Saturday, February 28, 2009

Why Does The Media Feed the Trolls?

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

If you went solely by this Mercury News article you might think Palo Alto is full of HSR deniers who are willing to put their ignorance of trains and their narrow conception of property values above the state's dire need to build mass transit alternatives in order to solve the economic, energy, and climate crises:

California High Speed Rail representatives posed a question to Palo Alto residents Thursday night: "How do we come through Palo Alto?"

"Quiet, and invisible," one resident answered, to applause.

That man's sentiments were echoed throughout a community meeting held by the High Speed Rail Authority at the Mitchell Park Community Center. About 250 residents attended Thursday's public information meeting, many speaking out against the potential of elevated trains running through their neighborhoods and saying they had been intentionally misled when they voted for high-speed rail last November.

If these people believe loud diesel trains that must blare a horn at every grade crossing will be quieter than grade-separated high speed trains, they are out of their minds.

But what really rankles is the claim of "intentionally misled." That's a lie and those making those claims should be called to task for willfully spreading misinformation. This blog has been discussing grade separations on the Peninsula for months. It was common knowledge that HSR would use the Caltrain route and that grade separations would be part of the process. Local media was full of reports on this. If these people weren't aware of that, it wasn't for a lack of information, and they cannot claim anyone "misled" them why they were just too lazy to pay attention.

The article goes further:

Some residents said that when they voted in support of high-speed rail,they didn't realize the train was intended to be above-ground. One man called the ballot measure a "conscious deception" that would bring a "corridor of blight down the entire Peninsula."

"I just assumed it was going to be underground, like everyone else," he said.

Really? You "assumed" something and so we're supposed to cater to your ignorant assumption even though there was no reason to maintain that assumption and widely available evidence to the contrary? No, I don't think so.

Many residents spoke of property values, and one man said he believed houses along the tracks are now "worthless," because no one living there could sell a house today with the potential of high-speed rail taking away a portion of the backyard.

I wonder if that "one man" was Martin Engel. Sure sounds like it. Can anyone living there sell a house with a loud diesel train running on the other side of the fence? If so, they can sell a house with fast electric trains. Further, there is little evidence to suggest that "backyards" will be taken in Palo Alto, where ample ROW already exists for the bulk of the route through the city.

Resident Hinda Sack, who lives about a half-block from the tracks and joked at the meeting about registering Palo Alto as an endangered species, said she had also attended a recent meeting in Santa Clara.

"It's very frustrating and very anxiety-provoking," she said, "because it really feels like there's some agenda that we can't really tap into."

Um, there is: it's called moving California into the 21st century by building trains that will help solve the economic, energy, and environmental crisis. If you were living under a rock when gas prices shot to $4.50, when Caltrain ridership soared, when global warming led to a severe statewide drought, and when California's unemployment rate hit 10.1%, then there isn't really much we can do for you.

Resident Bill Cutler said he lives across the street from the Caltrain tracks. He wasn't as concerned about the method used to build the train — whether it were above or underground, or used a different route — as long as the rail authority found a way to make it quiet and visually unobtrusive. He said the process hadn't had enough public input up until this point, and questioned how seriously the rail authority was listening to residents.

Gesturing toward the comment cards provided, he said, "I wonder where all these comments are going to go."

Well Bill, they go to the California High Speed Rail Authority staff in Sacramento, who look them over and assemble them as part of the final EIR/EIS. They actually get read. And Bill, the Authority held numerous public meetings in recent years and has frequently solicited public comments and input.

These folks quoted in the article certainly sound like they just fell off the turnip truck. But what I find more interesting is why they're even being given all this space in the Mercury News article - and without any actual reporting from the author. Nowhere does the reporter explain to readers that these residents' claims have little basis in fact. Instead Diana Samuels just passes it along without comment - as if they have validity, as if they represent the views of a city whose council endorsed Prop 1A last fall.

NIMBYs, as Dennis Lytton has pointed out:

*believe that everyone wants to take away their home values.

* they idealize the status quo or the recent past (they would tell me that they wished the crime would come back to Hollywood to stop development, for example).

* they believe even the smallest incremental, infinitesimal sacrifice by them for the greater good is too much.

But they are also a small minority that the media uses so that they can write articles that have a counter perspective when there really is no valid one.

The media needs to stop feeding the trolls. NIMBYs do not and cannot be allowed to have a veto over whether HSR gets built. It is good and right that all residents have their voices heard. But that's as far as it goes. If they want to be constructive and help make sure HSR gets built in an effective way for everyone, that's great. If they want to sit there and take potshots because they were too lazy to pay attention before, then that's absurd, and the local media should stop enabling their silliness.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Obama's Budget Plan and HSR

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

President Barack Obama has released the basic outline of his FY 2010 budget plan (which would actually go into effect on October 1, 2009) and it includes $5 billion for HSR over 5 years - or, $1 billion a year. Obviously that's not going to be enough to build any HSR projects around the country, but would maybe possibly provide a few drops in the bucket. As Yonah at the Transport Politic notes, the proposal "doesn’t appear to mark sea change in vision for U.S. mobility" but is subject to change in Congress.

The budget fight may well resemble the stimulus battle in some key respects, as moderate Democrats and the small handful of sort-of-moderate Republicans could unite to try and pare back some of the more ambitious moves Obama is proposing, including the attack on 30 years of neoliberal economic policy signaled by Obama's plans to start going after wealth through taxation.

A key issue is whether the budget requires 50 votes or 60 votes to pass - the absurd and undemocratic filibuster rule was what caused the weakening of the stimulus plan (despite the $8 billion for HSR), and if the budget is subject to the same 60 vote requirement, then the end product is likely to be significantly weaker than what Obama is proposing here.

Ultimately the real transportation policy battle may come when the transportation bill comes up for reauthorization later this year. A Congressional commission is calling for a higher gas tax and ultimately a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tax, and while the Obama Administration backed off Ray LaHood's suggestions along those lines earlier this week, I suspect that may have been because they weren't yet ready to go there. We will see what happens later in the year.

Finally, it's great to have seen a lot of pushback against Republican HSR lies this week. It helped that Bobby Jindal made himself look ridiculous with his "Disneyland ride" comments - what he's actually wound up doing is inoculating HSR against that kind of criticism by implying HSR deniers think like Jindal does. Sort of a Sarah Palin "I can see Russia from my house!" moment. With Obama's approval ratings through the roof, and his administration finally showing signs of wanting to chart a truly new course in American politics, that creates the conditions to both grow and consolidate public support for high speed rail. There's a lot of opportunity here, but we'll have to push it through.

Note: I usually don't mind thread drift in the comments, but for now I'd ask folks who want to discuss the Peninsula HSR plan to keep it in yesterday's post for the time being, until I post again on the topic, which will likely be this weekend.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Debating Peninsula HSR

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

Wow, 70 comments and counting on the last post - hardly any of which were about Sir Richard Branson and private operators! (I'm sure Branson's ego won't mind.) I think I know what's on some folks' minds regarding HSR, and it's the debate over how to build HSR on the Peninsula.

We haven't had contentious discussions here for a while - not since October - and so perhaps some folks have forgotten the rules of etiquette around here. I'll delve into that first, and then offer some more general comments on the debate.

First, I ask that all users post with a username. It can be a pseudonym. Call yourself Ishmael if you want, I don't care. It's impossible to follow which anon said what. Blogger doesn't offer a way to ban just anonymous comments - I'd have to force everyone to register either with Google or with OpenID or something else. I would prefer to not do that, but will do so if necessary.

Second, I ask that comments have some basis in fact and evidence. If someone persists in making stuff up, I'll delete the comments. Same goes for any comments that are abusive or contain personal attacks on other commenters.

Other blog platforms offer more functionality, like WordPress. I'll be honest that I simply do not have the time to implement that system, though if anyone wants to help I'll work with you on that (and I mean that this time!).

Now, the discussion on the peninsula. I think Clem at the Caltrain-HSR Compatibility Blog put it well when he made this comment on his blog's most recent post:

HSR has strong political backing from SF, SJ, Sacramento and Washington DC. I don't believe the city or the developer will be allowed to delay the project. While the process may indeed be acrimonious, I believe it will be short.

Anyone on the Peninsula who thinks they can kill this project is nuts. By "kill the project" I mean cut it off at San José, try and reroute it through Altamont (where cities like Fremont and Pleasanton will put up a huge fight), or stop its construction altogether.

None of that is going to happen. It's not possible. HSR has solid support from the highest level in American politics - President Barack Obama - and is widely supported in Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the Congress. This line will be built and it will be built as is currently routed: along the Caltrain line on the Peninsula.

Let's be clear about what the political effect of trying to kill HSR via lawsuit, street protest, or whining on a blog will be. Californians will look at you as if you've signed on to Bobby Jindal's 2012 campaign. You will be seen as attacking a popular president and a popular project and will very quickly become isolated. I don't know if that's fair, but it's the reality.

