Friday, May 30, 2008

The Growing Concern over AB 3034

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Fresno Bee Calls on Republicans to Back High Speed Rail

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

The Fresno Bee has emerged as one of the state's leading media voices in support of the high speed rail project - and rightly so, since it will transform Fresno for the better. Today they wrote an editorial calling on Assembly Minority Leader Mike Villines to support AB 3034 and high speed rail. Villines' support is key because AB 3034 requires a 2/3 vote, and since Democrats do not have 2/3 in either chamber, Republicans like Villines will need to vote for AB 3034 if the HSR bond on the November ballot is to be amended. Here's the key part of the Bee's editorial:

But the GOP caucuses in both the Assembly and state Senate have been curiously indifferent to the high-speed rail proposal -- if not downright antagonistic. That's troubling.

AB 3034 would rewrite the $9.95 billion November bond measure to make it more politically palatable to various factions, including the governor, Southern California voters and environmentalists. All are essential to the bond's passage.

High-speed rail would bring vast benefits to the state, but no region would be better served by the system than the Valley.

The Bee goes on to mention jobs, replacing high-cost car and airline trips, economic revitalization efforts in the Valley, and making it easier for Valley residents to travel to the rest of the state as the key reasons for backing HSR. And they rightly call out Republican "indifference" and "antagonism" to HSR.

Once upon a time not so long ago, Republicans were the party of economic growth. They promoted government efforts to help grow California business, to help the state meet its various challenges. Over the last two decades, however, the party has become a vehicle for rabidly anti-tax, anti-government folks who delude themselves into thinking that the 20th century can last forever, that California can thrive without innovating or evolving. As high fuel costs begin to cripple the state's economy, HSR and the jobs and affordable transportation it will provide become essential to California's 21st century economic fortunes. Chambers of Commerce up and down the Valley - groups that are usually solidly Republican - have lined up to endorse HSR.

AB 3034 isn't a perfect bill, and we have growing concerns about the bill's language that might compromise the core LA-SF portion of the system. While we investigate those concerns, we also believe that the concept of HSR must be supported, and unless we find anything in AB 3034 that is a poison pill, we second the Bee's call for California Republicans to join the 21st century and help build our state's future. Republicans backed the bay bridges and the massive state water project, both of which helped create the 20th century prosperity the state's been living off of until now. If that is to be renewed, HSR must be built.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The World is Passing Us By

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

There was once a time when the United States, and California in particular, were looked upon as global leaders and innovators. We had the most advanced technologies, the most efficient economy, the most modern forms of transportation. Our 20th century economic accomplishments were due in large part to that reputation, attracting investment and skilled workers from around the globe.

But if a nation wants to remain prosperous, it has to adapt to the changing times. When one country refuses to change, even when the need to do so is clear, others WILL catch up. In the 1970s this was made clear when Detroit automakers insisted on gas guzzlers instead of innovating as the Germans and Japanese were - and the result was devastating for the nation's economy.

It may also be true today, as the rest of the world begins developing high speed rail lines while we in California continue to delude ourselves into thinking the 20th century hasn't ended. A simple Google News search on any given day turns up numerous reports of global HSR projects, such as:

It's not just that this should embarrass Californians. It should also concern them. HSR is key to a 21st century economy, providing green jobs and sustainable transportation free from the vagaries of oil prices. In an era where our economy is truly global, and companies can choose to set up shop in SF and LA, or Shanghai and Beijing, or Madrid and Barcelona, or Rio and São Paulo, it won't help California's case if we have sky-high transportation costs because we still rely on oil to get around. Moreover, the cost to our businesses and workers of high fuel prices makes us even less competitive and prosperous.

HSR isn't a cheap initial investment, but $10 billion isn't going to break anyone's bank either. And considered against the cost of doing nothing, HSR is clearly the more affordable and fiscally responsible choice.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Solving "Chronic Air Troubles" with High Speed Rail

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

In today's Newsday Bruce Reed and Paul Weinstein, two Democratic policymakers, called for high speed rail as a solution to worsening problems with air travel:

While the laws of supply and demand will undoubtedly correct some of the problems the airline industry faces, the future for air travelers is not so bright. Most economists agree that airline mergers, fewer flights, and new, more fuel-efficient planes will eventually help put the industry on stronger financial ground.

Unfortunately, these very measures will also mean higher prices, less choice, and fewer amenities for passengers. In the short term, passengers have two choices: fly less or pay more for an inferior service. But if the United States is serious about fixing the air-travel mess, there's a real, long-term solution: high-speed rail.

Which is pretty much the point I've been making these last two months - air travel is in serious, long-term, fundamental trouble. If we are to be able to afford to travel around our state, HSR is a necessary solution.

Bruce Reed is the president of the Democratic Leadership Council, the right-leaning group that rose to prominence with Bill Clinton. For Reed to throw his support to high speed rail is a significant shift - the DLC is usually slow to embrace forward-thinking solutions like this, and while the DLC's influence isn't what it was, it doesn't help to have them on our side. If they can help HSR become conventional wisdom, I'll take it.

In any case, Reed and Weinstein propose a massive national investment in HSR:

Today, however, with the cost of energy skyrocketing, and our air-travel system reaching its limits, demand for rail is outpacing supply.

That's why the next president and the new Congress should commit to building five new high-speed rail corridors in the next 10 years. The corridors would be selected based on three key criteria: geography (the flatter the terrain, the faster the train); a high probability of use (densely populated corridors with significant levels of highway and airborne traffic); and a commitment by the private sector, states and localities to share in the cost of construction. Wherever possible, the high-speed rail corridors should connect to major air hubs.

This dovetails very well with what California is planning. We have the geography - aside from two mountain passes it's flat, we have the solid ridership projections, and the shared construction costs. So how do Reed and Weinstein propose paying for the federal share?

Roads and airports have direct sources of financing - namely, taxes on gasoline and ticket purchases. If high-speed rail is going to become a reality, it will need a similarly robust stream of income. That's why policymakers should establish a trust fund that would finance construction and maintenance. We could pay for this investment in a number of ways: carbon-offset purchases; a 4.3-cent diesel gas tax on the railroad industry that would raise about $200 million a year; ticket surcharges; and/or matching contributions from states served by the new rail lines.

I am less convinced by this. Reed and Weinstein are absolutely right that we "need a similarly robust stream of income" - so why did they propose something that isn't? Taxing railroad diesel?! That makes little sense. I doubt there would be much money gained, and it would probably have a damaging effect on the non-HSR rail infrastructure, most of which is still in private hands. Here Reed's DLC colors come out - as a group originally dedicated to getting Democrats to adopt Reaganesque economic policy, they still can't bring themselves to say the words "consumer gas tax" or "carbon tax" or anything truly robust. HSR isn't a Reaganesque policy, it's very much the opposite - so you can't finance it with 1980s-style solutions.

Still, I give them credit for moving the discussion from the "should we or shouldn't we?" phase - we answered that question already and clearly in the affirmative - to the "how do we pay for it?" phase. That's a FAR more productive place for the discussion to be and while I question their specific proposals, at least they suggested an idea. Much more than can be said for the HSR critics, whose suggestions amount to "well just keep driving, we'll figure something out."

Monday, May 26, 2008

Spain's High Speed Rail Pressures Airlines

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

(Flickr image of Madrid Atocha station by luisffranco)

Earlier this year RENFE, the government-owned Spanish national railway operator, opened the final leg of the Madrid-Barcelona AVE high speed rail route, on the heels of the Málaga extension. And Spain is on track to have several new lines, including a link to Santander and Bilbao, open by 2010 - the "world's largest" high speed rail network, or so the Spanish government boasts.

