Saturday, October 31, 2009

Scoping Comments for Merced to Bakersfield Segments

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

Yesterday afternoon, Californians for High Speed Rail submitted the following comments to the California High Speed Rail Authority for the Merced to Fresno and Fresno to Bakersfield segments.

As you can see, the comments follow the general principles Californians for High Speed Rail have laid out for the HSR project. The comments call for stations to be built in downtown Merced, downtown Fresno, and downtown Bakersfield, accompanied with rules to promote transit-oriented development and to prevent sprawl. For example, in Merced, owing to several factors, the comments included possible alignments around the town of Merced with non-downtown stations. Even in those cases, the stations would involve selection criteria and mitigation measures designed to limit sprawl, such as considering the "Amount of transit-oriented development (TOD) the locality has committed to planning for within a half mile radius of the station site" and "Growth management policies the locality has adopted or is committed to adopting that would direct growth into the half-mile radius of the station site." In Fresno and Bakersfield, the comments recommend against any non-downtown alignment. The comments for both segments include recommending not only those factors be applied to the possible Merced stations, but to all possible stations, as well as using automobile trips generated (ATG), instead of level of service (LOS) to determine impact on automobiles.

Additionally, the comments call for a Merced station to be fully compatible with Amtrak service, so as to enable a quick and easy 5-minute transfer from a high speed train to a waiting Amtrak train to continue to journey north to points along the San Joaquin routes to Oakland and Sacramento. They also support "further examination" of a station in downtown Hanford, but recognize that this station is a low priority and should not be built at the expense of building another station elsewhere in the system. The comments support a strictly defined examination of a Hanford station at the junction of state routes 43 and 198 just east of town, but only with strict TOD and anti-sprawl considerations. The comments do not endorse any station near Visalia. And finally, the comments call for using the BNSF right-of-way between Fresno and Bakersfield, and not following the UPRR ROW, owing to the BNSF alignment's better positioning of the preferred downtown Bakersfield station.

Here are the complete letters:

CA4HSR-Merced to Fresno Scoping Comments

CA4HSR-Fresno to Bakersfield Scoping Comments

Californians for High Speed Rail will be submitting comments for other segments in the coming days, promoting our vision for a high speed train that promotes both intercity passenger service alongside transit-oriented development and mitigates against sprawl in each community it serves. You can submit your comments as well on the following corridors (note the due dates) to

Bakersfield to Palmdale: due November 2

Los Angeles to San Diego: due November 20

Altamont Corridor: due December 4

We'll try and keep you apprised of other comment deadlines as they approach.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Does Russell Peterson Know What He's Doing?

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

In response to a recent Wired Magazine article that declared "NIMBYs won't be able to stop California HSR," one of the more prominent Peninsula NIMBYs, Russell Peterson, decided to not go gently into that dark night. He wrote an email in reply to the article that was itself posted on the Wired site this week. It's a remarkable piece of cognitive dissonance - Peterson is suing to demand that Union Pacific's rights to the Caltrain ROW be recognized as giving UPRR a veto, while at the same time calling for a tunnel to be built on the corridor. The problem with a tunnel, of course, is that it makes it difficult - not impossible, but difficult - for UPRR to continue freight service on the route.

To be clear, the lawsuit (.pdf) is the least intrusive legal action one can take. It is called “declaratory relief” and simply asks for a legal interpretation of the existing contractual rights of Union Pacific. Union Pacific did sell the right of way to the Peninsula joint powers board, but it retained permanent rights. One of those rights, exclusive development of intercity rail, and the exclusion of high-speed rail development on a portion of its right of way makes the situation unclear. And Union Pacific has written letters (.pdf), in May 2008, to the California High-Speed Rail [Authority] stating it will not allow high-speed rail on certain sections of the right of way it owns outright. To imply otherwise is a factual error and a misleading statement in the article.

The problem is that Peterson is overstating his case. Caltrain has argued that the 1991 purchase agreement gives it, and not UPRR, ultimate power, that Peterson is reading the agreement wrong, that there's no conflict and that they have a "cordial relationship" with UPRR. Clem took a look at this over at his blog in August. The key section in the agreement appears to be section 8.3:

8.3.(c) In the event that Owner demonstrates a reasonably certain need to commence construction on all or substantially all the length of the Joint Facilities (including User's Cahill/Lick Line) of a transportation system that is a significant change in the method of delivery of Commuter Service which would be incompatible with Freight Service on the Joint Facilities (other than User's Cahill/Lick Line), Owner may, at its sole cost and expense, file no sooner than nine months prior to the commencement of such construction for permission from the ICC to abandon the Freight Service over the portion of the Join Facilities (excluding User's Cahill/Lick Line) upon which the construction is to occur. User shall not object to or oppose such a filing; however, it shall be allowed to participate in the abandonment proceedings.

Of course, Caltrain and CHSRA have shown no desire to kick UPRR off the corridor. Much to the contrary - they are already in discussions with each other about accommodating existing freight rail service.

And that is going to be difficult to do with a tunnel. The tunnel would have to be high enough to allow overhead wires to give clearance room for double-stacked container cars, and would have to have adequate ventilation for diesel locomotives, since it is extremely unlikely that UPRR will use electric power for this route alone.

That would undermine Peterson's stated support for a tunnel:

Likewise, Caltrain rail experts told a civic audience on Oct. 3 that a tunnel is not even twice as expensive as current plans for elevated rail. Given that environmental and other required mitigation costs add significant expense to the elevated option, the tunneling proposal offers interesting development opportunities along the route. Besides these opportunities it seems odd to promote 21st-century high-speed rail and then proceed to plan a 1950s- and 1960s-style elevated structure. The not-so-subtle inference that opponents are NIMBY is simplistic. Boston’s “Big Dig” buried a major freeway, the Loma Prieta earthquake took out the Cypress Freeway (now a park with renewed neighborhoods, etc.) and the Embarcadero Freeway (which led to renewal of the Ferry Building and surrounding area), and Berkeley buried its rail (and only paid a 10 percent premium vs. above grade). All of these projects brought both transportation and civic value to their respective areas. Why community involvement/engagement is so readily marginalized is puzzling to me with such clear examples of revitalized communities.

This is basically an incoherent grab bag of claims. First, the elevated structure would not be "1950s- and 1960s-style," there are 21st century methods of building elevated structures in ways that fit well with the surrounding community. San Carlos hasn't exactly been destroyed by its elevated segment. The Big Dig isn't exactly an argument in his favor, and neither the Mandela Parkway nor the Embarcadero replacement projects were tunnels. Finally, Berkeley paid the extra costs of what was mostly a cut-and-cover project by taxing itself to do so. Unless Peterson believes that the mid-Peninsula cities plan to tax themselves to pay for a tunnel, then he'll be looking to the sale of air rights - a sale that won't be possible if UPRR preserves its freight service rights on the existing at-grade ROW.

Peterson's letter continues in this scattershot vein:

The implication of the story is that this project is coming, like it or not. This may be a correct conclusion based on politics and political connections but Zach makes no arguments for it. Eventually he admits opponents rightfully have concerns, then dismisses those concerns. Caltrain recently issued a letter describing the ill effects of raising a source of noise (train horns) 14 feet in the air and how it is working to correct the problem. Well, elevating the whole train to 15 feet and increasing the speed would create more noise — thus Caltrain even agrees. The environmental impact report is deficient — has anyone explored the idea that people expected environmental laws be followed when they voted “for” this project?

Of course, "this project is coming" is based on the fact that the people of California voted for it and expect the HSR project to be built, and not held up or have its costs driven up by NIMBYism. Peterson claims NIMBYs just have "concerns" and want "oversight," but they've never really shown any support for the concept of high speed rail. Instead they prefer to undermine HSR's effectiveness or even its very existence to suit their own needs, believing that their priorities are more important than those of the state as a whole.

As to train noise, this is a complex matter. But one aspect of it is quite simple: on an elevated structure, there will be no more horns, period. Further studies will demonstrate the difference between those horns and the noise made by passing electric trains, which would not be running at full speed along the Peninsula anyway.