Peninsula residents have the right and the responsibility to speak up about this project and seek to work out the best methods for constructing HSR in their communities. But there needs to be both a sense of collaboration, of working for the public good, and supportiveness of the HSR concept. When that is absent, concerns will be ignored. Again, that may not be fair, but it is reality.

There appear to be three camps on the Peninsula regarding HSR. The first is likely the largest: outright supporters who just want this thing built. Over 65% of San Mateo County residents voted for Prop 1A, after all. The second are people who are a bit concerned about this or that aspect of the project, but who are willing to work constructively to ensure the project is built in a way that meets their needs. The third are HSR deniers who never accepted Prop 1A's passage and who are using the fight over how to build it on the Peninsula to try and kill high speed rail outright.

The problem is that the local media on the Peninsula likes to feed the trolls in the third group, and blows the opposition out of proportion. And that's how HSR denial and NIMBYism works - shout really loudly and hope those in power decide to placate you. That isn't going to happen this time. Again, HSR will be built. The question is how to build it the right way.

I would set out some key points for everyone to understand in this debate:

1. HSR is going to be built along the Caltrain route from SF to SJ.
2. We want to build this in a way that works for all the communities affected. But we're not going to give into NIMBYism or HSR denial.
3. If people on the Peninsula want a trench or a tunnel they must pay for it themselves. We're going to focus on raising money to build the entire system and can't devote systemwide funds to give Palo Alto a trench.
4. HSR will benefit all communities along the line by providing faster, safer, and cleaner transportation options that do not rely on the automobile.

Bil Paul's column on trenching is a welcome bit of sensibility on this debate, although he conveniently avoids the issue of payment.

Let's hope that we can have a more reasonable discussion among the first two groups I described above. Those who just want to refight the Prop 1A battle, or the Altamont vs. Pacheco battle (which Bil Paul rightly said is "final" and "futile" to try and reopen) should leave the debate to those of us who actually want to do this thing the right way.

So, get your Peninsula fix in here. Tomorrow I'm writing about something totally different.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Virgin California?

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

The Times is reporting Richard Branson wants a piece of California HSR:

Virgin Trains, which operates the West Coast Main Line in Britain, is bidding for a slice of President Obama's multibillion-dollar upgrade of the American rail network, The Times has learnt.

Virgin is understood to be the only British company involved in the President's plan to build high-speed rail links between key cities on the East and West coasts of the United States. Virgin has been asked to submit a proposal for developing this infrastructure and has held meetings with the new Administration in Washington.

They may be overstating this case dramatically - Obama doesn't really have a "plan" to build HSR, at least not in any great detail. It would be interesting to know what they mean by "has held meetings with the new Administration" - it could be a basic "get to know you" fact-finding meeting or something more. But our own LA-SF route features in whatever it is Virgin is planning:

Virgin and other high-speed operators, such as SNCF, of France, are expected to work with the US Department of Transportation to develop its rail plans and then bid to operate individual services.

Virgin is keen on the Los Angeles to San Francisco route and also the East Coast line linking Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington. There are 30 return airline flights a day between Los Angeles and San Francisco and a high-speed train service could replace many of those, cutting carbon emissions. The journey would take less than three hours and voters in California have already agreed to raise $10 billion to start work on a line that would run from Sacramento, the state capital, to San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego.

I've always figured that SNCF and Virgin would be among the companies showing interest in operating our HSR line, so this is an expected development. That being said, I'm not sure that private operators are either necessary or desirable and have expressed my skepticism on this point ever since the first few posts on this blog. Public operators in France and Spain have done a good job running the system, as has Amtrak here in the US, and I'd prefer that any "profits" be given to expansion of the system and not to Richard Branson's wallet.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Mary Bono Mack and Darrell Issa Attack Vegas HSR

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

Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack, who owes her seat to having been married to Sonny Bono when he died, is launching a new criticism of the Vegas HSR project: that it would come at the expense of the Inland Empire. Obviously Mack, like John Boehner before her, is oblivious to the fact that many of her constituents will benefit from Vegas HSR, particularly the construction jobs. But she's concerned about the Indian casinos, like Casino Morongo, that might lose out to Vegas when Californians find it's easier to get to Vegas than ever before via a high speed train:

But Bono Mack, R-Palm Springs, said Reid -- a longtime proponent of a Southern California-to-Las Vegas rail line -- stands to gain from the provision at her district's expense. With a fast train in place to take people from Los Angeles to the Vegas Strip, the Inland area would likely lose out on tourist revenue, particularly at the region's Indian casinos, she said....

"He's stifling our economy," Bono Mack said. "We're just going to shuttle people away from the Inland Empire."

So wouldn't one solution to this be to build HSR to Palm Springs? Funny how she doesn't propose that.

As the article notes Mack voted with her party against the stimulus and against the $8 billion in HSR money. Which, it must be noted, will benefit the California High Speed Rail project most of all. A project that many of her constituents will directly benefit from. Look at a map of the 45th district - much of it includes the I-215 corridor, the corridor along which HSR is likely to run on the LA-SD portion of the route.

I guess this is a marginally less ridiculous form of HSR denial, but not by much. The solution here isn't to attack the Vegas HSR project, but to expand mass transit options so that Palm Springs and its casinos are included as well.

And to remind Mack, and everyone else in the Inland Empire, that high speed trains run in two directions.

UPDATE: Thanks to my Calitics co-blogger David Dayen for bringing my attention to this priceless smackdown of Darrell Issa, a Congressman from San Diego, who attacked the "earmark" for Vegas HSR which, as David Shuster points out in the clip, doesn't actually exist:

Worth noting that Issa too represents a district that will benefit from HSR. God, these people are idiots.

Monday, February 23, 2009

LaHood: Expect More HSR Funds; MTC Funding Debate

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

UPDATE: As reported by the Transbay Blog the MTC is planning to apply for the Transbay Terminal train box funding to come out of the $8 billion HSR stimulus and not from the general transit stimulus funds. Debate continues over funding the BART to OAK - in addition to the Transbay Blog article (which opposes funding BART to OAK out of stimulus money) see more at Living in the O, TransForm, and the Calitics version of this post. The original post begins here:

Some great news out of the US Department of Transportation:

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood today emphasized the administration's long-term commitment to expanding high-speed rail service in "five or six regions" of the country, not just with the $8 billion provided in the economic stimulus package President Obama signed into law last week, but also "in subsequent years a very substantial effort." Meeting with reporters earlier today, LaHood said that for Obama building high-speed rail networks is, "if not his No. 1 priority, certainly at the top of his list. What the president is saying with the $8 billion is this is the start to help begin high-speed rail projects." He added that the administration "is committed to finding the dollars to not only get them started but to finishing them in at least five parts of the country," although he declined to elaborate on where these projects might ultimately be built.

One of my lingering concerns about the Obama Administration has been that they might be tempted to claim victory with the $8 billion in HSR funding added to the stimulus and not follow up on that money, which as we know merely pays for some initial costs. But what Ray LaHood is saying is that in fact, the $8 billion in HSR stimulus really is intended as a signal to America that Obama is truly serious about building HSR.

This couldn't be better news for us in California, where we have long known that at least $15 billion in federal aid, spread out over 10 years, will be needed to build the SF-LA line. Unfortunately the news is tempered by the fact that the Obama Administration's support for HSR did not extend to mass transit as a whole. Here in California the state has decided to zero out the State Transit Assistance account, costing local agencies over $500 million in funding. The federal stimulus isn't nearly enough to make up the difference. And as the San Jose Mercury News reports, that's setting up a situation where HSR may be pit against local transit agencies:

The MTC meeting Wednesday in Oakland could turn contentious, as the current plan calls for allocating $75 million to help build the Transbay Terminal in San Francisco, which would serve as the final stopping point for a high-speed rail line and Caltrain, [NOTE: in fact the MTC now plans to get the train box money from the $8 billion HSR stimulus - see update at top of the post] and $70 million to build a BART spur to Oakland International Airport. Those two projects alone would take 43 percent of the $340 million headed to the area in stimulus funds for local transit.

Some want money for those new two projects scrapped or reduced — and redirected to cover the cost of paying for day-to-day transit needs.

But MTC officials counter that building the Transbay Terminal now will save millions of dollars in later costs, and combined with the $8 billion in stimulus funds set aside for high-speed rail could accelerate that program. California is a leading candidate to capture much of that money because voters in the fall approved a $10 billion bond measure to begin work on the line, which will someday extend from San Diego to San Francisco and Sacramento.

"Given that California is the only state to pass a bond to build a new high-speed line, we think we might be able to do some double-dipping there," said MTC executive director Steve Heminger. "We are going to spend the stimulus money fast. I can guarantee that."

I support using that money for the Transbay Terminal, although I'm less certain about whether BART to OAK is all that necessary; the AirBART buses work pretty well (I used them on numerous occasions when I was an undergrad at UC Berkeley, although that was 10 years ago).

