(Rafael helped with some of the research for this post. The words and interpretations are mine, so don't blame him for any errors or controversial statements.)
In some ways, the California High Speed Rail project has been a bit too successful in selling itself to voters. The project's emphasis - and, at times, my own - has been on getting people from the SF Bay Area to Southern California in just over 2 1/2 hours. Although this blog has frequently discussed the other areas served by the trains, we haven't always given them equal weight in the basic framing of the project. HSR is and has always intended to be more than just connecting two endpoints. It also connects some of California's fastest-growing cities, particularly those in the San Joaquin Valley.
Not surprisingly, when some people want to find a place to criticize the CHSRA and the HSR project, they point to the route choice between San José and Los Angeles. Some argue that HSR should follow I-5 through the Valley and over the Grapevine. And many of those commenters argue that the CHSRA's failure to pick such a route is either a sign of their incompetence or their complicity with big bad sprawl developers.
These comments crop up often enough that it seemed worth devoting a post to debunking such nonsense.
The basic flaw with the "use I-5" claims, whether they refer to the San Joaquin Valley, the Grapevine, or both, is that they argue for bypassing between 2.5 and 3 million people. There is no good reason to do so. Given that the system needs all the riders it can get to pencil out financially, it is absurd to send the route through completely empty land along Interstate 5 and ignore the populations along the CA-99 or CA-14 corridors.
Especially when those corridors desperately need an intercity alternative. The Highway 99 corridor is notoriously congested throughout much of the Valley, as it is the region's primary transportation route. An increasing number of both trucks and cars use the route, and more will do so if and when economic recovery comes to the Valley. A 2005 estimate showed it would cost $25 billion to bring Highway 99 up to Interstate standards and handle the projected traffic loads. HSR can be built through the Valley for a lower cost but can provide for the movement of people (and improve the movement of goods, especially through projects like Fresno rail consolidation) in a way that can make the widening and upgrading of Highway 99 less necessary.
There's also an environmental reason: the San Joaquin Valley has some of the worst air quality in the nation. HSR will play a major role in addressing that.
The Central Valley is going to see increased population growth during this century. The question whether it'll be sprawl or whether it'll be dense urban infill. HSR can help support infill development by providing opportunities for transit-oriented development. City center stations would help pull growth inward instead of push it outward.
The CHSRA's route FAQ has some more good info on the CA-99 route:
The I-5 corridor has very little existing or projected population between the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles. In contrast, according to the California Department of Finance, well over 3 million residents are projected to live between Fresno and Bakersfield along the SR-99 corridor by 2015, which directly serves all the major Central Valley cities. Residents along the SR-99 corridor lack a competitive transportation alternative to the automobile, and detailed ridership analysis shows that they would be ideal candidates to use a high-speed train system. The I-5 corridor would not be compatible with current land use planning in the Central Valley that accommodates growth in the communities along the SR-99 corridor.
Express trains in the SR-99 corridor would connect San Francisco to Fresno in just 1 hr and 20 min, and Fresno to Los Angeles in 1 hr and 24 min. This corridor would link San Francisco to Bakersfield in about 1 hr and 50 min, and Bakersfield to Los Angeles in 54 min. The SR-99 corridor was estimated to have 3.3 million more intermediate-market ridership (passengers to or from the Central Valley) per year than the highest I-5 corridor projections (CRA 1999). Therefore, while SR-99 corridor travel times would be 11 to 16 min longer than the I-5 alternatives between Los Angeles and San Francisco, overall ridership and revenue for the SR-99 corridor would be higher.
Similarly, the case for Palmdale and against the I-5/Grapevine alignment is compelling. In addition to the fact that Palmdale/Lancaster has just under 500,000 people right now, whereas hardly any live along I-5 north of Castaic, there is the inescapable geological fact that the Tehachapi Pass is flatter, less seismically risky, and cheaper to construct than the extremely hilly I-5 corridor. The I-5/Grapevine route would require individual tunnels of 6 miles in length, more overall miles of tunneling, and would come closer to the seismically unstable junction of the Garlock and San Andreas Faults, one of the more dangerous of California's numerous faults. Typically, you want to cross faults at-grade and not in a tunnel, which is very difficult on the Grapevine route. See more in the CHSRA Tunneling Report.
The time difference is estimated at 12 minutes between Grapevine and Tehachapi, which isn't nothing, but neither is it a huge sacrifice, given the fact that Tehachapi is cheaper, more seismically stable, and serves more people.
Combine all this with the fact that there are forecast to be 1 million people in the Antelope Valley by 2020 (even if that isn't reached, there will be more growth here, as in the San Joaquin Valley), and it makes it clear that here as well, HSR should go where the people are. Even if the Tejon Ranch housing development is actually built, there still won't be as many people as in the Palmdale/Lancaster area.
Quoting again from the CHSRA route FAQ:
The most significant difference in regards to potential environmental impacts between the Antelope Valley option and I-5 alignments is in regards to major parklands. The Antelope Valley alignment would not go through major parks. In contrast, the I-5 options would potentially impact Fort Tejon Historic Park, Angeles and Los Padres National Forests, Hungry Valley State Vehicular Recreation Area, Pyramid Lake and other local parks. The Antelope Valley alignment would also have a lower overall potential for water-related impacts, less potential impacts to wetlands and non-wetland waters, and was forecast to have less impacts on urbanized land and farmland conversion than the I-5 options (because the I-5 options would result in more growth in the Central Valley).
The Antelope Valley alignment traverses less challenging terrain than the I-5 options, which would result considerably less tunneling overall (13 miles 21 km of tunneling for the Antelope Valley option versus 23 37 km miles for I-5 options), and considerably shorter tunnels (maximum length of 3.4 miles 5.5 km for the Antelope Valley option versus two tunnels greater than 5 miles 8 km for the I-5 options) which would result in fewer constructability issues. Although the Antelope Valley option is about 35 miles longer than the I-5 alignment options, it is estimated to be slightly less expensive to construct as a result of less tunneling through the Tehachapi Mountains. In addition, due to its more gentle gradient, geology, topology and other features, the SR-58/Soledad Canyon Corridor offers greater opportunities for using potential high-speed train alignment variations, particularly through the mountainous areas of the corridor, to avoid impacts to environmental resources. In contrast, the more challenging terrain of the I-5 Corridor greatly limits the ability to avoid sensitive resources and seismic constraints. The alignment optimization system (Quantm) that was utilized to identify and evaluate approximately 12 million alignment options for each mountain crossing could only find one practicable alignment option through the Tehachapi Mountains for the I-5 Corridor.
For practical, financial, ridership, planning, and any number of other reasons, HSR should be built along the proposed route.
As we noted in the San Diego post last week, the purpose of HSR isn't to connect two points with a straight line. It's to move people. HSR serves people, not geometry. We need to find the balance between serving the most people possible and a sensible, non-circuitous route. I strongly believe the current CHSRA plan strikes that balance.
Reminder by Rafael:
Altamont Corridor Rail Project - Public Scoping Meeting
Today, Tuesday, Nov 17 3:00p to 8:00p
at Fremont Central Park Teen Center, Fremont, CA
39770 Paseo Padre Parkway, Fremont, CA, 94539
If you attend and learn something new you feel would be worth sharing with readers of this blog, please email a summary to cruickshank at gmail dot com.