Sunday, November 30, 2008

CHSRA Board Meeting in San José on Wednesday

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

The California High Speed Rail Authority will be holding its first post-election board meeting this Wednesday in San José. The agenda is online (PDF) and includes mostly housekeeping matters, although there will be an update on the federal funding strategy.

The meeting details:

December 3, 10:00 am
Santa Clara Administration Building
Board Chambers
70 West Hedding Street
San Jose, CA 95110

At this point it doesn't look like I will be able to attend, even though it's only an hour or so away. If there's anyone reading who can attend and provide a report, send me an email - my last name at gmail dot com.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

California Rapid Rail Dreamin'

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

One of the wonderful things about walking down memory lane is that you stumble upon nuggets showing how California has come full circle. Before WW2, Los Angeles and Orange county already had a well-developed network of Red Car trolleys, forerunners of modern light rail.

There is a persistent myth that GM, Standard Oil and Firestone conspired to dismantle the Red Car lines so transit companies would be forced to buy diesel buses instead. The more prosaic truth is that the Pacific Electric company was a loss leader for a real estate tycoon, Henry Huntington. Having made his fortune, he let the quality of service go downhill. The war effort brought rapid growth to Southern California and, the new arrivals had no choice but to live in areas not served by Red Car lines. Planners quickly came to rely on roads and the internal combustion engine to provide residents with the mobility they needed and craved. What had been a rail culture turned into a car culture.

So why am I talking about this on a High Speed Rail blog?

Two reasons:

  1. high speed rail is to short-haul flights as trolleys were to buses (or modern light rail is to bus rapid transit, h/t to DoDo). The pros and cons are comparable, albeit at different speeds and distances. There is no doubt that flying is the more economical choice for truly long distances, in terms of both fare price and the opportunity cost of time spent in transit. Only hard core railfans and pteromechanophobes wax lyrical about spending several days in the comfort of an Amtrak train trundling across the country. At truly short distances in rush hour traffic, subways and light rail reign supreme. It is the middle ground of distances from 30 to roughly 500 miles that HSR will contest in California - with every chance of gaining significant market share.
  2. California voters have decided that the pendulum has swung too far in favor of oil-based mobility and want to redress the balance. The recent rapid run-up in the price of oil triggered the collapse of the housing bubble, forcing US taxpayers to take on over $1,000,000,000,000 in new debt. Add to that the cost of the war in Iraq, which at least indirectly was about retaining access to oil: ka-ching another $500,000,000,000 or more including long-term care for veterans, all on future generations' credit card. That's a whole lot of zeros. The experience has brought the risks inherent in relying on a single source of primary energy, crude oil, into sharp relief. Concerns about anthropogenic climate change come on top of the already known costs of an excessive dependence on crude oil.

Reducing the need to travel and switching to electric vehicles is now in vogue. In the US, most efforts to date have focused on various degrees of electrification of the automobile, but the required batteries must meet multiple conflicting design objectives: high capacity, high power over a wide range of ambient temperatures, life expectancy same as vehicle, crash safety and affordable price tag. You can have any 5 of these 6. Other developed countries have long focused on electrification of their rail networks instead - the technology is ready and proven. That infrastructure is also expensive but funding is collective rather than individual. With proper maintenance, overhead catenaries will last for many decades.

Bottom line: at intermediate distances, electric high speed rail delivers fast service, capacity high enough to avoid expensive airport and freeway expansions, zero tailpipe emissions, excellent safety and, reduced dependence on crude oil in favor of electricity - all at affordable fare prices. CHSRA has gone one further and committed to running all of its trains on renewable electricity.

In the specific case of the US, there are two major stumbling blocks. First, rail is now used primarily for slow, cheap but profitable heavy freight at interstate distances. The infrastructure is owned by competing freight companies, with some trade in trackage rights. Only a few sections of the US rail grid are publicly owned, e.g. the North East Corridor, the Caltrain SF peninsula corridor and, the Alameda freight corridor in LA. Passenger rail volume is very modest by international standards and, taxpayers have long resisted investing in something that only works well if it is perceived as a public service, rather than as a commercial enterprise.

Second, the Federal Rail Administration (FRA) has defined rules that minimize overheads for heavy freight operators. Rather than spend a lot on maintenance, they just keep running a little more slowly every year. They stick with very old, winding alignments with little or no track superelevation to avoid the massive investments needed to support higher speeds. They avoid upgrades to signaling, preferring instead to rely on passive crash safety at low speeds. They do not voluntarily invest in grade separations, diesel exhaust gas aftertreatment or electrification. They even convert dual back to single track alignments and abandon underutilized rights of way altogether, because this reduces their property tax bill. They don't stick to a timetable. The reason for all this is simple: bulk freight customers won't pay a premium for higher speed. All of this works against the provision of effective passenger rail services, as well as regional rail freight of high value goods.

Specifically, the most onerous rule relates to mixed traffic, which in FRA lingo means letting off-the-shelf lightweight rolling stock designed to UIC standards (a.k.a. non-compliant) share track with much heavier equipment that is FRA compliant. By default, this is totally prohibited. Officially, FRA claims its rules improve rail safety. Caltrain has recently shown that the non-compliant electric multiple unit (EMU) rolling stock it would like to migrate to performs as well or better than FRA-compliant equipment in crashes involving road vehicles at grade crossings. The unofficial reason for the mixed traffic rule is that freight operators do not want to invest in the signaling and emergency train control upgrades needed to avoid train-on-train accidents in busy corridors.

One way to address this is to build new rail networks dedicated to rail services other than heavy freight. Typically, that means passenger-only solutions. Examples include subways, light rail, BART and now California HSR. Such systems are allowed to operate non-compliant equipment under a waiver because there is no risk of train-on-train collisions with 15,000 ton heavy freight trains. However, as the recent tragic crash in Chatsworth proved yet again, no amount of crash buffer zones can protect drivers and passengers at even moderate relative speeds. As a result, HR 2095 now mandates the installation of positive train control (PTC) on many corridors on the US national grid by 2015.

Europe and Japan take a different approach to rail safety, one that relies on substantial public investments in track, signaling, rolling stock, maintenance and operator training to avoid accidents. Passive safety is no more than a complement to fall back on if all else fails. The reasoning behind this philosophy is that they consider all rail service, passenger as well as freight, to be to some extent a public service. The intent is to keep people from dying on the roads, to avoid massive investments in road infrastructure and, to reduce exposure to crude oil - almost all of which these countries need to import. Air quality concerns play a subordinate role, the primary focus in on passenger service.

Fortunately, the geography of Europe and Japan lends itself to hauling bulk freight by sea or inland waterways, so rail freight is focused on competing against trucking for relatively fast and punctual delivery of high-value goods, e.g. livestock, foodstuffs, mail/parcels, car parts and cars. In addition, there is the objective of getting trucks off the roads, e.g. in the Alps. Switzerland, Austria/Italy and France/Italy are each working on very long base tunnels to speed freight rail to make it more competitive. Other tunnel projects, such as the Seikan in Japan and the Channel Tunnel in Europe, are focused primarily on replacing slow passenger ferries.

While California HSR is a very worthwhile project in its own right, it also recognizes that passengers rail only works when its stations are in downtown locations with connecting transit and/or within comfortable walking distance of destinations such as large agglomerations of offices, sports stadiums, mega-malls or high-density residential districts. Unfortunately, seismic building codes and the predominance of the automobile have favored low-density development in most areas of the state. In addition, true HSR (top speeds of 186mph or more) can only serve a very limited number of stations because it takes quite a while to reach high speed. Commuter rail and regular-speed intercity trains are supposed to act as feeders into the HSR network. Roughly 10% of proposition 1A funds are reserved for capital investments in existing providers of such services.

However, in order to really drive passenger rail ridership, a bolder approach is needed. If you disregard the very sparsely populated regions north of Sacramento, the Sierras, the Mojave desert and the central coast between Salinas and San Luis Obispo, California is actually quite comparable to many European countries in terms of population density. That means their rail network model and associated philosophy may well make a lot of sense within this one state (with the possible inclusion of the city of Las Vegas). The implication is that it may make sense to develop a rail safety and funding model that permits both heavy freight and other forms of rail service to co-exist by sharing track.