But I really hate it when HSR pitted against other forms of transit. I have said it before and I will say it again - HSR and other mass transit need each other to be successful. It should not and must not be an either/or choice. I don't blame the MTC for being stuck in this position - that blame lies in Sacramento and Washington DC. But we transit advocates need to not fall out along modal lines.

I'd like to propose a solution, one that I don't even know is possible under state law but makes a ton of sense to me. The nine-county SF Bay Area region should implement its own gas tax, which will solely be used to fund public transit. I haven't penciled out the numbers so I don't know exactly what the tax amount should be, but it should be indexed to the price of gas, and not a fixed cent number.

This money would initially be used to backfill the loss of STA funds, and allow the federal stimulus money to go to new transit infrastructure such as Transbay Terminal or BART to OAK. Ultimately the STA funds must be restored by a statewide gas tax increase, but it is much more politically possible to implement a gas tax in the Bay Area first than to try and get the Central Valley and the Southern California exurbs to buy into this (they can be brought on board later, once the 2/3 rule is eliminated).

It's very difficult for folks living in the nine counties to evade the tax, with the possible exception of Gilroy residents who might drive to Hollister to fill up. Most folks will simply pay the increase rather than drive far out of their way to get a cheaper gallon of gas.

I'm not sure if this option has been explored by the MTC and the member counties, but it ought to be. It's a sensible solution that would not only help spare transit agencies from "Armageddon" but would itself be a long overdue policy shift that would give a real boost to transit efforts in the SF Bay Area.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Mid-Peninsula HSR Station

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

One aspect of yesterday's extensive thread entitled "Of Lawsuits, Tunnels and Tall Trees" that I feel did not receive enough attention is the matter of knock-on effects of grade separation strategies and, that of where CHSRA will put the mid-peninsula station. Other than the tentative Hanford/Visalia/Tulare station, this is the only one that CHSRA has not nailed down yet.

Knock-On Effects of Grade Separation Strategies

In deciding which type of partial or full grade separation they want to see implemented, the mid-peninsula communities of Redwood City, Atherton, Menlo Park and Palo Alto need to negotiate not just with CHSRA but also with each other. Once HSR becomes operational, there will be three railroads in the peninsula corridor: Caltrain, HSR and Union Pacific. ACE and/or Amtrak (Capitol Corridor, San Joaquin, California Zephyr, perhaps even a Coast Corridor sleeper service from SF to LA until HSR is available) could conceivably seek limited trackage rights up to 4th & King in San Francisco in the future, especially if and when the old Dumbarton rail bridge is restored to active service. That means the grade separation solutions in the mid-peninsula must also consider the need for turnoffs toward that bridge at the border of Redwood City and Atherton.

Serving everyone's needs requires that the gradients of at least the Caltrain tracks be kept low enough for freight trains (2.2% max) and, that all stations be on level track sections. Keeping everything at grade achieves this nicely, but it would also make full grade separation of the corridor more expensive and intrusive for properties adjacent to both the tracks and the cross-roads. That means it is not technically possible to elevate tracks in Menlo Park and not do it in downtown Palo Alto as well. Likewise, you cannot run tunnels under just downtown Palo Alto. The impact of the level at which tracks will run near the San Francisquito creek extends as far north as Redwood City and south to at least Oregon Expressway in Palo Alto, if not further.

CORRECTION: Except for deep tunnels under San Francisquito Creek, it appears there is in fact enough run length to accommodate a mix of grade separation solutions without turning the alignment into a roller coaster (h/t to Clem).

The Port of San Francisco has asked Caltrain to enable the operation of extra-tall AAR plate H freight cars, e.g. for transporting imported cars stacked not two but three high. It may be a serious case of the tail wagging the dog, but this wish might nevertheless be granted, e.g. as part of a grand bargain with UPRR on an ROW deal for SJ-Gilroy or, with the city of San Francisco on CHSRA/JPB contributions toward the DTX tunnel to and trainbox under its new showcase Transbay Terminal Center.

The overhead catenary system would have to provide not just physical but also electric clearance for plate H freight trains. The latter refers to the minimum vertical distance to the 25kV overhead catenary system that is required to avoid electric arcing (i.e. short circuits). This is especially critical at overpasses and in tunnels.

Any new long covered trenches or tunnels in the corridor might therefore have to be taller than required for Caltrain and HSR alone. Extensive undergrounding would also introduce another safety concern, as diesel-powered freight trains would need to run through several underground stations. EPA is tightening emissions regulations for remanufactured and new diesel locomotives, but all California rail operators have large numbers of dirty legacy units.

UPDATE: Retrofitting diesel locomotives with pantographs to avoid diesel emissions in tunnels is possible, but someone - e.g. the cities demanding that tracks be put underground - would have to pay for that, in addition to the much greater cost differential for a drilling four long, large-bore tunnels in the first place.

HSR Station Options

In addition to track work, the city that gets the mid-peninsula station will have to deal with the mixed blessing of becoming a regional transit hub. The primary challenge is figuring out how to manage - or better yet, avoid - additional car traffic by offering connecting transit and bicycle infrastructure, while eliminating free parking in the station environs. Below are maps that showcase the kinds of issues urban planners will have to deal with when HSR comes to their town.

Officially under consideration are Palo Alto and Redwood City. The former already generates more Caltrain traffic than San Jose. The latter is arguably better located for (connecting) service to and from from the East Bay, though that argument has been weakened by the decisions in favor of Pacheco Pass and the BART extension to Santa Clara.

Nevertheless, since there will be no HSR service between San Jose and Oakland in the foreseeable future, bus feeder services across the Dumbarton road bridge will have to be offered to avoid excessive additional traffic near the station areas. Another complication is that both candidate locations are located near shopping centers that offer ample free parking, intended for use by their customers. It is entirely possible that HSR passengers arriving by car would abuse these parking lots. One possible workaround is to always require motorists to pay for parking near the HSR station. Retail outlets would then validate the first hour or two for customers that spend above a threshold amount. Any surplus would be used to help subsidize local and regional transit services, which after all bring in not just rail passengers but also customers from further afield.

In addition to bus or streetcar services and for-fee car parking, Caltrain/HSR combo stations need to provide ample for-fee parking for bicycles - preferably guarded or based on biketrees to curb theft and save space.

The chosen host city should also provide safe bicycle access routes, as is common practice in e.g. Houten (Holland). Bicycles are emissions-free and use road space more efficiently that four-seater cars that are - let's face it - most often used to transport just one or two persons. Cycling therefore ought to be a popular way to catch any type of train, especially in summer when air quality is at its worst and gasoline at its most expensive.

City bikes with electric assist systems, already all the rage in China and parts of Europe, greatly increase the bicycle catchment area for train stations, in terms of both distance and terrain. It may even make sense for cities and passenger rail operators to encourage the purchase of folding models, possibly with electric assist, as these can more easily be stowed on trains and even, recharged. That would increase ridership and reduce demand for bicycle storage.

Another option are fleets of sturdy conventional bicycles that people can rent at no or very low cost, e.g. Velib' in Paris (France) or CityBike in Vienna (Austria). However, their success depends largely on high population density and flat terrain, a combination in short supply in California, though Palo Alto might qualify.

To illustrate possible solutions for the candidate locations for the mid-peninsula HSR station, I have prepared three exploratory maps. These do not reflect any official plans from any agency or city.

Note that these do not show the details of the station layout, e.g. side vs. island platform(s). The Caltrain HSR Compatibility Blog is a more appropriate venue for those. All I intend to highlight here is the need to accommodate four tracks, of which at least two must have two full-length (1/4 mile) level boarding platforms. Even if these are not fully built out right away, the space for them must be reserved up front, as must adequate room for pedestrian flow into and out of the station on both sides of the tracks.

Keep in mind that CHSRA could still decide to cancel its plans for a mid-peninsula station altogether in the context of the project-level EIR/EIS for this segment of the HSR route.

Option 1: Redwood City

View Larger Map

Note the existing Sequoia Station's proximity to a large shopping center and the city's main street, Broadway. The map also shows the convenient access to the business park at Network Circle and the Dumbarton bridge beyond it, as well as the turnoffs for future commuter rail service across the bay.

The bus route to Union City is indicated in orange. A new bus terminal next to the station could feature a publicly accessible green roof that would serve as an additional small park. The building could feature a second story with transit-oriented offices or else, support services for transit users/shoppers: a post office, a supermarket, dry cleaning, a day care center with for-fee reservation by the hour etc. Just for kicks, I also sketched (in red) a streetcar route that would link the station to several business parks in the area. There is a legacy rail ROW out to Seaport Blvd, but otherwise this is just an crazy idea of mine.

Option 2: Palo Alto

View Larger Map

Note the proximity to Stanford University, Stanford Shopping Center and the city's main street, University Avenue. The latter has already been grade separated against the railroad tracks as well as Alma St. and El Camino Real (see Focus On: Palo Alto). Both the rails and Alma St. were moved west some 85 feet to ease construction of the underpass. The resulting chicane would prevent HSR express trains from passing at 125mph. The existing station building will also have to be moved or replaced when the alignment is straightened out again. That means the Alma/University interchange will also have to be extensively modified unless the rails are moved into very deep tunnels with sufficient overburden at the underpass, which would open up a can of worms (see above).

