy that generates 50-100% more GDP per unit of fossil fuel consumed, i.e. finally matches the levels that Europe and Japan are already at today. If that means higher taxes on energy and lower ones on general sales, so be it. Let consumers earn net reductions in their aggregate tax burden by making socially desirable changes in their behavior enabled by willpower, technological advances and improved infrastructure.

- creating international institutions and arrangements that reward not only free trade but also democratic governance and the rule of international law.

Specifically, the US will soon have to not only end its two foreign wars but also sharply reduce the regular Pentagon budget, simply because it urgently needs the money to shore up and then transform the civilian side of its economy.

Alex said...

Bossyman15 said: China goverment may be able to just kick people off so they can build something but we can't do that.

Om Yes we can, we just don't use the power for political reasons. A case went to the supreme court a while ago (1 year?) that reaffirmed that right.

A town on the east coast some place used Eminent Domain to take homeowners land in order to build condos. yes Condos of all things! Not even a great project in the national interest, but just to make a quick buck. The case went all the way, and the town won.

Alex said...

Ah, I found the case. It was in 2005. Read about it here:

Basically, with enough political will, the government can take what land it wants.

Ben said...

I am not sure we want to emulate china in our building projects.

Their quick development and lack of extensive planning lead them to construct a highway tunnel through an aquifer; they constructed a cruise ship terminal, finished it, and realized that the bridge down the river is too short to accommodate all but the shortest cruise ships.

These are the examples that come to mind, speed is great, but as they say slow and steady wins the race.

Spokker said...

I don't necessarily care about speed, I just want the projects to be properly funded.

Nobody expects HSR to be done next week, which is why articles and comments that claim the thing won't open for at least a decade puzzle me. Yes, we know. How is that a bad thing?

Rafael said...

@ Alex -

CHSRA has already done a lot of this prep work, not just for the starter line but also the spurs to Sacramento and San Diego as well as the overlay through Altamont Pass.

If the President and Congress decides that California's HSR network is the right type of infrastructure to help bring about a structural reduction in demand for (foreign) oil, then perhaps construction of the spurs to Sacramento and San Diego can be brought forward.


As for the Altamont overlay (currently not even phase 3), the upcoming construction of broad gauge BART tracks along the WPML throws a large spanner in the works between Fremont Irvington and at least hwy 262.

Technically, there is just enough land between the WPML and the SPML is still in active use for freight to lay down two additional tracks. Perhaps UPRR would be willing to sell the state that narrow strip.

The HSR overlay would use the median of hwy 262 to reach that of I-880. It would proceed past the airport before cutting over to the Caltrain ROW to reach SJ Diridon as planned. That means those medians have to be reserved for future use, in spite of heavy congestion on that freeway. A valuable turnoff north to SF should be feasible as well, but trains taking it would bypass SJ Diridon.

CHSRA also studied the possibility of an alignment along Trimble Rd. and past the SJC terminals but rejected it for the purposes of HSR.

Anonymous said...

What on earth is the Governator even proposing? "Every project still would have to comply with standard environmental protections, even though the advance reports would not be required, according to people familiar with the proposal who were not authorized to speak publicly." So you don't have to do the report, but you still have to comply with everything that the report would say you are complying with? Anyway, contesting a pile of lawsuits probably would take far longer than producing the reports in the first place.

Seems like one of those nice things politicians like to say for publicity points, when they know it's 100% unworkable.


Alex said...

I seem to recall reading somewhere that the federal government could declare that the situation is a national emergency and can wave environmental and other red tape.

Rafael said...

@ Alex -

if you haven't already seen it, I'd strongly recommend you watch the KQED Quest episode reflecting on last 40 years of environmental policy in the SF Bay Area.

California - indeed, the US - may no longer have the luxury of bending over backward to avoid harming the habitat of every single lesser spotted grasshopper, but that doesn't mean it is wise to throw caution entirely to the wind. Mistakes made in urban planning and infrastructure development are built to last. Measure twice and cut once is still an appropriate maxim.

