Sunday, November 29, 2009

Visit The New CAHSR Blog

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

Our move to a new home is complete. Please visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog - is the new URL. If you are reading this on RSS, is the new feed. Please also update your bookmarks!

This site will remain as an archive of the site, though no new comments will be allowed, and no new posts will be put up here. Thanks to everyone for making this blog the leading source of information for the California High Speed Rail project since March 2008. On to the new home!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Why An HSR Design Competition Is An Excellent Idea

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

One tried and true practice for designing projects with a great deal of public interest - and public controversy - is to hold a design competition. Many important public memorials have been designed this way, including the Berlin Holocaust Memorial and the World Trade Center Memorial in lower Manhattan.

Such competitions serve several purposes. They open the often contentious process of designing important yet potentially divisive projects to public scrutiny, enabling the public to participate in the selection process (therefore making them more invested in the project itself, instead of as bombthrowers from the sidelines). They also help people see what is possible and what is desirable in a particular project by having architects imagine new and interesting ways to design the project. Instead of an abstract concept or a feared design, like the "Berlin Wall" on the Peninsula, people can see something that interests them, inspires them, and gets them to see the project not as a threat but as a possibility for welcome change, an opportunity to do something new, interesting, useful, but that meets their own goals and desires.

It is in that vein that calls for an HSR design contest on the Peninsula are such a welcome development:

Joseph Bellomo has a simple proposal for the California High-Speed Rail Authority: Leave the design of the proposed high-speed rail to the world's brightest designers.

Bellomo, a Palo Alto architect whose projects emphasize modular construction, energy efficiency and sustainable design, laments that the design of the controversial 800-mile rail line has so far been dominated by teams of engineers, each working on a separate segment of the line.

So while other local architects, urban planners and concerned residents are busy lobbying the state for underground tunnels, Bellomo advocates a different approach for selecting the design of the proposed line -- an international design competition.

Last month, Bellomo sent a letter to the rail authority, the state agency charged with building the $45 billion rail line, proposing a two-tiered international competition in which architects and designers from around the world would send in proposed designs for the entire line. The proposals would be narrowed to three finalists whose ideas would be further developed.

"The only way to get good design, holistic design, is through competition," Bellomo said.

I'm not as convinced that we need a design competition for the entire route, but a design competition for some elements of the project, including the Peninsula Corridor, makes quite a lot of sense. It would help make the CHSRA seem like less of an outside invader and more of a facilitator of modern designs for a modern urban landscape, allowing residents and architects and planners to come together to present innovative designs appropriate to the location.

This is especially valuable on the Peninsula because the objections to HSR there are almost entirely aesthetic (though they're rooted in deeper issues of economic opportunity and a desire of some to protect what they have at the expense of others). The desire for a tunnel is driven by the conviction that an elevated structure designed by CHSRA will merely resemble a giant freeway. As we've shown before, above-grade HSR tracks can be built elegantly, blending well with their surrounding urban environment. A design competition can show ways to build HSR that meet both the operational criteria of the CHSRA and the other criteria of local HSR supporters. Such a design competition will never silence the hardcore HSR deniers, but that isn't the purpose here.

Bellomo isn't just calling for a design competition in the abstract. He is also offering his own idea, which you can find at his site (scroll down about halfway to find the HSR section). His proposal is for what he's calling a "solar corridor", an elevated track with a steel enclosure that holds photovoltaic solar panels. His Peninsula design leaves two Caltrain tracks at-grade, allowing for its electrification, and a either a single or double track in the elevated viaduct. In some ways this resembles Rafael's La Vitrine concept from back in March, though with important differences.

I can't say I'm sold on the Bellomo concept. And it's unclear whether the visual impact of the "ribs" would be embraced by the locals. Also left unstated is what happens to the at-grade tracks at existing grade crossings. But I am glad to see him giving some thought to how to implement HSR along the Peninsula.

His idea of an HSR design competition for selected segments of the route is a very wise idea. It won't solve everything, but it is worth embracing.

NOTE: Tonight's the night for the switch to the new blog. Take the chance to update your bookmarks. If you haven't already registered a username, please do so - it'll make your posting life much easier.

This site will remain as an archive, but comments will be closed as of tonight, 10PM Pacific. Unless of course something goes wrong in the transfer.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving Open Thread

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Enjoy your holiday, everyone!

I'm staying here in Monterey for the occasion, as I can't imagine a better place to spend a long weekend. But many Californians have taken to the crowded roads this week, an 8% increase over last Thanksgiving (on the roads, at least). I'm sure a lot of them could have used a high speed train option for their in-state travels.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Unsafe At Any Speed

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There are at least four families in Palo Alto who will be having a less joyous Thanksgiving this year - four families touched by the tragedy of suicide. This year, four teenagers have committed suicide by walking in front of Caltrain locomotives on the at-grade section of the tracks near Gunn High School.