If the rails remain above ground, it might make a lot of sense to leverage two of the existing connectors between the two roads to return Alma St. to grade level, but with a chicane in the other direction. The space in-between would be used for modified turn-offs into and out of the underpass.

In addition, the map shows a more radical idea that is not at all essential to HSR operations but in keeping with the transit-oriented spirit of the project: converting the section of University Ave. between the modified Alma St. and Webster St. into a pedestrian zone with al fresco dining etc. A single traffic lane down the center would be retained for vehicles with a permit, e.g. police, fire, ambulance, sanitation, handicapped transport and delivery trucks at certain hours of the day. Normally, it would be reserved for bicycles. All of the parking spots would disappear, motorists would need to make do with the parking lots along Lytton and Hamilton. Local traffic, possibly including a courtesy shuttle to the Caltrain/HSR station, would be routed around the pedestrian zone via these roads plus Webster and Alma. The European experience shows that shopkeepers' fears about losing foot traffic are misplaced, as shoppers actually flock to pedestrian zones within easy walking distance of transit stops and/or parking.

Vehicular through traffic would be encouraged to use the existing one-way express streets Homer and Channing, located several blocks south-east of University Ave.

Another feature of the map is a bus terminal located next to the station. An existing nearby restaurant could be relocated to the second floor there to make room for a nice plaza in front of the station, for drop-off/pick-up and taxi waiting service. As in Redwood City, the bus terminal building would feature a green roof, part of which would be used for al fresco dining in this case.

Also note the optional two-story car park at the north end of the station platforms, with a publicly accessible green roof to replace the soccer pitch and corner park that would be lost during construction. Alternatively, capacity could be added across the street at Stanford Shopping Center by adding a second story there, iff Stanford Shopping Center is amenable to that.

The final feature worth pointing out is the red area opposite El Camino Real from the station. The land is owned by Stanford University, which could decide to develop it for a transit-oriented hotel-and-conference center for visiting academics, cultural venue and/or affordable housing for graduate students. This is optional and not at all essential for the success of the HSR station.

Bonus Option: Mountain View

View Larger Map

This city is currently not under consideration for the mid-peninsula station, perhaps because that would give Santa Clara county three stations vs. just one for San Mateo county. Nevertheless, the location may be worth considering for three reasons:

a) VTA Light Rail already connects Mountain View to the "Golden Triangle" of Silicon Valley, a collection of high-tech businesses in the area bordered by I-101, 237 and I-880. The existing light rail track(s) will have to be moved to permit construction of two dedicated HSR tracks - if not up front, then definitely at a later date. Since the light rail approach to the station is single-track, one option would be to move that to the median of Central Expressway, terminating in Stierlin Rd. A pedestrian overpass would facilitate access to the train station.

b) The location is close to several major highways: I-101, Central Expressway, 85 and 237 plus, the area's largest employment and entertainment cluster - Shoreline - is near the shortest route to Dumbarton bridge. That means Mountain View arguably has a larger catchment area than even Palo Alto, which may explain why it already attracts almost as much ridership on Caltrain.

c) The city of Mountain View has been pro-active in planning ahead for the arrival of HSR tracks (h/t to Clem Tillier).

The town's main street, Castro, currently features a busy grade crossing. Existing overpasses in the area preclude elevating the tracks and, a deep underpass would be disruptive to the station and other properties near the intersection. The map therefore shows Mountain View station remaining at grade with the crossing permanently closed! A drastic step, to be sure, but one that may be required for HSR even if its trains end up just passign through.

To compensate for the loss of access to Central Expressway in particular, traffic would be re-routed via N Shoreline, W Evelyn and Whisman. Also shown are alternative access routes to and from 85 and 237 that skirt residential areas. With road space at a premium near the station, traffic is already constrained northbound at the station. Note that the direction of traffic flow around the bus stop circle might have to be reversed. However, there is no room right next to or across Central Expressway from the station for a bus terminal, as in the other two locations.

Also shown is the option of turning three blocks of Castro St, a popular local destination for lunch, into a pedestrian zone with traffic routed around it via side streets. Note that there is no large shopping mall near this station.

Finally, note the existing bike lanes and dedicated path out to Shoreline business park (Google et al), amphitheater and lake. The path extends all the way to Palo Alto airport. Unfortunately, N. Shoreline is too narrow to permit extending VTA light rail all the way out there, so concertgoers arriving by train will have to hop on the bus across to Union City instead. It should use the frontage road to avoid I-101, which is often congested.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Of Lawsuits, Tunnels, and Tall Trees

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

This Friday night brings our attention back to the Peninsula, where some of the first battles over HSR are being fought. First up is the frivolous lawsuit filed by Stuart Flashman, Menlo Park, Atherton, and others. Now they are claiming that the CHSRA ignored Menlo Park's letter about potential loss of property along the route:

The California High Speed Rail Authority ignored Menlo Park's comment letter that outlined how their proposed bullet trains would force Peninsula homeowners to lose their property, according to opening arguments filed Thursday in the city's lawsuit against the state....

The most significant claim in the brief was that the authority never received Menlo Park's comments that were made before the Pacheco Pass route was approved. State environmental law requires government bodies to review comments from cities and residents before a planning decision of this kind is made.

Now the fate of that specific comment letter is important, but let's not kid ourselves - it was never any secret that some in Menlo Park were worried about this. The "Derail HSR" crowd was based out of Menlo Park and those activists and the Menlo Park city council had been vocal about these worries. It is not credible to claim that the CHSRA was "never aware" of Menlo Park's concerns, as the lawsuit claims.

Further down the tracks, Palo Alto residents are falling in love with the tunnel:

On Tuesday, residents voiced two clear messages: They want a bigger say in the design process and they would much rather have a rail line that zips through tunnels than one that whooshes past over their heads on raised tracks, which some city officials are calling a "Berlin Wall" dividing Palo Alto.

It would be "the difference between blight and Park Avenue," Judith Wasserman, a member of the Palo Alto's Architectural Review Board, said of the tunnel-versus-elevated tracks alternative.

"If somehow the High-Speed Rail Authority decides to put it above ground anyway, is there recourse or do we all just have to lie down on the tracks?" Wasserman asked the crowd gathered in a Palo Alto Unified School District conference room at 25 Churchill Ave.

This is starting to get silly. "Berlin Wall"? Lying down on the tracks? Are they serious? Have they ever been to San Carlos, which doesn't exactly resemble East Berlin circa 1980? Neither is anyone talking about a concrete-sided structure; it can be landscaped to fit better with the surrounding community. I understand that Palo Alto wants to figure out how to best integrate HSR within their town, but statements like that just make them look ridiculous. They also make it more difficult to have a sensible and evidence-based discussion of how to design and build HSR. Those who refer to a "Berlin Wall" are showing that they see HSR as some kind of ruinous imposition designed to not only divide their community but take away their freedom. It's language intended to harden positions, and not come to sensible compromises or smart design solutions. (Besides, the people who risked and in some cases lost their lives crossing the Berlin Wall might object to this cheapening of their experiences.)

Nor does it help when some reporters make sensational claims that lack evidence, such as the Daily Post's argument that El Palo Alto would have to be chopped down to make way for HSR. Clem at the Caltrain HSR Compatibility Blog debunked this claim:

Sounds pretty dire, but so far, nobody has suggested excavation near the tree, excepting a few Palo Alto residents who are advocating the entire railroad be buried in a tunnel. The great alarm over HSR impacts to El Palo Alto is out of proportion with the concrete piers poured in recent years near the tree for a bicycle bridge, and certainly overlooks the pressing need to replace the more than 100-year-old rail bridge over the San Francisquito Creek, regardless of HSR.

It's a ridiculous situation when people have to resort to sensationalism to try and get their point across. Unfortunately stories like "omg they're going to kill El Palo Alto!!!" have a nasty way of becoming zombie lies that everyone believes to be true despite the lack of evidence.

If Palo Alto residents want a tunnel so badly, they can pay for it. If they don't want to pay for it, then they should find ways to constructively pose suggestions to make the project a success. Too much of the NIMBY criticism of the HSR plan on the Peninsula is very thinly veiled HSR denial, as Martin Engel's prominent place in the debate shows. Peninsula residents have every right to make suggestions and proactively try to influence the HSR design and implementation. But they have no place trying to destroy a project California voters approved. HSR will be built and it will use the Caltrain corridor down the Peninsula. It's time the debate on the Peninsula became less hyperbolic and more constructive.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

HSR Denial Alive And Well In San Diego

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

Just as passenger rail advocates are celebrating the federal government's down payment on high speed rail, and as we become aware that the retreat from last summer's record gas prices was a temporary respite, we get word from San Diego that the HSR deniers are still plying their trade, passing along the same old lies as if nothing interesting had happened between, say, November 1 and February 15. The San Diego Union-Tribune, which had happily spread some of the worst smears about Prop 1A during the campaign season, yesterday called on the state to "pull the plug" on high speed rail:

Nevertheless, a sober assessment of the project still raises profound questions – both about its viability and its advocates' honesty.