That doesn't mean the process cannot be speeded up. For example: as part of its planning effort, CHSRA was legally obliged to hold and post-process numerous physical public hearings. They do have a web site but it always takes them half an ice age before they publish their own documents on it, e.g. the revised business plan. They did produce swank videos articulating glimpses of what HSR in California would look like, which was very helpful in winning voter support in principle.

However, we're now moving into the project EIR/EIS phase, which would normally take another 2-3 years before ground is actually broken. That time now has to be compressed into about one year if HSR is supposed to act as a near-term economic stimulus.

Above all, that means discussion regarding exactly how the alignment will be implemented in any given location will need to be accelerated. Indeed, dozens, perhaps hundreds of these local details will need to be resolved in parallel. A big part of that is actively seeking out nearby residents articulating the alternatives being considered, the pros and cons including cost and, the accelerated decision-making process before asking for feedback.

That means preparing and mailing hardcopy flyers specifically for that particular mile or so of track, with a dedicated web microsite that pulls together relevant multimedia reference materials that cannot be printed and provides a moderated discussion forum to quickly provide additional authoritative information on request and gather relevant feedback.

In addition, it would make sense to follow up on the mailer with notices in local papers plus local radio and TV PSAs, because the relevant decisions for that stretch of track will have to be made within a very short timeframe, e.g. one month. People need to be told in no uncertain terms that they need to get involved during that period, because subsequent changes would cost extra money that simply isn't available. This urgency is required even though it might well be a year or more before actual construction begins in their neighborhood.

The microsites don't have to look nearly as slick as the main CHSRA web site, a plain vanilla template will do just fine. However, each does have to provide clear and highly specific information on what the proposed solution in that stretch of track will look like when it's finished, including changes to cross roads etc. Slick animations are not affordable or even appropriate in this context, the objective should be to get the basic idea across. Tools like SketchUp will be invaluable for this. This should be complemented with decent-quality videos that give insight on the visual and noise impact of similar structures already constructed in other countries. That means CHSRA will have to pay someone to trek around Europe, Japan etc. with a camcorder on a tripod and edit the results into short clips.

In addition, there should be a description of noise and traffic disruption during the construction period and, when that is expected to be. Videos of similar construction sites in other countries may help.

The nuts-and-bolts consequences of the Nov 4 decision to proceed with HSR need to be spelled out to set realistic expectations and secure rapid buy-in at the local level. In particular, citizens need to accept the democratic process and the fact that there are significant technical and fiscal constraints on the available options. The fundamental rule of thumb should be that if local communities absolutely, positively must have a fancier solution than CHSRA proposes, they must commit to funding the difference.

For example, someone in Palo Alto floated the idea of putting all four tracks underground and selling the air rights to pay for the delta. Fine, if that fair city wants to turn their local project into a more comprehensive modification, CHSRA, Caltrain and UPRR all need to articulate if that would even work for them. For example, could that occasional freight train be pulled by an electric locomotive? Would the change affect the alignment in the neighboring cities of Menlo Park and Mountain View? If so, how and who pays for that delta? Also note that there simply may not be a lot of time to execute the related local planning nor to secure additional funds from Congress or private investors.

CHSRA and the railroads should try to arrange their implementation plans to maximize the time available for such efforts, but this must not lead to significant delays of the HSR project in that segment of the route.

In return for this very pro-active approach to involving stakeholders, the state should limit legal redress for complaints filed after the decision deadline for a given stretch of track. It should also set up a temporary special court to deal very expeditiously with civil cases specifically on the HSR mega-project. Normal legal procedures such as continuances should be granted very judiciously. Cases would cover eminent domain, environmental justice (a strictly defined legal concept) and, the accelerated project-level EIR/EIS process itself.

That will be contentious, especially in California, because NIMBYs will be NIMBYs and being pro-active will attract even more of them like moths to a lightbulb. However, if you allow the legal eagles to maximize their billable hours, you end up with construction delays and modifications that will explode cost projections and large opportunity costs.

Rapid due process, both in planning and in conflict resolution, is essential to maintaining the project timeline and containing costs. The Pentagon was built in just 15 months because it was needed to run US operations during WW2. Just imagine how long that would have taken if nearby residents had been allowed to challenge every aspect of that in endless litigation.