To coin a term, I've called this concept "rapid rail" to distinguish it from the prevailing notions of freight and HSR as animals that must be kept strictly separate at all times. The middle ground, which would be appropriate in many parts of the state, is to find a regulatory path to permit mixed traffic not as an exception but as the rule. The idea is to use existing freight tracks where they permit high speeds, such that only some sections require brand-new tracks. Achieving this will require the following:

  • new FRA rules spelling out the safety measures that must be implemented and enforced on network segments designated as "rapid rail". Sub-classes would permit all traffic, prohibit heavy freight, prohibit heavy and medium freight or, prohibit all freight for light cargo and passenger service only. Each segment on a rapid rail network would be mapped to one of these classes as appropriate.
  • public-private partnership (PPP) between the state and the freight operators plus Caltrain that owns the infrastructure. BART could join this partnership by installing gauge change stations at selected locations, plus retrofits to its rolling stock. The PPP would enjoy a 30-year monopoly franchise co-ordinating all planning and funding of infrastructure projects including both new alignment construction and, upgrades to and proper maintenance of the legacy portions. It would also be party to road, local transit, electric grid and urban densification planning. In terms of operations, it would act as the sole dispatcher of all heavy rail traffic, based on a timetable with adequate slots for heavy freight. It would be very counterproductive to favor passenger rail to such an extent that rail freight loses market share to trucking.

In addition, rapid rail segments would be gradually electrified at 25kV AC single phase @ 60Hz over a number of decades. Priority would go to long tunnels, sections affected by poor air quality and, high-volume commuter corridors suffering severe rush hour congestion. The latter creates pressure to invest in freeway upgrades, carries high opportunity costs due to loss of productive time and, high dependence on oil. Rail operators would need mandates and fiscal incentives to invest in two-mode locomotives or self-propelled trainsets to take immediate advantage of partial electrification of their routes. If it were to link to the standard gauge grid, BART would of course retain its third rail DC electrification.

A very important concept in this context is that HSR is not BART. While it is intended for true bullet trains, lightweight diesel or electric rolling stock could use the same tracks in the sections where the bullet trains don't run at more than 125mph anyhow. In particular, Caltrain, Metrolink, ACE and NCTD could - if they wanted to - choose to operate such purely regional HSR trains, using either fast DMU/EMU self-propelled rolling stock or even plain old locomotives such as this one:

To illustrate what I mean, I have created two maps showing in detail what this shift in regulatory philosophy and operational practice could help bring about. The first Rapid Rail map has three pages. Scroll down the icon list on the left if you want to see them all (btw, Google Maps has some bugs and sometimes fails to show everything at the first attempt). I encourage you to zoom in on details of interest to you and, to read notes I've attached to named lines and icons.

  • Page 1 shows an extensively built out rapid rail network for Northern California and the Central Valley. Highlights include:

    • HSR approach to SF via 101 freeway median (sacrifice traffic lanes but avoid cost of DTX tunnel)
    • loop track on 2nd floor of SF Transbay Terminal, buses in basement
    • dual tracks across Bay Bridge (sacrifice a traffic lane on each deck, not certain if bridge can take the load)
    • standard gauge rail-around-the-Bay. In the East Bay, this leverages an existing unused ROW adjacent to BART between the Union City and San Leandro stations. The section between Niles and hwy 262 would require a viaduct directly above UPRR and/or BART tracks. The nearby Hayward fault would complicate the civil engineering design.
    • a detour track past Oakland airport
    • a bypass route along hwy 4
    • a standard gauge intermodal station at Concord NWC (important intermodal with BART North Concord, eliminates need for eBART)
    • connection with CV towns via downtown Tracy
    • Amtrak San Joaquin moved to UPRR ROW
    • Altamont Pass connector (may eliminate need for BART extension to Livermore)
    • a new Capitol Corridor alignment via Vallejo
    • spur to Santa Rosa
    • spur Napa Valley
    • a new bridge and access segments to a loop track to Sacramento Airport terminals
    • alternative implementation of Sacramento HSR station to permit adjacent run-through tracks for rapid rail feeder trains (see Page 3 for details)
    • a Caltrain extension to Hollister
    • a new fast alignment from Gilroy to Monterey Cannery Row
    • a spur up to Santa Cruz Boardwalk along hwy 1.

    Note that the Benicia rail bridge and the western and northern approaches to it would become a dedicated freight corridor shared by UPRR and BNSF (cp. Alameda corridor in LA)

    For clarity, the complementary BART network is not shown.

  • Page 2 shows

    • a sped-up alignment for the Central Coast corridor routed inland around Vandenburg AFB. Check the Terrain view to see where this calls for the construction of new tunnels. Two-mode locomotives will be needed for the one near Solvang.
    • a rapid freight corridor between Bakersfield and Sylmar based on new tracks in the hwy 99 median plus a 48-mile base tunnel through the Grapevine. Electric traction would be mandatory in the tunnel, which heavy freight trains could easily traverse at speeds of well over 100mph in less than half an hour without expending a drop of diesel fuel. Similar long rail tunnels exist in Japan (Seikan), under the Channel between France and the UK and are in preparation in Switzerland (St. Gotthard), Austria/Italy (Brenner), France/Italy (Montblanc) and Spain/Morocco (Straits of Gibraltar). This one through the Grapevine would be the longest in the world, though and cross two active faults deep underground (cp. seismic risks of Seikan and Straits of Gibraltar tunnels).
    • dual standard gauge tracks across the Richmond-San Rafael bridge (at the expense of two precious traffic lanes, not certain if bridge can take the load)
    • a cargo distribution yard in the Concord NWC
    • a detour and freight/cargo access tracks to Castle Airport, if that is ever upgraded to commercial service for long distance passenger, dedicated cargo and heavy lift aircraft
    • SMART extensions to Tiburon and Sonoma town
    • a new HSR feeder network in the Visalia region
    • a new loop line in the Van Nuys area based on an old ROW
    • some railyards and other details

  • Page 3 shows details of my alternative concept for the Sacramento station. I would hate for that city to repeat LA's mistake of creating a terminus station without run-through tracks.

The second Rapid Rail map shows various options for getting around Southern California and over to Las Vegas. Please note in particular:

  • alternative #1: Anaheim - San Diego via existing tracks to San Juan Capistrano and new tracks in the I-5 median to Torrey Pines
  • alternative #2: Victorville - San Bernadino - Ontario - Anaheim - San Diego using upper floor tracks of Anaheim ARTIC that were intended for maglev to Las Vegas.

    Features new alignments on hwy 57 median and through Cajon Pass intended for passenger service for light/medium but not heavy freight.
  • loop to get from upper to lower floor tracks at ARTIC for direct LA US - San Diego service using this second option
  • alternative #3: Corona - San Diego (Balboa Park) via I-15 and hwy 163.
  • new Metrolink routes: LA US - Long Beach airport, LA US - Disneyworld - Anaheim loop. Long Beach airport could also be accessed by Orange County Metrolink routes that do not involve LA US. Electrified tunnels in both segments, two-mode locomotives required.
  • Victorville - Las Vegas as per Desert Xpress plans, i.e. privately funded and based on diesel trains at 125mph. Electrification optional but very highly recommended if alignment permits higher speeds that way. Consider mounting power distribution lines on the catenary masts to help defray the cost.
  • Mojave - Barstow connector to HSR starter line to permit access from Las Vegas to Palmdale airport, the Central Valley and Bay Area/Sacramento. Dual-mode trainsets using both HSR and Desert Xpress tracks must be capable of 186-220mph in electric mode, even if they are limited to 125mph when running on diesel.

UPDATE: I've added a third new map showing the option of a new Richmond - San Rafael rail bridge (h/t to David S.)

Of course, all of this goes well beyond the immediate objective of getting the HSR starter line built such that FRA permits the use of off-the-shelf non-compliant but proven trainsets on it. With its target top speed of 220mph, California HSR will immediately become one of the premier HSR services in the world.

My objective here was simply to point out future possibilities and especially, the conversion of traffic lanes on Bay Area bridges to standard gauge rail tracks. Getting to a judicious mix of car and rail cultures will require sacrificing some actual and potential freeway capacity. Also, a viable rail culture must absolutely meet the legitimate needs of the entire spectrum of rail operators, from passenger to heavy freight.

Friday, November 28, 2008

High Speed FAIL!

