Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Arnold Reiterates Support for Prop 1A

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

In remarks at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco last Friday Arnold Schwarzenegger again explained his support for Prop 1A, the $10 billion high speed and passenger rail bond. His speech focused on anti-global warming actions and the economic value of reducing carbon emissions - and why we must continue to do do this even during, especially during, a credit crisis.

There is far more economic opportunity in fighting global warming than economic risk....We shouldn't let the budget crisis hold back good things for the future. 20 years from now you can't look back and say "well they had a budget crisis so we didn't do it." Just because we had a problem with the budget does not mean that people should vote "no" on high speed rail. Our rail system in America is so old, we're driving the same speed as 100 years ago, the same system as 100 years ago. We should modernize, we should do what other countries do...We should start in this state, we should show leadership.

I'm not exactly his biggest fan, but this is the "good" Arnold Schwarzenegger - the one who gets the need to build for the future, who understands that the green economy is going to be at the center of California's future. He spoke strongly against drilling, and noted that oil prices only came down through demand destruction - using more public transportation is the only way to bring down gas prices. (Of course Arnold, does that mean you will stop cutting public transit budgets?!) He even spoke favorably, though cautiously, of Sen. Darrell Steinberg's SB 375 - "I'll look at it carefully" - and its smart growth goals.

You can see the video yourself here - scroll to 26:50 for the Prop 1A discussion. (Couldn't get the embed to work for some odd reason.)

Let's hope Arnold takes this message around the state and help get Prop 1A passed.

The Commonwealth Club is also hosting a Prop 1A debate this Friday between Quentin Kopp , chairman of the board of the California High Speed Rail Authority, and Jon Coupal, head of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. Former US Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta will moderate.

British Conservatives Embrace an HSR Future

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Britain's Conservative Party used to be rather strongly anti-rail. Margaret Thatcher never traveled on a train while Prime Minister. John Major helped privatize British Rail, which had devastatingly negative consequences. While European nations were busy building a high speed infrastructure, Britain lagged. Its only HSR route connects London to the Chunnel, and even that line was only completed last year.

But in what some are calling a "stunning turn of events" the Tories are now embracing high speed rail - specifically as a replacement to a third runway at Heathrow. The plan is to run trains at 180 mph from London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. David Cameron, who looks set to be the next Prime Minister, claims it will cut 66,000 flights from Heathrow.

Labour has opened itself up to this move by stupidly rejecting HSR. Now Cameron and the Tories are poised to burnish their green credentials even further by embracing a form of transportation that has been quite successful on the Continent.

Credit shouldn't go to the Tories alone. HSR advocates blasted Labour earlier this year, and Greengauge 21 has been persistent in putting the subject before British voters, emphasizing many of the same economic, environmental, energy and transportation benefits as we have here in California.

It's worth noting that Britain too is facing the same financial and economic problems as the US - but they also recognize the need for long-term infrastructure planning, that green infrastructure is the best tonic for an economic downturn. If British conservatives can get past their old hostility to rail, let's hope California conservatives can do the same.

Monday, September 29, 2008

California Cannot Afford to Reject Prop 1A

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

Ever since this blog launched back in March I've felt that the most potent threat to Prop 1A's passage is the budget and economic crisis. Too many Californians, especially in the media, are stuck in obsolete late 20th century thinking that a recession is a time to cut back on government spending, that now would not be a good time to authorize bonds and construction of high speed rail.

Nothing could be further from the truth. If we followed that argument - being advanced in newspapers such as the Pasadena Star-News and the Long Beach Press-Telegram this weekend - in the 1930s then we'd never have built Hoover Dam or the bay bridges. If we followed that advice in the late 1950s when California had a budget deficit we'd never have built the California Aqueduct.

When a state is stuck in a recession the #1 priority is to get the economy moving again. Deficit spending to create jobs is a good way to do that. Borrowing to build infrastructure that provides many decades of value and itself spurs further economic growth is an even better way to do that.

HSR is estimated to create around 160,000 jobs in the short and medium term. A recent study suggested San Diego alone would see 45,000 jobs. Long-term job creation estimates have been around 450,000 for the entire state. California's unemployment rate stands at 7.7%. These newspapers are irresponsible to suggest California should wait to create these jobs - we need them now.

Another argument against Prop 1A is that with a state budget crisis now isn't the right time. The Pasadena Star-News makes this explicit:

Right now, though, when we need to find ways to simply balance our budget in order to pay teachers, keep health clinics open and operate other essential services, we're going to have to wait to get aboard this train.

How exactly is California going to balance the budget if we don't have jobs? If jobs are lost and tax revenues shrink because people are paying too much money for oil-based transportation?

But even worse is the notion that our choice is between teachers and high speed trains. It's not. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst Office reported that California can afford Prop 1A - it will not significantly increase our bond debt beyond what we can afford. The total cost of Prop 1A with interest is likely to be around $19 billion. That will be repaid, however, over 40 years. $10 billion is NOT going to be authorized all at once. It will be spent over the course of ten years as the construction schedule necessitates. Meanwhile new jobs and new tax revenues will help boost the state economy and state budget. California's budget needs structural reforms, but we can and must pursue them while also building for the future.

More importantly, neither editorial assess the cost of NOT building HSR. They make the same mistake countless others have made in assuming that if we reject Prop 1A, we spend no new money. That is absurd. The cost of expanding freeways and airports has been estimated at around $80 billion. HSR meets the same need at an eighth of the cost (to the state budget). Airlines are cutting flights and raising fares which means additional costs for the state. As our foreign competitors are turning to HSR, it will be more difficult for California to attract new business investment if we lack an alternative to oil-based transportation.

The cost to the environment is also considerable - HSR will cut 12 billion pounds of carbon emissions and save over 12 million barrels of oil per year. Given the eventuality of a carbon tax or cap-and-trade fees that translates into actual money California will have to spend because we rejected Prop 1A. Those costs themselves will be considerable, and will have a negative ripple effect throughout the economy.

Some suggest we wait and build HSR later. When is "later"? When oil prices have shot through $200/bbl? When construction inflation costs have pushed the project's cost over $50 billion? If we had approved HSR in 1998, it would be ready to go now, ready to provide economic growth and financial savings. The longer we wait, the higher the cost will be.

California's economic and financial crisis stems from having relied on oil for our economy. When oil prices soared, our economy suffered and in turn our banks became insolvent. If we want long-term recovery, we MUST move beyond oil. It is an absolute requirement for further economic growth. Those who oppose Prop 1A out of a sense of fiscal responsibility are instead consigning California to chronic instability in our economy and in our budget.

California cannot afford to reject Prop 1A. The time to start building a prosperous 21st century California is now.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Prop 1A Misinformation in Long Beach

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

Today's Long Beach Press-Telegram editorializes against Prop 1A. As is becoming depressingly common with newspaper editorials, the Press-Telegram's anti-HSR screed contains a number of out-and-out lies that need to be called out here. The editorial staff does its readers a disservice by misleading them on some of the most fundamental aspects of Prop 1A and our state's high speed rail plan. Some examples:

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

AB 3034 changed the proposition to ensure that no more than 50% of bond funds could be used to build the system to ensure that we must have matching funds to proceed. The editorial somehow turns that into a negative, which is absurd. Their claim that the bond money wouldn't go to construction is a lie, plain and simple.

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

Another lie - AB 3034 created an oversight committee that Republican Roy Ashburn fought hard to include. The editorial misleads readers about the cost - $20 billion would not be spent all at once. The bond has a 40 year life, meaning the cost would be closer to a manageable $500 million per year.

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

There is NO evidence for the skeptics' $100 billion claim. None whatsoever. But there is a LOT of evidence to suggest Congress actually has the checkbook ready - John Kerry and Johnny Isakson are proposing a multibillion HSR funding bill and if he wins, Barack Obama has shown a desire to build HSR as well. As to the private sector, nearly a dozen companies responded with interest in helping fund HSR.

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

The Madrid-Barcelona AVE train is a similar distance to SF-LA, and is pressuring airlines there. Passenger rail already connects the cities the editorial claims can't be linked - HSR merely provides a much, much faster service.

Additionally, the editorial makes the common media mistake of not explaining the cost of doing nothing. Nowhere are rising oil prices mentioned. Nor are higher airfares, nor are flight cutbacks, nor the environmental savings of reducing carbon and cutting oil consumption, nor the $80 billion price tag of expanding freeways and airports to meet the demand HSR will serve, nor the cost to the economy and the state budget of not creating 160,000 jobs. Instead the editorial board relied on misinformation and lies to give readers a deeply biased picture of Prop 1A.