HSR isn't a national security emergency but voters have decided after 12 years of program-level planning that it is essential. Ok, now let's get this puppy actually built. The sooner the first HSR train actually runs, the better.

Alex said...


By itself HSR isn't a national emergency, however the economy sliding into a depression is. The argument for government cutting red tape is that these and other projects are putting people back to work (rebuilding national electric grid etc).

Cal HSR is the kind of project that the folks in Washington will be looking at when they pass the $500 to $700 Billion infrastructure bill.

However, the right wing is already saying "these projects are a couple years aways from being started, so why even bother funding them".

If you say you can get the planning done in difficult areas in one year then fine. But I find it hard to believe that there is nowhere along the entire planed network that you couldn't at least start laying track a lot sooner.

If we have to wait until every crackpot has his say, we will never get started. Sight the national economic emergency, and get building! At least in the boondocks.

Similarly, don't wait for Palo Alto to figure out what it is going to do, build other sections first. And if they still haven't gotten their stuff together, site the economic emergency and figure it out for them!

Your talk of mico sites etc, to speed things up is interesting, but somehow our forefathers manages to build great things quickly without all that BS? My grandparents had a house expropriated under eminent domain to build a freeway. No years of litigation, no NIMBY rallies, no noise studies. The government just cut my grandparents a check, and ordered them to move out.

We may not have to go that far, but for god sakes, when was the last great infrastructure project we had in this country. The Big Dig maybe?
But with the delays and overruns,
HRS critics are already pointing to it a reason to kill HSR. We used to be able to do great things in this country. But long drawn out red tape, no great projects ever get done.

HSR is a great national project. Expanding the electric grid (while not as sexy) is a great national project. What will kill them is talk, talk and more talk.

Let's get a shovel in the ground (at least in the no-drama sections of track). That will at least say to the critics that it is being built, that it is coming, and to stop whining.

And BTW Palo Alto talk of tunneling has me worried. This is what happened in Boston. They kept adding stuff, making it more complicated.

I lived in Japan for a few years. Their they have their HSR Lines elevated when going through city areas. On the ground below, you don't hear much more than a sort of high pitched intermittent woosh. Noise is not really an issue.

Anonymous said...


shows a couple of good examples of what used to pass for "good judgement" before a feedback loop including the public was introduced to the public infrastructure development process.

Of course, putting everything undergound is not the answer, either.

Rubber Toe said...

Speaking of Infrastructure...

In this weeks episode of Kunstlers Blog he brings up the rebuilding of the railroad infrastructure again. This is a recurrent topic of Jim's. This time though, he specifically mentioned the California High Speed system.

The interesting thing is, that he actually argues against it from an economic viewpoint. While Jim is an ardent environmentalist, he seems to think that we don't have the time or money required to complete the project. In other words, we won't be able to complete it in time before the TSHTF.

It's sort of an interesting turnaround from the usual way of thinking about it. Usually, people who support high speed trains view it as a better and more environmentally friendly form of transport than planes or cars. We view it as a way to forestall the depletion of the very valuable oil resource. Jim's take is that things are going downhill so fast, they we won't have the resources to complete the system. In other words, things are not only getting worse, which seems to be the case, but they are getting worse so fast that the project shouldn't be started.

This may warrant a thread of it's own, as I don't ever remember seeing anyone either posing this as a reason why we shouldn't move forward, or a rebuttal to that position.

He doesn't provide a lot of details as to the nuances of his position. And Jim tends to be a low tech kind of guy as anyone who has read The Long Emergency or World Made by Hand knows. He does support nuclear power though. I would have thought he would have been behind it.


P.S. I was also just lamenting the fact that if we had only passed this 1A thing 4 years ago, when it was first pulled from the ballot, or even 2 years ago, we would actually be nearing or doing construction and could have used federal $ to get things running faster than we can now that only engineering is being done.

yeaon1A said...

I was wondering if we had passed this bond in 04 or 06 if we would have even gotten the Fed match with the Bush Adm in office.they may have tried to kill it with delays..This may have been just the right time to pass this after all!! BTW looking at the election results prop1a is still gaining votes,now over 600,000 and has been since election night!

Rafael said...