I quote that just to be clear at the outset that the U-T wants to make "honesty" part of the issue. That's worth keeping in mind as you read their lies:

We start with the High Speed Rail Authority's own official business plan. It was supposed to be made public by Sept. 1. Instead, it wasn't released until just after Proposition 1A was approved.

How often do we have to refute this zombie lie? The business plan was delivered 45 days after the state passed a budget. The September 1 deadline - given to the CHSRA five days before the deadline (on August 26) - was impossible to meet because of a budget crisis provoked by Republicans. There literally wasn't the money to hire consultants to produce the plan.

Given the business plan's contents, it's understandable why it was kept from voters (and the media). Throughout 2008, advocates touted the eagerness of the private sector to provide a large chunk of the project's huge tab. The plan, however, paints a far different picture. It warns that private investors could be wary of the project's risks and says private firms expressing interest “made it clear that they would need both financial and political commitments from state officials that government would share the risks to their participation.”

Of course private interests would have some wariness - but "wariness" doesn't mean "omg we're not investing in this" - it just means they're going to take a close and smart look. And they always want risks to be shared. That's commonplace in a large project like this. The U-T does NOT mention that the CHSRA has received over 40 statements of interest from private companies and investors, suggesting that this "wariness" is overstated.

Throughout 2008, advocates depicted the project as a pain-free no-brainer for local governments on the high-speed train's projected routes. The business plan, however, says cash-strapped local governments must come up with $2 billion to $3 billion.

I don't recall anyone saying the project would be a "pain-free no-brainer." Well, it IS a no-brainer that we need to build HSR, but we've always said it's going to cost a lot of money. We've also said that the cost will be worth it. Local government funding is anticipated to play a variety of roles, from a long-planned reshaping of rail corridors in Fresno to the Transbay Terminal to station-area developments in smaller cities. Here again the U-T takes an innocuous, widely-known fact and tries to make controversy out of it. It's essentially the same playbook as John Boehner.

The plan also simply drops claims that annual ridership would be about 117 million in favor of a vague prediction of “more than 90 million” annual trips. Yes, this figure is within the broad range cited by some campaign literature – but it wasn't the number used to persuade voters that the system would be highly profitable and would heavily reduce air pollution because people were using high-speed trains en masse instead of cars.

Note that they do not say the 90 million figure would mean HSR would not generate a profit. Nor do they say 90 million is unlikely. No do they say it would not achieve the air pollution reductions. Nor do they question the notion that people will turn to trains for intercity travel. No, they pull a typical HSR denier move and say "omg you changed the numbers! obviously you LIE!" Even though explaining that a range of numbers is possible isn't even a remotely dishonest thing to do.

Whatever advocates' specific ridership prediction, however, what's crucial to remember is its utter lack of a factual basis. Consider that the entire Amtrak system, with more than 500 destinations in 46 states, only has about 26 million passengers a year. Or consider the fact that the rail authority itself used to predict only 23 million trips a year.

What changed? As far as we can determine from advocates' own presentations, all that changed was their realization that grand claims for profitability and environmental salvation could only be made if forecasts were far higher.

First, comparing Amtrak to HSR is like comparing a Cessna to a 747. They are fundamentally different forms of rail travel. They use the national numbers, which do not explain that most of these destinations and states see one or two trains per day, instead of the Acela, which recently claimed that they now have 62% of the market on the Northeast Corridor. Nor does the U-T look at comparable HSR systems around the world. Nope, they cherrypick a stat and compare it to California HSR, even though the comparison is so logically flawed as to lack credibility.

It's not too late for state leaders to try to find a way to pull the plug on this project. Even in the best of times, it's unacceptable to commit taxpayers to spend nearly $10 billion on a project predicated on the fantasies of true believers and likely to end up costing taxpayers far more. In bad times, it's utter folly.

Sorry. America has spoken. We want high speed rail. And we're going to build it. The San Diego Union-Tribune can make up as many lies as it wants to about HSR - voters have shown they support it, America's political leadership has shown they support it, and the need is clearly there. If the best these HSR deniers can do is collect a bunch of lies and call it an "editorial" then they're in even worse shape than I imagined.

Can't wait to ride the California high speed trains to San Diego...

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Don't Look Now...

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

...but gas prices are creeping back up again. At the corner station nearest me in Monterey we've seen an increase of about 30 cents over the last couple of weeks. Sure, $2.40 is a far cry from the $4.60 peak we saw last July, but it's a reminder that as this site has consistently argued, the long-term trend is up, up, up. HSR remains a key part of the essential project of moving California and ultimately the nation toward energy independence.

The underlying causes have much to do with peak oil. Long-term forecasts still call for price increases as demand inexorably begins to exhaust the cheaply available supply. It's worth noting those forecasts don't just come from peak oil activists - unless you consider General Motors to be a "peak oil activist":

If this doesn't show the need for greater and immediate investment in mass transit and passenger rail I don't know what does.

It seems clear to me that the long-term increase in oil prices, which climaxed in the great spike of 2008, have fundamentally changed American attitudes toward passenger rail in particular. If the price spike had been sudden and confined to 2008, perhaps nothing would have changed. But since gas prices had been steadily rising since 2005 (and some could argue since 1999) that laid the seeds for a new way of thinking about transportation, and a new appreciation for linking mass transit and energy independence.

Times like these I'm glad it's Obama in the White House.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

America Speaks, Obama Acts

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

Note: Rafael wrote much of this post, and I've made some edits and additions. -Robert

There's an interesting article in the Politico today on President Barack Obama's central role in getting the $8 billion in HSR funds into the stimulus.

The article portrays the $8 billion for HSR in the stimulus bill as part of some dastardly backroom plot to force high speed rail down the throat of an unsuspecting and unwilling public. David Rogers also mentions the $1.5 billion already allocated in HR 2095 in the fall, but portrays it as a modest George W. Bush policy in comparison with Obama's alleged spending spree. In truth, Bush's hands were de facto tied by the fact that it was tacked onto an omnibus rail safety bill coming on the heels of the Chatsworth disaster, just before an election that put a lot of GOP seats in the House and Senate in play. HSR was something that was forced down his throat by a veto-proof bipartisan majority in both houses.

While it's true that there was little discussion of HSR as a new direction in transportation/energy/environmental policy in the national media both during and after the election campaign, the same is not true of California and possibly other parts of the country. Perhaps Rogers should look beyond the beltway from time to time.

Especially considering that the public strongly supports high speed rail. The Politico article makes it sound like Obama and Rahm Emanuel cut some kind of backroom deal for the HSR funding, that it was done merely to give Obama some sort of "signature project". But in fact, Obama was actually doing what the people asked him to do.

Back in January the Obama transition team put together the Citizens Briefing Book on, allowing the public to vote for the policy proposals they liked best. High speed rail funding was one of the top vote-getters, and one of the very few to actually elicit a video response, in which Obama promised to fund HSR. Which he has now done. Our new president opened up his administration to the people, they told him what he wanted, and they did it. Imagine that!

Obama wasn't sneaking anything in at the last minute here - he was just following orders. Our orders.

The piece goes on to say the Obama will ask for an additional $1 billion (egads!) per year for HSR in the general budgets for the next five years. First off, he's got another election to contest in 2012 and so far, he's not spoken about any specific plans related to a possible second term. Second, Rogers may be confusing Amtrak grants with HSR capital projects. The sum he is in a tizzy about wouldn't be large enough to deliver HSR infrastructure in the 11 already designated corridors. For that, Congress would have to appropriate at least ten times as much annually for the next 20 years.

The $1b/year number appears at odds with Rogers' claim that the President has suddenly embraced HSR as a new signature issues because the new electricity grid and renewable electricity generation have supposedly failed to capture the public's imagination. Again, the beltway bubble appears to be a reality distortion field.

Rogers also incorrectly states that the HSR money came from narrowing the focus of a business tax break. In fact, it came from re-allocations and narrowing the focus of funding in the transportation section of the bill: the original House bill contained $30b for highways, $2b for fixed guideways and $1b at the discretion of the Secr. of Transportation, subject to a competitive bidding process. The Nadler amendment increased that latter number to $2.5b. The Senate's version allocated the $2b to a specific type of fixed guideway, namely HSR. It also moved $3b out of the highway budget and into the discretionary pot, increasing it to $5.5b. At the President's request, this potential slush fund was also allocated to a specific type of transportation spending, namely HSR. The remaining $500 million came from shifting funding for brand-new local transit services to HSR and Amtrak. If you add it all together, aggregate transportation spending was actually reduced to help make room for the AMT patch that the three GOP senators demanded. Math is hard.