If Peterson's goal was to show the world that Peninsula NIMBYs are a principled group of people just trying to help HSR get better, he has completely failed. Instead he has revealed Peninsula NIMBYism for what it truly is: an incoherent collection of arguments held together by a desire to place their own personal vision of urban aesthetics above the vision, the needs, and the stated preferences of millions of their fellow Californians.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Ogilvy Recommended For CHSRA PR Contract

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

At next week's CHSRA board meeting the board will vote on a staff recommendation to award the $9 million PR contract to Ogilvy, a leading public relations communications firm. It's not a surprising choice, as Ogilvy has extensive experience in California political communications. From the Capitol Weekly article on the topic:

Ogilvy Managing Driector Christi Black said her frm received a letter from CHSRA staff saying they were recommending Ogilvy's proposal to the board. Black cautioned that "nothing is official yet, but it's always thrilling to get the letter of intent."

Ogilvy is a global PR firm with offices throughout California, including outposts in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento. The firm contracts with other state agencies including the state treasurer's office, the state auditor and the California Earthquake Authority, among others.

It's a sensible choice, given that Ogilvy has that experience with other state government agencies and has a worldwide reach - which the California HSR project will need.

No word yet on how Ogilvy would respond to ridculous nonsense like that being peddled in the LA Weekly. But I'm sure they'll come up with something.

The CHSRA isn't the only California HSR organization working on its public outreach. I've recently joined the board of Californians for High Speed Rail, as we are working on a relaunch of the organization in the near future to provide grassroots leadership and citizen oversight of the HSR project. As part of our relaunch, we're looking for someone to help with web design. Interested in volunteering your services for the cause? Send an email to me - robert.cruickshank at ca4hsr dot org.

And yes, the transition of this blog to WordPress is still happening. Once we get some things squared away, I am hoping to launch it this weekend.

The LA Weekly's Ridiculous Fear-Mongering

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

The LA Weekly used to be one of the truly great newspapers in California. Founded during the late 1960s, it quickly earned a reputation as both an independent as well as an informative, investigative paper that by the 1970s and 1980s had become a must-read for anyone who wanted to know anything about Southern California politics. They kept up this reputation into the 21st century. But it has been lost, particularly after a merger with the New Times corporation. New Times' approach to "journalism" is to throw bombs and make wild accusations based on scanty evidence. It's a hollow shell of the standards the LA Weekly had been known for. Former editor Marc Cooper charted the paper's sad decline, and Harold Meyerson, a leading progressive writer, has long since left its pages.

That is crucial background for an examination of a sensationalistic and ridiculous article the LA Weekly published regarding high speed rail this week. The criticisms of the paper's appalling decline in journalistic standards aren't my own, and they predate the article. It's unfortunate that HSR is this week's target of shoddy and misleading "journalism," but, here we are.

The article is essentially a grab bag of attacks on high speed rail, none of which are new, few of which make sense. It includes a rehash of the LA River "controversy" that the LA Times already covered (it used to be the case that the Times followed the Weekly, not the other way around). Let's take some of the more egregious parts of the article:

“They need to work in partnership with us rather than shoving stuff down our throats,” says environmentalist Melanie Winter.

Winter is part of a diverse set of environmental advocates, community leaders, elected officials and taxpayer watchdogs who are banding together in the hopes of changing the direction of the rail authority.

The article doesn't say who these people are, exactly, making the group seem larger than it is. And Winter doesn't explain her concerns - instead the quote is designed to make HSR look like the bad guy, instead of the environmentally-friendly form of mass transit, well-integrated with the community and supported by a majority of Californians that it actually is.

The rail authority’s members have little, if any, connection to actual California voters, who polls say are sick of partisan politics. In fact 20 percent of California voters are now registered as “decline to state” political independents. Meanwhile the rail authority board is almost entirely made up of Democratic and Republican operatives and partisans appointed by Governor Schwarzenegger and the Legislature.

OK, this is just absurd. 80% of Californians are registered Republicans or Democrats, and most of those DTS voters consistently cast ballots for Dems. In fact, the members have quite a lot of connection to actual CA voters, if we're going to use this ridiculous metric, since 80 is larger than 20. Moreover, they are all duly appointed and confirmed by the elected representatives of the people of the state - apparently the Weekly has forgotten how representative government works.

Ironically, right after they say the board is illegitimate because it is stacked with Dems and Republicans (as is the state of California!) they write this about the CHSRA's former chairman:

Retired judge Quentin L. Kopp is one of the powerful board’s few politically independent members.

Which of course totally invalidates their earlier point. But there it is, in print, bizarrely enough.

Five years ago, ANG Newspapers published an explosive investigation by Sean Holstege, reporting on a meeting led by Democratic politico Willie Brown and attended by Katz, Diridon and Morshed, at which Brown advised a roomful of engineering and construction firms that to win contracts to build California’s bullet train they first had to pony up $1 million in fees for Katz and other political consultants. According to the story, the consultants would then pull strings in the Legislature, aimed at getting a bullet train plan on the ballot. The controversy died, but several insiders present at that May 11, 2004, meeting with the big firms hold posts on the rail board.

What does this accusation have to do with the present? Did Katz win a contract? Is Willie Brown still involved with HSR? And since HSR didn't go to the ballot until 2008, did this meeting have any relevance whatsoever to the present situation? The only reason this is mentioned is the desire of the authors to throw every possible accusation at HSR to set up their article, regardless of whether the accusation has merit or relevance.

Few California voters knew this back story last November, when they approved a vaguely worded, $10 million bond measure to begin construction of high-speed rail. The details were fuzzy on where, exactly, the tracks would go, what they would look like, and whether property might be seized.

Um, no. The bond measure was not "vaguely worded," it instead specified a very specific corridor as laid out in a very explicitly and not-vague EIR document approved by the board last summer. The details were clear on where exactly the tracks would go, though in some places the tracks could go in a number of places.

One emerging dispute involves a proposal to build the rail line down the middle of I-5. Some activists say the idea makes sense, especially when the alternative would be to run the rail lines through communities and parkland, in some cases cleaving them in half. But state officials seem to have dismissed the I-5 route long before real hearings even took place.

“There hasn’t been a rigorous study of that alternative,” says Damon Nagami, a staff attorney with the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an organization of high-powered lawyers working with communities affected by potential routes. “We don’t understand why the rail authority wants to eliminate this option at this very early stage.”

If that's NRDC's position, they are fools. It's unclear where on I-5 they're referring to, but it doesn't much matter. Nobody lives along I-5 in the San Joaquin Valley, so it makes no sense to put the train there. The trains should go where the people are. If you're talking about I-5 in the LA metro area, that's a truly idiotic plan that should never be given the light of day. It would not only produce much less riders, and might not be feasible given the curves of I-5 in the San Fernando Valley, but the cost would be astronomical and it would have a far greater impact on homes and communities than would following the rail corridors as currently planned. The I-5 alternative should be eliminated because it is senseless and stupid.

Another debate is over downtown’s historic Union Station. The rail authority seems bent on making Union Station the hub for multiple lines that would meet there. But residents of mostly Latino, mostly working-class Lincoln Heights, Cypress Park and Glassell Park worry that trains will tear up their communities.

Nagami says he’s pressuring the state to consider building an annex near Union Station to serve as the high-speed hub. “We’re getting the sense the rail authority has its chosen route and is going to push for that,” adds Nagami, whose organization helped to successfully sue the state eight years ago, when it tried to sell empty land near Union Station to an unpopular developer. “The whole point of an environmental-impact review is to carefully examine a range of options.”

First off, Union Station is going to be the hub because it already is the hub of the LA mass transit system. It would be truly insane to not have trains stop there, with easy transfers to Metro Rail, buses, and Amtrak California and Metrolink trains. The trains won't "tear up their communities" since they'll follow existing ROW and corridors. This is NOT the Century Freeway, despite the LA Weekly's sensationalistic desire to paint HSR as such.

The range of options have already been carefully examined in previous EIRs, and the current program EIR will carefully examine the specific details of bringing trains to and from Union Station.

Perhaps the most emotional and complex issue is the fate of the Los Angeles River. The river has long been both a target for jokes (“L.A. has a river? You mean the giant half-pipe where they filmed Terminator?) and the object of a slow but concerted revitalization effort, which some fear will be quashed by a train route touted on some maps.

Since 2001, California has spent roughly $100 million developing parks along the river, and many of those newly green areas could be ruined by the bullet train.

“This project, if it’s done wrong, will undo years and years of work, on top of the millions of dollars that have been invested,” says Sean Woods, in charge of L.A. parks for the California State Parks department. Though employed by the state, Woods is part of the coalition fighting to make sure L.A. isn’t steamrolled.