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

Most of the time, discussions on this blog are altogether too serious. I have tried to make up for this lack of levity by submitting ever-longer verbiage of my own in the comments. A few days ago, Robert Cruickshank kindly decided to invite me to submit posts of my own, perhaps in the forlorn hope that I will at least acquire an appreciation of brevity. So here goes:

The townsfolk of Sables D'Olonne are apparently well-connected in high places. SNCF now runs TGV trains directly from Paris. The last section from Nantes to their town isn't electrified, so the trains are towed by a diesel locomotive. All just so the tourists can avoid a transfer.

Not to be outdone, DB runs high-speed tilting diesel trains called ICE-TD with a top speed of 200kph (125mph) on the winding legacy tracks in East Germany. They also come in handy on the Hamburg-Copenhagen route. Until the Fehmarn Belt bridge is completed in 2018, very slightly more modest speeds are involved.

Further east still, Russian military intelligence officers came up with their own version of high speed rail. It avoided not only electrification but also the expense of having to construct actual tracks. Apparently, they are hoping for orders from China.

Aviation of a different kind was apparently the objective of this young man. I don't think this is quite what CHSRA has in mind, though.

UPDATE: apparently, reports of his death have been greatly exaggerated (h/t to Loren). If true, he is just really, really eager to win a Darwin Award. Perhaps this sort of thing is best left to machinima artists.

On a real-world note that is only marginally lighter, how's this for transit-oriented development?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving Open Thread

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

According to the San Francisco Chronicle holiday travel was unusually light at SFO yesterday - the economic crisis keeping more folks at home? Perhaps people chose to drive to their in-state destinations but as anyone who has tried Interstate 5 around a holiday knows, the two lanes get backed up very fast. It once took me 10 hours to make it back to Berkeley from Santa Ana the day after Christmas on I-5 - nearly twice the usual travel time.

Obviously you know where I'm going with this. Ten years from now travelers won't have to choose between expensive airfares, costly and time-consuming car trips, or staying home for the holidays. High speed rail will provide a fast and affordable way to visit your family or friends. I can only imagine the TV reports from November 2018 - busy scenes at the Transbay Terminal, Diridon Station, LA Union Station.

Ten years from now high speed rail will become part of the fabric of everyday life in California. We'll wonder - rightly - how we ever got along without it.

And what am I thankful for? The 6,512,189 Californians who voted to make HSR a reality by passing Proposition 1A earlier this month.

Enjoy your Thanksgiving, everyone.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Yes, California, We Can Build It By 2018

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

Steve Hymon, who runs the Bottleneck Blog for the LA Times, expressed some skepticism about whether the SF-LA line will be open by 2018, as a Daily Cal article reported. Hymon writes:

Not to be a grumpy bear on this -- I know there's a lot of people that want to see the trains up and running -- but I think the odds of the system running in a decade are long. First, there's the little issue of coming up with the $33 billion that the California High-Speed Rail Authority says the project will cost (and some people say that's a low-ball estimate). The bond passed by California voters earlier this month was only for $9.95 billion.

"Some people say" is pretty poor journalism, first of all - those "some people" are the thoroughly discredited Reason Foundation and the Howard Jarvis Association.

Second, if you're going to base skepticism over project delivery on funding, shouldn't you mention the John Kerry HSR funding proposal? Or Obama's $500 billion economic stimulus? Funding isn't certain but it sure looks likely. Skepticism is fine, but readers are still owed informed and complete reporting. He continues:

And then there's this: Look at how long it takes just to build a few miles of light rail. Take, for example, the Expo Line, which is planned to run from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica, a distance of some 15 miles. Construction began in 2006 and the first 8.6 miles may be done by 2010, with the remainder by 2015. That's nine years to build 15 miles of light rail, versus a decade to build 400-plus miles of 220 mph rail.

This claim doesn't seem to reflect some factors about the high speed rail project that separate it from something like the Expo Line. First, the Expo Line's phased construction is partly due to funding issues faced by the MTA. Measure R, combined with a federal stimulus, could accelerate the delivery of the final phase. Second, the Expo Line involves building entirely new tracks through an urban center. HSR doesn't. It will involve grade separations and new tracks, but those will come next to existing rail corridors. And the bulk of the route will be built outside urban areas.

More importantly, the 2018 date is not some random number. The California High Speed Rail Authority's 2008 Business Plan explains that it will take 8 years to complete final design and construction. The timetable laid out in that document uses 2012-2020 as the timeline, but Quentin Kopp has recently suggested that the Program Level EIR/EIS process and preliminary engineering could be complete by July 2010 - in which case, the 2018 target date is entirely appropriate.

Sure, the CHSRA might not make that target date. But the way Hymon reported this claim made it sound like 2018 was pie-in-the-sky boosterism, when in fact it's sourced and reasonable.

Do you really think high-speed rail can happen that quickly? Making big promises is a good way to get the public excited. It's also a good way to make them cynical when those promises fail to materialize.

The same is true of the media, which frequently makes readers and citizens cynical about government programs or passenger rail projects by casting them in an unfair light. The Metro Gold Line Extension is being delivered on-time and on-budget even though it involves a tunnel under East LA. Seattle's Central Link light rail project is going to be delivered on-time and on-budget even though it too involves a significant tunnel (under Beacon Hill) and creating a light rail ROW in the middle of a busy urban street (Martin Luther King Way).

Even on a blog, I'd prefer that members of the media focus on reporting the facts in a complete and fair manner, instead of trying to push one's own skepticism.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

California As Model For the Rust Belt?

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

So argues Ryan Avent:

High-speed rail would, in other words, turn Rust Belt distances into northeast corridor distances, while also shifting the Rust Belt closer to the northeast corridor. It would increase the return to doing business in every city in the region. It would be the Erie Canal and the original railroads on steroids.

And here’s the thing — California is estimating that its 800-mile high-speed rail network will cost it about $45 billion over twenty or so years. The actual cost will probably be higher than that, and a Midwest network would be larger and therefore more expensive, but the total cost is in the same ballpark as the $50 billion in aid automakers are begging for (which wouldn’t even be spread out over a period of years).

Avent's questions come in the context of assessing the proposed auto industry bailout, but it's a worthwhile reminder of the economic stimulus value of high speed rail. It can help a struggling region grow its economy through proximity to regions that are doing better. Affordable and rapid transportation that connects the Bay Area to Southern California, the Central Valley to the rest of the state, Orange County to LA and Silicon Valley to downtown SF, generates its own form of economic stimulus.

HSR's value is that it provides fast trains over long distances. It's not just upgrading existing commuter rail corridors, although that's part of it and is quite valuable. It's also providing new forms of transportation service along routes where it either doesn't exist or is inefficient. (I love you, Coast Starlight, but you're not exactly an efficient passenger rail solution to north-south travel.) That means economic growth that gets generated in one place can have beneficial effects on other parts of the state. In the past the only economic ripple effect has been sprawl - Silicon Valley-fueled growth of housing markets in Modesto, for example, which was not sustainable economically or environmentally. HSR provides a very different kind of economic networking that is more fruitful for the entire state.

Another argument to keep in mind as we prepare to take the HSR fight to Capitol Hill...

Monday, November 24, 2008

Fast Tracking Infrastructure Stimulus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 23, 2008

False Dichotomies

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

In the dustup over the ridiculous Ben Adler article and the even more inane TAPPED post about Adler's article, a couple of very good points have been made about how we talk about transportation and the need to avoid reinforcing false dichotomies that undermine our goals.

One of the primary things this blog was founded to accomplish is to provide the accurate information about high speed rail that is so sorely lacking in this state. I've had the benefit of attracting some brilliant commenters like Rafael who know the technical aspects of this inside and out. The quality of the discussions here helps all of us promote and support HSR. It's the kind of info that The Overhead Wire explains is fundamental to successful transit advocacy. Especially from the news media, we get buried under an avalanche of misinformation and opinions based on incorrect facts.

We scored a major victory over those tactics by getting Prop 1A passed. There really is a huge reservoir of support in California for mass transit and passenger rail in particular. The idiotic 2/3 rule aside, 67% of voters in LA County, Santa Clara County, and the North Bay - three of the most populated parts of the state - voted for local rail service. If we are to sustain that energy and turn it into steel in the ground, into actual passenger trains, we need to continue working on pushing out the right information so that Californians and their leaders will implement the solutions we voted for on November 4.

We also need to make sure we don't fall into traps. Ben Adler did that by setting mass transit up against itself. Bruce McF offered an excellent comment on this subject:

It is not unreasonable to ask the question of spending priority, but it is always unreasonable to ask the questions in terms of setting priorities between different transport modes that happen to use the same technology.