Now, a group of Palo Alto parents are pushing a petition to demand Caltrain slow down to a 5 mph crawl between West Meadow and Charleston Road in Palo Alto:

We ask Caltrain to implement a schedule, effective immediately, of slowing all trains from West Meadow to Charleston to a speed of 5 MPH in order to prevent further suicides on the tracks in this area.

In preparing this request our research has turned up a number of facts that support this measure.

1. They will not go elsewhere. Research has shown that individuals bent on suicide at a hot spot will not simply move further down the tracks. See links.
2. If you restrict access to the ‘means’ you will reduce the number of incidents. It has been proven that even a small impediment at a suicide hot spot reduces the number of incidents at that spot. This is why we are also watching the tracks. We believe that this vigilance, in combination with slower trains will reduce the number of incidents and perhaps stop them.
3. In the case of a suicide hot spot the threshold for the individuals who may be considering suicide is lowered. This is especially true for teens . This means the existence of the hot spot and access to it is increasing the number of incidents.
4. Although teen suicide has many possible causes and there are many preventive measures we may take as a community, slowing the trains is a short term solution.

Although a train at 5mph may be no less deadly, we believe it will be less attractive while giving us the chance to clear the tracks and giving the driver time to stop.

Currently it takes the commuter trains less than a second to clear the crossing at 60mph. At 5mph this would increase to approximately 4 seconds, a negligible delay for drivers when compared with a human life.

Slower trains will reduce the allure of this area, allow time for track watchers to clear the tracks, and give Caltrain engineers the chance to stop the train if necessary. Most importantly, slower trains now will give us time as a community to work together in launching a multi factorial effort to curb teen depression and suicide over the long term.

Caltrain takes these suicides, and any other safety hazard along the tracks, extremely seriously. And it's hard to fault parents who want their kids to experience safe conditions.

That being said, you might as well stop the trains entirely if you're going to insist they crawl through at 5 mph. I don't know if this is a good short-term solution or not, but it is clearly not a long-term solution for either the parents, Gunn students, or Caltrain.

It's difficult for transit infrastructure to be designed in a way that can stop someone truly determined to kill themselves from doing so, as the Golden Gate Bridge and BART have discovered. That being said, this rash of suicides reminds us of the inherently dangerous nature of grade crossings where fast, heavy trains are operating. (Light rails and streetcars have potential issues - but then so does any other vehicle operated on the roads.)

Back in June this blog asked why the death toll of at-grade rail crossings was being excluded from the conversation about high speed rail on the Peninsula. The fact is that Caltrain on the Peninsula as it stands right now - at-grade through a densely populated urban area - is unsafe at any speed. A 5 mph slow order is no lasting solution to the problem of how to operate a modern passenger railroad safely through such a landscape.

Some may accuse me of "politicizing" the issue. But it has already been "politicized," long ago, by those who argue that their own property values and their own personal, idiosyncratic vision of urban aesthetics and what their community should "feel" like trumps the safety needs of the general population, including Gunn students.

"Politics" is the process by which individuals and groups make collective decisions, and how they weigh competing needs and desires. Right now in Palo Alto, there is a politics that prioritizes preserving the status quo over providing for safe, affordable, reliable, clean, and economically stimulating passenger rail. Whether the tracks go over or under the grade crossings, it is clear that the status quo for Caltrain and Palo Alto no longer works.

The community needs to come together to find a long-term solution to make the railroad as safe as possible, balancing that against the need for that railroad to continue operating at improved efficiency. They need to recognize that while there is no way to provide for perfect safety, some ideas, like grade separations, are such obvious parts of the solution that anyone who argues against them out of a desire to preserve their own pocketbook or their own sense of aesthetics should be, at best, questioned relentlessly about their priorities.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Tuesday Open Thread

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

Some items as I get things squared away for the holiday weekend:

Further evidence that there is a greater demand for HSR than the federal government has been able to satisfy so far. Given the need for further jobs stimulus, it would make sense for the White House and Congress to consider fully funding all $50 billion in HSR stimulus applications as a method of growing jobs in the near-term.

Monday, November 23, 2009

California Leaders Call for HSR Funding to Create Jobs

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

This is a welcome letter:

In an effort to deal with California's spiraling unemployment rate, Gov. Schwarzenegger and the state's two senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, sent a letter Monday to President Obama urging funding of the state's high-speed rail project and improvements in its intercity rail service.