LA isn't going to be "steamrolled," as Woods should know. The city of LA's River Revitalization Plan makes clear that the river will continue to be a railroad corridor, and specifically mentioned HSR as part of it. Further, CHSRA is well aware of the desire to connect the riverfront park to the neighborhood, which is why it plans to use the HSR project as an opportunity to achieve that, as this video makes extremely clear. Apparently some people haven't gotten the message:

“Rail has been the barrier to access to the river,” says L.A. River activist Joe Linton, who writes the “Creek Freak” blog. “For eight miles in the downtown area there are tracks along the river. The high-speed rail can either make that a worse barrier or it can make that less of a barrier.”

The plan apparently favored by political types who dominate the rail authority would make that barrier worse. Linton says the inviting green areas now envisioned could mutate into an industrialized backyard for a supertrain. “Those were huge struggles that resulted in parkland for communities that absolutely needed it,” Linton says.

First, the tracks along the river - whether north or south of Union Station - aren't going anywhere. Anyone who thinks they are is out of their mind. Those tracks have been there for a century and will be there for at least one more. Further, as the video makes abundantly clear, HSR will make it less of a barrier.

Of course, the LA Weekly doesn't anywhere mention the CHSRA's video, their plans, their scoping process. Nor does it even appear they tried to reach CHSRA for comment, the way a normal journalist would. Instead they plowed right ahead with their hit piece. Shameful.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

China HSR Grabs Significant Market Share From Airlines

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

China, which is engaged in a massive high speed rail expansion project as part of both its economic stimulus and energy independence efforts, is witnessing a major shift of riders from planes to trains. As a result, airlines like China Southern are planning to focus on the international market, as short-haul trips are increasingly taken on high speed trains and not airplanes:

China Southern’s traffic on flights between Beijing and Taiyuan in Shanxi province fell about 60 percent after a high- speed rail link began operations, Si said. There was a 30 percent decline on Shanghai-Wuhan trips, he said....

China Southern Airlines Co., the nation’s biggest domestic carrier, will expand overseas flights in anticipation of a high-speed rail network causing traffic to decline on about a quarter of its internal routes.

Traffic may fall by more than half on 518 of the carrier’s weekly flights, Chairman Si Xianmin said today at a conference in Beijing. Of the airline’s about 160 domestic routes, 38 will compete directly with high-speed railway lines, he said.

“This will force us to expand overseas routes, on which we still have some competitive edge,” he said. “It will eventually cause an impact on the global aviation industry.”

The new rail network, due to be completed by 2020, will offer a cheaper alternative on routes covering about 80 percent of China’s domestic aviation market, Si said. That will force the carrier to challenge Air China Ltd. and Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. on international services to offset dropping domestic demand.

“For short haul, passengers definitely won’t want to use the airlines,” said Jay Ryu Je-Hyun, an analyst at Mirae Asset Securities Co. in Hong Kong.

Some of the reasons for the shift:

High-speed train tickets will be about 40 percent cheaper than current air tickets, according to Si’s estimations. A five- hour rail trip from Shanghai to Beijing, for instance, will likely be about 700 yuan ($103), or about 60 percent of the price asked for the two-hour flight.

Train services may also be more convenient as stations are generally located downtown, while airports are on city outskirts. There are also fewer security procedures, which quickens boarding.

“Airlines will lose all their current competitiveness, like saving time,” said Si. “What’s more, the high-speed trains haven’t reported any fatal accident in the past more than four decades. That’s definitely a plus for passengers considering a trip by air or rail.”

Much of this is directly comparable to what will happen here in California. Although one can find some decent fares for a roundtrip flight tomorrow from SFO to LAX (around $100 on Virgin America), it's very unclear whether that will be sustained in a future where oil prices are certain to rise significantly. HSR, powered by renewable electricity, will not have that problem.

And while there will still be those travelers who choose Virgin America or Southwest over the high speed train, the Chinese experience, along with that of Spain and on the USA's own Northeast Corridor shows that many travelers will also pick HSR. HSR's job isn't to kill the airlines, but to enable them and the airports they serve to survive. Without HSR, we're either going to see people priced out of air travel entirely, or if the expected oil price increases fail to materialize, there won't be enough capacity to handle the passenger load. Either way, HSR is a necessary complement to maintain intercity connectivity in 21st century California, and to maintain California's global competitiveness.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

How Much Per Driver Did US Freeways Lose?

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

A study that is getting a fair amount of coverage online today is that from the Pew Economic Policy Group, which shows Amtrak "lost $32 per passenger in 2008". The full report breaks it down route by route, showing that only a few routes generated surpluses in 2008, including the only high speed rail route in the Amtrak system, the Acela.

One might see that as a positive sign for high speed rail, proving that it won't experience the same kind of operating losses the other Amtrak lines tend to produce. Already some are arguing the report should produce further support for HSR at the expense of other Amtrak routes.

Unfortunately, the report these analyses are based on is deeply misleading and should not be used by anyone to set passenger rail policy or transportation policy.

The number one flaw of the Pew report, by far, is it does not compare 2008 numbers to previous years. The report merely examines Amtrak route performance in 2008 alone. As you all remember, 2008 was a rather interesting year for American transportation. Most passenger trains - from Amtrak to the local subways and streetcars - experienced significant spikes in ridership as a result of the spike in gas prices.

Any study of 2008 passenger rail that does not take into account these effects is not credible. At all. And a study that doesn't even compare to past years is a joke.

Let's look at a California Amtrak route that DOES publish such credible studies - the Capitol Corridor. Below are excerpts from their 2008 Annual Performance Report, available at the link in the previous sentence.

These charts show a steady increase in both ridership and revenue on the Capitol Corridor, even before the 2008 spike. When presented in context, you see a successful service. Compare that to the Pew report, which took a snapshot of a single year, out of context, pointed out "loss per passenger" that makes Amtrak look like a failure.

This chart is even more impressive and significant. It shows that state subsidy levels (Capitol Corridor is funded by the state of California) have remained pretty much static for the last eight years, yet the Capitol Corridor has had dramatic success at growing ridership and bringing its costs under control.

Eugene Skoropowski, managing director of the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, presented these charts to the NARP/RailPAC meeting in San Carlos last Saturday. He noted that the 2009 numbers to date show about a 10% decline in ridership from the 2008 highs, but that they're still above FY 2006-07 in terms of revenue and riders.

These numbers paint a very different picture than the flawed and ridiculous Pew study. Amtrak routes have experienced steadily growing ridership since about 2002, and have witnessed improving farebox recovery rates. Further, since we know that the price of oil is merely in a temporary respite and will rise again once economic recovery returns, we can expect Amtrak to continue on a positive upward trend of increasing ridership and increasing financial returns on investment.

And yet that doesn't get at the other enormous problem with the Pew study, which is conceptual. Has Pew done a study of the loss per driver of US freeways?

As anyone who has driven in the Bay Area recently will attest, traffic is much lighter on freeways as a result of the recession. This phenomenon can be found nationwide. So how much money have American freeways lost per driver in 2008? In 2009? What is the trendline?

The Pew study is reinforcing a deeply biased and illogical concept, that passenger rail has to be held to standards of "profitability" that we simply do not demand of our freeway network. As Skoropowski noted at the Saturday meeting, federal highway funds were given to states with a requirement that states pay the ongoing maintenance costs. That money is supposedly paid out of gas taxes, but neither the state nor the federal gas tax has been increased in nearly 20 years. As we expand freeways and as Californians in particular conserve fuel through driving less and buying more efficient cars, the gas tax is less effective in paying these costs, requiring, yes, government subsidies. And of course, nobody has ever once proposed paying back the $425 billion (in 2006 dollars) it cost to build the system.

In short, Pew's study is intended to make Amtrak and passenger rail in general look like a bad investment, when in fact it is anything but that. Sure, the numbers from the Acela prove that HSR will generate revenue, but that's not why we support high speed rail. HSR advocates should condemn this flawed study and resist the temptation to use it to bolster our already strong case for HSR.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Altamont Corridor Planning Begins

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

As mandated by Proposition 1A, the California High Speed Rail Authority is beginning its process of studying the Altamont Corridor alignment. Have a look at their announcement newsletter for some details.

The project corridor is defined as San José to Stockton, with a possible spur to Modesto:

As you can tell, this is basically an upgrade and electrification of the Altamont Commuter Express - the full newsletter includes drawings of electric ACE trains traveling along a high speed rail corridor with overhead wires. The projection is that Stockton will be anywhere from 55 to 75 minutes from downtown San José once the corridor is completed, with trains operating at 150 mph or greater.