Already the new lines are having an impact: Spanish airlines are reducing capacity on the routes HSR serves as the AVE system grabs a great share of the market share on those corridors. And major airlines, such as Iberia, are planning to refocus their service away from domestic corridors and toward their long-haul routes, especially to Latin America. Iberia's CEO explains the situation:

Iberia chairman Fernando Conte, who has called the competition posed by bullet trains "tremendous," said the carrier would push ahead with plans to reduce its capacity on domestic flights by 15 percent during the rest of 2008....

Other carriers are also struggling to compete with the fast-speed trains.

Spanair, the second-biggest Spanish airline, has reduced the number of its flights between Madrid and Malaga while loss-making low-cost airline Vueling canceled its summer connection between the two cities.

The situation in Spain is analogous to California. The Madrid-Barcelona route was one of the world's busiest air shuttle routes, as is LA-SF. Spain has a high level of automobile ownership that are frequently used by commuters. Until the AVE was begun in 1992, few expected that Spain, which was reliant on cars and airplanes for travel, would ever take to high speed rail - but it has clearly done so.

Spain's success with high speed rail can be matched here in the US. Already the Acela has 40% of the market share on the Northeast Corridor despite not actually being a true HSR system. And like Spain, America's airlines are beginning to shift their focus away from domestic routes, as United Airlines recently demonstrated. Some point to Southwest as proof that air travel will remain cheap and viable - but the architect of their success, Herb Kelleher, isn't so sure:

Herb Kelleher, the iconic co-founder of Southwest Airlines who stepped down as chairman Wednesday, said flying could become something that only business travelers or the affluent can afford, much as it was in the 1950s and '60s.

"You may see a lot less air service across the United States, and that's really a shame," Kelleher said. "We are heading back in that direction."

Fuel prices aren't coming back down anytime soon, and without cheap oil, air travel will not be a viable method for folks to get around our state.

Whereas HSR not only provides stable, affordable fares - since it's not as dependent on oil - but it's also simply a better way to travel. From Spain again:

The high-speed AVE trains, which are fitted with video and music players and chairs that can swivel in the direction of travel, can make the 660-kilometre trip between Madrid and Barcelona in about two and a half hours.

Passengers say bullet trains have more roomier and comfortable seats than planes, faster check-in times and have the advantage of arriving and departing from downtown cores.

Business travellers also like the availability of mobile services and electrical outlets in their seats that allow them to work along the way.

"There is no question that high-speed rail attracts passengers who would otherwise fly," said Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst at Forrester Research, a San Francisco-based consultancy. "Taking the train is easier."

The fact is that transportation is changing. The markets are changing, the underlying energy and environmental factors are changing, and public preferences are changing. Combine that with the high cost of NOT building HSR and the case for California high speed rail seems clear.

Update: Atrios agrees.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Memorial Day Weekend Open Thread

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

We're going to take a few days off here at the HSR blog; new posts will begin again on Monday, May 26. In the meantime millions of Californians will be confronting their first holiday weekend with $4 gas ($5 for diesel vehicles):

I took that photo yesterday afternoon here in Monterey, and most stations in town are showing similar prices. High gas prices are hurting tourism around the state, as Californians decide to save money and stay home this weekend:

Gas used to be a relatively minor cost of a road trip, at least on drives to the Sierra, Southern California or even Arizona or the Pacific Northwest. But now, it's real money - a big chunk of the budget of a vacation or weekend getaway.

Some travelers are calling off their plans altogether. [Rebecca] Renfro had planned for about a year to splurge and spend a few days in a lodge near Yosemite National Park in June to celebrate her 38th birthday - until gas surpassed $4 per gallon.

"After sitting down and calculating what it would cost in gas plus the lodge prices, I realized I couldn't afford it," she said. "It looked like it would cost at least $100 in gas.

"I'm really disappointed. I haven't been to Yosemite since I was a little girl."

As gas prices head higher over the next ten years, stories like this will become commonplace, and a state that depends heavily on tourism is going to have to find another way to get folks around the state - especially with the worsening airline crisis.

What better way than high speed rail? Instead of paying high fuel costs for the car or the plane trip, Californians will be able to afford to take HSR to or near to their destination, saving not only money, but time. This becomes especially valuable at the winter holidays - I once spent nine hours on I-5 driving back to Berkeley from Orange County after Thanksgiving - as families are able to quickly and cheaply take a train to visit grandma and grandpa down in SoCal, or take a summer weekend in Napa Valley (HSR won't get you all the way there, but it cuts down the overall cost and time spent on the journey).

Although it'll be several years until HSR exists to serve California's travel needs, you can take a (virtual) journey on the system right now:

Feel free to use this as an HSR Open Thread, and have a great holiday weekend.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Declining Oil Supplies and HSR

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

This is something of an addendum to yesterday's Ridership post, where I argued that fuel costs would be rising for some time to come, ensuring that HSR will have a high ridership, more than likely enough to "cover its costs" and generate a profit as is the case with the globe's other HSR lines. The International Energy Agency has revised its estimates of long-term oil supply dramatically downward:

For several years, the IEA has predicted that supplies of crude and other liquid fuels will arc gently upward to keep pace with rising demand, topping 116 million barrels a day by 2030, up from around 87 million barrels a day currently. Now, the agency is worried that aging oil fields and diminished investment mean that companies could struggle to surpass 100 million barrels a day over the next two decades.

The decision to rigorously survey supply -- instead of just demand, as in the past -- reflects an increasing fear within the agency and elsewhere that oil-producing regions aren't on track to meet future needs....

...But the IEA's pessimism over future supplies has been building for some time. Last summer, the agency warned that OPEC's spare capacity could shrink "to minimal levels by 2012." In November, it said its analysis of projects known to be in the works suggested that the world could face a shortfall by 2015 of as much as 12.5 million barrels a day, unless there was a sharp drop in expected demand.

Peak oil doesn't mean supplies will vanish overnight. But it does explain why oil is now above $135/bbl and rising fast. It explains that we have two futures - a future where we either reduce demand by providing alternatives like high speed rail, or where we don't build high speed rail and demand is reduced anyway as folks cannot afford the pay the sky-high fuel costs. Diesel is now over $5 here in Monterey - is $8 unleaded so far off?

It also is causing immediate crisis for the airlines. While the public freaks out about American Airlines' $15 checked bag fee, Merrill Lynch has more fundamental concerns:

"Frankly, we do not believe that the US airline industry can withstand $100+/barrel oil prices (see chart: NYMEX sweet crude oil) without major structural change," analysts at Merrill Lynch Airline Research said.

"Fuel is the highest single expense for Delta and Northwest, significantly eroding the financial benefits of restructuring and placing the airlines' new-found strength and stability at long-term risk," Delta Airlines said in a press release on the announcement of its intended merger with Northwest Airlines.

If oil supplies cannot increase to meet the demand, the price of fuel will rise and demand will have to come down. HSR deniers want to avoid this discussion like the plague, because it shows that if California is to remain competitive in the 21st century, it has no choice but to build high speed rail.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


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

I have to confess that the arguments over the CHSRA's ridership projections have seemed somewhat pointless to me. Are there really people out there who think folks won't flock to a high speed train?

Amtrak California routes like the Capitol Corridor are seeing record ridership - ridership between Berkeley and San José is up a whopping 75% on that route, and 17% from Emeryville to Sacramento. This is being repeated across the country - 20% in North Carolina, 19% between St. Louis and Chicago, 8% on the Amtrak Cascades.

High gas prices are driving this - and as more and more Americans are coming to realize, high gas prices are a way of life. We might see a retreat under $4 later this year, but it's unlikely we'll see under $3 for any sustained period of time - and we might instead be headed MUCH higher. Arjun Murti, who tracks oil markets for Goldman Sachs, predicts $200/bbl oil this year - and his past predictions have proved accurate:

From here, there are only two options, and both of them suggest a need for HSR. Either the price of oil continues to rise - 8 years ago Californians were fretting about $2 gas; where will we be in another 8 years? - or the price will collapse. But the only way the price will collapse is if there is demand destruction - meaning people will be driving less. The long-term rise in prices is being driven by peak oil, which implies the possibility of supply shortages sooner or later. Cheap gas isn't useful if you can't get enough of it to meet your needs.