@ anon @ 10:41am -

railroads definitely have a much smaller real estate footprint than freeways, so thankfully those plans for SF were never implemented.

That said, getting across town to the GG bridge isn't ideal either. If you're coming from the south, you can at least bypass the stop-and-go traffic on 19th by taking Sunset or the Great Highway and sneaking up through the Presidio. And yes, Gough and Franklin are the fastest way to get there from downtown. Still, the lack of a fast thoroughfare has hamstrung population growth and economic development in the North Bay counties.

It would be expensive but perhaps possible to run a standard gauge electrified rail tunnel to the GG bridge, but it would be of limited use unless the alignment were continued up to the Larkspur Ferry Terminal to link up with SMART. The most obvious route would be the 101 median, but by now there's only room for a single track at best. Plus, there would be a steep gradient and a tunnel to negotiate.

A crazy alternative would be a long tube between the TTC and Marin City past emergency escape/station(!) structures at Alcatraz and Sausalito. In earthquake country, no less...

Even if such a marvel of civil engineering were possible and "surprisingly affordable", that would still leave the major headache of threading the needle through Marin. The old railroad ROW is being preserved, but only as a bike path, between Sausalito and Larkspur Ferry Terminal.

Tiburon used to be railroad town just like Sausalito, but those days are long gone and for all intents and purposes, so are all of the railroad ROWs in southern Marin county. Train ferries are still in use on the Hamburg-Kopenhagen route but that's only until the Fehmarn Belt bridge is completed.

With no rail ferry terminal planned in SF to connect to the TTC, that would leave a really long tube past Angel Island and the Tiburon peninsula to Corte Madera as the only theoretical option to get direct train service between Santa Rosa and downtown SF.

In engineering terms, a far more realistic approach would be to run standard gauge tracks across the Richmond-San Rafael bridge. Note that Caltrans did briefly permit the use of emergency lanes for traffic after the Loma Prieta earthquake, but that was strictly a temporary waiver to cope with the closure of the damaged Bay Bridge.

Ergo, rail service across the Richmond-San Rafael bridge would require sacrificing at least one traffic lane, preferably two. Perhaps now that both SMART and HSR are going ahead, that might actually make sense - especially if SMART were upgraded to dual gauge at all of its stations, except those at the end points, to improve throughput and enable limited "baby bullet" service as well as slower local trains.

The bike path would have to be diverted around the enlarged stations, but that would be a small price to pay. The San Rafael station is intermodal with the bus terminal there and, there would be the whole issue of getting onto the bridge and negotiating the gradient to the upper deck. In Richmond, the alignment would have to hook left past the refinery to connect to the wye just north of the Amtrak/BART intermodal. The fastest connection to HSR would be to run some of the SMART trains that do cross the bridge all the way to SJ Diridon, provided that FRA and UPRR permit that.

Separately, the bridge might not be able to take the weight of an FRA-compliant train, but SMART is hoping to obtain a waiver to operate non-compliant DMUs, based on Caltrain's computer simulations of grade crossing accidents (see appendix C).

However, NWP wants to run massive freight trains carrying ore once the old ROW between Novato and American Canyon is restored. The city of Novato has filed a lawsuit against the North Coast Rail Agency for neglecting to mention that these would run at night to avoid conflicts with SMART operations and road traffic. Daytime freight operations would be feasible with dual tracks at every station.

FRA might well have a cow about running mixed traffic in any part of the much busier Capitol Corridor, unless that Caltrain study plus installation of positive train control (PTC) features mandated by HR 2095 (signed into law on Oct 16) prompts the agency to revise its draconian rules on mixed traffic.

Of course, it would also be possible to run BART to San Rafael, but that would preclude "baby bullet" service from Richmond down to San Jose. Also, getting from BART Embarcadero to the TTC will involve a bit of a walk - doable but suboptimal if you're traveling with toddlers and/or gear.

Alex said...

I am reading a book by Kunstler now (home from nowhere), and I enjoy listening to his podcast. However he does tend to go off into somewhat crazy hyperbole.

The fact is that while the National debt is north of $10 trillion, as a percentage of GDP it is still at %75 or so. We still have room to maneuver. Coming out of WW2 and the depression the US and the UK had national debt ratios north of %200.