And the explanation given on the newsletter of the project's scope and goals:

The Altamont Corridor Rail Project will provide a vital link in the regional transit network, connecting our communities like never before. The project will create a dedicated passenger train corridor between Stockton and San Jose, with stops in key cities in between. A spur link to Modesto is also a possibility. The project study area is shown to the right, along with opportunities for strategic intercity rail connectivity. Specific route alignments and station locations will be identified through a community-based planning process. Once developed, alternative scenarios will be evaluated through the preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement/Environmental Impact Report.

The project could allow operation of trains between the Bay Area and points north including Stockton and Sacramento, as well as points south including Modesto and beyond, within the California High-Speed Train system. The project will provide intermodal connections to Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) to serve the Oakland Airport, cities of Oakland and San Francisco, as well as other Bay Area communities. Intermodal connections to BART could be located in the Livermore vicinity, should the Dublin/Pleasanton BART line be extended, as well as in the Fremont/Union City area, meeting either the Fremont line or planned Warm Springs/San Jose extension.

The Altamont Corridor Rail Project could also accommodate a future connection to the Dumbarton rail service in the Fremont/Union City area, as well as connect to the Valley Transportation Authority light rail in Santa Clara County. The project will coordinate with local bus services, providing access to proximate market areas and interfacing with regional bus links where appropriate. Whether for intercity trips, daily commutes, or access to the statewide High-Speed Train system, the Altamont Corridor Rail Project will serve our communities like never before!

My own view is that while faster ACE trains would be nice, this really isn't as high a priority for the state as upgrading the Capitol Corridor, restoring the Coast Daylight service along the Central Coast, and upgrading and speeding up the Pacific Surfliners, to name but a few projects more deserving. The inclusion of the Altamont Corridor in Prop 1A was a sop to Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani and interests in San Joaquin and Stanislaus Counties to compensate for the choice of the Pacheco Pass route for the main HSR trains.

I don't have much of a preference about the implementation on the route, though we will predictably hear from residents in Fremont and Pleasanton concerned about the impact on their neighborhoods. And while it'll be nice to throw that in the faces of the people suing because the Altamont alignment was rejected for the main HSR trains, I'm not entirely sure what the Altamont high speed corridor project gets us. It doesn't deserve to be funded ahead of other higher priority corridors. I'm all for improved passenger rail and I wish the CHSRA and its corridor partners well in the development of a sensible plan, but if this never got funded, well, that's an outcome I could live with.

The scoping meeting schedule is below. All meetings are from 3PM to 8PM.

Livermore - Tuesday, Nov. 10
Robert Livermore Community Center
4444 East Avenue

Stockton - Thursday, Nov. 12
San Joaquin Council of Governments
555 E. Weber Avenue

Fremont - Tuesday, Nov. 17
Fremont Teen Center
39770 Paseo Padre Parkway

San José - Wednesday, Nov. 18
Le Petit Trianon Theatre
72 North Fifth Street

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The View from the Cab

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

by Rafael

one way to discover how HSR operators in other countries have built their infrastructure and run their trains is to tag along in the driver cab, at least vicariously.

Series 500 Bullet Train

The following YouTube video is part 1 of an eight-part series tracking the progress of a sixteen-car series 500 bullet train from Hakata (Fukuoka) to Tokyo on the Sanyo and Tokaido shinkansen lines traveling in "nozomi", i.e. express, mode at a top speed of 300km/h (186mph). The audio is in Japanese, but the author has kindly provided limited translation.

(Playlist for parts 2 to 8)

Total trip distance is 1069km (664mi), part 6 includes the "rollercoaster" section between Toyohashi and Laka Hamana. Operated jointly bby JR West and JR Central with a change of drivers at Shin-Osaka. Dwell times at run-through stations are around 50 seconds, this is normal in Japan. The journey as such is entirely uneventful. Infrastructure is supposed to be this dependable!

For our purposes, it's perhaps the design of the line that is of greatest interest: at-grade vs. elevated vs. trench vs. tunnel structures, selective use of sound walls, speeds through populated areas, fences etc. Also, contrast the graceful design of the train - inspired by the streamlined shape of a kingfisher breaking the water's surface without creating much of a ripple - with the ugly headspans.

Series 700 Bullet Train

Also informative is this in-cab video of a series 700 bullet train, the successor to the sleek but expensive series 500. This design features a duck-billed nose that minimizes tunnel boom and susceptibility to sway in heavy cross-winds and when passing high speed trains approaching from the other direction.

Note that the Japanese obsession with punctuality isn't just a source of personal pride for the impeccably dressed bullet train drivers but rather, an operational necessity: in many sections, the existing lines are at capacity, so drivers are expected to stick as close as possible to timetables that are prescribed down to the second. The Tokaido shinkansen between Tokyo and Osaka supports a total of 285 trains on weekdays. It is headway constraints rather than a lack of engineering chops that force most Japanese bullet trains to travel (at slightly) lower speeds than their counterparts in Europe.

To activate close captioning in (somewhat broken) English, please click the up arrow on the lower right. Keeping the mouse button pressed, slide up and toggle the CC icon.


If you prefer a running narration in the Queen's English, below is the first video of a similar series documenting a Eurostar trip from Paris to London (h/t to Trains4America). The video was produced in 2004, three years before the second portion (CTRL2) of the High Speed 1 line in the UK was completed. Parts 11 and 12 of the series are now only of historical interest.

(Parts 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12)

The UK is not a signatory to the EU's Schengen Agreement. The British government therefore required border controls including dedicated boarding platforms at all Eurostar stations in France even before the Al Qaeda terrorist bombings on the London Underground. Security consists of running your ticket through a bar code reader at a turnstile, your bags through a scanner and walking through a metal detector. With no baggage handling to contend with, passengers can arrive at the station as little as 10 or 15 minutes before their train leaves.

The first thing you'll notice is that the overhead catenaries feature poles not headspans. Also note the lateral distance to the nearest buildings and embankments/retaining walls on the way out of the French capital. The speed limits there may have more to do with signal block length and associated headways (i.e. emergency braking distance) on the regular network than with concern about noise: one section of the line supports a total of over 200 trains on a weekday. Out in the undulating countryside, extensive cut-and-fill earthworks were needed to keep the ruling gradient to 1:40 (i.e. 2.5%).

Lille, a city of a million inhabitants, got SNCF to run the line to the UK through its downtown area. French mayors and local business leaders understand that "beet field" stations like Haute Picardie make it much more difficult to attract the inward investment they need to compete with the Île-de-France region surrounding the capital. The section through Lille features tunnels, trenches and elevated structures with tall sound walls through residential neighborhoods. Some connecting regional trains depart from Lille Europe, many others from the legacy Lille Flandres station about 1/4 mile away, a single stop away on the local metro and tram lines. Passengers can also choose to walk through a shopping-mall-cum-conference-center.

Eurostar trainsets feature two tractor cars plus motors on the first bogie of the passenger cars immediately adjacent to the tractor cars, for a total of 12 powered axles. Total rated power is 12,200kW (16000bhp). In the event of an emergency, a single tractor car is sufficient to pull the trainset out of the Channel Tunnel, where the speed limit is 160km/h (100mph) for passenger and 100km/h (60mph) for freight and car/truck ferry trains. Along the route, the train has to adapt to four different signaling systems, multiple pantograph settings and two electrification systems. The 750VDC third rail pickups are no longer needed now that CTRL2 has been completed and trains terminate at St. Pancras International, shaving more than 20 minutes of the nominal line haul time and substantially improving punctuality.

Since the summer of 2009, Southeastern Highspeed regional trains also use the new High Speed 1 infrastructure. The series 395 "Javelin" trainsets have a top speed of 140mph and will provide frequent shuttle services between downtown and the sports venues in the East End during the 2012 Summer Olympics.


- operators all use automatic train control systems that engage the brakes if drivers ignore speed limits that are signaled in their cabs. In addition, the infrastructure operators have central facilities for managing traffic on the lines.

- high speed trains do run through suburbs and rural towns at 200-300km/h (125-186mph) in both Japan and Europe. Shinkansen lines typically run through Japanese towns on elevated structures, whereas European planners prefer to run trains at grade and construct numerous road overpasses.

- however, where the line runs (relatively) close to existing buildings, speed limits are either much lower or else noise is mitigated with sound walls and/or soundproof windows installed at the railway's expense.