They urged Obama to fund the projects through federal stimulus funds, the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

"With unemployment in California reaching 12.5 percent – the highest unemployment rate in nearly 70 years – the impact of providing 130,000 construction-related jobs statewide cannot be understated," the letter said.

As talk ramps up of a "second stimulus" in the form of a job creation bill, and as the jobs crisis continues to worsen, high speed rail funding becomes all that much more important to California and the nation's economic recovery. California simply cannot have recovery without jobs in sustainable infrastructure, and we aren't going to have a long-lasting recovery if we don't start moving away from oil dependence. And the nation as a whole cannot have meaningful economic recovery if California, a major part of the national economy, is lagging behind and mired in high unemployment.

Given that over $50 billion in HSR funding applications were submitted to the FRA for only $8 billion in available funds - all of it for projects meeting the federal guidelines of being "shovel ready" by September 2012 - the Obama Administration and the Congress ought to strongly consider fully funding every HSR application as part of its job creation efforts. There's no reason states should be fighting against each other for that money, since many of the states applying have significant job creation needs of their own.

UPDATE: The complete letter:

November 23, 2009

The President
The White House
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President,

We write in strong support of California’s applications for high-speed and intercity rail funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). California has led the nation in its commitment to creating a statewide high-speed rail system.

Our state has been a leader and innovator in addressing environmental and transportation challenges on a national level. Last November, California voters approved nearly $9 billion in state bonds for high-speed rail construction, far outpacing other states’ efforts to secure local and state funding for these projects. California has completed design and planning for the nearly 800-mile system and made significant progress on the environmental review, making our state uniquely qualified to employ federal funding quickly.

California’s high-speed rail applications have broad support across the state, with backing from leading business, environmental and labor leaders. The California Chamber of Commerce, the Labor Federation of California and the Sierra Club have all endorsed California’s applications for funding. The success of California’s high-speed rail system is enormously important to our state. High-speed rail will help ease congestion and improve air quality. With unemployment in California reaching 12.5 percent – the highest unemployment rate in nearly 70 years – the impact of providing 130,000 construction-related jobs statewide cannot be understated.

We appreciate your attention to the needs of California and thank you for your commitment to this important issue. We stand ready to work with your administration in the coming years to ensure that high-speed rail has the resources necessary to continue to be a national priority.


Barbara Boxer
Dianne Feinstein
Arnold Schwarzenegger

Good framing, good letter. Kudos to all three for writing this.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sunday Open Thread

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

Busy Sunday for me, so please use this as an open thread for anything HSR related.

I do also want to give an update on the new site. I'd like to invite you all to come test the new California High Speed Rail Blog. Right now there's a test post, and a copy of yesterday's post on LA-SD scoping comments. Please take a look around and leave a comment about what you think, especially in terms of layout. I will be making the final switchover during the Thanksgiving break.

Some notes:

1. The header needs to be fixed. I have barely any CSS or PHP skills, and I need to find a way to move the search box into the menubar and render the header image in the CSS properly. Help on this would be greatly appreciated.

2. ALL posts and comments from this blog will be imported over to the new one. Until yesterday I had been keeping a running import of all posts and comments, but the most recent update import wound up duplicating all existing posts. So I decided that the easiest thing to do will be to import everything at once, during the upcoming long weekend. Nothing from this blog - not one post, not one comment - will be lost.

3. This site will be kept as an archive, but no new posts or comments will be made.

4. You may wish to register your username. I am not going to require people be registered to post, but I will prevent people from using "Anonymous" as a username. Pick something, even if it's a pseudonym.

5. Any unforeseen problems may result in delay of switchover.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

CA4HSR Submits LA-SD Scoping Comments

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Yesterday was the deadline to submit scoping comments to the California High Speed Rail Authority for the Los Angeles to San Diego project segment. Californians For High Speed Rail submitted the following comments to the CHSRA regarding the route and station choices. You can read the whole document here, and below I excerpt the main elements.

CA4HSR - Los Angeles to San Diego Scoping Comments

Note that the first part of the comment letter are planning guidelines that emphasize station locations should be considered with respect to walkability of surrounding area, opportunities for transit-oriented development (TOD), and easy connectivity to existing and planned mass transit. These principles guided the comments on stations and alignments.

Inland Empire

  • All corridors from LA to Riverside County should be studied, except Metrolink corridor from LAUS to Ontario Airport. City of Industry station should be considered for elimination - not a good site for TOD nor is it easily walkable for residents. Locate Ontario Airport HSR station adjacent to air terminal.