Some argue that we'll just develop alternative fuels. But it's not that simple. Ethanol has turned out to be a disastrous policy, helping contribute to inflated food prices. Electric vehicles cannot be used at the same rate as gas-powered vehicles; there just isn't enough generating capacity. Hydrogen fuel cells haven't proved to be an affordable mass solution either. Alternative fuels may help some folks continue driving sustainably, but they'll never be able to allow Californians to drive as much as they are today. For alternatives to have any positive impact, we need to reduce the usage of cars for commuting and intercity travel purposes and use the alternative fueled cars elsewhere.

All of the above quite strongly indicates HSR ridership will be quite high when the system opens in the 2010s. I'm no expert on the exact numbers, and I don't actually think they matter. The specific numbers only matter to those who want to argue HSR might not cover its costs. Of course, the notion that HSR absolutely MUST cover its costs at the farebox is another case of trains being held to standards that freeways and airlines aren’t. Freeways don’t recover their own costs, we subsidize the hell out of them. We gave the US airline industry a $15 billion bailout in 2001 when their "ridership" plummeted and nobody batted an eye - and they likely won’t when we do another bailout in the next 24 months.

Ultimately, this isn't really an argument about ridership at all. It's an argument about whether we will admit that things have changed. That the 20th century is over, and its automobile-centric attitudes are as well. It's an argument about whether we'll agree with Paul Krugman that Americans need to start driving less, or whether we'll foolishly and expensively delude ourselves that the 1950s can continue forever. If we are honest about our energy, transportation, environmental, economic, and fiscal needs, the case for HSR will become obvious.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Budget Deficit and High Speed Rail Are Totally Separate

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

I've always believed that the main obstacle we will face in convincing Californians to build high speed rail this year isn't the pointless arguing over ridership projections or financial details. It's the fact that California faces a multibillion dollar budget deficit, and that will cause some voters to think "well gee maybe we shouldn't spend money when the state is in a deficit."

This thinking is very deeply flawed, but it's out there, as evidenced by a letter to the editor in today's Ventura County Star. The author, Ron Ruiz of Westlake Village, relies on several incorrect assumptions to argue that there is some kind of tradeoff between HSR and education funding:

Despite the cuts to education, the California High Speed Rail Authority, as part of our transportation system, is seriously considering designing and constructing a high-speed rail line (200-plus mph) at an estimated cost of more than $33 billion....

Wouldn't our leaders be more responsive and supportive to the people of California if they used their energy and wherewithal to provide the money that is critically needed for our strapped, declining educational system, instead of earmarking dollars and bond measures for a low-priority, nonsensical high-speed rail line that will serve but a fraction of our citizens?

California's education system needs help and a lot more serious support from our legislators.

Different departments? Different budgets? Different rules? If that's the case, then if our state lawmakers have made it impossible by regulation to effect this very urgent and reasonable budget trade-off, then those same lawmakers ought to be able to figure out how to bring about the necessary regulatory changes to make this budget trade-off work, in spite of the pressure from other special-interest groups.

The buttressing of our decaying education system right now seems far more pressing and urgent than having a fast train.

Ron Ruiz' problem is he doesn't understand why we have a budget crisis in the first place. The reason is California has a structural revenue shortfall - in other words, for the last 30 years we have not raised enough tax revenue to pay for our basic needs. The answer to this is NOT to turn to bonds - a structural problem needs a structural solution, and bond debt isn't such a solution.

Such an understanding of the real origins of our budget crisis shows us that this isn't a zero-sum game. HSR funding - which California's portion is $9 billion, not the $33 billion Ruiz claims - doesn't come from the same pot of money as education funding. They are not just separate, but completely unrelated. And it's not "regulation" that is the issue here, but the basic method of government. California needs more tax revenue to pay for its schools. That is a completely separate issue from how we finance high speed rail.

We have discussed this issue here before - noting that California can afford to build this project and in fact cannot afford to not build it. In April I wrote Building High Speed Rail in a Financial Crisis which made the same point - that HSR bond money comes from a different source, and is repaid through a different means, than education funding or the state budget more broadly.

To make it very easy for Ron Ruiz to understand: education funding must be paid for by new taxes. High speed rail is paid for with new bonds - which are repaid by the fares of HSR riders. Bonds can't be used to fund education, and taxes won't be used to fund HSR. They are entirely separate accounts.

Still, it's easy for folks like Ruiz to muddy the waters on this issue. Californians don't have a good understanding of how their government works (and their politicians and journalists don't offer much help), and that makes it possible to argue that if we build HSR, it somehow comes at the cost of some other need. It doesn't. That's now how budgeting works.

But maybe I'm giving Ruiz too much credit. If he calls HSR "low priority and nonsensical" then perhaps he is just using budgets as a fig leaf for his own failure to understand the pressing need for high speed rail.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Fiona Ma: It's Now or Never

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

As you probably know by now, we here at the California High Speed Rail blog are HUGE fans of Fiona Ma. She has taken the lead on high speed rail in the state legislature, and her trip on the record-breaking TGV journey in April 2007 was the turning point in public awareness for high speed rail in our state.

Last month Ma attended the Ecocity 2008 conference in San Francisco, and gave a powerful speech explaining the environmental and economic benefits of high speed rail. Among the points she mentioned was that transportation is the largest source of California's carbon emissions, and that the only way we will meet our AB 32 targets is to build high speed rail. The video below covers the speech, at around 10 minutes long (Ma's remarks begin at 00:45).

One of the key points she made was that California's leadership is crucial for the rest of the country to embrace high speed rail. "If we do not pass it in November, we will never have high speed trains in the US," she told the audience to loud applause. She is probably right - California is seen as a national leader, especially on technology and global warming action. But if California doesn't pass the bonds this November, it will embolden HSR deniers and discourage HSR supporters - and even more importantly, might derail the momentum currently building in Congress to drop billions of dollars on HSR. And even if momentum continued in DC, we might find that places such as Texas, the Northeast Corridor, and the Great Lakes states will move ahead on HSR while California is left behind. A defeat of the bond this November WILL kill our chances for HSR for the next ten years.

But Fiona Ma was confident that we will win in November. As she told the audience:

I think this is the perfect storm. The high cost of gasoline, the congested roadways, the long lines at the airports, and now with the airline crisis, I really believe that this is the time that Californians will pass this bond in November.

The HSR deniers don't want to discuss any of these problems - but Californians understand these problems very well. No wonder 58% of voters back the high speed rail bonds. They get it, just as Fiona Ma gets it.

Fiona Ma also called on the bloggers to help publicize high speed rail - and we've been doing exactly that for two months now. The California High Speed Rail Blog: We Do Our Part!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Cost of Doing Nothing is not Zero

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

One of the points I have repeatedly tried to make on this blog is that the choice is not between spending $40 billion on HSR or spending $0 and doing nothing. The cost of not building the high speed rail project is very high - at least double the cost of building HSR, if the $80 billion figure for road and airport expansion that the CHSRA has offered is accurate.

So it's good to see this crucial point get picked up by the state's media, including the Fresno Bee. In today's excellent editorial they write:

High-speed rail makes sense for a number of reasons -- economic development, environmental improvements, reducing highway congestion, smarter growth patterns -- but here's one more: The cost of not building the system would be much greater than $40 billion.

Opponents of the high-speed system often sound as if this is a choice between spending the $40 billion or spending nothing. That notion is just dead wrong.