- expensive tunnels into downtown areas of large cities are worthwhile IFF there is excellent connecting transit and/or transit-oriented development in the immediate vicinity of the station. Both can significantly increase ridership.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Saturday Open Thread

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

A few updates:

  • I'll be in San Carlos today for a joint RailPAC-NARP meeting to discuss several passenger rail projects around the state, including high speed rail. I'll also be talking with several folks about ramping up HSR advocacy efforts. This blog was founded to fill a vacuum in early 2008, since there wasn't any place putting out frequent information on the project, and some of the other pro-HSR sites had gone dormant. The blog was never meant to be a stand-in for a full-scale pro-HSR effort, though we have often worked with others backing HSR, from CALPIRG to NARP, in support of HSR. Now it's time to step it up and get this thing built, especially now when the various process issues threaten to undermine the project. So be on the lookout for more robust grassroots HSR advocacy work.

  • Speaking of the blog, I know we've discussed this for a while now, but we really are going to move this to a unique URL and to a WordPress platform, and soon. Not only will it offer a cleaner look, WordPress offers greater functionality in the comments - from requiring people to pick a username to threaded comments (where you can actually reply to a specific comment, and thereby follow a discussion thread). The new place is already set up, but we need to do some customization work before we throw the doors open. If anyone reading this has experience customizing WordPress themes, or wants to offer any other technical assistance, send an email to my last name at gmail and we can get going.

  • Wired Magazine thinks NIMBYs won't be a problem in getting HSR built. I certainly hope they are right, and that the political backing behind the project, its self-evident benefits, and broad public support are enough to overcome the very, very small group of people who think their own personal version of urban aesthetics trumps all other social, economic, and environmental needs.

Friday, October 23, 2009

California Members of Congress Lobbying Hard for HSR Money

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

As the decision point for awarding $8 billion in federal HSR stimulus nears, and with some $50 billion in applications submitted, California's federal representatives are making a strong push to ensure California gets a significant portion of those funds:

Employing every tool of persuasion from gift books and phone calls to hallway chats and high-level letters, including several to be sent as early as Friday to the White House, the state's lawmakers are making their case for $4.7 billion. But with 23 other states likewise seeking funds, and merit supposedly mattering more than politics, success could be elusive.

"We think because California is further along in this effort, we're well placed to receive federal funding," Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, insisted Thursday....

"We're doing a number of things," Costa said, when asked how California is promoting its high-speed rail bid.

Still, the longtime rail advocate acknowledged that California will "probably" not receive its entire request. Speaking at a U.S. High Speed Rail Association conference Thursday morning, Costa shared the stage with congressional colleagues who have their own plans.

Which isn't unexpected. I would be surprised if we got less than $3 billion, and would be pleasantly surprised if we got $4 billion or higher. There will be pressure on USDOT to distribute the funds widely, but there is also a recognition that if you spread the money too thinly, it won't do much good at all.

Jim Costa has been a longtime champion of HSR, having authored the 1996 legislation that created the CHSRA and got this project off the ground. But our Senators are getting in on the action as well:

"I'm very hopeful we'll get a large portion of what we're asking for," Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer said Thursday. "We're ready for it."

As part of the lobbying effort, Boxer said she, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will be sending President Barack Obama another letter as early as Friday. It will likely remind Obama that California is providing $9 billion from a bond measure, and it will be accompanied by letters from the Sierra Club and the Chamber of Commerce to show support spanning the political spectrum.

Trying for the personal touch, Costa sent Obama and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel copies of historian Stephen Ambrose's book about the building of the transcontinental railroad, "Nothing Like it in the World." And this week, California High-Speed Rail Authority leaders roamed Capitol Hill and huddled with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Since January, records also show, lobbyist Mark Kadesh -- formerly Feinstein's chief of staff -- has been paid $120,000 to advocate for California high-speed rail.

I don't know that a Stephen Ambrose book is going to make the difference - perhaps sending Rahm to Spain to ride a special AVE train with the destinations changed from Spanish cities to California cities ("next stop: Los Angeles Union Station" instead of "proxima estacion: Barcelona-Sants") would have more of an impact - but it does show that CA is making an all-out effort.

Of just as much importance is the fact that Obama Administration officials have repeatedly stated that California is likely to get a significant piece of the HSR stimulus. I am confident they'll keep to that pledge.

Rod Diridon colorfully explained to the New York Times:

"We've likened it to California and the high-speed rail program being the ugliest girl in town, or the ugly duckling, and she was growing up and nobody wanted to be associated with her," Diridon said. "Her uncle gives her $9 billion, and everyone wants to take her to the prom. Well, everyone wants to take us to the prom now."

I'm not quite sure that's accurate. It's more like the attractive boy or girl in your class who you had a huge crush on, but you weren't sure if they were available or not; their parents are kind of strict and tightfisted and might not approve of he or she dating. But now you've heard from the parents that they do approve of the date, and what's more, they're willing to give you some money to buy him or her dinner. Now you know what to do - bust a move.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Mercury Drops Bid for CHSRA Communications Contract

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

This was unexpected:

Mercury Public Affairs did not rebid on a $9 million, five-year communications contract with the California High-Speed Rail Authority despite being the frontrunner in September before board members raised objections.

After the board objected, Rail Authority officials scrapped their previous recommendation and reopened the bidding process last month. At the time, Mercury said it would do whatever the board asked. But the firm has since decided not to reapply, saying it lacks confidence in the new bidding process.

"Mercury followed the initial (bidding) process to a tee but we were ultimately sidelined because of internal politics," said Mercury spokesman Brian Jones. "We have subsequently decided to not to invest our time, energy or resources into a process we no longer have confidence in, nor believe in."

There are multiple ways to read this: sour grapes that they didn't get the contract the first time, genuine lack of confidence in the process, annoyance that the skids aren't greased this time around as well (note: I don't believe the skids were greased, but that is an interpretation that's been floated).

Ultimately this will wind up increasing confidence and legitimacy in the CHSRA's bidding process, even if there will still be some critics out there arguing that this is "$9 million for PR" and thereby missing the point entirely (this is for all the agency's communications work, including public outreach, scoping sessions, publishing all those business plans that Roy Ashburn demands, etc).

The final decision on who will receive the contract will be made at the November CHSRA board meeting.

DiFi: HSR Should Use Transbay Terminal

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

We've been calling for federal representatives to speak up and help resolve some of the key HSR disputes in California, and it looks like that's exactly what they're starting to do. Senator Dianne Feinstein wrote a letter to Ray LaHood calling for the feds to fund the construction of an HSR train box at Transbay Terminal, as is currently called for in the plans:

The California High Speed Rail Authority may be looking at possible alternatives to a new Transbay Terminal to bring bullet trains into San Francisco, but our former mayor and California's senior senator says the choice is clear.

Go with the proposed Transbay Transit Center.

That's the message Sen. Dianne Feinstein sent in a letter Wednesday to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in advance of the Obama administration's decision on federal stimulus funding for high speed rail projects across the country.

A new Transbay Terminal at First and Mission Streets is "an ideal destination for high speed rail" and a project where construction could begin in the first three months of next year, Feinstein wrote.

"The project represents a real downtown station in one of America's great cities, assuring that high speed rail delivers travelers to the city center without the traffic or delays that afflict other modes of travel," the senator wrote. "This project will not only put thousands of Californians back to work, but will also move the state's plans for high speed rail one step closer to reality."

Feinstein joins fellow Sen. Barbara Boxer and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in calling for federal funds to build San Francisco's high-speed rail terminus at the site of the old bus station.

"Transbay will become the 'Grand Central of the West,'" Boxer wrote to LaHood.

Feinstein and Boxer's comments come along reports I have heard that Speaker Nancy Pelosi not only prefers the Transbay Terminal to be the SF terminus, but that she has said the $400 million for the train box is all ready to go, except for CHSRA's objections.

Let's also not forget, of course, that voters approved TBT as the SF terminus when Prop 1A passed last November.

CHSRA continues to argue they are mandated to explore other alternatives, a position the California Attorney General's office supported. However, California's leading federal representatives are clearly uniting behind the Transbay Terminal project.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Two Very Different Op-Eds

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

This week the debate over high speed rail - which, bizarrely, we're still having even after California voters approved Prop 1A a year ago - returns to the opinion pages of two of California's most prominent newspapers. Two op-eds examine the project and reach very different conclusions about the project's value to the state. First up is Daniel Curtin, president of the California Conference of Carpenters, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle:

California voters know we must change to meet the environmental challenges we face. They realize that every passenger who travels these sleek trains will reduce greenhouse-gas emissions that auto or air travel would have spewed into the atmosphere. They know that 800 miles of high-speed rail will reduce congestion between urban centers and encourage low-polluting urban in-fill development....