  • Continue to study stations in downtown San Bernardino (Santa Fe Depot) and downtown Riverside, due to surrounding population, TOD opportunities, transit connectivity.

  • Do not further study I-15 alignment/Corona Station due to lack of large urban centers, higher population along I-215 alignment. Do not further study March AFB station due to lack of walkable, dense, TOD opportunities.

San Diego

  • Study both Escondido options (city center and I-15). For I-15 alignment, however, move transit center and Sprinter station to I-15 adjacent location and promote TOD around it.

  • Do not further study or include station in University City along existing Rose Canyon rails. Consider University Towne Center station, and consider a bored tunnel under it to bypass Rose Canyon. However, also consider eliminating this station due to 24 station limit.

  • Consider new alignments to bring HSR from I-15 to I-5 corridor, including SR-56, SR-163 to SR-52, and SR-163 to I-8.

  • Qualcomm Stadium should only be studied if it is part of an alignment to downtown San Diego (Santa Fe Depot), significant TOD at Qualcomm Stadium, and elimination of possibility of sending trains to Tijuana via I-805. This would basically be another route to downtown, and downtown SD is the key in these comments.

  • Opposes ending HSR at airport terminal. Instead proposes "dual stations" - one at airport and one downtown (Santa Fe Depot); or just downtown SD without an airport stop.

Friday, November 20, 2009

How Will the FRA Decide?

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As we await the Federal Railroad Administration's decision on awarding the $8 billion in HSR stimulus funds, some observers are wondering how exactly the projects will be selected - and what the role of merit and politics will be. Over at Railway Age, editor William Vantuono suggests the FRA will be caught between those two considerations:

Let’s assume two things. First, Administrator Szabo has every intention of sticking to the letter of the law, and to the intent of the program, by awarding project grants based on merit. Second, any program involving government dollars is going to involve politics. That’s just the way it is. Anyone who doesn’t believe this needs a serious reality check.

In the case of HSR—actually, “HrSR” (“higher speed” rail, incremental improvements to existing freight rail corridors to enable 90-125 mph passenger trains)—the political game-playing will mostly come from the states. Case in point: A project in one Midwest state, we’re told, does not meet all the FRA’s criteria, in terms of project management, environmental and ridership studies, financial plan, technical score, etc. The state agency in charge of submitting the grant application asked the FRA for guidance. The FRA basically said, “You don’t meet the criteria; don’t submit the application.” We’re told, however, that this state’s Republican governor ordered the agency to submit the application anyway. Why? Because if it’s rejected, the governor can go to his constituents and claim that the Democrats running Washington won’t give his state the funds for a project that will create jobs.

Partisan politics as usual? Of course. Did you expect anything different?

There's much less doubt about whether California's HSR project meets the criteria - it clearly does, AND it has widespread political support from the Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Vice-President Joe Biden, and the California Congressional delegation which, after all, includes the Speaker of the House. It is certain that California will get a big chunk of the stimulus money.

But how big? That's where these issues of the merit and politics of other HSR proposals will affect us in California. We submitted a $4.5 billion request, but can really only expect to get $3-$4 billion. Where we fall in that range will depend on how the FRA and the White House decide to allocate the rest of the money. If they feel the need to keep Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, and Florida happy (states that were key to Obama's 2008 victory and will be key to his 2012 reelection bid) then we may have to make do with $3 billion and not $4 billion. It's highly unlikely, of course, that they'll give it all to California.

As sources have described the FRA decision-making process to me, the FRA will determine which CA HSR projects get stimulus funding. It won't be a case of them giving us a set amount of money for us to use as we see fit. They may choose to fund the Central Valley test line (Merced-Fresno and Fresno-Bakersfield) and LA-Anaheim and not fund SF-San Jose. Which is actually what I expect will happen.

What I hope we avoid is a situation where CA gets less than $3 billion because Obama feels the need to shore up his position in some of those states I mentioned. Given the amount of stimulus money applied for - around $50 billion from 24 states - there will be the temptation to squeeze California. Especially since it's easy for those other 23 states to whine about California hogging all the money.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Sustainable Menlo Park Speaker Series

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By Bianca

On November 18, the non-profit group Sustainable Menlo Park hosted a presentation on the latest developments on high speed rail. Sustainable Menlo Park is officially "neutral" on the subject of High Speed Rail, but decided to host the event due to local interest in the subject. On the podium were Bruce Fukuji of Caltrain, John Litzinger of HNTB, and Greg Gleichman of AECOM. Turnout at the event was low; there was not a lot of publicity beforehand, and there were perhaps 30 people in attendance. Much of the information had been presented in prior events, but here are a few notes:

Bruce Fukuji made a presentation on Context Sensitive Solutions for the Peninsula. He began, however, by reminding everyone in the room of the big picture: the looming challenge of sustainability. California has led the nation on climate change targets, but meeting future emissions targets is going to be a challenge. He noted that 42% of carbon emissions in California are transportation-related. Even with improvements in fuel efficiency, an expanding population will result in an increase in vehicle miles traveled. Population growth will more than cancel out improvements in combustion-engine technology. It will be impossible to reach our emissions targets simply by relying on hybrids and increases in fuel efficiency. He used the following graph to illustrate the relationship between urban density and gasoline consumption:

Fukuji then went on to discuss the development of Context Sensitive Solutions as a reaction to the DAD model of planning (Design, Announce, Defend). He also explained the concept of "value engineering" and how there is a need to give the functional needs and the context needs equal weight.

The next speaker was John Litzinger from HNTB. He gave a detailed overview of the EIR process, and noted that the goal is to have a fully approved and final EIR at the end of 2011.
During the Q&A session, Litzinger commented that the engineering studies around crossing San Francisquito Creek may likely determine that a bored tunnel is the preferred alignment for engineering reasons; crossing the creek and the approach to El Palo Alto at grade or in a shallow trench is problematic. This may explain why CHSRA representatives at recent meetings have seemed open to tunneling through much of Menlo Park and Palo Alto; if CHSRA engineers conclude that the best way to cross San Francisquito is in a deep tunnel, it may be that Menlo Park and Palo Alto may get some of their tunnel without having to fight for it. I should clarify that this was not in any way an official announcement, just the musings of an engineer. The vast majority of questions from the audience related to tunnels. In some cases, audience members didn't really have questions, they just wanted to state their preference for a tunnel. None of them had any suggestions for how to pay for it.

The last question of the night had to do with subsidies. The questioner stated his premise that all High Speed Rail systems around the world are dependent on subsidies. Litzinger responded by distinguishing the costs of the building the initial infrastructure from the costs of maintenance and expansion. High Speed Rail, like every other form of transportation infrastructure, depends upon government subsidy for construction. After an adoption period to build ridership, all High Speed Rail systems cover their maintenance and expansion costs. Litzinger then noted that High Speed Rail is the opposite of freeways; both need subsidies for construction, but afterwards, High Speed Rail covers its own maintenance and expansion costs, whereas freeways don't charge anything to users and rely entirely on taxpayers forever.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Biggest Obstacle to HSR in California

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For most people looking at California's high speed rail project, the biggest obstacle to its completion would seem to be financial. Prop 1A has put $9 billion on the table to get the project started. We can expect $3 to $4 billion from the federal HSR stimulus. The cost of the first route, SF to LA and Anaheim, is likely to be around $30 billion, leaving about $17 billion left to secure. Most of that is expected to come from ongoing federal contributions, some from local governments, and some from private investors.

And yet, as Robert Goodspeed points out, that may not actually be the main problem facing HSR in California. Instead, he argues, it is a land use planning process that is unable to deliver these kinds of projects quickly and affordably:

Ironically, the California system is demonstrating the biggest problems for high speed rail in the U.S. may not be our lack of technical knowledge but our troubled infrastructure planning and delivery system. Disputes about alignments in California have already spawned lawsuits. Maybe beyond ogling their trains, we should study how our foreign counterparts resolve conflicts about system design. In one case study I read about planning a TGV line in France, the government convened a "debate" bringing together the stakeholders before choosing an alignment or other technical details. In the U.S. on the other hand, government agencies act both as project designers and boosters, relegating other stakeholders to reactionary roles as outsiders who rely on lawsuits to pursue their interests. In addition, our government agencies are also lacking in competent planners and administrators who specialize in rail. In the end, dysfunctional planning processes and weak planning capacity may result in avoidable cost overruns. Overcoming these obstacles may prove even more challenging than finding the historically elusive political will.

Goodspeed's analysis of how other stakeholders wind up being placed in "reactionary roles as outsiders" is quite insightful. Then again, that is precisely how planning in California is intended to be. CEQA is set up on the theory that government construction projects are bad, are threatening, and that stakeholders are already in a reactionary, even adversarial position. CEQA was written with a 1970s logic, reacting to a 1960s California Department of Highways that really did behave as a giant bulldozer not giving a crap about what anyone else in the state thought of its route choices, neighborhood impacts, or environmental consequences.

CEQA wasn't designed to promote smart, sustainable growth. It was written to enable people like Gary Patton to have legal recourse to stop projects they don't like, no matter the reason. The mentality is one that assumes the status quo is just fine, that the cost of doing nothing is actually zero - if a project isn't built, no problem, we didn't really need it anyway.