Take just one instance. Expanding existing highways and airports to meet the transportation needs projected to come with growth in the state's population would cost two or there times as much -- and would make air quality and congestion even worse. In some cases -- San Francisco, Los Angeles -- existing airports can't be expanded. Bigger and better freeways? Expanding Highway 99 in the Valley to an eight-lane interstate would cost as much as $25 billion alone -- and that's just to serve the Valley, not the entire state.

And as that editorial rightly suggests, the cost of not building HSR isn't limited to the construction costs on new freeway lanes - but should also include the cost of pollution that is already causing health problems in the San Joaquin Valley. To that we can add the cost of fuel for drivers and airline passengers, the cost in lost economic development, and the cost of carbon taxes or passed-on cap-and-trade fees.

It is possible that through no fault of the CHSRA - as global inflation in construction materials continues and as the US dollar loses value - the overall tab for HSR might rise above $40 billion. Of course, Californians will only be asked to front $10 billion, in the form of long-term bonds to be repaid from fares. Can the same be said of the alternative? Without HSR Californians will have to shell out billions in higher fuel costs, freeway and airport expansion, and will have to do so from the worsening environmental and economic position that would result from not having built HSR.

As countries around the world - including Iran, Morocco, and Vietnam - plan high speed rail systems, surely Californians would want to remain economically competitive AND save themselves money by building HSR. Of the many good reasons for building the system, fiscal responsibility and economic common sense are among the strongest.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Ride the HSR Route...Online

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

Although we often get into rather meaty (and therefore good) discussions about the various aspects of the high speed rail project here, it's worth remembering the need to make a...shall we say...more concise and direct appeal to voters. To that end the California High Speed Rail Authority has completely redesigned its website. I happened to like the previous site, which emphasized easy delivery of government information - reports, the Implementation Plan, etc. The new site is much more oriented toward educating the public about high speed rail - it's pretty much laid out like a campaign site. It's a necessary move for the CHSRA given the onset of the 2008 campaign season.

One of the new features of the site is grabbing a lot of attention around the blogosphere, and was even mentioned on the KQED Forum show this week by Erik Nelson - an interactive video journey along the proposed route, based on the videos prepared for the CHSRA by Newlands & Company. It's a neat feature, allowing you to pick an origin and a destination station, from which the site will then display the videos of locations along the route. It also provides information about travel time, carbon emissions saved, and likely fare, compared against the cost of flying and driving between the areas. Considering that the actual cost of both flying and driving is likely to be significantly higher in ten years, the cost estimates for those transportation modes are likely an understatement.

This has some kinks to work out - the cost comparison information isn't provided for all journeys - but it's an attention-grabbing way to make the benefits of HSR more real to Californians, many of whom have never even taken a trip on a train in their lives.

What are your thoughts?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

"Air Quality is the Key" to the Central Valley's Future

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

The Central Valley has long been the forgotten region of California - as Southern California and the Bay Area dominate the state's media and politics, the Central Valley's needs often appear to go unmet. Yet this region is one of the fastest-growing parts of our state, and will make up the bulk of the high speed rail route. The Central Valley needs economic development assistance, major transportation infrastructure development, and a program of smart transit-oriented development to replace the growing reliance on sprawl. And as rail advocate Alan Kandel reminds us, the high speed rail project will help with another core need of that region - cleaning up the notoriously polluted air of the San Joaquin Valley:

Here’s what’s puzzling. With as bad as the air in the Central San Joaquin Valley is alleged or purported to be, there isn’t a single Central Valley based municipality that has even a semblance of passenger rail service above and beyond what’s provided by Amtrak California, except maybe in Stockton and Tracy which are served by the hugely successful Altamont Commuter Express to and from the south Bay Area. To those folks, that must be a godsend.

What’s amazing is, over the years patronage numbers on Amtrak’s “San Joaquin” trains – right up there with their “Pacific Surfliner” and “Capitol Corridor” train counterparts – have soared! These three services are ranked in the top six in the national Amtrak system. These didn’t attain these noteworthy spots by accident either. And, I’ll bet an even greater number of Valley (and state) residents will be traveling via Amtrak in the days, weeks, months and years ahead even, given gas prices going up the way they are. Yet, understanding this and with as much as people embrace and use the passenger train service, why, it seems, the thinking isn’t directed to electrified light- and/or heavy-rail intracity services in Central California boggles the mind.

In fact, a 2006 Fresno Bee article explained that lung problems have soared among residents in recent years, and the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District estimated that to counter this trend, the region needed to eliminate 400 tons of pollution per day by 2011. High speed rail would help accomplish that task.

High speed rail is going to be a godsend for the Central Valley. It will link Sacramento, Stockton, Modesto, Fresno, Visalia and Bakersfield to the rest of the state, bringing jobs and economic opportunity to its residents. It will make travel much easier for them - and cheaper as well. Most importantly, it will help clean up the region's worsening, polluted air.

Instead Arnold Schwarzenegger and freeway advocates propose to drop $6 billion on modernizing and upgrading Highway 99 between Stockton and Bakersfield. With soaring gas prices - and diesel nearing $5 a gallon - is this the best use of money for upgrading Central Valley transportation?

In contrast to Southern California and Bay Area HSR critics like Martin Engel, the Central Valley is very strongly supportive of the project. Central Valley politicians like Cathleen Galgiani have helped provide leadership at the state level, and Rep. Jim Costa (D-Fresno) has been a strong advocate of HSR, helping create the project when he was in the state legislature and helping build support for it in Congress. Virtually all of the chambers of commerce up and down the Valley support the project, and local governments in towns like Fresno and Visalia are already beginning to plan their downtown developments and transportation strategies around high speed rail.

But it may have been a comment on Alan Kandel's post that said it best:

Being concerned about what you breath is the ultimate quality of life issue, and people who can leave some times do. I left due to the lack of any meaningful effort to address the issue. The Great Valley Center was talking about new towns of 80,000 to 100,000 people on the far western side of the valley and I knew AQI was only going to get worse.

You can defend yourself or at least take some action to limit your exposure to crime, or blight or school quality, or any number of issues in the community, but you can't take a break from breathing the air.

I said it at the time to my classmates in Leadership Fresno and here it is again; air quality is the key to nearly every issue in Fresno and the SJV.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Kicking and Screaming into the 21st Century

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

From the Overhead Wire comes this story about high speed rail advocacy from Rep. John Mica, R-FL:

The development of a high-speed rail network in the Northeastern U.S. should be the first step toward expanding and improving the nation's infrastructure, U.S. Rep. John L. Mica said at a conference Tuesday.

Speaking at the Dow Jones Infrastructure Summit, Mica, R-Fla., said the development of a high-speed rail network would transform the heavily traveled New York-to-Washington corridor and begin to ease the burden on congested highways.

The high speed rail initiative is a cornerstone of legislation co-sponsored by Mica, the top Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

The Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act would authorize more than $14.4 billion in funding for Amtrak, state passenger grants and high-speed rail over the next five years. The Rail Infrastructure Development and Expansion Act seeks to provide $24 billion in federal funds to build the high-speed network.

It's really, really, REALLY good to see Republicans like Mica stepping up on high speed rail. Earlier in the month we saw two Democratic Senators forcefully speak up for HSR and the Passenger Rail Investment Act, so it's good to see Republicans getting in on the act. Of course, Mica wasn't done:

In response to a suggestion that the Air Transport Association - a trade group for the U.S. airline industry - would not support such a proposal, Mica underlined the urgent need to update the rail system.

"We'll drag them kicking and screaming into the 21st century," he said.

Right on. It is gratifying to see more politicians realizing that the airline industry is not in a position - and should not be in a position - to block HSR projects. This isn't early 1990s Texas. The airlines, along with politicians and the media, need to be dragged into the 21st century, whether they kick and scream or not.