That is, the following system makes no sense at all:
1. $X set aside for rail. Allocate between light rail, mass transit, regional passenger rail, and freight rail.
2. $Y set aside for roads. Allocate between city streets, industrial parks, state highways, federal highways, freeways.

And in perpetuating that process of proposing to establish a priority rankings within pools based on technology instead of based on transport task, that is precisely what Ben Adler is supporting.

When divided up by transport task, the money required for the HSR line is substantially less than the money required for the available alternatives ... road and air.

HSR's rivals aren't BART, Caltrain, Metro Rail, or local buses. Those services are our allies and for HSR to be successful, they must be successful. No, the real problem is a political system that continues to favor sprawl and cars even though long-term oil price increases remain likely.

HSR is a solution to failed priorities and a failed developmental model. HSR is a cost-effective solution to the problem of how to move millions of Californians around the state. Let's make sure that message, and the other reasons for HSR, get a wider airing over the coming months.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Weekend Open Thread

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

On the Coast Starlight #14 yesterday one of the old California Zephyr Dome Cars from the 1950s was attached at the back of the consist. On board were a bunch of Cal alumni headed up to the Bay Area for the 111th Big Game this afternoon. (Go Bears!) There are a bunch of Cal alums living down in Southern California, many of whom like to travel up to watch the annual Big Game whether it's in Berkeley or Palo Alto.

In addition, there are plenty of sports fans that often travel between north and south following their teams - Dodgers fans going to SF for a game, Raider fans going to San Diego, Trojan and Bruin fans going to the Bay Area, Kings and Ducks fans going to the Shark Tank, and of course the intense rivalry between the Lakers and Sacramento Kings (and I'm sure Warriors fans travel too).

Those trips are all made much, much easier with high speed rail. Most of the stadiums for these teams are very easily reached by transit, and many are close to proposed HSR stations. The Shark Tank is literally across the street from Diridon Station. Just as BART gets heavy ridership on game days, I am sure that California sports fans will find HSR to be a godsend. Leave work an hour early in LA and be in SF to watch the Giants and Dodgers that night. How awesome will that be?

Anyhow, this is an open thread. A few items that might be of interest:

  • Campus Progress published a much better HSR article, by Eliza Krigman of the Center for Responsive Politics' blog Capital Eye. Unfortunately the American Prospect's TAPPED blog linked approvingly to that moronic Ben Adler piece. Dana Goldstein of TAPPED mislabeled HSR as "California's Light Rail line." The blind leading the blind...

  • BART to San José looks to have passed for good - will that make Diridon Station the Grand Central Station of the West? Or does the Transbay Terminal deserve that accolade? Let's not forget LA Union Station, which on the four times I used it over the last few days was packed to the rafters as usual. Still, with the ACE trains, Caltrain, Capitol Corridor, VTA, BART, and HSR, Diridon Station is poised to become one of the great nodes of passenger rail travel on the West Coast, if not the nation.

And did I mention, Go Bears?!

Friday, November 21, 2008

John Kerry Introduces HSR Bill

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

I don't have a whole lot of time to go over this today, as I'm going to be on the Coast Starlight headed back to Monterey from a quick SoCal trip. But it's important to discuss the new High Speed Rail funding proposal that Senator John Kerry and Pennsylvania Republican Senator Arlen Specter are proposing in the US Senate. It's known as the High Speed Rail for America Act of 2008 and is numbered S.3700 (full text not yet available from THOMAS) (UPDATE: see an extensive summary of the bill's provisions here (h/t to Peter in the comments) and has a number of co-sponsors, including Senate heavyweights Dianne Feinstein, Hillary Clinton, Joe Lieberman, and Charles Schumer. According to Kerry's office:

Specifically, the High-Speed Rail for America Act of 2008 provides $8 billion over a six-year period for tax-exempt bonds which finance high-speed rail projects which reach a speed of at least 110 miles per hour It creates a new category of tax-credit bonds – qualified rail bonds. There are two types of qualified rail bonds: super high-speed intercity rail facility bond and rail infrastructure bond. Super high-speed rail intercity facility bonds will encourage the development of true high-speed rail. The legislation provides $10 billion for these bonds over a ten-year period. This would help finance the California proposed corridor and make needed improvements to the Northeast corridor. The legislation provides $5.4 billion over a six-year period for rail infrastructure bonds.

The obvious question this raises is will this be enough? The entire bill looks to be around $23.4 billion, which would be enough to help finish the first phase from SF-LA-Anaheim. Obviously we're not getting all of that, and being a Congressional bill other states and other Senators are going to want a piece of the pie - note that most of the co-sponsors come from the Northeast Corridor. But our project IS the farthest along, and is the best positioned to make use of this funding. Other states have a lot more ground to cover to be able to make use of these bonds.

In fact, my only criticism of this proposal - pending the actual bill details - is that the amount is not ambitious enough. $50 billion seems like a better funding level - instead of setting states and Senators against each other, $50 billion would help substantially seed a number of HSR projects around the country and build a true national system. This recession is deepening and significant stimulus is necessary to pull us out of it. Now's the time to be ambitious, Senator Kerry. Think big, think bold. This bill is an excellent start, but let's use the opportunity to build a truly national high speed rail project.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

False Consciousness

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

We've reported on some rather silly anti-HSR op-eds in recent months here at the blog. Typically these come from the far-right, specifically from the Reason Foundation and the Howard Jarvis Association.

This week brings evidence that HSR denial exists on the left side of the spectrum as well (although I have a hard time acknowledging anti-rail concern trolling as anything but fundamentally right-wing). Ben Adler, a writer at the Politico and a fellow at The Next American City (a wonderful publication), has an op-ed at titled "Alternative Travel for the Wealthy", arguing that high speed rail is an elitist plaything that does nothing for Californians who need passenger rail service. The concept is absurd, but the execution is stunning in its failure to grasp even the most elementary aspects of HSR and its place in the overall mass transit universe.

But the idea of long-distance high-speed rail is primarily of interest to business travelers and the relatively wealthy.

This is utterly ridiculous nonsense and shows an almost total ignorance of the lived experience of middle-class and working-class Californians.

Does Adler really, truly believe that only the wealthy have a use for long-distance travel? If so he must believe that nobody else wants to see family for the holidays. That nobody else must travel to seek a job. Has Adler ever heard of the concept of migratory labor networks?

As this summer demonstrated, soaring oil prices and the long-term prospect of peak oil - neither of which Adler mentioned - indicate that intercity travel is very much of interest to all Californians. Without affordable rail travel that runs on renewable energy, working-class Californians will not be able to travel around their state. That denies them economic opportunity and cuts down on jobs that their travel creates.

Further, as Matt Melzer pointed out in a comment to Adler's post, HSR is going to provide direct material benefits to all classes of Californians by the considerable numbers of jobs it will create:

a UC Merced study found that HSR will bring $3 billion in direct economic benefits to the Central Valley. State estimates show that HSR will create over 400,000 jobs across a variety of sector, which can only be good for the working class.

Those jobs are green jobs, jobs that can't easily be outsourced. Adler betrays his own class position by dismissing the need for such jobs in a state whose unemployment rate is 7.7% and rising fast.

Adler also shows a lack of understanding of HSR's role in promoting urban density:

Even if you’re considering the middle class who might make trips between cities fairly often, high speed rail does little to combat the fact that one cannot get around L.A. or San Diego without a car upon arrival. If people plan to take the train for shorter trips between cities, they may end up needing a car on the other end. For mass transit to really remove auto-dependence it has to connect walkable urban areas.

This section suggests to me Adler simply does not understand how HSR works. HSR acts as a spark for construction of other mass transit connections. Since the stations themselves are in city centers, they create demand for new transit links to ensure folks can get around without a car. Those stations, being in city centers, promote transit-oriented development (TOD) which, yes, create demand for new transit links. You want a walkable neigborhood? Build an HSR station. You want more people to get around without a car? Build an HSR station.

Adler also shows his ignorance by neglecting the fact that in fact, Californians DID vote for urban transportation programs of the very kind that he calls for:

This was the only smart growth ballot initiative on the ballot; there weren’t other initiatives for increasing city transit.