California's planning process should not be a tool for NIMBYs to stop projects they dislike. It should be a vehicle for public involvement in a project development, and to ensure that a project does not cause damage to the environment. CEQA currently fails to meet these objectives.

I'm not the only one making this point. SPUR, the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, came to the same conclusion. In a 2006 report titled Fixing the California Environmental Quality Act they argued that CEQA has failed to meet its objectives, has actually made environmental problems worse, and that it should be replaced in urban and suburban settings with a statewide planning process along the successful path blazed by states like Oregon and Washington:

In the absence of strong statewide planning and in the presence of weak local planning, stopping projects is what California does best. CEQA has become the tool of choice for stopping bad ones and good ones. SPUR has reviewed CEQA from the standpoint of sound planning and environmental quality. We contend that after the law’s 30-plus years of operation, the type and pattern of developments, viewed at citywide, regional, and state scales, are environmentally worse than before. Not all of this can be blamed on CEQA; it has improved individual project design in some cases. Yet viewed broadly, CEQA has contributed to sprawl and worsened the housing shortage by inhibiting dense infill development far more than local planning and zoning would have done alone. To re-form California, we must first reform CEQA....

Our neighbors to the north provide a dramatic model for change. At almost the same moment that California turned to environmental impact reports to protect its environment, Oregon turned to a strengthened planning program, requiring effective local plans and zoning by all jurisdictions. Oregon has protected and greatly improved its natural environment without review of individual projects, but with sound intergovernmental planning. The recent property-rights crusade that passed compensatory zoning at the Oregon ballot box does not lessen the fact that the Oregon environment remains one of the most pristine in the country.

High speed rail should be assessed and planned in a statewide context. Instead, it is assessed in a town-by-town setting, totally divorced from statewide concerns, and even from local urban plans. As a result, sprawl has accelerated over the 40 years since CEQA's adoption, and it has become progressively more difficult to build sustainable infill projects, whether it is housing or mass transit, as the CEQA process empowers people to stop something they dislike, even when doing so causes significant environmental damage.

The alternative to CEQA reform is that more and more projects will simply be exempted by the state legislature from CEQA review. In fact, back in 1982, once and future governor Jerry Brown signed into a law a high speed train bill exempting the project from CEQA review. (The project eventually fell apart in 1983 for various reasons.) More recently, the landmark state planning law SB 375 signed by Arnold Schwarzenegger last year provides CEQA exemptions for certain kinds of infill urban housing projects that meet the AB 32 global warming guidelines.

Using the legislature to provide the occasional CEQA exemption isn't good planning. But it's what happens when the CEQA process is no longer functional. Rather than exempting HSR from CEQA - which, to be very clear, I am not advocating at this time, we should adopt the successful urban planning models used in states like Washington and Oregon that provide for regional and statewide planning processes that still give the public a chance to weigh in, still protect the environment, but don't come at the cost of prolonging a reckless dependence on sprawl and oil. Already the CHSRA is exploring a statewide planning effort, although it is not intended to supplant CEQA.

Of course, even if we did this, not everyone would buy into it. Those who still adhere to the 1970s "government is bad! there's no downside to killing projects!" attitudes will try and undermine a more sensible planning process in service of their own parochial ends. In fact, they're already doing it, as shown by this John Horgan column:

Belatedly, some citizens are raising alarms. It may be too late. The High-Speed Rail Authority has its own agenda, its own priorities, its own budgetary issues — and a great deal of power.

Input from county residents is being collected at countless public gatherings by the vast public relations armada on the authority's payroll. The panel's latest tactic is something called "context sensitive solutions."

Unsurprisingly, this actually reveals the depth of Horgan's ignorance. CSS wasn't something the CHSRA decided all on its own to use. It was pushed onto CHSRA by the very citizens Horgan claims to be speaking for, who demanded CSS be used on the Peninsula.

I'm still not convinced that the broken planning process is the "biggest obstacle" to HSR in California. I still believe the biggest obstacle is actually the unwillingness of the remaining beneficiaries of the 20th century model of economic prosperity and land use to accept any change in that model, regardless of the consequences. The opposition to properly funding HSR, and the breaking of the CEQA process, are both symptoms of that deeper problem.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Reality Check Must Be Grounded In Reality

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It's a bold headline from my alma mater: "A Reality Check on High Speed Rail" is how UC Berkeley bills a recent HSR symposium. Already Morris Brown is peddling this as yet another reason why HSR is terrible and doomed to fail. Morris wants us to not dismiss the symposium lightly. OK, I'll dismiss it heavily:

Even if high-speed rail attracted everyone who drove and flew between the Los Angeles basin and the San Francisco Bay Area during the year 2007, it would amount to only eight million passengers per year, nowhere near the numbers projected by the California High Speed Rail Authority, explained CEE professor Mark Hansen. But even that estimate is optimistic. HSR would be extremely unlikely to capture most current air travelers due to lack of transportation connectivity in most California cities and regions.