Japan is approaching %200 now, and is still going strong.

Also, somewhat strangely, the harsh economic times and the "flight to quality" and lower prime rate means that the US can borrow money at much lower interest rates than usual.

The Japanese government has been borrowing money at rates almost zero for years!

Plus it isn't like we are on the Gold Standard any more, if we have to we can just print the money (carefully, not banana republic style). We may even have to do this if we start heading too far down the deflation hole.

Eric said...


You can forget your idea of running a tunnel north under the bay to connect with SMART. The route had been studied before and is the reason BART didn't finish the planned system layed out in the 70's. Current. The current going in and out of the bay is too great. The option, which is still open is a tube across the Richardson bay and connecting near 37.

Rubber Toe said...

The current would only be a problem if they laid the tunnel on the bottom of the bay like they did with BART. What if you dug a tunnel under the bottom of the bay itself?

It only looks to be about 5 miles as the crow flies from SF to Sausalito. If you ever wanted to run the HSR up to Santa Rosa, wouldn't you at some point have to do something like that?

I know that some of the tunnels being built in Europe dwarf that, though there are no Earthquake issues there.

Rafael, what would that tunnel cost? Since we are thinking big picture, and this obviously wouldn't be done as part of the first phase in any case...

Come to think of it, has the authority or anyone else even sketched out what the future extensions would be? I know Sacramento is there, and we have discussed Vegas too. But has anyone gone beyond that and looked at the population densities to see where future extensions after that might make sense? After all, in Europe, once they had the initial system built, it's all about expanding it and connecting it with other systems.


Ben said...

Tunnelling under greatly depends on the geology, you usually need bedrock to bore a tunnel underneath a body of water. I am not sure of the geology under the bay, but it wouldn't surprise me that they would need to bore deep enough to make the entire project prohibitively expensive.

Andrew said...

@Rafael: "Also, getting from BART Embarcadero to the TTC will involve a bit of a walk - doable but suboptimal if you're traveling with toddlers and/or gear."

I envision airport-style moving walkways for the pedestrian passage between TBT and Embarcadero Muni/BART.

Rafael said...

@ RubberToe, Alex -

Kunstler's argument is that printing lots of money trades off a total collapse of the banking sector in the short term against substantially higher inflation and a much weaker dollar a few years from now. That would drive up the price of oil for the US but less so for other nations, in terms of their own currencies.

However, China cannot afford to let their exported goods become unaffordable for US consumers, so it more or less has to keep buying oodles of US Treasuries no matter what in spite of the abysmal yield. Even so, the dollar has been falling against the yuan for years. If the Chinese allowed their currency to float freely, it would appreciate even more virtually overnight. Japan, Taiwan, Korea and other nations whose economies are highly dependent on exporting goods to the US are also still buying lots of US Treasury bonds.

The only reason US has been able to live beyond its means for so long is that oil is traded in US dollars. OPEC nations are therefore in much the same boat as the Chinese - they can't afford to let the dollar sink too far. The US consumes about 25% of the world's oil production, almost twice as much per unit of GDP as Europe and Japan. Oil is a fungible commodity, so world market prices are a factor of aggregate global demand.

IMHO, Kunstler's assertion that the US will soon be unable to pay for all the oil it consumes is something of a red herring. It can get away with printing its way out trouble because the rest of the world is still very much co-dependent on profligate US energy consumption. In essence, the US exports some of its inflation because it doesn't have to pay high yields on its T-notes.

With the Cold War over and consumers in Europe and Asia now increasingly important to the world economy, this shell game won't work much longer. It would be over already if European banks hadn't been stupid enough to buy about half of all of those opaque US mortgage securities the ratings agencies labeled prime even though the underlying assets were actually often subprime.

But while the shell game does still work, massive public investment to both avert a depression and reduce structural demand for oil by the US transportation sector is an excellent idea.


The lion's share of that will come through permanent destruction of demand for oil. That means creating consumer demand for smaller, lighter cars with conventional but more efficient drivetrains.