That's a jaw-droppingly ignorant statement. Los Angeles County, where most of the "housekeepers who commute from East L.A. to Westwood by bus or car" who Adler claims to want to help actually live, passed Measure R in November, which provides funds for a massive expansion of the regional rail network. Santa Clara County may have passed Measure B, which will bring BART to San José along the Santa Clara Street corridor, which will help working-class residents in East San José more easily reach jobs in downtown SJ and in other parts of the Bay Area. Marin and Sonoma counties passed Measure Q creating a passenger rail system there as well.

How can we take Adler seriously when he gets his basic facts so very wrong?

I don’t want to set up a false dichotomy between inter-city travel like the high-speed rail initiative and intra-city and commuter transit like city buses; each is beneficial in their own way.

But that's precisely what Adler has done in his article. That is the sole reason the article was written. Adler is arguing that HSR is a toy for the wealthy that sucks up money from transit projects for everyone else.

Those of us who actually understand the high speed rail project know that HSR is anything but elitist. It is a rising tide that lifts all transportation boats. It helps retrofit the suburbs by providing rapid, affordable commuter services. It helps spur creation of new transit links and TOD in the city centers where the HSR stations will go. It will make travel on Caltrain and Metrolink faster and safer by providing grade separations and dedicated tracks. It will bring reliable and fast passenger rail service to working-class cities currently underserved by rail, including Gilroy, Merced, Fresno, and Bakersfield.

I'm rather stunned that the Center for American Progress, usually a very solidly progressive organization, put their name to this ridiculous article. Adler's facts are wrong and he shows an almost total lack of understanding of the issue. Surely Campus Progress and the CAP can do better.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Transbay Again

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

Steven T. Jones has a good article on the fight over the Transbay Terminal in today's San Francisco Bay Guardian, giving some important background details on how an all-too-familiar kind of San Francisco political spat is affecting the debate over who will fund the downtown rail extension into the Transbay Terminal.

First and foremost, the dispute is a financial dispute. As Jones writes of Quentin Kopp's basic attitude:

Kopp is more interested in stretching this $10 billion bond far enough to complete his project. So he’s bristling at efforts by the TJPA to ensure that it’s first in line for the money.

My initial take on this last week was that Kopp was trying to make it clear that the Prop 1A funds are no free for all, and Jones's article supports that interpretation. Kopp explained his reasoning in a letter he wrote to the Transbay Joint Powers Authority on November 13:

Your staff continually seek to insinuate the Transbay Joint Powers Authority in activity which pertains strictly to the consummation of the California High Speed Rail Project. Your October 17, 2008 staff report declares that the total cost ‘of [your project’s] rail component is $2.996 billion.’ It then represents that $2,349,000,000 must be obtained for your project. Please do not attempt to secure California High Speed Rail Project funds to defray the enormous costs of the 1.4 mile ‘downtown rail extension.’ Such effort will not be welcomed by me. Moreover, as far as I am concerned, and I will so state publicly, the California High Speed Rail Project can, as necessary, utilize the terminal at Fourth Street and Townsend Street in San Francisco effectively and efficiently, and at a cost less than the aforementioned cost of your moving it.

As most of us agreed when this subject came up last week, while Kopp is technically correct that HSR could utilize the 4th and King terminal, the Transbay Terminal is a vastly superior solution. Jones quotes several unnamed "sources in the transportation world" who reach the same conclusion. And as I pointed out, the CHSRA board unanimously endorsed the Transbay Terminal as the preferred San Francisco HSR terminus, Kopp included. The Transbay Terminal's consultants fully understand the importance of the downtown extension:

Adam Alberti from Singer and Associates, tells the Guardian that Kopp has his numbers wrong and that TJPA will only be seeking $700-$800 million in Prop. 1A funds for the extension (the rest would come from other sources), which is about the same amount as he said it would cost to renovate the Caltrain station to handle the millions of new passengers the trains would draw.

“The facility is being designed to be the northern terminus for high-speed rail,” Alberti told us. “Their business plan is predicated on it coming into Transbay Terminal.”

Translation: the TJPA feels confident that despite Kopp's bluster, the CHSRA cannot and will not abandon the downtown extension. Eyeball to eyeball, they're convinced Kopp will blink first.

Of course there's more to this dispute than just finances. Kopp is upset with the director of the TJPA, Maria Ayerdi-Kaplan and Singer and Associates:

The letter also mocked the expertise of “your executive director, staff or publicity agents,” something Kopp went even further with a few days later when the Chronicle’s Matier and Ross brought the private spat out into the public (although they didn’t reference the earlier letter, which even Singer and Associates didn’t know about until today).

"I am not going to pay $2.5 billion to move a track 1.4 miles," Kopp said in that article, going on to say Ayerdi-Kaplan "is annoying ... and she and her flacks need to stay out of our hair."

Jones thinks Kopp has a point:

Ayerdi-Kaplan has been inaccessible in recent years and has stumbled into unnecessary fights with the Mayor’s Office, members of the Board of Supervisors, and neighbors of the project. It’s also disconcerting that a public agency feels a need to hide behind one of the most expensive and controversial PR firms in the city. So there’s probably a bit more going on here than what Alberti labeled “a personality clash with Maria Ayerdi.”

Still, the downtown extension really is a key part of the HSR project's success. We want the best transportation system possible and while HSR could survive losing the Transbay Terminal, it is immeasurably strengthened by having it.

As I concluded the last time we discussed this, the missing link is leadership. Neither Kopp nor Ayerdi-Kaplan seem to be providing it, instead engaging in a turf war that doesn't do anyone any good. Both of them need to realize that they need each other to be successful. And it's likely going to take outside pressure to make that realization stick.

There are any number of people who could provide that leadership. A certain San Francisco mayor with gubernatorial ambitions in 2010, for example. Or Senator Dianne Feinstein, herself a possible candidate for governor, someone who has the heft and relationships to help resolve this situation. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, yet another San Franciscan, would also be well positioned to help resolve this - especially if federal money can grease the wheels of a deal between the CHSRA and the TJPA.

We "alternative transportation geeks," as Jones calls us, have a lot at stake here. The Transbay Terminal downtown extension project is too important to all of us to fall victim to such rivalries. Kopp needs to tone down the rhetoric, Ayerdi-Kaplan needs to construct better working relationships with Transbay partner agencies, and leading California politicians need to provide some leadership and not allow these folks to tear the project apart through internecine warfare. And we HSR supporters need to let everyone know that the project, and not the personalities, are what matter most.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

BART to San Jose Lives?

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

High drama in Santa Clara County, where Measure B now has exactly the 66.67% needed for passage as of Monday afternoon's update. Measure B is of course the 1/8 cent sales tax increase to help bring BART to downtown San José. In the comments on yesterday's post peter noted that "the Yes vote right now is at 66.6679741% Out of 611,886 there are 8 more yes votes than exactly 2/3rds." The next update is likely to come early next week and the vote must be certified on December 2. BART supporters are growing more optimistic about their prospects:

As the absentee ballots were counted, the yes votes crept higher — but not, it seemed, quickly enough. But as provisional ballots began to be verified late last week, the yes votes started coming in at a much higher rate.

Counts taken Friday and Monday came in with 73 percent-plus support for Measure B, pushing it to the two-thirds level overall.

"It shows the strength of support for BART in this county," said San Jose State University political-science Professor Terry Christensen. "Over and over voters have proven how much they want BART. This is not just a bond, but a tax increase. That makes it more astonishing."

Christensen believes the late surge is coming from young voters, who tend to be more supportive of mass transit, and who may have been more heavily represented among the late and provisional ballots.

"That is a very valid theory," he said. "It really is attributed to an effective campaign that they ran. I know they worked the college campuses very hard, and it's the young voters I know who are very supportive of BART. That was smart on their part."

Further evidence that here in California the 2008 election was a wave election for mass transit, creating powerful new momentum and public support for rail projects that ought to quiet the deniers and doubters for some time to come.

Meanwhile, the San Jose Mercury News filed a "Questions remain about HSR" article which does little more than state the obvious: there are still some decisions to make on the Peninsula:

"Up to this point, we've had very limited discussions of a very general nature," [Caltrain spokeswoman Christine] Dunn said. "I know people are very anxious to know what's going to happen next and how it's going to impact their communities, but a lot of those questions at this point are unanswered."

What particularly appeals to Caltrain about the high-speed project is the proposed widening of its tracks and construction of grade separations up and down the Peninsula because bullet trains must run above or below street level....