The editorial board should know better than to write an editorial that has not been fully researched and vetted. Journalistic ethics do not end at the opinion page. The Long Beach Press-Telegram owes its readers a correction and an apology for this flawed editorial.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Prop 1A and HSR's Role in Fighting Sprawl

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

In the comments to Thursday's post we saw an old claim get revived - that somehow Prop 1A and HSR would induce sprawl. The entire argument is absurd.

If you were concerned about sprawl in the first place, you're likely to also understand the need to reduce carbon emissions, reduce pollution, and wean California off of oil. So why on earth would you argue against a project that will cut 12 billion pounds of carbon emissions per year or save 12.7 million barrels of oil every year? The Sierra Club endorsed Prop 1A after a very thorough and detailed discussion. They were satisfied that Prop 1A will not add to sprawl, and understand that we would be crazy to miss this vital opportunity to build sustainable mass transit.

This opportunity is not likely to return anytime soon if we miss it. High speed rail will help bring millions more Californians on ALL our passenger rail systems, from bullet trains to Amtrak California to commuter and urban rail. Prop 1A will provide Amtrak California and Metrolink with badly needed additional funding. Voting against Prop 1A means voting against improving alternatives to oil.

But we can go further. Sprawl is NOT a force of nature. It is a product of three factors: cheap oil, cheap credit and favorable land use laws. Cheap oil is a thing of the past. Cheap credit is, as we all know from this last week, gone as well. Even with a bailout, we are highly unlikely to see a return to the lax lending practices, fueled by cheap credit, that enabled the most recent binge of Central Valley sprawl.

As to the last point, land use rules are going to have to change regardless of Prop 1A's fate. Defeating Prop 1A isn't going to eliminate sprawl, far from it. But to eliminate sprawl, you need to provide opportunities for urban density and transit-oriented development. Portland, Oregon provides the model. Portland has strict anti-sprawl rules, but these were only successful because Portland promoted urban density. Providing passenger rail has been the key to that. In short, if you want to stop sprawl, you need to give people another option.

HSR is that other option. Without HSR Central Valley cities will have less incentive to channel development to city centers and will lack the infrastructure to make it happen even if they chose to do so.

That's not all. The state legislature is also planning to link land use, sprawl, and global warming via Sen. Darrell Steinberg's SB 375. Prop 1A contains a provision forbidding construction of a station at Los Banos, a key demand of anti-sprawl advocates. Some HSR deniers claim that doesn't mean much since the Legislature could reverse it - but the Legislature can reverse virtually anything, including CEQA, including the AB 32 global warming reduction bill. That doesn't stop us from rightly pursuing strong legislative action and defending it once we get it.

Environmental justice activist Van Jones recently explained the need to move from opposition to proposition. If you want to stop sprawl, you need to propose something better. HSR is that "something better." Folks who hate sprawl will love Prop 1A and high speed rail, one of the most revolutionary anti-sprawl measures in California history.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Palo Alto: Prop 1A is "Opportunity of a Lifetime"

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

As their neighbors to the north spend waste their time and taxpayer money on lawsuits, Palo Alto has chosen a more sensible yet visionary reaction to high speed rail. An article in the Palo Alto Weekly explains how the city is looking to Prop 1A as an opportunity to reshape and improve the rail corridor that splits Palo Alto:

The disruption happens more than 55 times a day along Alma Street: Bells clang, crossing-guard arms lower, and people and cars grind to a halt as hundreds of tons of locomotive steel approach.

The train thunders by, horn wailing, leaving wind and dust in its wake. Then life returns to normal.

One day, all that could be history if an idea being floated by some Palo Alto leaders becomes reality.

Call it visionary or call it far-fetched: They think the railroad could be put underground — in tunnels 50 feet below the surface.

If that were to happen, drivers might experience Alma as a grand boulevard in the European tradition rather than a commute corridor flanked on one side by railroad tracks and bushes.

Where tracks now lie, bicyclists would glide on paths along a greenbelt, while office workers would look out their windows as commuters drive by.

And in the tunnels underground, bullet trains would silently whisk their passengers to destinations along the Peninsula.

No more street-traffic delays due to the rail system. No more train-on-car accidents. No more fatalities.

Atherton and Menlo Park would have Californians believe that HSR will destroy their communities, but Palo Alto points out how it will help make these communities more livable. No more accidents, no more diesel emissions, no need for a wailing horn. And if Atherton and Menlo Park wish to follow Palo Alto's model, a tunnel could provide either a lovely boulevard or an opportunity for new development.

How would Palo Alto pay for this? The Palo Alto Weekly article explains it like this:

The idea could also raise a lot of money, the group contends. By selling or leasing "air rights" — rights to build on the land, without acquiring the land itself — the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board in theory might garner enough funding to pay for the added cost of undergrounding. The board owns the right of way and manages Caltrain.

"If you go along with our estimates, we get to about a half billion dollars of land value, which hopefully is the marginal difference in cost between what high-speed rail would pay for above-grade [rail] and the cost of undergrounding," Carrasco said.

The article goes on to reference Grand Central Terminal in NYC and BART through downtown Berkeley as examples of how undergrounding rail can provide financial and developmental benefits. Berkeley did wind up having to use redevelopment money and a sales tax to pay for the costs. Obviously Palo Alto residents will have to debate the details of this proposal and determine what's best for them.

Already some of the comments on the article are getting into these details. Some argue that this isn't a good use of government money in a recession, but those are the same folks who probably would have thought the Golden Gate Bridge and SF-Oakland Bay Bridge shouldn't have been built during the Depression. Californians need to start thinking about how to produce economic recovery, how to create jobs and new investment opportunities. High speed rail and Prop 1A provide those to not just Palo Alto, but to downtown San Francisco, Mountain View, San José, Fresno, Bakersfield, downtown LA, and Anaheim - and ultimately to the state as a whole.

Even if Palo Alto residents decide they can't or won't pay for undergrounding, at least they're thinking positively and constructively about their community's future. Trains have been part of Palo Alto for the city's entire history, they are the reason it exists. Passenger rail is now an obvious and necessary part of our state's future and we ought to be thinking about how we can make it work effectively and affordably. Prop 1A will provide just that kind of train service, and Palo Alto should be lauded for showing us how it can improve communities, as well as our economy, environment, and mobility.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Fiona Ma Ramps Up Prop 1A Campaign

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.

Fiona Ma is now ramping up her involvement in the campaign for Proposition 1A. This week she unveiled High Speed Rail For California. The website is a good overview of the HSR project, including a route map, a petition link, and perhaps most usefully a letter to the editor tool. We know that the Menlo Park NIMBYs have been taking a shotgun approach to LTEs, writing them to newspapers in far-flung places like Eureka. HSR supporters need to push back, especially in their local papers. Fiona Ma has given us a great tool to do that.

It's part of a wider project Fiona Ma is launching, California Rising, which describes itself as follows:

California Rising envisions a bright future for a growing, more diverse California: increased quality of life, better schools and affordable colleges, cleaner environment and the utilization of green technologies, accessible healthcare, modernization of our State's infrastructure, and an improved economic climate that creates high wage jobs.

Fiona Ma is reviving the Pat Brown vision for California. When Brown was governor in the late 1950s and the 1960s, he helped create the infrastructure that enabled California to become a global leader in innovation, where prosperity was broadly shared. Brown emphasized aqueducts, colleges, and freeways, but didn't focus much on rail. We've been living off those investments for nearly 50 years, and unless we renew them - in the context of 21st century needs - we're going to fall behind.

Fiona Ma gets that. Back in May I posted her remarks at the Ecocity 2008 conference where she explained that "it's now or never" - California must provide national leadership on sustainable transportation. It's worth putting that video up again:

Speaking of websites, you'll be soon seeing a few changes here. The pledge form is going to go away - we've had over 1200 people sign up using it and we're about to deploy some emails to those on the list informing them about various Prop 1A related activism opportunities. If you haven't filled out the form yet, go do it now!

In its place will go a kind of "greatest hits" - links to the best posts of the last six months, the posts that explain the value of HSR in the most clear and direct way.

After November 4 this site will move to its own URL, and a new blog software - either drupal or WordPress, I haven't yet decided which one. The reason I'm not doing it sooner is we have excellent search engine optimization (SEO) on this site - #3 on a google search for "california high speed rail" and the brilliant takedown of the Cox-Vranich study, Truth vs. Truthiness on Prop 1A is #4 for a "prop 1a" search. No need to mess with a good thing!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Orange County Knows Better on Prop 1A

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

In 2005 the far-right editorial board at the Orange County Register joined conservative Republicans in a deranged attack on Measure D, which would have diverted existing public safety monies to the Orange County Fire Authority to help pay for necessary fire equipment. It didn't create any new taxes, and met a need that nearly anyone who has lived in OC for any length of time agrees is real. But the Register got its way and Measure D went down to defeat. Afterward the Register and their allies, like Jon Fleischmann, celebrated its defeat.