“In Europe and Japan, where HSR has been especially successful, it is a very simple thing to take a subway to the HSR station, go upstairs and get on the bullet train,” explained Madanat. For example, access to Eurostar—the HSR system that passes under the English Channel to link Britain with mainland Europe—is easy and car-less; a typical business passenger traveling from London arrives in downtown Paris in two-and-a-half hours and can walk or take the Métro from the same station to his or her meeting. This connectivity, or short access and egress time, is essential to the success of high-speed rail, and California has very little of it.

Oh really? This would be an accurate statement if HSR stations were going to be built on the edges of city centers. But they're not. The two key endpoints will be directly in the center of the existing mass transit networks in the state: SF Transbay Terminal and LA Union Station. Both are already served by an impressive amount of mass transit, and if Antonio Villaraigosa gets his way, LAUS in particular could be reachable from West LA and much of the San Gabriel Valley by passenger rail by the time HSR opens to SF. As anyone who is even remotely familiar with both SF and LA knows, Transbay Terminal and Union Station are both far more accessible, in a shorter period of time, than slogging through traffic on the freeways to LAX or even Burbank.

We can look to the Acela as an example. The Acela is a successful HSR route. It generates operating surpluses and has no trouble attracting riders. Sure, it helps that NYC has an excellent mass transit system. Washington D.C.'s system is pretty good, built in a very similar way to BART. Stations are located in the centers of both cities, even though DC has an easily accessible airport just across the river from downtown. Suburban DC is very car-centric, as is much of NYC outside the five boroughs, and that hasn't hurt the Acela either.

The presenters at the UCB symposium are not being realistic when they dismiss CA has having "very little" connectivity. Even in cities where the network still has some work to do, like San José (a stop they do not mention), the HSR station will be located very near to the airport (and is actually closer to downtown than the airport), putting both on an equal footing. And unlike SJC, Diridon Station has a stop on the VTA light rail line.

Of course, as Joey pointed out in the comments to yesterday's post, the UCB symposium seems to have neglected the fact that HSR isn't just serving SF and LA, and includes places like San José, Fresno, and Bakersfield, where HSR would still be a compelling choice even without mass transit connectivity.

In short, their theory that HSR ridership depends on mass transit options CA lacks doesn't seem to hold water.

Travelers heading to Los Angeles from San Francisco, for example, will consider the time it takes to go to and from airports at each end of the trip, versus the time spent getting to a high-speed rail station. Time spent on the line-haul portion of the trip (actual flying or riding time) is more productive than the access and egress portions. But if access and egress times from HSR stations are as long and onerous as those for air, passengers will save time by driving to an airport instead.

“High-speed rail trades unproductive access and egress time for productive line-haul time,” explained Madanat. That is advantageous to travelers, and they are willing to spend an extra hour or more in line-haul time if egress and access time are diminished. Air travel between some cities in Japan has become nonexistent, thanks to the ease of traveling by high-speed rail.

I'm sorry, but Madanat is just plain wrong here. The unproductive access and egress time belongs entirely to airplanes, at least in California. He does not appear to have included the ridiculous security theater involved in air travel that adds up to a half hour to travel times. TSA recommends people arrive two hours before a domestic flight. Add in the travel to LA-area airports, none of which have good mass transit connections (whereas LAUS is the hub of the entire Southern California mass transit network), and it is not conceivable to me that HSR is at a disadvantage in terms of travel times. If anything it is likely to have an advantage, or would be comparable, which is all it really needs to be.

Again, we can look at reality to demonstrate the point: if HSR was such a bad deal, why does the Acela have half the market share on the Northeast Corridor? Madanat apparently didn't speak to actual Acela users:

Barry Ginsberg of Deer Park, N.Y., boarded an Acela train after a meeting in Washington.

"It's a lot less hassle and more comfortable," Ginsberg says. "When you figure how much in advance you have to get to the airport, it's a lot more convenient."

So there's another strike against the "reality check."

The other piece of the symposium report deals with emissions, and claims that HSR won't actually be the cleantech wonder we expect:

Proponents of California high-speed rail tout its energy-saving, greenhouse gas–eliminating characteristics. But panelist Arpad Hovath, also a CEE professor, reported on research showing that, unless ridership is very high, rail cannot perform better than air travel. To compare the carbon footprint of rail with air or driving, he explained, far more than just tailpipe emissions must be taken into account.