The high-speed rail authority also has yet to decide where the bullet train will stop, though Millbrae, Redwood City and Palo Alto have been named as potential stops.

We'll obviously be discussing those decisions in much greater detail over the coming months, but it's worth reminding ourselves that these are normal decisions that get made in any major transportation project. My own view is that Millbrae/SFO and Palo Alto would be the best choices for HSR stops.

That Merc article also points out that even though Menlo Park is party to a lawsuit against the HSR project, the city voted FOR Prop 1A:

The cities of Atherton and Menlo Park in August joined a lawsuit challenging the environmental report for the train's route, claiming it underestimates the impact it would have on communities.

Despite elected officials' opposition, Menlo Park voters approved the high-speed rail bond measure while Atherton voters struck it down, according to unofficial election results updated Friday.

Menlo Park voted 57.4 percent in favor of the project compared to 42.6 percent opposed out of 14,021 votes cast. Atherton rejected the measure with 46 percent in favor to 54 percent against, a margin of about 300 votes out of 3,918 cast.

Perhaps Menlo Park wants to reconsider? There's still time to drop out of the lawsuit. Given stressed city budgets this doesn't exactly seem like a good time to spend taxpayer money to sue a project your voters supported.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Florida's Cautionary Tale

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

California isn't the first state to get this far along on building a high speed rail project. Texas and Florida have been there before us, and both projects fell apart. In Texas Southwest Airlines and then-governor George W. Bush helped kill the project, which was already weak because the state hadn't offered any funding.

Florida had gotten much further along in the process, as the Lakeland Ledger reminisced yesterday:

Florida was working on establishing high-speed rail links when Gov. Jeb Bush was elected in 1998. But during his first two weeks in office, Bush killed the project. In 2000, Lakeland businessman C. C. "Doc" Dockery, also a former chairman of the Florida High-Speed Rail Commission, managed to gain 53 percent approval for a constitutional amendment that called for work to begin on a high-speed rail link by Nov. 1, 2003.

But in 2004, Bush and some supporters in the Legislature had the issue back on the ballot to repeal the law. That amendment passed with 64 percent support, although the High-Speed Rail Commission still remains in existence, but has been mostly inactive.

"Those trains would be up and running now," if Bush hadn't interfered, said Dockery last week. "It would have created a construction boom and a lot of jobs."

There is a key difference between California, Texas and Florida - we have a clearly-identified and secured state funding source. Neither Texas nor Florida had that, which made it easier for the Bush Brothers to kill high speed rail in those states.

That doesn't mean our own project is safe. We've already seen HSR deniers call for the bond sales to be delayed. You can be assured that the deniers, and some Republicans in Sacramento, will continue to resist this project by refusing to sell the bonds, refusing to spend the bond money, or throwing up other delays. And there will be those in Congress who will resist using federal money to help build our project. They didn't respect the will of the voters in Florida after 2000 - and they may not do the same here in California after 2008.

Florida's experience is a stark reminder of the need to be vigilant in protecting our victories on high speed rail. We'll continue to keep you informed about the political battles within California and in the Congress over HSR and let you know when and how to get involved to ensure that our high speed train gets built.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

HSR Open Thread

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

Haven't done one of these for a little while. I'm going to be in Orange County over the weekend, so you're all on your own until Monday. It's a trip I frequently make (I was born and raised in Santa Ana/Tustin, where most of my family still resides) and a trip that will be made MUCH easier by our high speed train. Gilroy to Anaheim is going to be a trip I make frequently.

What will be the most frequent HSR journey you will make once the first phase is open? How will it help improve or change the way you travel within California?

NC3D posted a good overview of HSR around the world to YouTube a few weeks back, a good reminder of the big picture and why HSR is going to be so valuable to us in California:

Friday, November 14, 2008

Federal Stimulus for HSR?

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

The economic crisis that has been slowly unfolding over the last year or so is growing worse by the day, and the incoming Obama Administration and its allies in Congress are already discussing plans for a new economic stimulus package, one that will likely include infrastructure spending. The figures being tossed around so far have been between $50 and $150 billion.

Paul Krugman today argues we need to think bigger - MUCH bigger:

All indications are that the new administration will offer a major stimulus package. My own back-of-the-envelope calculations say that the package should be huge, on the order of $600 billion.

If we are talking about stimulus of that size, then $12-$16 billion for California high speed rail should be no problem. Some might argue that since construction won't begin until 2010 that it's not a good use of stimulus money. But as Krugman has argued before, this downturn is going to be long:

The usual argument against public works as economic stimulus is that they take too long: by the time you get around to repairing that bridge and upgrading that rail line, the slump is over and the stimulus isn’t needed. Well, that argument has no force now, since the chances that this slump will be over anytime soon are virtually nil. So let’s get those projects rolling.

That makes Congress and the White House the next stop for our own high speed rail project, even as we continue to keep a close eye on the state legislature to ensure there's no backsliding. Quentin Kopp is optimistic about our prospects in Congress, according to an article in today's issue of Bond Buyer:

"I am satisfied from my readings that enthusiasm has increased in Congress for high-speed rail," said Quentin L. Kopp, chairman of the rail authority's board...

Kopp, a veteran of 12 years in the California Senate and a decade and a half on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, laid out the challenge in political terms.

"Now we have to fend off other states," he said.

Of course a $600 billion package would make the competition among states for HSR dollars less intense. Even if there is much competition, California is in a very strong position to lay claim to federal HSR dollars. Nancy Pelosi and Dianne Feinstein have already shown their support for HSR, and having two of the most powerful members of Congress in your corner is a pretty damn good place to start.

Over email rafael pointed out that the renewable energy aspects of HSR would also appeal to President Obama's own desire to put energy independence at the forefront of his own policy efforts:

California HSR plus local/regional HSR feeders may become much more attractive to an Obama administration looking for worthwhile public works projects if proponents stress that these will run on renewable electricity. Transportation planners may care more about system capacity, but politicians are keen on energy independence right now.

What exactly is federal funding going to look like? It's highly unlikely that it's going to be a check for $12 billion. From the Bond Buyer article again:

the Authority expects to pursue funding sources that include straightforward federal grants, tax-credit bonds, and funding derived from carbon credits.

One thing we will need to ensure, along with the delivery of federal funding period, is that such funding is stable. Some mixture of the above seems quite workable assuming it adds up to the requisite amount.

It's clear that the global economic crisis is worsening, and all eyes are going to be on Washington DC for answers. We're going to have to make sure Congress and President Obama do the right thing for California and the nation by passing a large economic stimulus bill early in 2009 - a bill that must include funding for California high speed rail.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


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

That is the question posed by rafael in the post below which explores the impact of Measure B's narrow failure (based on the most recent results) on BART, Caltrain and our high speed rail project. Take it away, rafael!


The final tally is not in yet, but it is looking increasingly likely that measure B in Santa Clara very narrowly missed the 66.67% required to pass. It called for a 1/8th of a percent sales tax increase for 30 years that would have supplemented measure A(2000) funds for constructing a BART extension between Fremont and Santa Clara via downtown San Jose. A separate people mover to the SJC terminals is also planned. However, if measure B does fail, the county will not be eligible for $760 million in federal matching funds that it was counting on.

Check here for the latest update on the result.

Since the defeat was so narrow, city officials are now advocating limiting the scope of phase 1 to the section between Fremont and somewhere between Milpitas Capitol Ave and Alum Rock Ave. The whole purpose of the extension is to relieve chronic rush hour congestion on I-880 south of Fremont, so reaching the VTA light rail stop is a hard requirement. Ridership projections for this phase 1 are 50,000 a day, which may be wildly optimistic.

The idea is that the supplemental sales tax hike would be requested again at the next opportunity to enable phase 2, the tunnels underneath Santa Clara Street to San Jose Diridon. Ridership projections for the complete BART extension are 98,000 a day. Feel free chime in on this by leaving a comment in the San Jose Mercury News forum.

There is an alternative to extending BART all the way to Santa Clara that would be both cheaper and functionally superior -
see this map

Essentially, it involves extending BART to Fremont Irvington only (Paseo Padre Pkwy). There, passengers would transfer to Caltrain's new electric multiple unit (EMU) rolling stock, e.g. Siemens Desiro. Caltrain has already demonstrated their crash safety at grade crossings to FRA in an interim report on mixed traffic in the context of its Caltrain 2025 program.