Almost a year ago Southern California went up in flames. As the fires worsened around the region, the OCFA was left without the adequate resources to respond when the Santiago Fire broke out. Equipment that Measure D would have paid for was not available and the fire spread. My hometown of Tustin was threatened, and the fires were within blocks of where my family lives. A sudden wind change saved that community, but doomed Portola Hills. Dozens of families lost everything they had.

I wrote about this a year ago at Calitics in order to show the madness of conservative philosophy, the staggering costs of being cheap. In response to my article the Register devoted their lead editorial page to attacking me. I didn't mind, it was a nice sort of validation from the hometown paper. I was kind of shocked by how they defended their position on Measure D, which had led to the predicted and tragic results in October 2007 - by advocating against public firefighters:

A broader goal would be more privatization efforts and more private ownership of land. Private firefighting firms would have a financial interest to promote prevention, and more private ownership of land would mean better-maintained property. Private owners are far better at protecting their property than public owners, who follow an entirely different set of objectives.

That should help you understand what we're dealing with when the Register editorializes against Prop 1A. Their editorialists represent the farthest fringe of the California right-wing. They are inherently opposed to any new government spending on principle and believe that even effective services like the fire department are bad. They are quite willing to play recklessly with public safety and ignore basic social needs in order to pursue their strange agenda.

So it was a foregone conclusion that they would oppose Prop 1A. And like all the other HSR deniers in our state, their arguments are built on a lack of evidence or a complete misunderstanding of reality. The bulk of their editorial is drawn from the throughly discredited Cox-Vranich study. They go on to make a clearly false claim:

If a high-speed train were economically feasible – that is, if revenue from anticipated operations were projected to be higher than capital and operating costs – private investors would be lining up to put money into it.

Of course, as readers of this blog know, they ARE lining up to put money into it, as shown at the June CHSRA board meeting. What the ostensibly pro-business Register doesn't understand is that private investors are not going to put down money until the state does so first. Californians must make the first move by approving Prop 1A - which as amended by AB 3034 provides firm safeguards to ensure that if federal and private money somehow doesn't materialize, California voters won't be on the hook.

The editorial repeats other common flaws, such as the notion that without a strong train network we can't attract many HSR riders. Matt Melzer discredited that claim as well by showing how California compares favorably to Spain, where HSR is a stunning success. The Register claims California lacks a "train culture" which the editorialists can easily disprove if they walked about two blocks west from their offices on Grand Avenue to the Santa Ana Train Depot, where Metrolink and Pacific Surfliners do a booming business.

The irony is that Orange County voters have already rejected the Register's bizarre anti-government rantings. In 2006 voters renewed a 1/2 cent sales tax which included massive new investment in Metrolink and other passenger rail, as well as improving public transportation links to train stations. Most Orange County Republicans wholeheartedly endorse Prop 1A, including Anaheim mayor Curt Pringle, who sits on the CHSRA board.

Orange County residents will reap significant benefits from HSR. The Anaheim station, part of the first phase, will provide commuters faster trips to Los Angeles and other parts of the region via the many connecting services at Union Station. It will enable OC residents to visit family and friends in the Central Valley, the Bay Area, and yes the Monterey Bay region more easily (and vice versa). It will help sustain the Disney resort as a viable tourist destination especially as air travel becomes unaffordable for most families over the coming years (whether Disneyland tickets become affordable is unfortunately out of our hands). HSR will create good local jobs, save OC residents money, and spur long-term economic development.

Orange County knows better on Proposition 1A. I would not be surprised to see OC vote for Prop 1A come November 4. The Register can write a good rant. But increasingly OC residents are seeing the high cost of far-right dogma.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Prop 1A as Economic Stimulus

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

One of my most consistent arguments for high speed rail has been that it will provide a significant economic stimulus to our state at a time when we badly need it. Yesterday's Los Angeles Times put some flesh on that argument by examining the impact of the 2006 infrastructure bonds, which are just beginning to turn into actual projects on the ground:

Without this money, "the construction industry would be out of business," said Rich Gates, president and general partner of Silva Gates Construction in Dublin, Calif. "This is kind of the drip of the IV to keep us going."

The governor's decision to turn on the bond money tap allowed Silva Gates to bid successfully for three freeway projects in the Sacramento and San Francisco Bay areas.

Every $1 billion in public works spending creates approximately 18,000 jobs, according to a formula developed by the Commerce Department.

By that formula Prop 1A alone would create around 180,000 jobs. The California High Speed Rail Authority has been more conservative in its estimates, giving a figure of 160,000 construction jobs.

Schwarzenegger's spending plans, though substantial, won't do more than soften the blow to construction that's left thousands of houses half-built in abandoned tracts up and down the state, said Stephen Levy, director and senior economist at the Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy in Palo Alto.

"This is one of the few things that state and local government can do to help in the short run" and to invest in improvements that will be in place once the economy turns around, he said. But, "if you're down by a dollar, and this helps by a penny or two, you don't want to overstate its magnitude."

I don't disagree with that, and I don't want to overstate the matter. Prop 1A isn't going to lift the state out of recession single-handedly. But it WILL help matters and create jobs at a time when we need as many jobs as we can get - a state with a 7.7% unemployment rate isn't in a position to turn down 160,000 jobs.

Those jobs have a catalyzing effect on the economy, by the way:

Getting money quickly through the transportation planning and approval process helps the construction industry, business in general and the state as a whole because of California's need for more roads and less traffic congestion, said Dan Dunmoyer, the governor's cabinet secretary and a key liaison to industry. "It's very useful now, but we would be doing this even if our economy was roaring," he said.

"Construction jobs are what you'd call high-powered jobs," said Jack Kyser, chief economist at the Los Angeles County Development Corp. Highway projects not only pay good wages to carpenters, ironworkers and operating engineers but also create a ripple effect for a slew of people working for companies that supply building materials, heavy equipment and related goods and services, he said.

These are jobs that cannot be easily outsourced. HSR's long construction schedule is a plus for these companies, from haulers to contractor wholesalers, as well as for their employees. They all get a stable source of money that will keep them in business for many years. That in turn makes them more likely to spend on other services, from a restaurant to home furniture to a weekend vacation here in our Golden State.

Up in Washington State the rule of thumb was that one Boeing job created three jobs in the community, from waitresses to mechanics to hairstylists. Whatever the actual number here in CA, these jobs sustain small businesses and help keep money within the community and the state, which then generates more tax income - something California can't exactly afford to turn down either.

HSR has many other benefits alongside economic stimulus - providing an alternative form of travel that's environmentally friendly, reduces carbon emissions, isn't dependent on ever-rising oil prices, easing congestion on roads and airports. But the economic stimulus IS a significant part of the picture, something that Californians should find quite compelling.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Oil Prices Soar

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Up by $31 in the last couple days according to the New York Times, currently at $122/bbl. Sure, crude prices have been coming down since their July peak, but as I explained last month the long-term trend remains upward for fundamental reasons, including peak oil and the global surge in oil demand.

Even if oil prices were to level off around $100/bbl high speed rail would be a good deal for Californians. But what this recently rally reminds us is that upward pressure is still there and the days of $100/bbl are probably over. We've seen 30% year over year increases in the price of oil since 2002. As we know, this has a dramatic ripple effect throughout our transportation system. The airline crisis is one of them, as higher fuel costs lead airlines to cut routes, flights, and raise fares.

The only way out of this is to build sustainable mass transit that is fast, reliable, and not dependent on oil. High speed rail meets all those needs. We've already waited long enough - time to get started by passing Prop 1A.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

"That's A Lot of Supertrains"

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

So says Atrios, commenting on the stunning $700 billion bailout plan proposed by the Bush Administration for the financial markets. That would pay for around 17 and a half California High Speed Rails, at the current cost estimate of around $40 billion.

While something needs to be done about the credit markets, several leading economists are saying this is a bad deal. This isn't an economics blog, but you don't need an econ degree to understand common sense about our financial priorities. The US government can find $700 billion to bailout a bunch of bankers who made predictably bad loans, but we're to believe there's just no money for a relatively cheap high speed train? One that would create a significant near-term economic stimulus for California, through the creation of at least 160,000 jobs, and an even larger long-term economic boost through job creation, gas savings, lesser carbon emissions, and the green dividend.

The problem is not that HSR costs money we don't have. It never was the problem. Both California and the USA have more than enough money to build and operate HSR. No, the real issue is one of priorities. Since the 1960s this country has believed that passenger rail is not worth saving, that we would do just fine to build an economy based on freeways and ever-complex deregulated financial instruments. 2008 ought to suggest how well that worked out.