More credibly, Rogers states that spending the money will take time and be complicated by freight rail operators that own most of the nation's existing railroad tracks. He seems blissfully unaware of the single biggest HSR project out there, the one in California, which actually involves laying hundreds of miles of brand-new, dedicated and electrified tracks. CHSRA made a shrewd political move in deciding to run the system on renewable electricity alone, because that makes the California system an even better fit for the President's policy objectives.

Note that railroad ROWs could even be critical to building the new, smart electricity grid (presumably based on HVDC trunk lines) and, that the railroads themselves could be (partially) electrified in the process. The technical hurdle is the minimum safe distance between high voltage (hundreds of kV) DC transmission lines (exposed or shielded and buried) and 25kV AC overhead catenaries, especially if both systems depend on electrical ground for the return path. Lightning arcs between the tow systems are another risk that would have to be reliably avoided.

That said, there are indeed serious ROW issues with legacy freight operators even in the California project, especially the sections of the preferred route that depend on UPRR's co-operation: SJ-Gilroy, Stockton-Fresno, Bakersfield-Palmdale (except Tehachapi Pass) and, Redondo Junction-Colton. The Fremont-Stockton section of the HSR overlay through Altamont Pass would also involve a UPRR ROW.

In the Central Valley, it's possible that CHSRA will be able to cut a deal with BNSF for Stockton-Fresno to overcome opposition by UPRR. The route section Fresno-Bakersfield, Palmdale-LA-Anaheim-Irvine (except for the run-through tracks at LA US) and Miramar-San Diego all depend on BNSF sharing its ROW anyhow, but that company is more willing to negotiate than UPRR.

In any case, Obama's HSR move shows that he really is going to put his money where his mouth is - and that when the public demands sustainable transportation, our president will listen.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Sacramento Meltdown

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

Note: Rafael contributed to this post as well.

As the LA Times reports, the state of California still doesn't have a budget after a 30-hour marathon session in the state senate. Lawmakers on both sides were so exhausted many fell asleep at their desks.

That means pretty soon CHSRA officials will no longer get paid, their consultants are already being offered IOUs. If the impasse is not resolved, the HSR project could be seriously delayed unless the Obama administration awards some stimulus funds directly to the authority, bypassing the deadlocked state legislature. It's conceivable that might happen, but politicians from other states will wonder if it's wise to spend anything at all on such an ambitious project in a state whose own funding depends on a budget process that is broken beyond repair. As an indication of things to come, consider that the national media are now lampooning (starting at 2:10) the whole thing as the political equivalent of a horror movie, the production of which the proposed state budget would subsidize. While they mention why lawmakers are asleep, the mere fact that it has come to this means the Bear Republic is now the front line in this era of serious financial crisis.

It should be noted that Prop 1A and the HSR project are not to blame here. Our bonds haven't even been sold yet. Of course, the longer this crisis goes on, the more costly it is going to be to float those bonds, and that means less money for high speed trains and tracks.

But perhaps the worst possible outcome of this mess is a proposal that is likely to be on the May 2009 special election ballot. It's a "hard spending cap" - a far-right effort to ensure that the spending cuts that are being made can never be reversed. It's actually worse than that, as it would prevent the state from ever taking on a major new project, regardless of its level of popular support, regardless of its need, and regardless of its ability to pay for itself.

The way a cap like the one proposed works is this: spending is only allowed to grow by a rate determined by population growth and inflation. If those numbers are 0, then no spending growth is possible. The cap might allow for 5% growth in spending, but only meet the educational and social services need of those new people and the higher cost of doing business thanks to the inflation. ALL state spending is subject to this cap, even something like high speed rail.

In practice what this means, as the state of Colorado discovered when their cap hit hard earlier this decade, is that government programs have to fight each other. If California wanted to spend $2 billion of the Prop 1A bonds in, say, 2012, then $2 billion in corresponding cuts have to made elsewhere in the budget. HSR would be pit against schools and hospitals. I don't know about you, but that's not a good situation for us to be in.

Worse, the spending cap means that California will have to make further cuts in coming years even above and beyond what Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proposes, and that's itself a set of rather conservative spending plans. The California Budget Project shows what the impact looks like:

In short, a spending cap like the one proposed could be catastrophic for the California High Speed Rail project. The Legislature has already voted to put it on the ballot in May. Defeating it is going to be a high priority for HSR supporters and transit advocates around the state.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

California HSR Stimulus Project List

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

On January 28 Quentin Kopp sent a letter to Senator Dianne Feinstein's office listing potential HSR construction projects that "can currently be commenced". Included grade crossings in the La Mirada area of Southern California that Metrolink has planned and that HSR would use, although as Kopp notes, "a certain amount of additional engineering will be required to accommodate our project." Also listed is work at San Bruno, ROW acquisition and site prep in the Central Valley, and Caltrain electrification. You can read the letter here (PDF), and the list of proposed projects is below:

LA-Anaheim grade separations:

Passons Blvd/Serapis St: $43.4 million
Pioneer Blvd: $45 million
Norwalk Blvd: $150 million
Lakeland Rd: $40 million
Rosecrans Ave: $150 million
Valley View Ave: $72 million

San Bruno projects: $250-$300 million
Includes separations at San Bruno Ave, San Mateo Ave, and Angus Street; Pedestrian crossings at Euclid and Sylvan Avenues, and an elevated station

Also included:

By September 2011 the Authority will have underway the right-of-way purchase and construction grading of a heavy maintenance facility in the Central Valley and two storage "layover" facilities, one in the Bay Area and one in the Los Angeles Basin at an estimated cost of $200 million.

Additionally, the Caltrain Electrification Project is scheduled to commence by fall 2011. That includes design and procurement for the electrification of the system from San Jose to San Francisco, train controls, and commuter vehicles at an estimated cost of $1.5 billion.

Others in comments on recent posts have noted that San Jose Diridon Station is in line for some of the HSR stimulus funds, but that wasn't specifically included in this one letter.

It's worth noting that this letter was written before it was known that the final stimulus figure for HSR would be $8 billion, or that the deadline on spending that money would actually be September 2012. That may change things somewhat, but at least the letter gives us an idea of what we might see the stimulus pay for in terms of California high speed rail.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Who's Afraid of Harry Reid?

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

At least once a day I do a Google news search for california high speed rail and then just plain old high speed rail (I also get daily Google News alerts, which are also useful). In recent weeks the searches have rarely turned up new material and so sometimes, I admit it, I have to scrape for subjects to cover in a daily post.

Not today.

The Republican freakout over Harry Reid's statement that the $8 billion in HSR stimulus money might could maybe partly be used to help with a high speed train from LA to Las Vegas has caused the media to pay attention to high speed rail again. This is partly due to the media, the DC-based media in particular, still being willing to indulge Republican whining on virtually any subject. You'd think they'd notice how little the public is interested in hearing that whining, and how little credibility the Congressional Republicans have especially after freely spending under Bush and running the nation's economy into the ground.

But until the media catches up with reality, we're going to continue to have stories like this one where all a Republican politician has to do is claim there's a controversy and, suddenly, controversy actually exists:

"Tell me how spending $8 billion in this bill to have a high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and Las Vegas is going to help the construction worker in my district," House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio complained as he and all his fellow Republicans voted against the stimulus. Republicans cited the rail project in accusing Democrats of breaking their word to keep the bill free of pet projects.

Let's be very clear on what is going on here. Boehner is trying to throw things against the wall in hopes something will stick. Unable to derail a stimulus bill that has wide public support, they've spent the last few weeks trying desperately to convince a skeptical public that the stimulus bill is laden with pork that will cause doom, DOOM, for generations to come.

It's also worth noting that Boehner is lying here. The bill does NOT include $8 billion for Vegas HSR, and as the LA Times properly notes, it doesn't earmark funds for ANY HSR project:

A Reid spokesman said the money was not being earmarked for any specific project but would be available on a competitive basis. "This was a major priority for President Obama, and Sen. Reid as a conferee supported it," said Jon Summers.

To Republican politicians like John Boehner, of course, passenger rail funding is pork. Inherently so. They oppose it on principle, and tend to repeat the discredited talking points of Wendell Cox and the Reason Foundation that rail is wasteful. Doesn't matter if it's HSR or light rail or streetcars or Amtrak - remember that a few weeks ago, Boehner and his fellow Republicans all voted to eliminate Amtrak funding from the stimulus. They failed, but it's a further sign that at least for the elected officials of the Republican Party, HSR denial is a way of life. As this week's vote showed, alongside California's passage of Prop 1A, the public does not support them on this.

So once we put aside the usual rantings of HSR deniers, what does this all really mean for California High Speed Rail - the SF-LA project we've been focused on here for nearly a year? The answer, as I explained to the Riverside Press-Enterprise, is that it is entirely good news.