The more politicians who speak up like this, the more the media will come to realize that HSR's time has come. Hopefully that might mean less ridiculous questions about ridership and funding projections, and more of a focus on our massive infrastructure, energy, and environmental needs. If even Republicans from Florida understand the need for HSR, well, there's hope for this country after all.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

AB 3034

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

Over at the Facebook group I've been seeing some questions about what exactly AB 3034 is and what it would do for HSR. It's a good question and so I thought I'd provide a brief overview here.

AB 3034 is Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani's bill to make some changes to the bond proposal that will go before voters in November. If AB 3034 fails the HSR vote will still take place but will likely lack support from the Sierra Club and Arnold Schwarzenegger, for reasons discussed below. In fact, AB 3034 is designed to win their support, as well as the support of folks along the ACE corridor (which Galgiani represents).

Some of the specific things AB 3034 will do:

  • Prevent construction of a station between Gilroy and Merced - i.e. no Los Banos station, appeasing the Sierra Club which did not want to open that region up to further sprawl. Of course, no Los Banos station was ever proposed by the CHSRA. Actually, one was - see comments.

  • Makes the HSR bond money and possible federal funds available to any portion of the line, and would eliminate the requirement to build LA-SF first. In the very first post on this blog I was deeply critical of eliminating the LA-SF first requirement, and it is my hope this can be stripped in an amendment. Galgiani's goal here is to appease folks along the Altamont corridor, as well as in Sacramento and San Diego, by holding out the possibility that they might get funded sooner than intended.

  • In determining which sections will get funded first, the CHSRA is to "give priority to those segments requiring the smallest amount of bond funds as a percentage of the total construction cost and consider the utility of that segment for other passenger rail services." I still worry about this undermining the connectivity of LA-SF, which is really the reason for building HSR.

I get the sense that this bill is Galgiani's way of giving the Altamont alignment people an opportunity to get funding and service upgrades that they believe they missed out on when the CHSRA chose the Pacheco alignment. I'm all for upgrading the Altamont corridor, and I never much cared which alignment was chosen. But I think it would be an extremely bad idea to help Altamont at the cost of the LA-SF portion, which really does need to be prioritized first in construction of the system.

So is AB 3034 a good idea? That all depends on the politics. If this is the only way we can get the HSR bonds passed this fall, then I might be able to swallow it and fight another day to get LA-SF built first. But if this isn't necessary to get the HSR bonds done, or if we can firmly eliminate the Los Banos station another way (and therefore keep the Sierra Club happy) without risking the core of the system, then AB 3034 may not be such a great idea.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Quentin Kopp Drinks Your Milkshake

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

If you missed this morning's HSR hour on KQED-FM's Forum, you can get an archived version of the show at this link. It's well worth a listen, although deep insightful discussion was somewhat lacking. Below are my thoughts on the show:

  • I had forgotten about Quentin Kopp's force-of-nature personality. Won't make that mistake again. You don't survive decades in San Francisco politics by being soft. Kopp put in an excellent performance, dominating the hour and dealing effectively - I thought - with some of the common, uninformed objections to the HSR plan. There were a few moments where Kopp erred - he claimed that AB 3034 prevented a station from being built between Merced and San José, though as the bill text makes clear it is between Merced and Gilroy that no station can be built. There WILL be a Gilroy station. Also, Kopp didn't correct a caller who worried about where you'd put a rail line at the Grapevine, when in fact it is Tehachapi Pass that will be used for high speed rail.

    Those minor points aside, Kopp dealt pretty forcefully with some of the common criticisms. He defended the ridership projections and carbon emissions reduction projections well. He also dealt with criticism and concern over the funding of the project, and rightly noted the importance of there being no organized opposition (yet) to the bond measure. Kopp is a master of process, budgeting, and planning, tenacious as hell and able to get his way. I can see how that may eventually rub people the wrong way, but the CHSRA needs a strong leader, and in Kopp they most certainly have that.

    Perhaps most significantly, neither Erik Nelson nor Lee Harrington, the token HSR opponent, were able to rebut Kopp effectively. He dominated the hour, and I daresay, he drank their milkshake.

  • Lee Harrington was out of his depth here. His arguments against HSR were incredibly weak and boiled down to his preference, as executive director of the Southern California Leadership Council, that the state's bond capacity be preserved for something like port capacity expansion, freeway widening, airport expansion, that sort of thing. He had no concept of why HSR is needed to keep California moving, and even parroted the discredited "Southwest Airlines offers cheap travel" nonsense. Kopp was especially effective in smacking down that claim, pointing out that the Texas high speed rail project so memorably killed by Southwest and others in the 1990s has been revived, with support from other major airlines. Harrington gave the impression of a man hopelessly stuck in the 20th century, unable to grasp that the basic economy of transportation has undergone a sea change in the last 5 years. Martin Engel would have been a more interesting guest to speak for the HSR critics.

  • Erik Nelson, ostensibly there to play the journalistic straightman, in fact wound up giving some key support to Kopp's claims and overall helped make a decent, if imperfect, case for HSR. Unfortunately Nelson also contributed to one of the show's major flaws - an overemphasis on the finances of the HSR plan. Nelson and Michael Krasny both spent a LOT of time discussing the ridership projections, whether HSR works financially in other countries (to his credit Nelson pointed out that in almost every case they do). Nelson argued that most major infrastructure projects run over budget, but made no attempt to explain this far-fetched claim. His only evidence was the LA Red Line subway. It, like the Big Dig, was a massive urban tunneling project, and those projects are very susceptible to cost overruns. The HSR project has very little urban tunneling involved, save for the mile from Fourth and King station in SF to the Transbay Terminal. Building HSR on open land, and tunneling through mountains, are fairly common engineering practices and while some cost overruns are possible, they are not nearly as likely as Nelson made it sound.

    I have consistently argued that the HSR project will come in at more than $40 billion when all is said and done - but that most of that will be due to the declining value of the US dollar and global inflation in the cost of construction materials. Nobody on the show appeared to mention these points at all.

    More fundamentally, nobody mentioned the cost of NOT building HSR. Everyone seemed to assume that the choice was between spending $40 billion on HSR or $0 on the status quo. This is not only incorrect, but ignorant. The cost of not building HSR is FAR higher - $80 billion for airport and freeway expansion alone, and an even larger economic cost to the state and to voters from soaring gas prices. Nelson did mention the effect of $4/gal gas, but only at the 45' mark.

    I got the clear sense that for most of the guests, and for the host as well, the 21st century high speed rail project was being evaluated with obsolete 20th century assumptions. This is a criticism I've leveled at Nelson before but what today's show demonstrated is that this is really a problem with the American media more generally. In their self-appointed role as guardians of public discourse, they have persisted in evaluating our society and its challenges through lenses last refined in the early 1990s. Fifteen years of fundamental change has passed most of them by, to the point where most of the show was spent in a discussion about HSR's finances almost totally divorced from the basic context in which that project is being assessed.

  • Overall the show suggested to me how little the public understands about the details of high speed rail. Some callers assumed it would share tracks with freight trains and replicate Amtrak's problems (it won't) or that the construction alone would wreak massive environmental devastation (it won't). The basic facts of the HSR project are not well known, nor are its most compelling arguments - HSR is necessary for our climate, for our economy, and for our transportation needs. If we are to ensure a victory this November, Californians need to properly understand the issues at stake here. I am not confident that their media is going to help in this process.

Unfortunately I was driving between Salinas and Gilroy at the time, and the hills along Highway 101 don't exactly make for good cell phone conversations, otherwise I'd have called in. But that's what the blog is for; continuing discussions and bringing them to a wider audience that understands the world in which we now live, instead of pretending that we still live in 1970.

What are your thoughts on the show? Share them in the comments.