Those who criticize HSR do so because they do not believe passenger rail is a priority. They're the same people who look at a $3 billion cut to California public transportation and clap their hands. The considerable fiscal benefits don't sway them, giving Californians a real and true choice doesn't sway them, and as we saw even good old truth won't sway them.

Nobody expects to really see $700 billion spent on "supertrains" (although if it's between that and a blank check bailout, I'm for the trains). But it does suggest that if the US government can seriously consider such a move, surely it should not be difficult to find the money to build high speed rail. This nation is going to have desperate need of economic stimulus, sustainable transportation, and reliable and safe infrastructure. California high speed rail offers all of that. Rather than mortgage our nation's future to prop up the bad choices of the past, it makes so much more sense to spend some money we have now to prepare ourselves for the future.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Truth vs. Truthiness on Prop 1A

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

I've been regretting not having the time to write a thorough deconstruction of the Cox-Vranich HSR denier report. But the nice thing about high speed rail is that we have a genuine popular movement behind it. This blog is a part of that movement; whether we're a significant part or not I leave for you to decide. For example, this blog isn't just about me and what I choose to write about - we have some of the best and brightest commenters I've ever seen on a blog. They raise the level of discussion and provide the most complete insight on California's HSR project anywhere online.

One of our commenters, "mike", offered an excellent takedown of the HSR denier study in the comments to Thursday's post. I'm reproducing it here on the main page in its entirety, because "mike" does an excellent job of exposing what Stephen Colbert so memorably called truthiness - if something feels true, it is true, even if the facts don't support it at all. The Cox-Vranich study is a classic example of truthiness - it confirms the beliefs of those who already hated HSR, even though even a cursory glance shows its basic arguments to be unusually flawed.

Without further ado, here's "mike":


Robert & others:

Intellectual garbage collection is dirty work, but someone has to do it. Here is an analysis of the important points stressed by the Cox-Vranich (C-V) report:

Projected Ridership:

C-V's ridership figures are wildly inaccurate. Using C-V's preferred measure, JR Central reported 2007 ridership of 80 million passenger km per Shinkansen route km (44.5 billion passenger km / 552 km route). In the "high" scenario, CA HSRA is forecasting roughly 27 million passenger km per HSR route km (30 billion passenger km / 1,120 km route). So C-V's claim that CA HSRA is using numbers higher than those achieved on any other system in the world is absurdly false - in fact, CA HSRA's numbers are only 1/3rd of what has been previously achieved.

JR Central's Shinkansen is the densest ridership in the world. A more informative comparison would be the TGV or the new Taiwan HSR (THSR). We don't have passenger-km ridership for those lines, but we can compute passengers per route-km. The TGV Paris Southeast (PSE) line gets 45k passengers per route-km (20 million pax / 448 route-km) while the THSR gets 101k passengers per route-km (34 million pax / 335 route-km). CA HSR is forecasting a high of 80k passengers per route-km in 2030, or around 56k passengers per route-km at today's populations. This is slightly above TGV PSE but well below THSR. It does not seem unreasonable since the LA Metro Area is larger than Paris Metro Area or the Taipei Metro Area. And more importantly, the SF Bay Area is twice as large as the Kaoshiung Metro Area and four times as large as the Lyon Metro Area.

Cost Overruns:

C-V project an expected cost overrun of 33%. IMO, this is the most reasonable part of their report. There is some non-zero probability that this could happen. In contrast, their other claims are laughably inaccurate. That said, cost overruns are a potential flaw of any infrastructure project, so if they want to make their argument based on cost overruns then they have to oppose virtually all public infrastructure projects (which, being associated with the Reason Foundation, they might, though Wendall Cox does seem to love building highways).

[Note from Robert: I agree, though I think we are also right to insist that cost overruns be discussed with respect to reason and evidence. C-V treat them like some inexorable law of physics, which is nonsense.]

Operating Costs:

C-V claim that operating costs will be 4.8 cents/seat mile rather than the 3.5 cents/seat mile. This sounds troubling until you consider that the operating costs for US airlines are 11.9 cents/seat mile (April 2008), and on the short California routes they will be closer to 14-15 cents seat/mile. AAA estimates average car or truck operating costs at 17-24 cents/mile (sedan is lowest, SUV is highest) So even using C-V's own figures, HSR can undercut airlines by 65%! More likely, HSR would undercut airlines by, say, 35% and then give the additional 30% back to the state (or, in the first couple decades, use it for system expansion).

Cost of Alternatives:

C-V get really outlandish here. They use an average cost of $6 million/lane mile for highway widening projects despite the fact that most recent Caltrans highway widening projects have averaged around $20-40 million/lane mile. More incredibly, they use an average cost of only $33 million/lane mile for a new Bay Bridge despite the fact that the current one (which should be much cheaper than a future one, given their argument about escalating costs) cost $260 million/lane mile!! CA HSRA's cost projections are not going to be exact, but they will never be anywhere as wildly inaccurate as C-V.

Trip Diversions:

C-V claim that CA HSR will divert a total amount of highway traffic equivalent to only 175 lane-miles of capacity. This claim does not pass the laugh test. Using C-V's own (very low) ridership estimates, HSR will carry at least 35-46 million passenger-miles per weekday. 175 lane-miles of highway capacity is only sufficient to transport 4-5 million vehicle miles travelled per day, so by C-V's own calculations only about 1 in 10 HSR riders will be a road-diverted driver. They also claim that HSR will have limited success in capturing airline passengers, so fully 80% or more of the passengers in their ridership forecasts are induced demand! This is an incredible result that no reasonable economic model could generate. It also strengthens the case for HSR, rather than weakening it, because induced demand is better than demand captured from other modes. If HSR steals people from highways or airplanes, all that we can conclude is that it provides a product that is at least as good as those modes. But if HSR induces new travel, we can conclude that it is providing a product that is far superior to those modes, since people who before refused to use either air or highways are now being induced to travel by the new superior modal option.

Composition of Passengers:

C-V complain that CA HSRA's ridership numbers are over-optimistic because almost no one will ever choose HSR over driving for shorter, commuter-like trips (under 100 miles). At the same time, they claim that the low-speed Northeast Corridor is instructive for projecting what CA HSR ridership might look like. The NEC serves around 10 million long-distance intercity riders per year and 60 million shorter-distance, commuter riders per year. Thus the ratio of short-distance to long-distance riders is 6:1. Even if we omit Metro North's New Haven line, the NEC still serves over 30 million shorter-distance riders per year (ratio of 3:1). C-V's claim that shorter-distance riders will comprise only a trivial fraction of HSR riders is thus completely refuted by the NEC data that they themselves argue should be instructive.

In summation, given the horrible factual inaccuracies of the report (so bad that some of them must be intentional), I agree that going forward it is sufficient to dismiss anything from the Reason Foundation or these authors by simply noting that their track record on telling the truth is abysmal.

At the same, the fact that even under Cox and Vranich's own figures, HSR has a cost advantage of around 3:1 vis a vis airlines and 4:1 vis a vis cars should give us a great deal of confidence in its ability to successfully attract ridership and generate a substantial operating profit.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Nearly A Good Laugh

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

It was only a matter of time, really. Libertarian and far-right anti-tax groups in California have been unhappy about our high speed rail project for a while now, and sooner or later they were going to run into noted passenger rail hater Wendell Cox. Cox believes light rail, heavy rail, high speed rail are all inherently flawed concepts, perhaps because he takes no small amount of money from bus and highway lobbyist groups. Cox has also been associated with the conservative Reason Foundation for many years, a group that is funded by oil companies and their affiliated foundations. When Cox, the Reason Foundation, and the rabidly anti-HSR Howard Jarvis Association got together, the outcome was predictable.

That outcome was a anti-HSR report (full 190-page version here) that the Howard Jarvis Association included in their 2008 "Piglet Book". It's their attempt to put some "evidence" to their usual anti-train claims. In reality it's full of so many contradictions, half-truths, and outright nonsense that it would take more time than I have to fully refute the whole thing.

The Howard Jarvis Association in particular is coordinating a full-fledged media rollout of the study, with an op-ed in the LA Daily News that suddenly introduces a $54 billion price tag for HSR out of nowhere, to an appearance on KQED forum (Rod Diridon was there on behalf of HSR). That, alongside the media's love for stories on "government waste" should ensure this gets some traction in the press, albeit fleeting.

Reaction to the study has been swift from those who know a thing or two about rail. From our friends at The Overhead Wire:

And yes...they play the fear card.

Terrorism against rail targets is a concern considering the extent of attacks that continue to occur on rail systems around the world.

Typical of current culture warrior thinking. When you can't win with the facts, try to scare people.