Dug Begley's story explains that, in fact, the concept of a high speed train to Vegas is at least 20 years old, and that if this stimulus breathes life into it, that's probably a good thing:

But officials acknowledge after 20 years of talking about a bullet train across the desert, some residents are jaded about the possibilities. Robert Cruickshank, a high-speed rail proponent and creator of the California High Speed Rail Blog, said growing up in Orange County he heard for years how bullet trains were coming, but to no avail.

"The difference then is there was no funding," Cruickshank said.

To expand on this, as I did with the reporter over the phone yesterday (and I fully understand that he could only use snippets, and I am pleased with the snippets he used), the reason we haven't seen plans for HSR to Vegas materialize in those 20 years is that there was little political support for intercity passenger rail. Congress spent the 1990s taking a chainsaw to Amtrak, including canceling the Desert Wind in 1997. Until the United States was willing to embrace HSR spending, plans such as Vegas HSR would remain on the drawing board.

Now that situation has changed, and I believe that to be a good thing:

A line to Vegas could act as a nice complement to a north-south train, Cruickshank said, and has merit even though it's been a topic for 20 years with little to show for it.

"Anybody who's tried to go to Vegas on a weekend in traffic knows it would be welcome," he said.

Keep in mind the above, that the reason there's been "little to show for it" is that there's been no federal support for HSR spending until now. But the real point of this quote is to explain that if you propose it, they will come. Southern Californians would love to have this train. Complaints about the backups on Interstate 15 are commonplace among Californians, and if you could ensure folks had a way to get to Vegas that was fast and reliable, of course they'd take it. In Southern California, population 15 million, Vegas HSR is merely going to increase public support for high speed rail in general.

And the most important takeaway from all of this, by far, is that the events in Congress this week, combined with the results of the November election, indicate that both the American public and the majority in Congress along with the White House are strongly supportive of high speed rail. John Boehner is spitting into the wind here, demonstrating his irrelevance by trying to paint a popular concept as something illegitimate. The combination of voter support in California with political support in Congress means that when it comes to doling out the HSR stimulus money, California - and the SF-LA trunk route in particular - will be first in line:

Although an LA-to-Vegas line is not the priority in California, Cruickshank said it should not detract from efforts to build a high-speed line from San Diego to San Francisco.

In fact, much of the $8 billion could come to the West Coast.

"Only Los Angeles to San Francisco has any funding at all," he said. "This is the only high-speed rail in the nation that has a plan and any money behind it."

All Harry Reid has is a study. Vegas HSR, whatever it's value, is nowhere near the point of readiness that California HSR is, with completion of the environmental review and permitting process two years away at most. We have detailed engineering studies, a business plan, ridership estimates, and are now talking about final design details. No other HSR project in the country is at that point. And no other project in the country has that most precious of resources - a clearly identified and secured source of funding. The federal government loves nothing more than a local match.

Congress has shown that it strongly supports HSR funds. The people do as well. How much more in HSR funding we can get this year is dependent on a huge range of factors, but the $8 billion here is a huge signal that passenger rail's support in Congress is very strong. No amount of whining from the Republican minority will change that.

Friday, February 13, 2009

A Statement From Harry Reid's Office

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

NOTICE: The Blogger service temporarily acted up and failed to include the most recent post correctly on this blog's home page. Our apologies for any inconvenience.

UPDATE: MSNBC reports that both houses of Congress have now passed the conference version of the stimulus bill, it is now on its way to the President's desk. The Senate extended its voting hours to allow Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) to return from his mother's funeral. His was the deciding 60th vote since Sen. Kennedy (D-MA), who is battling brain cancer, was too frail to risk a second trip to Washington.

Republican support came from Sen. Collins (R-ME), Sen. Snowe (R-ME) and Sen. Specter (R-PA) who broke ranks rather than drown the global economy in a bathtub. Fortunately, the brouhaha surrounding the $8 billion for HSR did not change their minds. Check out Rachel Maddow's interview with Ray LaHood on this topic.

Still, it would be nice if the courts in Minnesota finally confirmed Al Franken (D) as the winner of that extremely close Senate race. At least the court case is now turning in his favor.

The ink is not yet dry on the compromise version of the stimulus bill that was hashed out in conference. The House and Senate still have to give their final approval before the President can sign it on Monday. As we discussed yesterday, this final version boosted Amtrak and HSR capital projects funding while cutting that for brand-new transit systems.

Yesterday, an Associated Press report on the conference result included a paragraph that has sent the blogosphere into a tizzy:
"In late-stage talks, Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., pressed for $8 billion to construct high-speed rail lines, quadrupling the amount in the bill that passed the Senate on Tuesday.

Reid's office issued a statement noting that a proposed Los Angeles-to-Las Vegas rail might get a big chunk of the money."
Predictably enough, the right wingnut faction of the Interwebs (e.g. Michelle Malkin) immediately decried this as a last-minute earmark. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn't pay any attention to such partisan diatribes. However, the fate of the entire stimulus bill rests on the votes of just three Republican Senators. If any two of them were to get cold feet on Monday, using this fake controversy as an excuse, HSR funding could get cut just to save the rest of the bill.

Unfortunately, perception is reality, so we need to fix this misperception:

a) I was unable to find a copy of this alleged statement on Sen. Reid's official website. Perhaps it was just a verbal comment, but everyone else is simply referring to the wire service as their source.

b) The full text of the conference report on the bill contains the final passage related to High Speed Rail. Please refer to pp237 of the full text of Division A and p82 of the Joint Explanatory Statement for Division A.

The latter refers to HR 2095 (110th) as the basis of the High Speed Passenger Rail program. That bill was passed last November and included $1.5 billion for capital projects in corridors where passenger trains could reasonably be expected to reach speeds of at least 110mph (see Title V). It also specifically enumerated the eleven officially designated HSR corridors:

(click to expand image)

Evidently, Las Vegas to Southern California is currently not a designated corridor and therefore not eligible for any of the $8 billion reserved for HSR in the stimulus bill. However, existing laws give the Secretary of Transportation the authority to modify existing and designate new corridors.

c) Neither HR2095 (110th) nor the stimulus bill explicitly allocates HSR funding to any one corridor, whether designated or not. Instead, the bills spell out a process for DOT to make a decision based on competitive tenders. There is no earmark here.

d) The compromise version of the stimulus bill, formally "The American Recovery and Re-Investment Act of 2009", does raise the amount available for HSR projects to $8 billion, available through Sep 30, 2012. The generous timeframe reflects the fact that HSR is part of the re-investment aspect of the bill. It will have a stimulative effect right away in terms of planning, environmental reviews and preliminary engineering work. The California project involves the construction of brand-new tracks that will support true non-compliant bullet trains at speeds of up to 220mph. Certain other corridors, notably the NEC, may be able to break ground earlier if the officials responsible for them decide to make do with upgrades of existing alignments.

Nevertheless, it is quite incorrect to insinuate that any extra money for HSR was snuck into the bill at the last moment as part of some shady deal between Sen. Reid and Speaker Pelosi. Rather, the $8 billion figure came about as follows:

  • $2 billion allocated to "Fixed Guideway Infrastructure" in the House version were targeted more narrowly at HSR in the Senate version.
  • $2.5 billion at the discretion of the Secr. of Transportation was increased to $5.5 billion in the Senate version and targeted more narrowly at HSR in conference.
  • $0.5 bilion was added for each of Amtrak and HSR in conference, but the amount allocated to brand-new transit systems was cut by a greater amount.

Ergo, the bulk of the increase for HSR between the Senate and conference versions of the bill is a result of Congress making a policy decision rather than giving the administration a lot of leeway, given that there was too little time to spell out a fair arbitration process between highway, aviation and rail spending. Some may disagree with the preference for HSR, but there's nothing sinister about the process that led to this result.

Conclusion: the statement allegedly issued by Sen. Reid's office reflects a political ambition rather than legal reality.

Personally, I think HSR from Las Vegas to Southern California is an idea worth pursuing in the context of a broader, national review of the designated HSR corridors. The last one occurred in 2002 and FRA's map is out of date. However, any actual award of federal funds from any bill should IMHO come with the following strings attached:

  1. Rather than create a brand-new one, Las Vegas should be added as a new destination within the existing California corridor. This would then be renamed e.g. the Cal-Nev corridor. In practice, that would boil down to operating steel wheels electric bullet trains instead of incompatible magnetic levitation technology. There is no need for any part of California to be served by more than one HSR system.

  2. The simplest option would be a spur to Las Vegas via Barstow, originating near the town of Mojave. There would be no stops between Palmdale (or Bakersfield) and Las Vegas.

    A more complex alternative would be a line from LA Union Station to Las Vegas via Ontario airport and Cajon Pass, with a future spur to San Diego originating near Colton. In that case, it might make sense to modify the route from Bakersfield to Los Angeles to the I-5 corridor at Grapevine, bypassing Palmdale airport. However, that would require revisiting the geological and environmental reasons that led to a decision in favor of crossing the Garlock fault near Tehachapi.