Interim Report on Mixed Traffic (March 2008)

Caltrain 2025

Construction would begin by laying standard gauge tracks and 25kV AC overhead catenaries south from Fremont Irvington. With no third rail to worry about, secondary cross roads could remain grade crossings, saving hundreds of millions. FRA permits grade crossings for speeds up to 110mph, which is more than adequate in the narrow county-owned Western Pacific Milpitas Line (WPML) right of way.

The agency permits quiet zones in which warning bells and train horns need not be used, provided that specified measures (e.g. four quadrant gates) are implemented.

The tracks underneath Santa Clara Street would be constructed using the cut-and-cover method instead of the more expensive tunneling (except underneath VTA light rail tracks downtown). Road vehicles would be limited to a single lane each way near the construction site, so detours would be a fact of life for the construction period. Besides reducing cost, cut-and-cover also makes it much easier to support high capacity bi-level rolling stock that BART will never be able to use.

A pedestrian walkway would connect the north-south platforms at San Jose Diridon with the new underground east-west platform. The new line would connect to existing standard gauge tracks after emerging just north of the station, enabling service between Fremont Irvington and San Francisco without transfers.

Instead of spending $284 million on a people mover, a pedestrian overpass with elevators would permit passengers alighting at Santa Clara station to reach a shuttle bus stop at the dead end of Brokaw Road. Buses would use the private road between SJC long term parking and the terminals to avoid traffic.

So far, we have discussed two advantages of extending electrified Caltrain east rather than BART south: reduced cost thanks to grade crossings and cheaper rolling stock plus, higher capacity thanks to bi-level cars. There are, however, other advantages:

- Santa Clara county would not be required to fund any BART operations at all, ever.

- BART could focus on increasing pedestrian flow capacity in its downtown San Francisco stations.

- Partially offset the cost of the overhead catenary between Fremont Irvington and San Jose Diridon, Caltrain service south of San Jose Diridon could be canceled. Instead, diesel-powered Capitol Corridor trains would run down to Morgan Hill and Gilroy, perhaps even Hollister, at appropriate times of day. In the future, the corridor definition could theoretically be extended to Monterey, though that would require many miles of new or upgraded track. [Robert here: the Transportation Agency of Monterey County is working on implementing light rail on the Monterey Branch Line, and bringing the Caltrain to Salinas.]

- Having decided on Pacheco Pass, CHSRA is now "considering" an HST/commuter overlay through Altamont Pass. This is outside the scope of Prop 1A, which voters approved on Nov. 4. The basis for discussion is the $6 billion gold-plated HSR alignment developed early on in the project. It calls for full grade separation, extensive tunneling and an aerial structure along 7th Street to West Oakland BART. The latter feature would create the option of adding a second transbay tube to the new Transbay Terminal in San Francisco at some point in the distant future.

Between Fremont Irvington and Milpitas, this alignment relies on the aforementioned WPML. The resulting conflict with the BART extension project may well have have been a major factor in settling on Pacheco Pass for HSR. However, extending BART south of Fremont Irvington would effectively preclude any chance of ever getting anything resembling an HST/commuter overlay built.

By keeping the WPML ROW at standard gauge, Caltrain could host Capitol Corridor and ACE trains pulled by two-mode locomotives (diesel genset plus pantograph), provided that FRA permits this mixed traffic scenario. These guest operators could choose to loop back to Niles via Santa Clara/SJC, Great America and Fremont Centerville. Alternatively, they could run trains up to 4th & King in San Francisco.

To reduce the construction cost of the overlay, the old SP track on the north side of Niles Canyon could be refurbished and straightened out with one short tunnel. A second track would be laid through Pleasanton, Livermore and Tracy and shared with UPRR freight trains via mutual trackage agreements. Everything would be at grade, with quiet zones and grade crossings except where traffic volume justifies grade separation. Maximum speed would be 110 mph or less.

If desired, additional ACE trains could also serve Modesto as well as express service between Union City and Oakland/Richmond, with bus connections to the new SMART station in San Rafael. Instead of an aerial alignment to West Oakland, a covered trench down Nelson Mandela Pkwy should be considered.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Transbay Terminal Tempest

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

In the comments on the last post there has been quite a lot of discussion about this SF Examiner article with the hyperbolic and overly dramatic headline "Transbay Transit Center Going Off Track":

However, that would necessitate a $2 billion, 1.3-mile extension of Caltrain’s tracks from their current terminus at Fourth and King streets in Mission Bay to downtown’s Transbay Transit Center at First and Mission streets, as well as a “train box” — a massive space underneath the bus terminal big enough to hold six rail platforms and tracks — that could later be tunneled into and developed into a station for Caltrain and high-speed trains.

Transbay Joint Powers Authority spokesman Adam Alberti said the authority began lobbying for funds from the high-speed rail bond in a letter issued last month.

But at least one authority has eschewed the possibility that high-speed rail will pay for the extension.

“We do not need First and Mission. I am satisfied with Fourth and Townsend,” said Judge Quentin Kopp, chairman of the High Speed Rail Authority. “We are not going to pay an extra billion-plus dollars to take the high-speed rail an extra 1.4 miles.”

Kopp is not wrong, but neither is he right. The HSR project can survive without the Transbay Terminal. However, the project is much better off with it included. That 1.3 miles is quite a distance in San Francisco, the difference between the edge of the urban center and the center itself, the core of California's most densely urbanized place. The Transbay Terminal will be located within easy walking distance of a BART station and all Muni Metro lines, as well as the Ferry Terminal. The HSR line ought to go there.

Kopp is likely posturing here to let all parties know that Prop 1A money isn't a free for all. That has value. And it's likely Kopp has been quoted out of context here. Still, he could dial it down a bit. His strong style has value at times but misses the mark here. The Authority doesn't necessarily have to pay all or even any of the cost of the extension. But Kopp ought to work to build consensus to ensure that the HSR line gets completed all the way to the Transbay Terminal. I don't think these comments get us in that direction.

Especially since everyone else appears to be busy playing "pass the buck":

The extension will have to be resolved — and funded — by The City and Caltrain, he said.

But spokeswoman Christine Dunn said Caltrain has not considered devoting any funds to the project, and it would have to be funded by The City and the Transbay project.

Jerry Hill, a member of Transbay’s board of directors and state Assembly member-elect, said that though Transbay hopes to secure some funding for the extension from the high-speed rail, they are not seeing the project as a “cash cow,” and the success of neither high-speed rail nor the Transbay Transit Center depends on the extension.

Hill's comments are especially important here, as they suggest this is not the "omg crisis!" that the Examiner would have us believe. There is a money dispute here, which should surprise nobody. We're going to have to deal with these kinds of issues for at least the next ten years. The political need for multiple funding sources virtually guarantees it. But that doesn't mean these issues can't be resolved.

HSR and the Transbay Terminal are better off with each other. The city of San Francisco and Caltrain ought to be expected to kick in some money as well. So should the feds. Perhaps this is a more important project than the Central Subway that Nancy Pelosi has been pushing for years. And it really is an either/or - if the Central Subway is built then that would enable BART riders to get to the Fourth and King station more easily, if not exactly conveniently; but if the Caltrain and HSR extension gets built then the Central Subway becomes a less necessary piece of infrastructure.

In any event, leadership is needed here to ensure that the Transbay Terminal project and the HSR project both meet their full potential - which means the trains reach the terminal. The CHSRA ought to negotiate in good faith with the Transbay Terminal Authority and all other parties. The extension to the Terminal is an important part of the overall project that ought to be maintained, although fair and equitable cost arrangements should certainly be made.

UPDATE: It is worth noting that the CHSRA board unanimously selected the Transbay Terminal as the preferred terminus in San Francisco for the route when they approved the Final EIR in July. Specifically, Chapter 8 explains the rationale, repeating much of what I said above:

The Transbay Transit Center site is the preferred station location option for the San Francisco HST Terminal. The Transbay Transit Center would offer greater connectivity to San Francisco and the Bay Area than the 4th and King site (about a mile from the financial district) because of its location in the heart of downtown San Francisco and since it would serve as the regional transit hub for San Francisco. The Transbay Transit Center is located in the financial district where many potential HST passengers could walk to the station. The Transbay Transit Center is also expected to emerge as the transit hub for all major services to downtown San Francisco, with the advantage of direct connections to BART (1 block from the terminus), Muni, and regional bus transit (SamTrans, AC Transit, and Golden Gate Transit). Moreover, the Transbay Transit Center is compatible with existing and planned development and is the focal point of the Transbay redevelopment plan that includes extensive high-density residential, office, and commercial/retail development. Sensitivity analysis on the Pacheco Pass “Base” forecasts (low-end forecasts) concluded that the Transbay Transit Center would attract about 1 million more annual passengers a year by 2030 than the 4th and King station location option.