The study makes some rather outlandish claims. They charge that because HSR's projected cost has risen to around $40 billion, that by the time it opens we might have to spend as much as $80 billion. It's not enough to simply look at a trend and assume it will continue on forever - you have to explain the underlying logic, as we have with gas prices. They don't. Nowhere is global inflation of construction materials or the declining value of the dollar mentioned. A gallon of gas costs 200% more in 2008 than it did in 2000, but somehow I doubt that Reason and the Howard Jarvis people would suggest we abandon cars and freeways as a result.

Their $80 billion cost estimate is pulled out of thin air - and if we use their same logic, a gallon of gas will cost between $8 and $10 by 2018 ensuring that HSR is a financial bargain.

Numerous other examples abound. They claim California isn't as favorable for HSR as Europe or Japan, even though Spain's conditions are similar to our own. They claim Acela isn't a success, but it has at least 40% of the market share on the Northeast Corridor, a stunning number for a system that isn't true HSR. Their claims about ridership aren't backed up by a close study of the assumptions that went into the CHSRA's studies - instead they say "well this doesn't compare well to Europe so it can't possibly be right?!" They say non-HSR alternatives will be cheap, that freeways can be expanded for $900 million - but it'll cost $6 billion to widen Highway 99 alone!

It goes on and on like that for 190 pages. But the details of the study aren't important to the authors and promoters, who don't expect anyone to actually read it and see the nonsense for themselves. Instead they just want to muddy the waters in the public mind by saying "boondoggle! pork! massive cost overruns!" often enough in hopes that the media will listen and repeat it for them.

We remain confident that Californians will see the value of high speed rail. While Cox and the Howard Jarvis Association quibble over numbers Californians are screaming for solutions to the airline crisis, to high fuel costs, and to the nasty economic downturn that we're sliding into head-first. They know better than to have oil company and highway lobby shills convince them to abandon California's future.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The US Senate Ready to Step Up on HSR

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

Although this blog is primarily focused on Proposition 1A through November 4, we do need to pay attention to the federal government when necessary. We've had strong indications of support from leading national politicians on high speed rail over the course of the year. Once Prop 1A passes our focus will shift toward ensuring those strong indications become firm realities. In that light it's worth spending a moment to consider a John Kerry/Johnny Isakson funding concept that the two Senators are kicking around. Kerry is of course a Massachusetts Democrat, Isakson a Georgia Republican, but together they are sounding like strong HSR supporters, as demonstrated in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution interview of Isakson on HSR:

Kerry’s office wouldn’t answer questions about the measure, dubbed the High Speed Rail for America Act, but a letter he sent to colleagues talks big: “$200 million per year in grants, $8 billion in tax-exempt bonds, $10 billion in tax-credit bonds for high-speed intercity rail facilities, and $5.4 billion in tax-credit bonds for rail infrastructure.”

Kerry and Isakson are focusing on Birmingham, Alabama to Washington, DC but this concept can apply to our own HSR project, which after November will be the closest by far to reality. Senator Isakson shows a very astute understanding of the need not just for HSR but for government involvement in getting it off the ground:

Q: Why should government be involved in this at all? If it’s really worth doing, won’t market forces lead private enterprise to make it happen?

A: Sometimes you have to make the investment in the hub if you will, like aviation, or in the spine, like in the line from Boston to New York, to then make the rest of the system viable. And, again, I don’t think general taxpayer subsidies make sense in transportation … it’s a user investment in the system they are using in turn to make an income.

This formulation may be key in bringing Senate Republicans on board - government needs to "prime the pump" and build basic infrastructure to spur private enterprise. Isakson is talking in systemic terms here, understanding the value that an HSR spine - like SF to LA - provides for the entire passenger rail system.

Now I strongly disagree with his claim that taxpayer subsidies don't make sense in transportation - they most certainly do, for without them we wouldn't have a transportation system at all. Airports and freeways require continuous subsidies to maintain operations. But let's game this out for a moment. If Isakson is willing to support federal government funding for tracks...that's pretty much all we need them for anyway. HSR generates an operating surplus "above the rail" - meaning that subsidies are either not going to be necessary for ongoing operations or they'll be costs California can handle. If Isakson doesn't want the federal government to pay for ongoing CA HSR operations, but is willing to help pay for construction costs - which is how I read his statement - then that's a deal I might be willing to take.

Isakson also understands the economic value of HSR - especially during hard economic times like these:

Q: The U.S. economy hasn’t been in such bad shape for years. Is it a little strange to be talking such an ambitious project that would cost so much at this moment?

A: The economy’s struggling now in part because of the high cost of fuel, because of the high cost of commodities, and that rolls right back into the whole transportation issue. I mean if you can reduce your dependence on oil, then the demand goes down so the price goes down.

From your lips to other Republicans' ears, Johnny. He clearly understands the connection between HSR and economic recovery. Namely, the first leads to the second.

Logan Nash at Trains for America is reserving his judgment for now:

A high-speed rail initiative in this county would be great if executed well, but we don’t want any nascent project to siphon funds and support away from our already functioning Amtrak system....The way Isakson talks seems to point to a European-style system where a public entity owns the infrastructure, which private-ish operators then rent.

In other words, the role of private enterprise in HSR is going to be a key battleground for us after November 4. I'm on record as favoring a limited role for private enterprise and am strongly opposed to giving them a place in system operations. But if Isakson is willing to agree to federal assistance for track construction and then letting the states determine the role of private enterprise, well, that would be workable.

And of course all this demonstrates that federal support for HSR is quite strong - despite what the HSR deniers would have you believe.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Sierra Club Endorses Prop 1A

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It's now official - the Sierra Club of California has voted to endorse Proposition 1A. We all knew that high speed rail would provide a major boost to California's efforts to produce environmentally friendly, sustainable, and global warming-fighting policies, and the Sierra Club's endorsement will help communicate that clearly to voters. From their Yes on 1A statement (.doc file) authored by Stuart Cohen of the Transportation and Land Use Coalition:

Sierra Club supports Proposition 1A, which would provide $9.95 billion dollars to catalyze the development of the 800 mile High-Speed Rail (HSR) system, and to make improvements to existing rail networks. Building HSR in California will reinforce our cities as the hubs of our economies, promote sustainable land use, significantly reduce global warming pollution, and get commuters off congested roads and out of crowded airports. While it is an extremely expensive project, adding the same capacity by expanding highways and airports would cost at least twice as much.

The statement also mentioned safeguards that the Sierra Club helped include in AB 3034, including the elimination of a Los Banos station and protection of important ecological areas. It also mentions the cost of doing nothing - $20 billion to bring Highway 99 to interstate standards, and far larger sums for airport expansion. They also noted approvingly that the Authority approved the goal of powering the trains with 100% renewable energy, ensuring that we get maximum carbon reduction benefits from the project and spurring development of new renewables sources.

A small number of activists in Northern California have been trying to claim that high speed rail is somehow environmentally damaging or won't bring the promised benefits. The Sierra Club of California has resoundingly rejected those arguments by backing Prop 1A - with nearly unanimous support from those who cast votes on the endorsement.

Over the last few months the urgency behind global warming action seems to have eased a bit as economic and energy concerns have dominated the public mind. But all three - environment, economy, energy - are fundamentally linked. To grow the economy and provide affordable, reliable energy we need to reduce carbon emissions and build sustainable, green infrastructure in our state.

The Sierra Club has demonstrated that it understands the importance of what Van Jones called moving "from opposition to proposition" with their endorsement of Prop 1A. It will be a pleasure to campaign for high speed rail alongside their membership.

Monday, September 15, 2008

HSR Radio Ads Hit the Airwaves

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Thanks to Michael Kiesling for bringing this to my attention. The California Alliance for Jobs - RebuildCA.org - has begun airing pro-HSR radio ads starring Will Durst. Kiesling said he heard it on KFOG 104.5 in the Bay Area this morning, which is one of the leading radio stations in the market. It's a good ad, playing on Californians' annoyance with airports, frustration with fuel prices, and desire for environmentally-friendly options to show the value of high speed trains.

The CA Alliance for Jobs are the same people who actively promoted the 2006 infrastructure bonds, and is an organization backed by many of the state's largest construction unions. Glad to see them getting involved in the campaign to pass Prop 1A!

Prop 1A Endorsements: The Good, The Bad, and The Stupid

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First, the good news. The California transit and environmental community is beginning to unite around high speed rail and Proposition 1A. Last week the board of the Transit Coalition, based out of Southern California and usually focused on improving Metrolink and Metro Rail, unanimously voted to endorse Prop 1A. One of the major statewide rail advocacy groups is about to finalize its Yes on 1A endorsement, and tomorrow we expect one of California's leading environmental groups to announce its strong endorsement of 1A as well. Apologies for the lack of specificity on the latter endorsements, but the specifics are embargoed until tomorrow, when you'll see much more detail and analysis from me.