  3. Since roughly 1/3 of all flights into McCurran airport in Las Vegas originate in cities with or near stations on the future California HSR system, plans for the new Ivanpah Valley relief airport near Primm on the California-Nevada border would have to be shelved. If any relief is needed, either Palmdale or Ontario airport can provide it.

  4. The investors behind the diesel-based DesertXpress project (the official website was down) should be invited to instead participate in a public-private partnership to build a cleaner and much faster electrified system. Parts of the environmental impact study already conducted may still be valid.

  5. If either state requires it, the environmental impact study for any HSR service to Las Vegas should include a feasibility study for also constructing a high-voltage DC power distribution line above or else next to the section between Barstow and the Nevada border. West of Barstow, it should run through Cajon Pass irrespective of the HSR alignment. This infrastructure would be electrically separate from the HSR catenaries except at designated feeder substations. Its purpose would be to transport CO2-neutral electricity (e.g. wind, solar, geothermal, hydro) to population centers in both states.

Bullet trains carrying passengers and/or high-value cargo to and from Las Vegas would relieve traffic on I-15, but any such project would face stiff opposition from anti-gambling advocates as well as Indian gaming interests in California.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

$8 billion for HSR While Public Transit Starves

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

The latest news on the state and federal fronts is decidedly mixed. HSR is poised to make out like a bandit from the federal stimulus:

The most important news is the massive amount of money proposed for high-speed rail - $8 billion - and the large increase in Amtrak funding, up to $1.3 billion from $800 and $850 million in the respective House and Senate bills. This represents the largest single expenditure on rail in United States history and promises a new day for train travel. The U.S. Department of Transportation will lead the distribution of these funds; most of the money is likely to go to existing programs such as California High-Speed Rail, Midwest High-Speed Rail, and Southeast High-Speed Rail. States will get no supplementary money for rail programs, which implies that the bill’s writers want states to focus on implementing high-speed rail over standard-speed intercity rail.

I'm not going to argue with $8 billion for HSR - that's much more than the $2 billion I hoped would come from the stimulus. Still, I'm not quite comfortable with focusing on HSR at the expense of other intercity rail systems. The fact is that America needs more passenger rail period and needs a comprehensive program to implement them that includes high speed and non-high speed trains. Still, as The Transport Politic pointed out in the above quote, this is still the biggest amount the US has ever spent on passenger rail and should be considered a victory.

Less encouraging, however, is the doom about to face local public transit agencies, particularly those here in California. The final federal stimulus bill contains some transit grant funds, but zeroed out the proposed $2.5 billion for new starts. But the real catastrophe comes from Sacramento, where the proposed budget deal will eliminate state funding for local transit agencies in its entirety, a cut of $536 million that comes on top of nearly $3 billion in cuts that have been made since summer 2007. This is especially ironic given that the budget deal includes a 12 cent increase in the gas tax - but none of that will go to transit.

Many sustainable transportation advocates argue for a higher gas tax - but believe it should fund increased mass transit options. While schools and health care need more funding, that should come from other sources. Using the gas tax to do that is just not good policy.

Sure, this is an HSR blog, and perhaps we could be satisfied with the $8 billion coming to a high speed rail project near you. But as I have repeatedly insisted, HSR is just part of a bigger strategy to reshape American transportation. The big picture goal is to reduce our dependence on oil and sprawl. HSR is a good solution for the LA-SF corridor, but it won't help bring folks from Hollywood to Union Station, or from the Sunset District to the Transbay Terminal. HSR needs local transit to attain its highest ridership goals and to be the kind of success we know it can be.

The state budget deal is far from final, and Republicans may walk away from it once their wingnut base gets word of the tax increases. But the use of gas taxes for non-transit related funds, particularly when local transit is getting left in the desert with a canteen and a compass, is especially egregious.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Squaring the California Budget Circle

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

The LA Times reports that the lack of a California state budget is forcing the Governor to consider actions beyond making payments in IOUs and furloughing state employees for two days a month. Specifically, he claims to be out of options and is threatening to start handing out pink slips - in effect, six-month(!) notices - to 10,000 state employees starting as early as this Friday, Feb 13.

State senate Democrats are working on a counter-proposal that would avoid layoffs by increasing revenue via a package of emergency measures that would be in force for two years:

- increasing the state sales tax by 1%
- raising vehicle license fees from 0.65% to 1.15% of the value of the car or truck
- raising state gasoline tax by 12 cents per gallon
- collecting a surcharge of 0.25% of state income taxes owed

Of these, the proposals to raise the cost of operating a car or truck make the most sense to me. However, rather than increase the gas tax - which is tied specifically to highway infrastructure - I would advocate a "carbon fee" for gas and diesel that would actually start at $0.10 and then increase by $0.02 each and every month for ten years. At the end of the period, the fee would reach a whopping $2.50 per gallon - over and above existing taxes! Analogous carbon fees would apply to other fossil fuels, e.g. natural gas used in electricity generation. All of these would contribute into the general fund.

To compensate for this regressive measure, I would cut general sales and payroll taxes as soon as budget constraints permit, possibly followed by additional tax cuts later on. I realize that increasing the cost of fuel and other forms of energy is anathema to most Americans and, Californians are no exception. However, it is also the only proven way to make high fuel economy cars pencil out while also encouraging transit-oriented development, transit ridership, bicycle use, telecommuting and renewable electricity generation. Note that having a high fixed component in the cost of a unit of energy shields consumers from volatility in the underlying commodities. Fuel and utility bills would be higher to begin with, dissuading consumers from taking on excessive mortgage debt they can no longer service if the price of oil should rise sharply. Cheap energy boosts economic growth only until the inevitable asset bubble bursts. In the long run, it is a curse rather than a blessing.

Predictably enough, none of the Republicans in the state legislature has agreed to any tax hikes whatsoever, least of all those on gasoline. As card-carrying neo-Hoovers, they instead insist on spending cuts irrespective of the macroeconomic context. For their part, Democrats are loath to accept job losses in the highly unionized public sector. Unfortunately, the state has no leeway, as it is constitutionally required to balance its budget. Only the federal government is allowed to run deficits.

The bitter irony is that federal aid to states is exactly what "moderate" Republicans and Democrats in the US Senate have been cutting from the stimulus bill, arguing that states have failed to keep their spending in check in recent years. In effect, Congress - that paragon of fiscal rectitude - is forcing governors all across the nation to do the exact opposite of what their stimulus bill is supposed to achieve.

Meanwhile, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow points out that prisoners are the only people with a constitutional right to adequate health care. Three federal judges are about to rule that California's prison population of approx. 160,000 is currently underserved. That would force the state to either embark on a massive prison construction spree or, to release almost 60,000 inmates over the course of the next two to three years. The latter course of action is strongly opposed by, among others, the influential prison wardens' union.

The 2008-2009 state budget includes $10.3 billion for the Department of Corrections, which works out to approx. $64,000 per inmate per year. The RAND corporation estimates that the 1994 three-strikes-and-you're-out law alone is responsible for about half of that.

As we have discussed previously on this blog, the perennial and rapidly deepening budget crisis is very much relevant to the success of the HSR project. Prop 1A may have passed in November, but actual appropriation of the bonds is subject to the rules laid down in AB3034, which means they are part and parcel of the state budget fracas.

Fortunately, there might be a way for California to solve multiple problems at once: give selected inmates sentenced under the three strikes law the option of "exceptional parole". The idea would be to let them earn regular parole and their eventual (early) release while avoiding the need to construct new prisons. The program would involve several years of manual labor on various infrastructure projects, possibly including HSR construction. It would be a hard way to eek out a living, but an honest one.

Housing would be in temporary guarded trailer parks set up close to work sites and enclosed by gates and fences. Thanks to heckuvajob Brownie, FEMA still has nearly 100,000 brand new trailers left over from hurricane Katrina, purchased at a cost of $3 billion. Their formaldehyde outgassing problem could be adequately addressed for the purposes of exceptional parole by simple modifications that ensure adequate ventilation at all times, even in winter. The number of participants in the program per trailer would depend on its size, but there would be no overcrowding. Outside of working hours, exceptional parolees would be confined to the fenced-in area, effectively a form of house arrest. This would be enforced with ankle collars with wireless electronics to track their whereabouts.

Exceptional parolees would remain entitled to health care, but the cost of providing it, housing, food, utility hookups etc. would all be garnished from wages. By law, the work must be both voluntary and compensated, otherwise it amounts to a form of slavery. In practical terms, however, participants in the program would receive very little cash.

Violations of house arrest, absenteeism, feigned illness, deliberate destruction of trailers or other property and, justified complaints from foremen - employed by commercial construction companies - would all be reasons to impose sanctions, up to and including a return to prison. On the other hand, those who persevere would gradually win parole privileges and eventually, their freedom. Meanwhile, they would acquire marketable skills in the construction industry.

Admittedly, the above is just a sketchy outline of how an "exceptional parole" program might work. Feel free to poke holes in the concept or, to make suggestions of your own, in the comments.