The capital costs needed for the HST component of the Transbay Transit Center (including the 1.3-mile extension) is estimated to be similar to the estimated costs for the 4th and King option. (Page 8-18)

So that strikes me as a pretty clear indication that Kopp was likely quoted out of context and that the Examiner is trying to stir up controversy where it doesn't legitimately exist. The CHSRA is still committed to the Transbay Terminal, and Kopp probably meant to say that if something were to happen and the Transbay Terminal project fell through, HSR could manage.

Obviously there will be things that need to be resolved as detailed plans get made, especially with the Transbay Terminal. How many trains? Where exactly will the "train box" go and how big will it be? What will the specific funding arrangements be? Such issues are ones we're going to have to deal with up and down the route as the plans near completion.

I do still believe that it is in the interest of all the various transit agencies to continue working together on this. The desire to build all the way to the Transbay is there. Let's not allow a one-off article to distract us from that.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Madrid-Barcelona in 6 Minutes (via YouTube)

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

luis d. in the comments has been linking to this video produced by RENFE advertising their new Madrid to Barcelona AVE service that opened in February. It's a great overview of the route, which passes through terrain that is VERY similar to that which our own HSR line will encounter:

RENFE also has a great YouTube channel with more excellent AVE videos.

I also like this because I have a soft spot for the AVE trains, which were the first HSR trains I ever rode. Seven years ago on a trip to Spain, we took the AVE from Madrid to Sevilla. I remember turning to my then-girlfriend as we pulled into Sevilla Santa Justa and saying "we have GOT to get one of these back in California." My own advocacy for HSR trains began that afternoon in December 2001. It also doesn't hurt that the video includes shots of Barcelona, which currently holds the title of "my favorite city in the world." If only I spoke Catalan...

Here in 2008, we have taken the most important step to making that dream a reality. So I dunno about you all, but this video gets me *really* excited about what our own HSR line will look like when it is finally built. Compare the above video to this one put out by the CHSRA, which you've seen before - I can't wait to see this computer simulation become as real as the video shown above.

2008 A Record Setting Year for Ridership

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At least here in California, according to Caltrans and Amtrak, who partner to operate the Amtrak California intercity routes:

Californians are leaving their cars, SUVs, vans, and trucks at home and riding trains instead in unprecedented numbers. Today, Caltrans and Amtrak reported a record-setting 5.5 million passengers rode California's state-supported intercity passenger trains in federal fiscal year 2008....

In 2007-08, the Pacific Surliner carried more than 2.89 million passengers, a seven percent increase from the preceding year.

In Northern California, Capitol Corridor (Auburn to San Jose) trains carried 1.69 million riders, an impressive 16.8 percent jump from the previous 12 months. Meanwhile nearly one million passengers (949,611) rode the San Joaquins service (Bakersfield to Sacramento/Oakland). This past July, ridership shot up a whopping 32 percent over July 2007, rising above 100,000 for the first time. The Capitol Corridor and the San Joaquins ranked as the nation's third busiest and sixth busiest lines, respectively.

Amtrak ridership in federal fiscal year 2008 increased to 28,716,407, marking the sixth straight year of gains and setting a record for the most passengers using Amtrak trains since the National Railroad Passenger Corporation started operations in 1971.

Some might cluck that this is just the product of the dramatic spike in gas prices that took place earlier this year and won't last. While that did fuel some of this ridership growth, ridership on Amtrak California routes has been steadily growing since 2002. Amtrak itself has set ridership records every year since 2002. There is every reason to believe ridership will continue to rise.

That growing ridership reflects a growing awareness among Californians of the value of passenger rail, and that was reflected in last week's election where most passenger rail proposals were approved by voters (Measure B in Santa Clara County, the BART funding plan, is still too close to call). In the article Eugene Skoropowski, managing director of the Capitol Corridor, noted that Prop 1B (passed in 2006) also intended money to be spent on rail expansion. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Department of Finance delayed this, using a flawed audit to claim new cars weren't necessary, but that has been reversed and new cars have been ordered.

We need to accelerate Prop 1A and Prop 1B rail funding. While we wait on federal matching funds for HSR - which we will press for in 2009 - California needs to wait for nobody to release the bond money for the other passenger rail projects that are awaiting funds. California legislators should make it a priority to spend that money as an infrastructure stimulus, as well as part of a long-term plan to grow rail in this state.

Record ridership is an opportunity to take passenger rail to the next level. Let's make sure our legislators follow through on it.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Just How Useful is HSR, Really?

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

That's the question being pondered by one Kent Amberson in a letter to the Merced Sun-Star this morning. While one LTE in a smallish newspaper might not normally be worth talking about, I do believe that our work to promote the usefulness, value, and need for high speed rail continues after Prop 1A's passage. It's likely that many Californians have the same questions as Kent, considering how unfamiliar most Californians are with passenger rail. Here's his question:

How do you get from your house to the train station, and how do you get from the station to where you are going? In Merced you can call Dial A Ride, I suppose, but anybody that has to be in a particular place at a particular time knows that the Dial A Ride is not a solution...

Besides, not every community on the line has a Dial A Ride system. To have somebody drive you to the station is one solution or drive your own car, but where do you park if you need to for several days or even month?...

Then there is the question of when you get where you are going, what do you do?

Imagine getting to Los Angeles by train and your destination is Huntington Beach, Irvine or West Covina to mention a few. How do you get there from here? Perhaps you start looking for a Greyhound bus but again, how do you get to the bus station? Or are you going to try to figure out the local transit system?...

In planning a system like this, there has to be a way of getting to and from the station if it is going to be of any benefit to the paying public....

This is probably the reason most people prefer traveling by their own car.

Some of this is due to unfamiliarity with mass transit options in California - you can get to Irvine from Anaheim via the Pacific Surfliners, for example - and some of it is based on skepticism that other forms of transit will materialize to serve the HSR stations. By 2018 it is likely that the Expo Line will be open from LA Union Station to Santa Monica, and Metrolink service, which reaches numerous communities in Southern California, will be boosted. It's true that Orange County has a lot of work to do in building transit capacity, but a direct bus from Huntington Beach to the Anaheim HSR station (ARTIC) would be a sensible move for the OCTA.

The main problem with Kent's argument, though, is assuming that HSR service is analogous to automobile service. It isn't. The high speed train simply cannot bring you door to door. Neither can an airplane. Driving may solve the door to door issue, but at a very high cost - time, gas, wear and tear on the vehicle. The fuel costs of driving in particular are likely to rise dramatically between now and 2018.

Nor is HSR analogous with airplanes. Instead HSR provides the same travel need - getting from, say, Merced to Irvine - using a third method that provides the speed and convenience of airplanes and some of the flexibility of driving. HSR stations are not going to be located on the edge of town as airports are, but in the middle of the urban area, in places that are already the nodes of local transit systems. It's simply easier to provide transit connections to and from the HSR station than to and from an airport on the edge of town. LAX still lacks a true mass transit link, but LA Union Station is the hub of the entire mass transit system in Southern California.

And HSR will spur better transit connections, just as airports do today. It will bring more people into the city centers, making it easier to get from house to station. Certainly there will be journeys that require a car to complete, but HSR makes that easier and cheaper - you can rent a car at your destination, have a family or friend pick you up, etc, just as is done today.

HSR provides a different option for intrastate travel, matching the quickness of air travel with much of the flexibility of driving (through connections to other transit systems) at a lower price. Certainly California has work to do in expanding its non-HSR transit offerings and this blog strongly supports those projects, such as LA County's Measure R. HSR will never be and isn't intended to be the solution to everyone's point A to point B trip. But it will make those trips across the state much cheaper and much easier.

UPDATE: Matt Yglesias reminds us that significant improvements in bus service can be made with a relatively affordable investment. For our own HSR system to be successful that means we need to push back hard against Sacramento's own efforts to further gut bus funding, which has already taken a significant hit over the last two years.