Politicians love to raise CAFE standards and hand out tax credits in the hope those will make a big difference. The inconvenient truth is that the required permanent shift in the types of vehicles US consumers and businesses actually want to buy will only happen if they are told that fuel taxes will be ramped up by an extra penny each month over the next eight years or so. Someone has to pay for fixing roads and bridges and new passenger rail infrastructure plus operations subsidies (except true HSR) that reduce congestion on those roads and bridges. Not to mention the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Pentagon's stupendous core budget.

Urban planning of dense, transit-oriented neighborhoods will allow people to find affordable housing closer to where they work and avoid having to drive there in their own car altogether. Telecommuting from home or trains will also become more important if driving becomes expensive enough.

Additional demand destruction could come from enabling European-style rapid rail freight within the dozen or so North American megaregions, some of which are close to merging. For example, parcel services could run light cargo trains on HSR track between distribution centers on sidings at the edge of the towns served and at secondary airports such as Palmdale that are close to the trunk line and can operate through the night.

Auto parts would have to be transported on regular tracks instead, but the just-in-time delivery logistics of that industry mean suppliers need to be located within around 50 miles of assembly plants to ensure their trucks arrive punctually without excessive slack in their schedule.

Currently, US freight rail is narrowly focused only on low-cost, long-distance operations based on very heavy trains. With public-private investments in dual tracking, bypass tracks at stations, track shortcuts, modern signaling/PTC, proper maintenance, high minimum speeds and timetables for mixed heavy freight/rapid freight/rapid passenger operations, the auto industry could switch to rail transport. The FRA would have to change its rules to let rapid freight and rapid passenger operators leverage decades of engineering in efficient rapid rail rolling stock (bullet trains are just for HSR). Auto parts suppliers might even want to buy freight service based on short self-propelled trains to avoid shunting delays.

Within rapid rail zones, traditional heavy freight trains would allow faster traffic to pass them by via those shortcuts. In return, passenger trains would not delay other traffic when stopped at stations.

For the heavy rail companies that own almost all of the existing US rail network, the financial incentive of rapid rail would be higher income from trackage fees or, reduced property taxes if they chose to use their existing ROWs and infrastructure in a given rapid rail zone as investment in kind in a public-private partnership.

Other industries, such perishable goods logistics, could also leverage HSR and rapid rail where available for regional distribution.


So far, I've only talked about using less oil by driving fewer miles and/or doing so in more fuel-efficient but still conventional vehicles (cars, trucks, trains, local transit). Transit usually involves some walking or cycling at either end, which doesn't use oil either and improves population health.


The all-important cherry on top will come from switching to something other than oil to power motorized vehicles or at least, further improve their fuel efficiency.

First-generation biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel are only available in limited quantity and have significant downsides. far more benign second-generation biofuels suitable for vehicles are not (yet) available in bulk.

The petrochemical industry's proven and scalable approach is to manufacture bulk gasoline and diesel substitutes made from gas, coal, waste or biomass. The downside is that the conversion processes are rather inefficient unless the waste heat is used to generate electricity.

Liquefied natural gas (LNG) at -260F is used to power the engines of the tankers that transport it across the oceans. It could be used for rail locomotives as well if crash and operations safety can be guaranteed.

Compressed natural gas (CNG) can be used in modified passenger cars, buses. It would be used for trucking if diesel were expensive enough. Biomethane can be produced in bulk from cellulosic biomass and fed into the gas distribution grid.

Compressed air can be used to power scooters and extremely light cars, especially if they are very efficient at recuperating brake energy.

Electric hybrids improve efficiency by shifting the load point on the internal combustion engine. Recuperative braking is inefficient with batteries but feasible with supercapacitors.

GM claims the Chevy Volt will take the company back to its glory days if only taxpayers will give it a bridge loan. The concept of driving a certain number of miles on grid electricity before switching to a gasoline-powered backup generator was first demonstrated in the Lohner Porsche in 1900, but today's Li-ion batteries offer (the promise) of grid electricity range (~40 miles) that's actually somewhat useful.

Expect the Chevy Volt to be priced at a premium of $10-15k over a comparable car with a conventional drivetrain. Already, GM has asked for hefty tax credits to reward early adopters. It could work if gasoline were expensive, but it isn't right now and won't be again until the recession is over.