On high-speed rail, California leads the nation and San Francisco leads the state. An intermodal transit station, the Transbay Transit Center, is ready to break ground. Some 8,000 construction jobs will be directly created by the project and tens of thousands of jobs will be generated from the economic activity, according to plan documents. In a state with more than 12 percent unemployment and a city with just more than 10 percent of its workforce out of work, this will provide a desperately needed economic stimulus...

Just as the New Deal-inspired Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge served as an economic bridge from the Great Depression to a prosperous future, so will the Transbay Transit Center and high-speed rail be our generation's transportation corridor from economic adversity to a greener, more prosperous future.

There are two ways one can read this op-ed, and they are not mutually exclusive. The first is as a call to support the economic stimulus value of high speed rail. In this deep recession, where California's unemployment rate is higher than it's been for 60 years, we can use any job we can get. Especially 8,000 construction jobs on just the TBT alone.

And that takes us to the second reading of the op-ed, which is as an argument for the Transbay Terminal project as being a fundamental piece of the high speed rail project. Quentin Kopp is still pushing alternatives to the current location of the TBT train box, and we keep hearing rumors that Kopp doesn't want the TBT to happen at all (rumors which he has denied to me). As the decision on HSR stimulus funds nears, it makes sense for TBT supporters to push out op-eds like this extolling the virtues of the project, including the badly needed jobs it would create.

Not everyone things jobs are important in a state experiencing at least a 12.2% unemployment rate. Dan Walters, who writes on state politics at the Sacramento Bee, writes today that we should "take bullet train claims with a grain of salt". As you'll see, it's Walters' column that requires the salt:

Ironically – or perhaps prophetically – the California High Speed Rail Authority's Web site bolsters the economic viability of a proposed statewide bullet train system by quoting an official of Lehman Brothers....

If nothing else, the fact that the rail authority is still quoting defunct and disgraced Lehman Brothers about financing the bullet train should make us skeptical that the system will materialize during the lifetime of any Californian now breathing, or that it would generate all the economic and social wonderfulness its advocates are claiming.

This is a ridiculous and misleading line of attack. If Lehman Brothers had collapsed because of its work supporting high speed rail, then Walters might have a point. But it didn't. As Andrew Ross Sorkin at the New York Times explained yesterday, Lehman's collapse was due to a CEO, Dick Fuld, who wasn't skilled at negotiating these kind of deals, and due to the Bush Administration's willingness to let Lehman fail.

None of that undermines the work Lehman staff did on high speed rail. Specifically, Lehman told the CHSRA that the project could "leverage significant private participation." There is every reason to believe this is still the case. Global money still seeks a safe return on investment, and as the CHSRA found in 2008 when they solicited statements of interest, at least 40 companies showed their desire to participate in the project.

The case for private investment remains solid. Every HSR route around the world has generated an operating profit. As oil prices rise, ridership will as well, as SNCF argued last month. Obviously the exact amount of money CHSRA can expect from the private sector will depend on credit and economic conditions, but it is still reasonable and plausible to expect that some investment will materialize.

Walters doesn't stop there:

Such skepticism is especially warranted now that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other promoters, having persuaded voters to pass a $9.95 billion bond issue that California can ill afford, are asking the Obama administration for half of the federal money set aside for high-speed rail – nearly $5 billion.

Even if the feds come through with that kind of dough, which is highly unlikely, it would be less than half of the federal funds that California needs. It would also fall well short of the $40 billion or more it would take to link San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento and points in between with 200-mph trains.

This is just plain wrong. The White House has repeatedly said California will receive a large share of the HSR stimulus funds. It is entirely possible we will indeed receive nearly $5 billion from the feds. Even $3 billion would be a substantial sum.

Does it fall well short of the $40 billion total to build both phase 1 and 2 of the project? (Note how Walters throws in the Sacramento and SD extensions, which will not be built until about 2030, to make HSR seem more costly.) Yes. And that's why President Obama and the Congress are looking at long-term funding of HSR. Right now there is the battle over the $4 billion in HSR funding for 2010 going on in the US Senate. The stalled Transportation Bill is likely to include a permanent HSR funding solution once it is finally passed and signed. Walters doesn't give the reader any of this information, which makes it obvious that CA is quite likely to get the federal money it needs to build the project.

Schwarzenegger et al. are asserting that private investors would put up about half of the total cost. They also contend that the system could operate at a profit without subsidies, based on rosy ridership assumptions.

Well, if that's what Arnold is claiming, Arnold is indeed wrong. I've never heard CHSRA suggest private investors would contribute more than 25% of the cost.

As to operating at a profit, here again Walters is simply wrong. The Acela generates operating surpluses, as do all other HSR projects around the world. And of course, neither California's freeways nor its airports operate at a profit without subsidies (and in fact, freeways aren't expected to operate at a profit, period).

Then there are the assumed economic benefits that would accrue. Building the system obviously would create some direct design and construction jobs and at least some ongoing jobs for operation. But the rail authority has bootstrapped that direct benefit into upward of a half-million additional jobs that would be created, it's said, simply by the economic activity generated by having a new transportation system in place.

The "economic activity" claim is a projection subject to quite a lot of change up or down in the future, but it IS based on legitimate studies. Further, it is based on the proven concept that mass transit creates a Green Dividend - economic activity generated through the reallocation of money previously spent on oil. It may not be as high as 450,000. But at this rate, in a state facing high unemployment for many years to come, even something that falls 50% of that goal is still well worth building.

Grandiosely, authority board member Rod Diridon Sr. of San Jose contends that the project "will generate 600,000 construction-related jobs … and another 450,000 transportation-related permanent jobs, providing a long-term stimulus to the California economy."

The claim appears to be way overblown. But even if true, it would represent a tiny portion of California's economy decades hence. There are about 18 million Californians in the work force now. In 2030, when the bullet train is projected to become operational, 450,000 permanent jobs would represent less than 2 percent of needed employment – if, indeed, they ever appear.

Walters doesn't give any evidence or explanation as to why the claim is "way overblown" - meaning Walters' own statement is baseless. But even if he were right, does he really believe California can afford to pass on even 2% of needed employment? Walters is writing as if it were 1998, when the economy was booming and jobs were plentiful. Here in 2009, it's clear that we are not in a position to turn down jobs like this, especially when the estimates run into the hundreds of thousands for both short-term and long-term employment.

Ultimately Dan Walters shows himself to once again be a leading apostle of the notion that the California of the 20th century, dependent on sprawl and oil, is somehow still a viable basis for economic prosperity here in the 21st century. To believe that, you have to believe that the current recession either isn't happening, or is an acceptable cost of doing business. Most Californians don't see it that way. That's why they approved the high speed rail project, and that's why it's going to get built.

California's going to get those jobs, whether Dan Walters wants them or not.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

LA to SD Scoping Meetings

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

CHSRA is hosting a number of scoping meeting down in Southern California this month - click that link to see the full details (PDF link). In advance of the LA County meetings, which kick off tomorrow night in Monterey Park, Streetsblog LA offers a primer on the LA-SD route:

I'm sure some are curious why the CHSRA choose to connect Los Angeles and San Diego via the Inland Empire instead of the more direct routing along the coast. From my years following this project I'll offer my cliffnotes on why this is so.

There are a number of obstacles to using the coastal corridor. The right of way in some places is narrow and also traverses environmentally sensitive areas. As the faq "How is this project different from other previous attempts to implement high-speed train systems in the U.S.?" on the CHSRA website notes:

The California High-Speed Rail Authority (Authority) considered but rejected a coastal alignment between Los Angeles and San Diego as part of its certified Statewide Program EIR/EIS (November 2005). The Authority concluded that limited existing right-of-way and sensitive coastal resources made high-speed train service on the coastal rail corridor infeasible. You can read more on the routing choices at the CAHSR's Frequently Asked Questions page.

Another factor is opposition from the coastal communities of Southern Orange County and Northern San Diego County. While cities like Anaheim and Irvine are eager to be part of the system, communities along the coast further south are hotbeds of NIMBY pushback (e.g. San Juan Capistrano and Encinitas). That is why the spur line serving Orange County goes no further South than Irvine. Plus the folks in the Inland Empire want the project to serve their region and have been actively lobbying for it to do so during the past decade. Similar lobbying by Palmdale and Lancaster is the reason why the project goes through the Antelope Valley instead of along the grapevine/I-5 corridor to reach L.A. from the Central Valley.