PS: When commenting, please enter a name instead of "anonymous." It can be a pseudonym, the name of your dog, whatever - but pick something aside from anonymous. That'll make it easier for readers to follow the comment threads. I'm a 6-year veteran of the blogs, but new to using Blogger, so if anyone can show me how to eliminate "anonymous" as a comment option, I'd appreciate it.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Arnold Marvels at HSR

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

From our friends at the Overhead Wire comes this Financial Times op-ed gem. Arnold Schwarzenegger was talking about a recent trip to France that included a ride on the TGV with Nicolas Sarkozy:

“I could not believe we were going at 350km an hour,” the erstwhile film action hero marvelled.

The Overhead Wire's reaction:

Believe it Governor, and make it happen here.

Amen to that. Of course, Arnold, Fiona Ma could have told you about going 575 kph. Our plan doesn't promise anything nearly that ambitious, but 350km an hour, which is what ours DOES offer, is worth Arnold's full-throated support. The legislature and the CHSRA have been busy changing the implementation plan to suit Arnold's demands, especially on private sector involvement. It's time for Arnold to come out strongly for HSR and in particular for the bond measure on the November ballot.

Programming Note: High speed rail will be the topic of discussion on KQED's Forum with Michael Krasny Monday morning at 9AM. The guest list includes Quentin Kopp, Lee Harrington of the SoCal Leadership Council, and Erik Nelson, aka the Capricious Commuter. According to Nelson, noted HSR denier Martin Engel was invited to be a guest but refused. That's pretty gutless. But it shouldn't be surprising, considering that Martin's site does not allow comments, doesn't even provide a way to contact the site's authors. Not only is it a very 1995 approach to the Internet, but it's a sign that the HSR critics are not confident in their arguments. Whereas here, we welcome all comments on the topic. We have nothing to hide, we have nothing to fear.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Airline Emissions Much Higher Than Previously Thought

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

The Independent, a British newspaper, has a report on a study presented at an FAA conference recently that claims air travel is a significantly larger contributor of carbon emissions to the atmosphere than previously assumed:

An unpublished study by the world's leading experts has revealed that airlines are pumping 20 per cent more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than estimates suggest, with total emissions set to reach between 1.2 billion and 1.5 billion tonnes annually by 2025.

The report, by four government-funded research bodies, is one of the most authoritative estimates of the growth of pollutants produced by the industry. It was presented to a conference co-organised by the United States' Federal Aviation Authority but not given a wider audience.

Combining data produced by the leading emissions-modelling laboratories in the US, Britain and France, the study found that the number of people seriously affected by aircraft noise will rise from 24 million in 2000 to 30.3 million by 2025, despite the introduction of quieter jets, and that the amount of nitrogen oxides around airports, produced by aircraft engines, will rise from 2.5 million tonnes in 2000 to 6.1 million tonnes in 2025.

The CHSRA has not provided any firm estimates of how much carbon emissions will be saved from air travel specifically - their 17.6 billion pounds of carbon per year estimate includes air and auto travel - but this study suggests that even the CHSRA numbers may significantly understate the savings.

On that basis alone high speed rail is worth building, as part of California's strategy to fight global warming. The AB 32 goals - reduction of CA carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 - is a modest goal, but it will not have a chance of being met without investment in high speed rail. The full system won't open until around 2020, but portions of it will open before then, and will provide immediate action to stabilize our changing climate.

Opponents usually ignore this topic, since to acknowledge the need to act on global warming is to acknowledge the need for high speed rail. Instead they continue to suggest that airlines will handle the bulk of California's travel needs, or that airlines will adapt. The airlines themselves make this claim, from the same Independent article:

The International Air Transport Association, which represents 240 airlines, said it was working towards producing binding targets to reduce CO2 emissions. "With fuel costs doubling in the last year, airlines already have an incentive to work towards greater efficiency," a spokesman said. "There has been a 70 per cent improvement in fuel efficiency in the last four decades. Aviation is a benchmark of environmental responsibility for others to follow."

In fact, most of this "greater efficiency" is coming in the form of longer flying times or cutting service and reducing flights, including on the LA-SF route. New airline technologies designed to save on fuel, such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, are experiencing significant delays amid technical problems.

The fact is that the airline industry is in serious trouble. Rising fuel costs and the growing awareness of their impact on global warming both mean that we will see a reduction in airline services. The airline industry will not disappear, but where it can be replaced with more efficient forms of travel - like high speed rail to connect cities within states - it will. If the enormous levels of carbon emissions from airlines don't convince us of the need to build high speed rail, perhaps the fuel-induced reductions in airline service will.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

US Senators Step up for High Speed Rail

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

While the debate over Altamont-Pacheco continues, have some more news from Washington DC on high speed rail:

  • Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-WV, is proposing to replenish the highway fund without hurting transit funding. In an amendment to the FAA reauthorization bill, Rockefeller wants to take $3.3 billion from the General Fund to address the shortfall in the highway fund. This is significant because Bush wants to raid the Mass Transit fund to cover that deficit. And there's a cherry for us HSR advocates:

    In addition, the Rockefeller amendment authorizes issuing tax-credit bonds to promote high-speed-rail investment.

    This would help encourage private investment in our own HSR system as it makes our bonds more attractive to buyers.

  • Sticking with mid-Atlantic Senators, Delaware Democrat Tom Carper gave a very pro-rail speech on the Senate floor in support of Rockefeller's amendment. It's worth quoting at some length:

    A strange thing is going on with respect to passenger rail ridership in this country.

    I used to serve on the Amtrak board when I was Governor of Delaware, and every year we would see ridership go up by a couple of percentage points. We would struggle, try to raise money out of the fare box to pay for the system and the expansion of the system. Well, the first quarter of this fiscal year, ridership at Amtrak is up 15 percent. Revenues are up by 15 percent. People are starting to realize that maybe it makes sense to get out of our cars, trucks, and vans and take the train or take transit. Transit ridership is up again this fiscal year more dramatically than it has been in some time....

    Americans are beginning to literally buy homes in places that are closer to opportunities for transit -- for rail, for bus, for subways, for the metro systems. As we have seen the drop in home prices across the country -- in some cases, very dramatic -- among the surprises, at least for me, is to see housing prices stable and in some cases actually going up in places where people can buy a home and live and get to work or wherever they need to go to shop without driving to get there....

    I think in this country people are crying out for leadership. They are calling out for Presidential leadership, whether it is from our side of the aisle or the Republican side. People want leaders who are willing to stay out of step when everybody else is marching to the wrong tune, and I would suggest that the wrong tune is to suspend the Federal gasoline tax and at the same time not replace the dollars that would otherwise go into the transportation trust fund to fix our dilapidated, our decaying transportation system. Voters in this country deserve better leadership from us. I am determined, I am committed to making sure we provide and pay for that....

    There other things we need to do too. We need to invest in rail service. We can send from Washington, DC, to Boston, MA, a ton of freight by rail on 1 gallon of diesel fuel. I will say that again. We could send from Washington, DC, to Boston, MA, a ton of freight by rail on 1 gallon of diesel fuel. But we as a government choose not to invest in freight rail and, frankly, to invest very modestly in passenger rail. It is a highly energy-efficient way to move people and goods.

    It may seem like just one Senator giving a speech to C-SPAN's cameras, but it's significant to see traditionally timid and hesitant Democrats like Carper making such a strong embrace of rail. And they "get" the changing nature of American society - he described the phenomenon of collapsing suburban home prices and stable urban home values and how ridership is soaring on Amtrak lines. The more politicians that internalize and understand these facts, the less likely it will be that they'll try to promote obsolete 20th century transportation solutions.