We already knew that the CA Chamber of Commerce opposed Prop 1A, for reasons that are backward and nonsensical - after all, we already used part of the state's bond capacity in 2006 to pay for "other priorities" such as new freeway lanes. Time for passenger rail to get its share, a share that will reduce congestion and promote economic growth.

That was the "bad" endorsement. The stupid, "wow this makes no sense" endorsement against Prop 1A comes from the Media News Group of papers, which includes the Oakland Tribune and the Contra Costa Times. Their arguments are full of the usual HSR denier claims - it's as if they turned the editorial page over to Martin Engel for a day. Nowhere in the editorial is global warming mentioned, nor energy independence, nor the airline crisis. And on many of their points, they are just plain wrong. The Media News Group editorialists clearly don't know the first thing about the project, and should have remained silent instead of speaking out against the project from a position of profound ignorance.

Some of the most egregious examples:

But the costs, now estimated to be at least $43 billion, are excessive and likely to be far higher before the project is completed.

Does anyone who has followed the saga of the Bay Bridge debacle really believe the high-speed rail system will cost less than $60 billion, or $80 billion?

This is the usual argument from the anti-government crowd, that any government infrastructure project will inherently be so far over budget as to be not worth it at all. But here they show their willful ignorance. The Big Dig and the East Span of the Bay Bridge involved first-of-their-kind engineering that caused the costs to soar. Stupid political meddling - the Massachuetts Legislature in the first case, the mayors of San Francisco and Oakland in the second - also helped drive up costs. But the editorial ignored the numerous passenger rail projects around the country that have come in on time and on budget, including urban rail such as LA's Metro Gold Line extension and Seattle's Central Link light rail.

Further, while some cost overruns are inevitable with the declining dollar and rising construction materials costs, these are likely to be on the order of one or two billion. The 50% to 100% cost increase projections that the editorial throws out there are not only lacking evidence, but lacking credibility.

Besides, the timing couldn't be worse. California has many far more pressing needs. The state faces a huge budget shortfall, a weakening economy, a home foreclosure mess, a drought and the need to expand its reservoir system and repair levees.

Moreover, California's highways are among the worst in the nation. A recent study by the Reason Foundation found that California leads the nation in congestion and ranks among the worst on cost-effectiveness in spending on roads.

We are 48th in the condition of urban interstates, 41st in rural highway conditions and 44th in state highway performance and money spent on maintenance.

Wait a minute. I thought the editorialists just got done telling us how bad government infrastructure projects were. Now they want us to give government the green light to build dams and freeways? The editorialists' hypocrisy is laid bare.

As to the economic problems, high speed rail is a solution to those problems. If job losses are the concern, wouldn't the editorialists support a project that will create 160,000 construction jobs and an estimated 450,000 long-term jobs? If finances are their concern why are they ignoring the Green Dividend and leaving billions on the table? I'm all for rebuilding existing freeways, but why don't we stop the construction of new roads and lanes and rechannel that money into rehabbing what we've already got?

High speed rail will also help solve congestion problems in the Bay Area and Southern California by providing fast commuter service. The grade-separated lines will also allow commuter rail services like Caltrain and Metrolink to achieve faster speeds and quicker travel times - further reducing congestion.

Additional money is expected to come from a federal government that simply does not have it. Backers of the train also believe there will be billions in private investment. Really?

This is perhaps the most blatantly ignorant part of the entire editorial. It never ceases to amaze me how newspaper editorial pages believe that the same practices fact-checking and adherence to basic journalistic standards they enforce on every other page don't seem to apply to the editorials. We have strong indications of interest from members of Congress and from one of the presidential candidates. As to private enterprise, at the June CHSRA Board Meeting a group of potential investors explained the results of their survey of private backers, showing strong levels of interest from the private sector.

Yes, one of those was Lehman Brothers, which just went belly-up. But they weren't the only ones to indicate interest. Companies from SNCF to Alstom to Goldman Sachs all submitted statements of interest. In fact, the current financial crisis actually makes HSR a more attractive investment for capital - instead of being stuck in increasingly precarious financial instruments, or dependent on rapidly fluctuating commodity prices, HSR provides a stable and reliable source of return on investment. Rafael explained this very well in a comment from yesterday's open thread, which deserves to be put on the front page:

paradoxically, institutional investors may now be more - rather than less - interested in the opportunity afforded by California's HSR project.

Since no-one really knows when the US housing market will stabilize, lenders will be reluctant to pump more money into it for quite some time. Meanwhile, falling house prices and a low savings rate mean that US consumers will be keeping their wallets closed, which will depress stocks. On the other hand, US treasury bonds generally feature low yields.

As an investment, HSR should fall in-between these extremes of risk and reward, which makes it an attractive proposition for institutional investors. However, CAHSR still needs to make that case in a prospectus.

Exactly. Back to the editorial:

Making matters worse, Union Pacific Railroad has told the state's High-Speed Rail Authority it won't sell its rights-of-way for the planned 700-mile bullet train network.

The Authority never counted on that ROW. The plan was always to follow the UP route, up to but not over the ROW itself.

Even if the $43 billion were on hand, it would be a colossal mistake to spend it on a high-speed rail system that is likely to cost riders more than airline service and have the same security issues as airports.

More important, the number of potential riders simply does not justify the costs. The money would be far better spent on highways, schools, reservoirs and levees.

The current estimate is that a ticket on HSR from SF to LA will cost around $55. You can't get that cheap a ticket on the airlines unless you buy early and get a really sweet deal. Further, it is highly unlikely that airfares will remain where they're at. The airline crisis is already driving carriers to raise fares and fees, cut back on flights between LA and SF, and in some cases go out of business entirely. As oil prices continue to rise it is likely that airfares will cost MUCH more than an HSR ticket.

As to "number of potential riders" the editorial gives no specifics here, but soaring ridership on California passenger trains should suggest the silliness of that particular argument.

Not content with being in a deep hole, the editorialists keep on digging:

California already has a huge bond debt to pay off and certainly cannot afford to add tens of billions debt on such a questionable project.

The only kind of "good" bond debt is infrastructure bond debt, where money is borrowed to build infrastructure that lasts beyond the life of the bond, creating long-term value and spurring economic growth. HSR certainly fits that model. Should we not have built the bay bridges during the Depression? Should we not have built the State Water Project during a recession? The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst already determined the budget can afford Prop 1A. So what exactly are these editorialists talking about?

One might think by now that the high-speed rail plans for construction, operation and investment have been worked out in great detail with considerable confidence in their success. Even after spending $58 million over a decade in planning, that is decidedly not the case.

Yet voters are being asked to finance the fantasy of duplicating a 200-plus mph rail system like the one in Japan or France through the Central Valley.

But those plans ARE worked out in great detail - or do the editorialists not know how to read an EIR? Their use of "the Central Valley" is a deliberate attempt to mislead readers - the HSR line will run through much of the Bay Area and Southern California as well. There are plenty of low-population rural spaces the French TGV runs through as well, same with the Spanish AVE - California's proposed system compares quite favorably to those successful trains.

Embarking on this rail system would be highly questionable at any time, but it is particularly irresponsible now. California is in financial trouble and is in need of massive investment on a number of far more important projects.

We trust voters will place reality ahead of fantasy and soundly reject Prop. 1A's Boondoggle Express.

California is in financial trouble because we misinvested our money on a deluded and ultimately failed attempt to prolong the 20th century. The surest way to dig our financial hole deeper is to ignore environmental, energy, and economic realities and refuse to invest in the only transportation system that can thrive in 21st century conditions. We need massive investment in passenger rail if our cities and our economy is to thrive.

We trust voters will place reality and facts ahead of ignorant nonsense and soundly reject the Media News Group's stupid editorial. Instead voters will embrace Prop 1A, embrace high speed rail, and embrace the future.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Sunday Open Thread

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

Been a bit busier this weekend than I'd anticipated, so this will have to suffice for your weekend high speed rail fix. It's worth continuing the discussion on high speed rail and safety - HSR systems are among the world's safest train systems - and trains are already a safe way to travel. Crashes like the Chatsworth disaster are high-profile tragedies but driving is still more deadly - 4000 people died on California roads last year but because that doesn't happen all at once we don't notice it.

CA HSR is already going to be safer than Metrolink because for most of its route it will run on dedicated tracks. The parts where there would be some sharing with freights, like the Peninsula, can be managed with effective PTC - which federal regulators have been seeking for decades, whereas the freight rail companies are deeply resistant, preferring to risk the lives of their engineers than spend the money to ensure safety. HSR's high cost comes partly from the numerous safety protections that will be included - from PTC to grade separations. But we will have to keep a close watch on the decisions the Authority makes regarding safety implementation, and help our elected officials pressure the FRA and others to help make the right choices.