I would add some things to this. The issue isn't so much NIMBY pushback - that isn't stopping CHSRA elsewhere, nor would it be appropriate for it to do so - but the extreme difficulty of engineering tracks in this area. The tracks between LA and SD currently hug the coast through Capistrano Beach and San Clemente, squeezed between the beach and the bluffs. Those bluffs frequently come down onto the tracks in years of heavy rain, the most recent example I know of being in 1998. It's really not a good place for high speed trains.

The only real alternative along the coast is Interstate 5. But this is even less workable than the coast. I-5 is extremely hilly through much of the section from San Clemente southward (Camp Pendleton being less so). It also has some tight curves that make it additionally unsuitable for an HSR route.

Combined with the larger population along the Ontario-Escondido inland alignment, those engineering concerns made the Inland Empire alignment more viable. And yet it's not without questions - such as what will they do now that the I-15 ROW between Escondido and San Diego has been used up by Caltrans? Another is whether the trains will travel along the I-15 or the I-215 alignment in southern Riverside County. At one of these scoping meetings, yesterday in Murrieta, that issue came up, along with some of the now-standard NIMBY concerns:

Murrieta has been targeted for a station stop in an area near the intersection of the two freeways often referred to as the Golden Triangle.

Officials in the southwest Riverside County city see the station as a potential boon -- possibly a catalyst for commercial development and job growth.

As one of the most auto-dependent locations in a deeply auto-dependent region, Murrieta will derive quite a bit of benefit from having an HSR station, making travel to job centers to the north, northwest, and the south more feasible and affordable.

The issue of alignment was discussed:

Determining which freeway the train will parallel will be part of a lengthy environmental study that begins with the public comments fielded at the scoping sessions, said Jose Martinez, project manager for the Southern California line.

Each route has benefits and drawbacks. The terrain along I-215 is flatter and could allow the train to pass through both county seats. But the I-15 route is shorter and has more available land, said Rick Simon, a project engineer.

The I-215 route does include the ability to generate riders from Riverside, Moreno Valley, and San Bernardino/Redlands, whereas the I-15 route would be quicker from LA to SD but would not generate ridership from many of those cities.

And of course, the usual "omg this will cost too much!" folks came out:

Not everyone was supportive. Murrieta mother and son Ken and Louise Appel said they didn't believe that the benefits of the rail line -- shorter commutes and less dependence on foreign oil -- outweigh the costs -- more noise and the estimated $45 billion price tag for the entire system.

Which of course only makes sense if you assume there is no cost whatsoever to continuing the present model of transportation, which involves massive amounts of sprawl subsidized by everyone else in California. In other words, status quo. America has done a very good job of making those costs seem not only normal, but hidden, even nonexistent. So we who support HSR look like the ones wanting to just throw around money, even though opponents are actually the ones proposing a profligate strategy that, as we have learned with this recession, doesn't actually work for most people.

Monday, October 19, 2009

HSR on the Radio in SF Tonight

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

Tonight at 7PM on KALW 91.7 in San Francisco, City Visions will cover the high speed rail debate. As described in the announcement:

The vision of a high-speed rail link between Northern and Southern California is exciting, with fast, modern trains zipping people between San Francisco and Los Angeles in just over two hours. But controversy over route, ridership and cash is following the project. The state, with little money to spend on infrastructure, has just applied for massive federal funding. But some still call the project a fantasy for the well-off that shouldn’t take priority over more basic rail solutions.

Join host Lauren Melzter as she talks with:
-Samer Madanat, Director, Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Berkeley
-Brian Stanke, Director of Californians for High-Speed Rail
-Richard Tolmach, President of the California Rail Foundation

Brian Stanke will be carrying the HSR torch for us tonight. As you all probably know, Richard Tolmach is a leading HSR denier and will be using the show to disseminate his misleading statements about the project.

You can see some of his claims in the most recent issue of Cal Rail News, which he edits. Pages 5 and 6 are full of FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) about HSR "invading neighborhoods" and claiming, against the evidence, that the trains will run at 200mph through "cities."

Perhaps it might be useful in advance of the show to help debunk Tolmach's claims in the comments?

If you want to participate in the show, the call-in number is (415) 841-4134, or you can email the show:

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Building an Organic Machine Along the LA River

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

It is impossible to address the broad crisis facing California without affecting some preexisting plan in some way. Whether it's the transmission lines needed to carry power to cities from a solar plant in the Mojave Desert or the Carrizo Plain or whether it's building a light rail line next to an LA high school or something else entirely, solutions to the economic, environmental, and energy crisis aren't being built on a blank slate. We have to implement them within the built and the natural environment we have, and that means when we want to build high speed rail, it may mean other plans have to be shifted to accommodate it.

The latest instance of this intersection of plans is along the Los Angeles River. If you've ever seen the movie "Grease" you've seen the LA River. Once a meandering seasonal stream which sometimes took an entirely different course to the Pacific Ocean than it does now (prior to 1835 it joined Ballona Creek and emptied into the Santa Monica Bay), it has become a largely concretized flood channel of the kind you see all over Southern California (including in the backyard of the house I grew up in).

Along with this "modernization" the LA River has also become a major transportation corridor. It was always thus, from Native American times to the late 1700s when Spanish padres marked the El Camino Real along its course. In the 1800s railroads were built along its banks, and in the 1950s several freeways, including the Golden State and the Long Beach freeways, were constructed alongside it.

Since the 1970s there have been a series of efforts to restore the "old" LA River by removing some of the concrete, which would both slow down the river (making it less dangerous during winter flash floods) and make it more hospitable to wildlife. There have also been plans to conduct urban renewal along some of the older industrial sections of the LA River, including those areas currently used by trains.

These plans will be impacted by the high speed rail project, and the intersection of those two projects is the topic of an in-depth article in the LA Times today. The article, by Ari Bloomekatz, is generally a good overview of the concerns some of the river revitalization activists have about high speed rail:

The plan to build a network of high-speed bullet trains across California is facing opposition from the heart of Los Angeles, where community leaders fear the line will hurt efforts for another grand project: revitalizing the L.A. River.

The rail plan, which has picked up considerable steam since voters approved the nearly $10-billion bond measure in 2008, would use Union Station as a major hub, and the line probably would run along the Los Angeles River.

But some elected officials and residents believe the proposed rail alignment would seriously clash with their vision for the area, which involves replacing the dilapidated industrial proprieties along the river with green space, recreation areas and community facilities.

The situation makes for delicate politics. Many L.A. officials strongly support the bullet train concept and believe that the Union Station hub would fit into the county's efforts to expand subway and light rail service. But they also believe that revitalizing the river is an important part of making the city core more livable for residents and attractive to visitors.

Part of the problem here is that some of the revitalization advocates do not appear to have considered trains as part of their vision for "making the city core more livable for residents and attractive to visitors." Others, still operating in a late 20th century mindset, see any major transportation project as producing the kind of "blight" they associate with the current situation along much of the LA River. Instead of railroads and industrial zones being a thriving hub of activity, by the 1980s they had fallen into disuse as state and federal policy and economic shifts rendered those sites undesirable. Unfortunately, many took the lesson that "railroads along the river produces blight," which doesn't predispose those types to support a train.

The specific area under discussion in the article is known as the Taylor Yard area of the "Glendale Narrows" - the area alongside the Golden State Freeway and the Metrolink ROW. This region has been an important transportation corridor going back to the Native American days, and as anyone who's been on Metrolink through here knows, it is already heavily used by trains. It is also one of the few places along the LA River that has not been fully concretized - it has what is officially described as a "soft bottom" and is therefore seen as a prime location for ecosystem restoration. But the closure of Taylor Yard suggested to many in the area that the day of the train was done, and that a post-railroad vision for that section of the Glendale Narrows was desirable:

The proposed rail routes would run near Taylor Yard, a 247-acre freight switching facility in Cypress Park that was closed by 1985. Part of Taylor yard, which is north of Union Station, is still used for rail maintenance and storage, but it also includes Rio de Los Angeles State Park and sites for a planned high school, green space and a mixed-use housing development. The Los Angeles River runs next to it.

"To take a step backward, to put in a train, it's not going to help the quality of life," said Greater Cypress Park Neighborhood Council chairman Gustavo Lizarde.

Lizarde grew up in Lincoln Heights, moved to Cypress Park in the early 1980s and 25 years ago took over his father's auto service shop on North Figueroa Street. He used to live near Taylor Yard.