A safer bet is electric rail, because it is still the only proven, affordable technology that can move significant numbers of passengers and freight over long distances on just about any fuel you happen to have. You get efficient recuperative braking at no extra cost, with no need for batteries. CHSRA has decided it will run its bullet trains on renewable electricity to boost demand for that.

Important fringe benefits of rail electrification include higher top speed and acceleration, reduced brake wear, zero tailpipe emissions and the ability to operate in long tunnels.


Of course, transportation isn't the only sector that can contribute to permanent destruction of demand for oil. Industrial processes, commercial aviation, plastic packaging all come to mind. Heating oil is similar to diesel and still widely used in older homes up and down the East Coast. It can be replaced with natural gas, propane or wood pellets if the furnace and fuel supply is swapped out.

Rafael said...

@ anon @ 10:41am, RubberToe, Ben, Andrew -

a dedicated passenger rail line from Novato via the 37 median and Mare Island might be feasible, but a massive detour for Marin/Sonoma county commuters headed to SF or SJ. Plus, I doubt it would be cheaper than a new rail bridge between the western tip of Richmond and San Rafael, via the tiny islands in-between.

Diesel freight trains couldn't use a tube under Richardson Bay, but they could share a new bridge with passenger traffic.

Right now, it's a moot point. As long as it's single track, the SMART corridor will not have enough capacity to justify anything other than rebuilding the old single-track between Novato and American Junction. That will enable some passenger trains to Sonoma, Napa and Vallejo within the North Bay and across to Sacramento, the Central Valley and (perhaps) North Concord. Gradual double-tracking could would be the next stage of expansion.

Passenger rail across the existing Richmond-San Rafael bridge would cost traffic lanes but increase its rush hour capacity and relieve rush hour congestion on I-80 between Albany and the Bay Bridge turnoff. If combined with reliable broadband internet access on SMART trains, it would make railroad towns from San Rafael to Santa Rosa much more attractive places to live and set up business in.

Sonoma county will almost certainly want to restore the spur up to Sonoma town once the freight corridor across to American Canyon is restored. Trains from Sonoma town would run both up to Cloverdale and down to Larkspur. With standard gauge rails between San Rafael and Richmond, they could run all the way down to San Jose instead.

Btw: the lower deck of the Bay Bridge was originally used for passenger rail service to the Transbay Terminal. Only later was that deck turned over to cars and trucks and, buses used instead of trains for transit. Wouldn't be richly ironic if SF went back to the future and demanded that two lanes on the Bay Bridge be sacrificed to enable service based on lightweight trains to the upper levels of the new TTC? Then continue in the same vein all the way to Brisbane to reach the Caltrain ROW.

Hey, presto! No DTX tunnel and bullet train service to both the TTC and Emeryville. Later, that could be extended down to Oakland Airport, with a transfer station to BART at Coliseum. Now we're talking people mover!

In the other direction, it might be possible to reach Point Richmond and switch to a tube across to Mare Island and up across Dutchman Slough to American Canyon and on to Sacramento, replacing Amtrak Capital Corridor service. A spur down the 37 median to Novato and up to Santa Rosa would be fairly cheap, it's flat and mostly farmland.

Anonymous said...

Rafael - good stuff. You should refocus your energy towards a book or something. You sure have enough facts on hand...

Anonymous said...

As far as getting technology people, over the last few years, smart technically trained Americans have been laid off left and right. They end up unable to wait for 4-6 months to try to land a new tech position and get a job at Starbucks for the health insurance, and then they're unemployable because they're not currently working in the industry. A lot of HR people don't get technology, and they prefer to poach someone else's workers.

If there's a need for tech workers, advertise it and whatever training is needed or offered - there are a lot more of them out there than most people realize. We may want to import some specialists, but we have a pretty decent reservoir of people who would be ready to go with just a little targeted training.


Alon Levy said...

Come to think of it, has the authority or anyone else even sketched out what the future extensions would be? I know Sacramento is there, and we have discussed Vegas too

I would propose SF-Sacramento-Reno, and LA-Phoenix.