Combined with Barack Obama's very strong high speed rail statements it seems like Washington DC is starting to understand the need to emphasize transit solutions. Of course, it doesn't hurt that backward-looking solutions, like Hillary's gas tax holiday, have been shown as political losers.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Anaheim-SF by 2014, and more Altamont-Pacheco

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

Today's Modesto Bee reports on efforts by Asm. Cathleen Galgiani to address the Altamont corridor and generate more support in the Stockton-Modesto region for the fall high speed rail bond vote. It's got a ton of information in it, but before I get to the Altamont vs. Pacheco nitty gritty, there's this rather stunning item:

High-speed rail supporters say eventually they'll run tracks north from Merced to Sacramento, passing through Modesto. That could happen by 2020, assuming the Bay Area-Anaheim line is done by 2014, Galgiani said.

That's a game-changing statement. Most public statements on HSR - my own included - have anticipated 2018 to 2020 as the opening date for the system. Galgiani is instead saying just six years out - 2014 isn't that far away. It's much easier for voters to envision a system that opens in five or six years, instead of ten to twelve years. Assuming this is accurate, it could be the deal-clincher with California voters. We should certainly begin playing it up, if we can get some further confirmation (not that I don't trust you, Asm. Galgiani, I just want to be certain).

Once you're done absorbing that, the bulk of the article focuses on the ongoing fight over Altamont vs. Pacheco. Personally I see this like Obama vs. Hillary - the decision has been made so let's move on to the big fight in November instead of dragging this out any further. Unfortunately not everyone sees it that way:

The $950 million carrot "was in the bond from the start," said David Schonbrunn, president of Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund. He said his group will sue to force reconsideration of the Altamont route, which was rejected, he said, because land along the Pacheco alignment is much cheaper.

"This is a real estate deal," Schonbrunn said, "not transportation. We think high-speed rail is the future of California, we think it's crucial and we think they're screwing it up badly."

I'm sorry, but if you consider yourself an environmentalist, or that HSR is the future of California, suing over the alignment runs directly against both goals. It will be immeasurably more difficult to win funds and a public vote for HSR if we have already rejected it - does anyone see Texas and Florida hard at work on an HSR system after they canceled their projects? Didn't think so.

The TRANSDEF arguments on HSR are disingenuous at best. On their site they claim that:

The Pacheco alignment (blue on the map below) would provide no additional public benefits for our region, doing nothing for congested corridors. In controversial (and we suspect corrupt) actions, the Pacheco alignment has nonetheless been recommended by both MTC and the High Speed Rail Authority staff. The only substantial beneficiaries of Pacheco we can see are speculators, who would open up vast areas of undisturbed wetlands habitat for sprawl development (the dark areas in the map below). For these people, public investment in High Speed Rail in the Pacheco Corridor would shower windfall profits on their holdings.

This is bunk. The Pacheco alignment provides service for the Monterey Bay region and provides faster travel times between SF and LA. Moreover, the map on their HSR page falsely implies that an extension to Stockton and Sacramento isn't planned, when instead it will be in the second phase and remains an integral part of the overall proposal.

But the claims of corruption are really too much. I have no reason to defend the CHSRA staff and board but there is no evidence to suggest land speculation. Galgiani's bill will prevent a station from being built at Los Banos, and anyone who bought land around that region expecting an HSR windfall is going to be very disappointed. Of course, as I have argued before, sprawl is an endangered concept thanks to the end of cheap oil. The fears TRANSDEF is trying to stoke here are not supported by any available evidence.

Further, other California environmental groups, like the Sierra Club, appear to have come around and are working constructively with the CHSRA to ensure the best, most environmentally friendly system possible:

Some environmentalists, however, are appeased by the amendment to Galgiani's bill prohibiting stops from Merced to Gilroy, to protect expansive waterfowl habitat. The Sierra Club of California continues to negotiate for resources to help valley agencies plan for transit-oriented development, or growth focused around depots to reduce vehicle trips.

"The role high-speed rail will play will push the valley either toward being more sustainable or less sustainable," Sierra Club advocate Tim Frank said.

Credit where it's due: I was critical of the Sierra Club for not being fully on board, but if their statements in this article are representative, they've made the right choice in working to improve the plan. TRANSDEF should follow suit.

Asm. Galgiani is working instead to improve service along the ACE Altamont corridor to build political support in the Stockton-Modesto region for the fall HSR vote:

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

Galgiani notes that a recent bill amendment "elevates the focus" of Altamont trains. She envisions ACE adding tracks and grade separations, or running rails over or under roads where vehicles now wait for trains to pass.

"Essentially, we're preparing the ACE system so that it could share tracks with high-speed trains," she said.

ACE trains carry about 3,500 riders daily, including about 350 from Stanislaus County, spokesman Thomas Reeves said. Delay complaints because of conflicts with Union Pacific freight trains could be reduced if ACE had money to build more and longer "sidings," or turn-out spurs, used to let other trains pass, he said.

Galgiani's bill is AB 3034, mentioned in yesterday's post and is coauthored by Fiona Ma of San Francisco. AB 3034 deserves our support. CALPIRG has a online tool to lobby the Assembly to pass AB 3034. Look for this site to step up its activism around this bill, which should help get the bonds passed this fall.

And remember: Anaheim-SF by 2014. Wow.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

CALPIRG Mobilizes Students for High Speed Rail

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

When I was a UC Berkeley undergrad in the late '90s CALPIRG was best known for activism on financial issues - student fees, credit card companies, things of that sort. Worthy causes, of course, but I never expected them to get that involved in high speed rail. That's exactly what they've done, however, over the last few months. From their high speed rail spring break in March to their current activism on campuses like UC Irvine CALPIRG has emerged as one of the most important organizations backing the HSR project.

CALPIRG's legislative director, Steve Blackledge, has an op-ed at the California Progress Report explaining CALPIRG's strong support for HSR, emphasizing energy independence:

Nothing bums me out like realizing that all the money I spend on gas helps keep oil barrens like ExxonMobil in the black, while contributing to smog and global warming.

One good thing about high-speed rail: No gas. And right now, with gas prices going from costly to scary, that's no small advantage....

California has a choice to make. With our growing population we have increasing transportation needs, however expanding highways and airports have huge price tags attached. For example, the master plan to expand LAX airport would cost more than $11 billion. Meeting interstate requirements for Highway 99 in the Central Valley and widening to eight lanes would cost between $20 billion and $25 billion. Expanding roads and airports cost us more than just money â?" they also increase our oil dependence, contribute to sprawl, and lead to even more unhealthy pollution.

All are excellent points, and students find them compelling. Earlier today I asked students in my poli sci class to propose a solution to the problem of high gas prices - they could offer whatever they chose, and I expected half would try to focus on lowering prices at the pump and the other half would focus on alternatives. As it turned out, virtually all of them focused on alternatives, with three quarters calling for higher gas taxes (and most of my students are car commuters!). High speed rail was a frequently cited proposal they wanted to build, which warmed my heart because I haven't mentioned it or this blog to them at all.

And we would be wrong to dismiss this student support for HSR. Polls show that young people are going to turn out in enormous numbers this fall, and that will only be solidified with Obama on the ballot in November, as now seems likely. Strong support from California's students may be what helps the HSR bond survive the election.

It would be fitting. If the students are our future, they're making a strong statement about what kind of future they want - a future with sustainable transportation like high speed rail.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Three High Speed Rail Items

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

None of these seemed to merit an entire post themselves, yet each is worth mentioning:

  • The California High Speed Rail Authority has dramatically redesigned their website. I happened to like the previous site, which emphasized easy delivery of government information - reports, the Implementation Plan, etc. The new site is much more oriented toward educating the public about high speed rail - it's pretty much laid out like a campaign site. It's a necessary move for the CHSRA given the onset of the 2008 campaign season and hopefully they'll keep it frequently updated. (Plus a link here would be nice!)