Last week, Lizarde walked past a new soccer field at the park off San Fernando Road to the concrete bank of the river. A blue heron swooped by a path littered with foam plastic cups.

The soccer field is one part of the city's long-term effort to transform the area along the concrete-sided river that was once synonymous with crime and graffiti into a place residents can enjoy.

Lizarde is articulating exactly the vision I described above - one where railroads are bringers of blight. Because Taylor Yard was undesirable in the 1980s, and because that led to it becoming a haven of crime and decay, Lizarde believes that any railroad use of the site would inherently produce those conditions again. To someone like Lizard, the Taylor Yard region exists in a perpetual 1985, where any expanded use of the area by trains would inherently blow up the plans to revitalize the river and the surrounding neighborhood.

LA City Councilmember Ed Reyes, whose district includes the Taylor Yard area, thinks HSR should simply avoid the area entirely, even if it meant abandoning the Union Station terminus:

But if the high-speed rail goes through Union Station, some officials and environmental advocates say, it would be difficult to find a route that doesn't run near the river.

Los Angeles City Councilman Ed Reyes said he would like to see other alternatives for routes from Anaheim to Los Angeles and from Los Angeles to Palmdale. He said he supports the high-speed rail but doesn't want to sacrifice the river or the progress of the communities the bullet train would pass through.

"The river right now is in a straitjacket. Lined with cement, constrained by railroad lines. . . . But the way they're approaching it, they're going to put the last strap on the straitjacket," Reyes said. "I support it, but let's not be hasty, let's be opportunistic."

So what's really going on here? Is there a huge anti-HSR backlash forming in LA that can give hope to the Peninsula NIMBYs? Will community organizers like Gustavo Lizarde and local electeds like Ed Reyes undermine one of HSR's most important, most vital aspects - using downtown LA's Union Station as a primary hub?

Not so fast. A look at the details suggests that not only was HSR taken into account in the LA River revitalization planning process, but that the plans envision HSR as a possible solution - instead of a barrier - to achieving some of the plans's key goals.

First, let's have a look at the area in question:

View Taylor Yard/HSR in a larger map

With a proposed high school and state park in the way, one might think "omg this is totally unworkable." But in fact the issue seems to be whether the San Fernando Road alignment or the existing Metrolink/UP alignment is used. As you can see, the location is already heavily used by rail, and Metrolink's primary maintenance hub is located just south of the Taylor Yard area.

Much of the non-railroad land is owned by the California State Parks. A lawsuit several years ago stopped the city of LA, UP, and Lennar (a real estate developer) from new industrial development on the site. Described as "the brass ring" for river activists, the Taylor Yard area is seen as a keystone in the "green" vision for the LA River.

But what does "green" mean? Does it include electric, non-polluting, sustainable high speed rail? Or does it mean essentially turning the area into a park?

The City of Los Angeles's River Revitalization Plan makes a clear statement that trains are an essential part of the River, and that HSR can actually serve as a method of reconnecting neighborhoods to the River:

High Speed And Light Rail Lines Could Be Opportunities To Connect To The River: While heavy rail poses the challenges noted previously, existing and proposed future light rail lines could be opportunities to connect a multi-modal system with the River....

The proposed California High-Speed Rail system would travel from San Francisco, Oakland and Sacramento in the north to Los Angeles and San Diego in the south, and would connect California’s major metropolitan areas. The proposed corridor alignment has been loosely identified in the Los Angeles area, and it traverses a portion of the project area. The preferred alignment is along both sides of the Los Angeles River: one proposed track crosses the River from Mission Yard towards Union Station and continues south while the other passes through Union Station and splits to cross the River south of US-101 and south of 1st Street. Should the rail system be implemented as studied, it offers the potential to bring visitors from outside the region to the City. A revitalized River could provide an important regional recreational destination, as well as an amenity that could draw more visitors to the City. (pages 3-16 and 3-17)

It also presents an opportunity to reconstruct the tracks in the area - consolidating rail lines and putting them in either a viaduct or a trench, creating the possibility of at-grade connections to a riverfront park. And as that segment of the plan notes, both UPRR and BNSF (which operates further down the river, south of Union Station) are not only heavy freight users of rail corridors along the river, but are likely to explore options to expand the rails to accommodate future freight traffic.

Ultimately the plan makes it clear that rails are part of the River's future, instead of an impediment. Neither the freeways nor the rails are going away anytime soon. In fact, electrified passenger rail is a key element of improving the quality of life in Southern California, including for the residents of the Cypress Park and other nearby neighborhoods.

Few of the people quoted in the article are HSR opponents, and the article itself recognizes the environmental benefits of HSR. The ultimate question here is how to reconcile two efforts to produce environmentally friendly uses of urban land.

What this situation primarily demonstrates is that the issue really isn't about the environment. It's instead about perceptions of what urban life should be like. Some of the neighbors near the Taylor Yard have a fundamentally 20th century vision in mind - they're afraid any new rail projects will return the site to 1985, but their own vision is essentially the 1950s - a low-density community with green space and access to a quiet, meandering river.

In this way they're not so different from the Peninsula NIMBYs, who seem to prefer a permanent 1975, even at the expense of Caltrain's survival. They're all motivated by a belief that trains bring blight, that trains are not a part of a desirable community. That is a belief unique to the late 20th century, but that belief runs deep.

Nobody is yet articulating a truly 21st century vision: one where sustainable land use and transportation, including high speed rail, produces cleaner and quieter communities, bringing economic security for the many and protecting everyone from the looming catastrophes our dependence on oil is about to produce.

The LA River presents a particular problem here. But it's not an unfamiliar problem. Stanford history professor Richard White would have well understood it. In 1996 White, then a University of Washington professor, published a remarkable little book titled The Organic Machine. Ostensibly a history of dams and fish management along the Columbia River, it in fact was something more of a meditation on the impact of modern man on the natural environment.

White's argument was simple: in modern societies, there is no easy separation of the "natural" and the "man-made". A single key sentence explains White's thesis: "We might want to look for the natural in the dams and the unnatural in the salmon." The Columbia River dams became part of nature, and created new ecosystems. The dams brought changes, some of which were positive, some of which were negative. White's goal isn't to praise or damn the dams (heh) but to instead show that for humans to think about saving salmon or managing the Columbia River, they have to accept that there can be no such thing as "purely natural" - instead the river is an "organic machine" whose consequences have to be weighed before they are acted upon.

High speed rail will function as an "organic machine" in California. It will change the surrounding environment, whether that environment is a Peninsula city, a Central Valley grassland, or the banks of the Los Angeles River. And it won't have been the first - compared to the urbanization of California, the agriculturalization of the Central Valley, the building of the first railroads and freeways, high speed rail is really just an upgrade of the existing machine to make it more environmentally friendly and more effective.

And it can serve as an "organic machine" along the Los Angeles River. It can reconnect neighborhoods to the river depending on how the tracks are built. It can help produce a cleaner river, a cleaner sky, and a more sustainable use of the river's watershed. Lizare and Reyes want to see HSR as some kind of invader. It's not. It's instead a way to reconnect human uses of land, just as it is in Palo Alto.

Ultimately what all this shows is that in building HSR, we aren't battling "NIMBYs." We're battling an obsolete model of California. The key dividing line is whether people see a train as a valuable part of the future, or an unwanted relic of the past. Palo Alto residents who design tunnels for HSR are embracing the possibilities of HSR, whereas those who sue to kill the project just don't seem to want trains around at all - including Caltrain, which their HSR denial is putting in jeopardy.

There are ways to revitalize the LA River and build HSR at the same time - and in the same place. Let's hope that residents and lawmakers prefer to embrace a 21st century vision of high speed rail as an organic machine, instead of the 20th century vision of trains as an undesirable and somewhat embarrassing reminder of a past they have rejected, for a present that has totally failed the vast majority of Californians.

UPDATE: Thanks to Rafael, have a look at the CHSRA's Taylor Yard simulation video, produced by NC3D. It shows that in both the Metrolink and San Fernando Road alignments the tracks would be trenched, and there would be two "lids" connecting the Cypress Park neighborhood to the Rio de Los Angeles State Park and riverfront. To see a good example of a "lid", look at the Mercer Island Lid, built over Interstate 90 on Mercer Island, Washington in 1993. The park is a very popular location in one of the Seattle metro's wealthiest communities and does an effective job of providing green space connectivity over a major transportation corridor.

Assuming CHSRA is able to construct the trench-and-lid model shown in the video, the complaints offered in the LA Times are much ado about nothing.