But before you discuss that or any other HSR-related issue, take the poll.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Prop 1A Would Save the Environment - and Save Billions

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The media narrative on Prop 1A is beginning to solidify - neat idea but omg the cost! This report from KCBS radio in San Francisco is a good example:

Proposition 1A represents a $10 billion state investment in a high-speed rail system and the timing couldn't be better.

Frustration with air travel, the high cost of gasoline and global warming have attracted environmental and transit advocates, municipalities and local business groups....

Despite the numerous green benefits, some local governments and the California Chamber of Commerce argue that funding such an expensive project would be irresponsible given the current budget situation.

“Having California in the very precarious budgetary situation we find ourselves… now is clearly not the time to be taking on this inordinate amount of debt,” said Jon Coupal, a spokesman for the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

KCBS is actually better than some other media reports we've seen over the last few months about conveying to listeners the major environmental benefits of high speed rail, as well as the impact on fuel costs and the superior comfort of train travel. But they give Jon Coupal, head of the far-right Howard Jarvis Association, air time to make his false claims that Prop 1A would exacerbate our state's budget crisis. That's to be expected given the media's abandonment of objectivity for "he said, she said" stenography. So we're going to have to counter his claims often between now and November.

First, California can afford Prop 1A. It will NOT make our budget deficit worse - the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office reported that the budget can handle the impact of the bonds. Also consider that the bond money won't be spent all at once, but will ramp up as construction gets going, and will likely reach a peak after 2012, when the state's annual bond payments drop significantly.

Second, the state budget is separate from Prop 1A. The deficit is NOT a product of natural causes but of a failed budgeting process. Next year, and particularly in 2010, there will be a series of moves to finally fix that budget, including an effort to eliminate the 2/3 rule and a total reassessment of how the state raises money. However the state chooses to solve the budget deficit doesn't change the fact that Prop 1A will not break the bank, not by any means.

Finally the "omg this will cost billions!" argument ignores the fact that HSR is actually a savings over all the alternatives. The cost of doing nothing is NOT zero - it'll cost between $80 and $150 billion to expand freeways and airports, and that doesn't include the impact to consumers, the economy, and yes the state budget of higher fuel prices. Nor does it include the amount of money left on the table by rejecting the green dividend.

High speed rail will save California billions of dollars. It'd be nice if the media would start reporting that as well.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Ghettoizing Rail

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

The Progressive Policy Institute released a study earlier this week calling for a major national investment in high speed rail. Their study reads like a greatest hits of the arguments we've cited repeatedly on this blog - the airline crisis, economic stimulus, environmental benefits, and transportation needs.

The study calls for massive investment in five national HSR corridors, including LA-SF. To pay for this the study proposes a dedicated source of funding - a Rail Trust Fund that would provide for HSR as well as other rail service. Its sources would include:

  • A ticket tax on all passenger rail systems, from $5 for Amtrak to $1 for commuter rails

  • Charging freight companies fees to haul along new rails

  • Encouraging state matching funds along the highway model (80 fed/20 state)

  • Proceeds from auction of cap-and-trade (I have also proposed using an outright carbon tax or congestion charge as well)

I would personally just close the Highway Trust Fund, which is obsolete, and turn THAT into the Rail Trust Fund. But the above proposals are a good starting point.

The Progressive Policy Institute, alongside numerous other think tanks, understands the importance of providing passenger rail service at fast speeds to both improve existing rail routes and provide new service where none currently exists. California's high speed rail project will accomplish both goals.

But to hear the HSR deniers tell it, we somehow don't need HSR. That's their new line of attack - HSR is unnecessary and we should not spend $10 billion on it when we could spend the money on BART to Livermore, for example. Seriously, someone proposed that as an alternative to HSR in an email to me, despite the fact that there's about a 100 to 1 difference in the number of riders the two would serve. I'd love BART to Livermore, but come on, it pales in comparison to the service benefits of HSR.

I'll be first in line to agree that we need to improve existing passenger rail service. And hey, guess what? HSR accomplishes precisely that. Those who live along the Caltrain corridor will see major service improvements to Caltrain. Eliminating grade crossings means faster service and shorter trips even on local trains. Passengers could also transfer at Palo Alto or Redwood City (whichever is chosen) to make their journey to SF or San José that much quicker.

The anti-HSR forces are dominated by Northern Californians, which is significant. Southern Californians understand the benefits of HSR, partly because their region is much larger. Anaheim, Burbank, Riverside and Palmdale are already connected to downtown LA via Metrolink and the Pacific Surfliner in some cases, but HSR would make those trips much faster. The Surfliners already connect LA to SD, but HSR will cut that travel time in half if not better - faster than driving. And instead of seeing HSR and other passenger rail as somehow opposed, SoCal rail advocates embrace both systems.

We can look abroad to see evidence of this. In France the TGVs aren't the only form of rail travel. They are well integrated with, for example, the Paris Metro and the RER regional trains. All work together to boost each other's ridership and provide different levels of service that meet most possible travel needs.

What the HSR deniers are trying to do with this "oh we don't need HSR" argument is ghettoize passenger rail and ensure that Californians are never given the chance to use it more widely and frequently than they already do. High speed rail will bring new riders to the rails, rescuing them from a collapsing airline industry and from ever-rising gas prices. The big gap in California's passenger rail network is LA-SF, one of the most heavily traveled corridors of any kind anywhere in the state. HSR would open that corridor to rail, providing a rising tide that lifts all boats and building support around the state for increased investment in rail.

The HSR deniers should be more honest about their motives. It's not that they think HSR is the wrong kind of rail - but that they don't want new rail service period. They believe, against all evidence, that California is just fine relying on planes and cars. They want passenger rail to serve a small niche and not the masses. We reject that narrow, outdated thinking. It's time for California to join the 21st century and build a real high speed train system that can get this state moving again.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Menlo Park Wants To Decide For California Whether We Have HSR

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

Menlo Park and Atherton, two of the most affluent cities in the entire state, apparently believe it is their right to make decisions for the other 36 million people in California. At a study session last night in Menlo Park city officials and residents spouted off reasons why HSR was a bad idea for California as justification for their lawsuit and resolution against the project. While one might understand the city's desire to mitigate the impact of HSR on their landscape, the tone of the debate made it clear that HSR's impact on Menlo Park wasn't the issue. Instead the forum was a chance for HSR's few opponents in this state to push their anti-HSR arguments to the media in hopes that they could use Menlo Park residents for their own purposes.

The San Mateo County Times article on the session noted that Menlo Park and Atherton are the ONLY two cities along the proposed route that oppose the project. All others support it. Further, as Rod Diridon noted, the cities along the Altamont route oppose HSR as well - yet Menlo Park wants to saddle them with a line they don't want. Cities like Fremont and Livermore are more middle- and working-class, but the wealthy residents of Menlo Park and Atherton are quite happy to override their objections to keep the trains out of their own backyard.

Menlo Park in particular also seems interested in ignoring the fundamental reality that they are, and have always been, a railroad city. The tracks that currently carry Caltrain cars have been there since before the city was founded. Caltrain runs nearly 100 trains through Menlo Park and Atherton every day. But city staff and elected officials behave as if that doesn't exist:

The staff's consistent point has been that the train should not run through the heart of a residential city, splitting east from west and forcing the removal of old-growth trees and perhaps even city and private property.

That was the argument of Elizabeth Blois, who spoke for members of the Felton Gables Homeowners Association on Tuesday in pleading for the rail association to consider the impact on their homes.

Someone should inform city staff of Caltrain's existence. The other part of this argument should be turned around on Menlo Park - if preserving a residential city is their concern, why do they support dangerous at-grade crossings? Why do they support pollution-spewing diesel trains? The loss of a small part of city and private property seems a small price to pay for safety and clean air.

Blois and others who made similar comments revealed their true motives - classic, dictionary-definition NIMBYism. Not in their backyard - but it's apparently OK to force it onto someone else, someone poorer.

Menlo Park and Atherton also are taking a stand for global warming and against carbon reduction. They are telling Californians that the property and aesthetic values of a small group of people is more important than solving our climate and energy crises. The 160,000 construction jobs and 450,000 long-term jobs that HSR would create don't faze a community that enjoys a unique level of economic security, towns that can afford to reject a green dividend.

Some of the other comments at the meeting were of the usual, uninformed HSR denier sort:

Other arguments from the public were more far-reaching. Jerry Carlson, vice mayor of Atherton, said the high-speed rail project as a whole is a waste of transit resources.

"I think a much better approach would have been to put that money into regional plans," he said.

Now, perhaps I'm missing something, but a train that whisks passengers from SF to SJ in 20 minutes sounds like a regional plan. A train that gets commuters from Anaheim to LA in 30 minutes is a regional plan.