  • The Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada has endorsed high speed rail. RailPAC is one of the state's leading rail organizations and has done excellent work this spring keeping the Coast Starlight up and running. They are crucial supporters of any rail project, especially this, so it's heartening to see them going all out for HSR. We welcome them to the movement!

  • On Friday I came out against the idiotic "gas tax holiday" proposal being floated by Hillary Clinton and John McCain. The movement to push back against this extremely bad idea is spreading. A petition is being circulated online - hilariously written in the style of Nigerian check scam spam - and there's also a Facebook group. It's hitting the blogs hard today, from Open Left to Daily Kos to our friends at The Overhead Wire. Go sign it - the only way to ease the pain of high gas costs is to start building alternatives, not deluding voters into thinking the oil-based transportation system has a future.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Why is the US Falling Behind on Transportation?

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

I still haven't forgiven Tom Friedman for his continued cheerleading of the Iraq War. But every once in a while he strolls back into reality and today's column is no exception. In it, he argues that the primary concern in most Americans' minds is the desire for "nation-building" here in the USA - a sense that our country has fallen behind the rest of the world, teetering on the edge of an economic abyss. The sorry state of our rail transportation figures into his thinking:

If all Americans could compare Berlin’s luxurious central train station today with the grimy, decrepit Penn Station in New York City, they would swear we were the ones who lost World War II.

That's a stunning statement. The US "won" World War II but 60 years later, the rest of the world is passing us by while we sit here stuck with a 1940s vision of the world and of our country. It was in the late 1940s when America's rail network began to decline and over the next two decades it collapsed, its loss lamented by few. Americans deluded themselves into thinking that their postwar prosperity was endless, especially the cheap oil and cheap cars that went along with it. We invested hundreds of billions of dollars in freeways while Germany, France, and Japan invested tens of billions in rail.

The 1970s should have served as a wakeup call, but Reagan came along and told Americans that if you didn't admit there were problems, then there would be no problems. Ignorance was bliss. Cheap oil returned, if only for a short while, and the initial investments in rail made during the '70s were either scaled back or dramatically limited. With the collapse of the Soviet Union Americans began to ironically repeat its fate - hardening into a Brezhnev-like denial of the need to change the way things were done, convinced that the easy global dominance of a society built on cheap oil would last forever.

Here in 2008 it is impossible to continue that charade. 8 years of relentless gas price hikes have proved once and for all that the era of cheap oil is over. And the stagnant economy shows that the era of prosperity that accompanied that cheap oil is vanishing too - unless we accept reality and admit the need to change. Automobiles and roads will continue to exist, but it is time we stopped making them the center of our transportation network. Rail, as Barack Obama explained, is a necessary component of our country's future.

So why do we lack the will to build HSR even as it booms around the world, as Agence-France Press asks?

Amtrak says lack of political will -- as well as Americans' fierce devotion to privately held land -- could doom such projects.

"Private property is sacred in the United States and it's very difficult to impose eminent domain to acquire property to build highways and high-speed rail," Black told AFP.

"And if you don't have the political will, it's a moot point."...

This year the US Department of Transportation set aside 30 million dollars in matching federal funds for state or local rail projects. By comparison the government budgeted 39.4 billion dollars in federal aid for the highway system.

I would argue that we have political will in the US - the will to cling to obsolete assumptions of how our transportation system can work even in the face of mounting evidence that our priorities must change. The critics of HSR never provide an alternative to our dependence on expensive oil - they deny that anything has changed. To them it is forever 1970. They'll freak out about $10 billion for HSR but never acknowledge the far larger costs of doing nothing.

California can change that. California can provide the political will and the leadership that this country so desperately needs. If we approve the $10 billion HSR bond this November we will show Americans that we really can tackle the challenges of the 21st century, instead of pretending that the 20th century never ended.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Obama on High Speed Rail

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

From Grist comes this story about Barack Obama's encounter on the campaign trail with an Indiana man who works in Amtrak's Beech Grove shop, and the candidate's remarks about the importance of trains:

The irony is with the gas prices what they are, we should be expanding rail service. One of the things I have been talking bout for awhile is high speed rail connecting all of these Midwest cities -- Indianapolis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, St. Louis. They are not that far away from each other. Because of how big of a hassle airlines are now. There are a lot of people if they had the choice, it takes you just about as much time if you had high speed rail to go the airport, park, take your shoes off.

This is something that we should be talking about a lot more. We are going to be having a lot of conversations this summer about gas prices. And it is a perfect time to start talk about why we don't have better rail service. We are the only advanced country in the world that doesn't have high speed rail. We just don't have it. And it works on the Northeast corridor. They would rather go from New York to Washington by train than they would by plane. It is a lot more reliable and it is a good way for us to start reducing how much gas we are using. It is a good story to tell.

Right. On.

I really have nothing to add. Obama absolutely nails it here. He talks about connecting nearby regions with high speed rail to save money, to save time, to save on gas, to produce energy independence. These off-the-cuff remarks show that he is someone who clearly understands the value and purpose of high speed rail.

Hillary Clinton's ridiculous gas tax cut proposal tries to frame the issue of energy prices as one of high taxes. Obama instead gets what this is really about - we don't have enough alternatives to oil-based transportation. The way to lower the cost of transportation for Americans isn't to give them a meaningless gas tax cut that will put $30 in their pocket but devastate federal transportation spending - it's to spend the money on the systems, like high speed rail, that will help reduce their overall gas consumption. Hillary is talking about saving people $30 over a summer; Obama is talking about saving people thousands over the course of years.

That being said, I wouldn't object if Hillary began speaking more about supporting mass transit and high speed rail. For that matter, Obama needs to be making this a more central part of his campaign narrative. I'm with Grist - "Why doesn't transit have higher profile in this campaign?"

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Argentina Launches High Speed Rail Project

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

Major news out of South America - this week the government of Argentina and a consortium led by the French high speed train builder Alstom signed the contracts to build a high speed rail link between Buenos Aires, Rosario, and Córdoba - some of Argentina's largest cities.

Patrick Kron, Alstom’s chairman and chief executive, said construction would start before the end of the year and last for four years. Alstom, which designed and built France’s TGV, Spain’s AVE and South Korea’s KTX, is providing the rolling stock, signalling and maintenance to the Veloxia consortium, which also includes Iecsa and Emepa of Argentina and Spain’s Isolux Corsan.

The total project, financed by French bank Natixis, will cost some $3.7bn and Argentina will issue 30-year debt. Alstom’s share of the project is worth around $1.7bn. The project is five to eight times cheaper than similar ones in France or Spain, Alstom says.

Eight double-decker trains, with a capacity to hold 509 passengers each, will travel at a maximum 320 kph (200 mph), linking Buenos Aires and the city of Rosario, a major port, and the city of Córdoba.

Alstom, which says Argentina’s flat pampas are ideal terrain for a high-speed train, is aiming for 1.5m passengers a year and is confident the total will be higher. President Cristina Fernández called the project – which has been criticised as an extravagance when Argentina’s local train network urgently needs revamping – as ”a leap into modernity”.

This is not just significant because Argentina is going to beat California to having the first true high speed rail line in the Western Hemisphere. It's also important because it shows economic and fiscal difficulties don't have to stand in the way of "a leap into modernity." In late 2001 Argentina's financial system experienced total collapse, and the economy soon followed. Banks shut down, mass unemployment emerged, and the nation's standard of living plummeted. The worst is over, but Argentina has still not yet made a full recovery from the crisis even after six years. High speed rail will be a major boost for their recovery, and will provide sustainable, stable transportation - and therefore solid economic growth - for many decades to come.

Latin America's rail networks aren't in great shape, and in some cases are worse off than even the US. It's a farsighted step for Argentina, which has learned from its economic crisis that dependence on the IMF and an oil-based economy are not good ways to promote sustainable economic growth. California would do well to emulate Argentina's model.