Atherton resident Jack Ringham said the project would probably run far over budget, take years longer than predicted and attract far fewer riders annually than the 117 million the rail authority's consultants predict.

We dealt with Ringham's nonsensical claims back in June - anyone who thinks ridership on HSR will not be high is just demonstrating their lack of knowledge about passenger rail.

Vice Mayor Heyward Robinson conceded the city may not be able to stop the project altogether. If that's the case, he said, it should work with the rail authority to get key concessions. For instance, he suggested the high-speed portion of the line could stop at San Jose, and those continuing to San Francisco could simply take Caltrain.

In other words, Robinson wants to break the entire project and force people to have slow commutes just because he wants to pretend his community is not the railroad town that it has always been.

Some HSR supporters showed up to fight the good fight:

Roxanne Rorhpaugh said "the time has passed'' for debates about the Pacheco vs. Altamont alignments. She said she's certain the train can come through Menlo Park without serious damage to nearby property, but even if there were damage, "It's 12 houses versus 117 million" riders. "Do the math."

Amen to that. Menlo Park is trying to dictate terms to the rest of the state, claiming that the interests of 12 million-dollar homes are more important than fighting high gas prices, global warming, and the energy crisis. Menlo Park's neighbors Palo Alto and Redwood City aren't opposed to the train yet they too have wealthy homeowners who live near the tracks, and Redwood City in particular has a downtown that will be rather directly affected by the trains.

They understand the need to build a sustainable 21st century future that allows all Californians to share in our prosperity, allows all Californians to travel around their state. It's a shame that Menlo Park and Atherton prefer to make the state bend to the will of a few wealthy individuals. If that's not aristocracy I don't know what is.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

CA Chamber of Commerce Out to Lunch on Congestion Mitigation

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

The California Chamber of Commerce, a reliably right-wing organization, has announced its opposition to Proposition 1A, the high speed rail bond on the November ballot. Their reasoning is as follows:

“California will need to invest at least $50 billion to complete a statewide high speed rail system. There are other projects that mitigate congestion that should be a higher priority,” said [CEO Allan] Zaremberg.

First, Zaremberg's math is off. CA will invest $10 billion and the rest comes from feds and private enterprise (which will get something in return - isn't that what the Cal Chamber is all about?). Nobody is talking seriously about $50 billion, at least nobody outside the usual HSR denier groups.

But I want to instead focus on the notion that "other projects" are the solution. Such as?

Seriously. What "other projects" would these be? Shouldn't they be specifying what they would do with the money instead of just saying "nope, sorry, not gonna do it"?

We can get a sense of what the Cal Chamber probably supports from Lee Harrington, chairman of the Southern California Leadership Council, a group of businessmen. Harrington was on KQED Forum back in May with Quentin Kopp and also said we should use the bond money for other priorities. Here was my take on Harrington:

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.

Harrington does not speak for the Cal Chamber but it seems reasonable to assume that his reasoning is similar to that used by the Cal Chamber to oppose Prop 1A. The Cal Chamber prefers to see freeway widening, more airport gates, and more port capacity. The latter is all well and good but won't help move passengers around the state. And as we have repeatedly explained here, expanding freeways and airports will cost between $80 and $150 billion, double to quadruple the cost of HSR.

And those projects are not likely to successfully mitigate congestion. Few airports in the state have room to expand, and the same holds true for the freeways. The phenomenon of induced demand suggests that to try and build your way out of congestion is to chase a mirage. HSR provides certainty on congestion management by getting people out of cars and plans and into a new, fast, convenient alternative.

As many California businesses are aware, high fuel costs are eating into their profitability and causing them to lay off workers. High speed rail helps provide stable passenger transportation costs, saving them money. It also provides greatly expanded commuter rail capacity, especially on the most heavily traveled routes in the Bay Area and Southern California.

The Cal Chamber is turning its back on jobs, profits, and economic growth by opposing Prop 1A. High speed rail will create 160,000 immediate jobs and in the long-term create at least 450,000 more. It will help produce a green dividend that will grow the economy by freeing up money not spent on gas to be spent elsewhere, including in businesses that are members of the Cal Chamber.

As a rather ideologically conservative organization the Cal Chamber's opposition should not be that surprising, and although it's nonsense it will also not likely affect Prop 1A's fate. The far more interesting endorsement discussion is instead happening within the Sierra Club. We'll have more on that one tomorrow.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Green Dividend

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

In contrast to the usual arguments that high speed rail will cost this state billions and provide nothing in return, this blog has consistently argued that high speed rail is a smart investment that will save Californians money over the more costly alternatives, and will provide us with new economic opportunities and savings.

Thanks to a link at The Overhead Wire we now have some evidence to suggest the economic benefits of sustainable transportation. It's being called the Green Dividend and is based on the successful example of Portland, Oregon, where sustainable and green transportation policies have saved residents $2.6 billion. The ripple effect throughout the local economy has made Portland one of America's leading cities, and provides a model that California would do well to emulate.

From the short paper by Joe Cortright:

Portland, OR, has acquired a reputation as the nation’s greenest city. For many, this green streak is viewed as a sort of environmental hair-shirt. Portlanders deprive themselves of prosperity in the name of saving the environment. Skeptics view biking, transit, density and urban growth boundaries as a kind of virtuous self-denial, well meaning, but silly and uneconomic. Critics see the seeds of economic ruin. They claim planning, policies and regulations that restrict use or access to resources impede growth and lower household income.

Similar claims are frequently made about high speed rail - that we'll be pouring some $40 billion down a hole and get nothing in return for it, a "train to nowhere" in the minds of some. But that thinking is as flawed for CA HSR as it is for Portland.

Cortright's argument is that since Portlanders have a shorter commute than the US average - 4 miles less - that translates into actual money saved, money that isn't spent on commuting and that can be respent throughout the economy:

Four miles per day may not seem like much, but do the math. The Portland metro area has roughly 2 million residents. If Portlanders traveled as much as the typical U.S. metro resident, that would produce 8 million more vehicle miles per day or about 2.9 billion more miles per year. A conservative estimate of the cost ofAll told, the out-of-pocket savings work out to $1.1 billion dollars per year. This works out to about 1.5 percent of all personal income earned in the region in 2005.

This is a good minimum estimate of the aggregate economic benefits—the green dividend—that Portland area residents enjoy as a result of land use planning and related environmental policies. But the benefits don’t stop there. Since Portlanders don’t spend that money on transportation, they have more money to spend on other things. Because so much of what is spent on transportation immediately leaves the state — Oregon makes neither cars nor gasoline — money not spent on transportation gets spent on sectors of the economy that have a much larger local multiplier effect. (Think locally-brewed beer.) According to IRS data, about 73 percent of the retail price of gas (back when it was under $2 a gallon, by the way) and 86 percent of the retail price of cars is the “cost of goods sold,” which immediately leaves the local economy. The $1.1 billion Portlanders don’t spend on car travel translates into $800 million that is not leaving the local region. Because this money gets re-spent in other sectors of the economy, it stimulates local businesses rather than rewarding Exxon or Toyota.

The economic value of the time saved is $1.5 billion, which is where Cortright gets his $2.6 billion figure. Portland is not a physically large place - about 2 million people live in the metro area - so one would figure that the economic benefit to Californians of similar miles driven savings would be much larger.

This is one of the core arguments for high speed rail - it will save Californians money. As fuel prices increase the cost of airfare and driving increases a well. Without a high speed rail alternative all that money gets taken out of the California economy - we only have one auto manufacturing plant, in Fremont, and even though Chevron is headquartered in San Ramon their massive profits are spread around global investors. If high oil prices were a boon to the California economy we'd certainly be seeing the effects right now. That we're instead sliding into recession should suggest the true costs of oil dependence.

"Green Dividend" could be put another way - "economic stimulus." Unlike a one-off check from the US Treasury, or offshore drilling that will produce no savings and no income (and even no gas) for Californians, high speed rail will help stimulate our economy by freeing up billions of dollars that are currently being wasted on commuting for other things - to sustain small businesses, afford housing or health care, start a new business, innovate something new.

Those who oppose Prop 1A have NO answer to this argument. They're going to leave billions of dollars in annual savings and economic stimulus on the table. And for what? To continue the failed and economically ruinous policies of the 20th century? Some argue that we're better off relying on alternatively fueled cars. But to sustain that demand we'd need at least $80 billion in freeway and roads improvements, the R&D costs and price to the consumer of those vehicles will not be cheap, and who knows how long it will take to develop these promising technologies.

Whereas HSR is off-the-shelf technology - it is ready to go right now. We don't need a long and unpredictable R&D schedule. We don't need to spend $80 billion on new freeway lanes - we can spend (as a state) an eighth of that on Prop 1A.

High speed rail's green dividend is substantial, and represents an opportunity to secure California's economic future that cannot be missed.