Horvath’s life-cycle analysis of the three modes suggests that high-speed rail will produce some 10 million metric tons of CO2 per year during construction. Furthermore, electricity to run the trains must be generated from coal-fired plants, leading to additional greenhouse gas emissions once HSR is operational.

Except that Horvath didn't mention the reality that the CHSRA has mandated that its trains will be powered by alternative, renewable sources to the maximum extent possible, with the goal being generation from 100% renewables. CHSRA's very existence helps bring online that capacity, by providing a guaranteed buyer of solar and wind power.

Horvath's assumptions also assume that ridership will be low. It will take about five years to reach the projected ridership levels (which is why many of CHSRA's projections are for 2030, not 2020), but once you're there, HSR will produce the reduced carbon footprint we expect.

He also charges that the construction alone will generate 10 million metric tons of CO2 per year. Maybe it will. But the cost of doing nothing is not zero. Even those tons of CO2 are a worthwhile investment for long-term significant reductions in CO2, since without HSR CO2 emissions are either going to continue rising and drown us in rising seas, or they'll crash totally without any alternative method of transportation when the oil gives out. And no, this symposium report does not mention "peak oil" at all. If it was discussed, UCB didn't see fit to mention it.

Oh, and the symposium report got in one last shot that Morris Brown, Stuart Flashman, and the PCL will just love:

Changes in alignment could help build ridership early, Madanat said. By switching the Northern California route from Pacheco Pass to Altamont, many more potential riders from fast-growing areas of Contra Costa and Alameda counties could be lured away from air travel.

Or Madanat could have mentioned the Altamont HSR corridor that the CHSRA is planning, which will bring the very kind of "connectivity" he claimed those potential riders needed in the form of a much faster ACE train.

Now it's possible that the problem here is with the staff producing the UC College of Engineering newsletter in which this article appeared. They didn't have to frame it as "reality check" and there may have been a more balanced discussion than what the article presented.

Still, it's a pretty lame "reality check," especially since it doesn't actually consider the realities I described above.

UPDATE: In fact, that's what seems to have happened. Alon Levy in the comments points to a post by Andy Nash about the symposium, which was apparently far more balanced, insightful, and useful than the UCB newsletter made it appear:

Professor Carlos Daganzo gave the first presentation. He showed convincingly how high speed rail can bring down the total cost of travel given the expected increase in travel demand combined with the HSR's decreasing cost per passenger model. This means that there is a very strong case for subsidizing high speed rail in the early stages of development, since it will improve the overall transport system....

Professor Mark Hansen spoke next. Hansen looked at the relationship of HSR to air travel. He believes that with HSR the air travel market will become less competitive and that the reduction in flights will be most evident in secondary airports (only a small share of SFO, LAX and SAN flights are intra-state ... although they use more than their share of capacity since they are generally smaller planes)....

Professor Robert Cervero proposed four lessons for California: (1) station siting is critical, building stations in freeway medians or surrounded by free parking will lead to more sprawl development and greater driving; (2) feeder systems are important for solving the "last mile" problem, extended TOD corridors are a good solution; (3) TOD as a necklace of pearls (e.g. like Copenhagen's approach) would be excellent, but California's current planning regime does not support this approach; (4) joint development must be high quality and pedestrian-oriented, studies of joint development in Hong Kong show that these types of joint development can be much more effective than the alternative basic systems.

So now the question is, why the biased report by the UCB "Innovations" newsletter?!

Monday, November 16, 2009

HSR Should Go Where the People Are

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

(Rafael helped with some of the research for this post. The words and interpretations are mine, so don't blame him for any errors or controversial statements.)

In some ways, the California High Speed Rail project has been a bit too successful in selling itself to voters. The project's emphasis - and, at times, my own - has been on getting people from the SF Bay Area to Southern California in just over 2 1/2 hours. Although this blog has frequently discussed the other areas served by the trains, we haven't always given them equal weight in the basic framing of the project. HSR is and has always intended to be more than just connecting two endpoints. It also connects some of California's fastest-growing cities, particularly those in the San Joaquin Valley.

Not surprisingly, when some people want to find a place to criticize the CHSRA and the HSR project, they point to the route choice between San José and Los Angeles. Some argue that HSR should follow I-5 through the Valley and over the Grapevine. And many of those commenters argue that the CHSRA's failure to pick such a route is either a sign of their incompetence or their complicity with big bad sprawl developers.

These comments crop up often enough that it seemed worth devoting a post to debunking such nonsense.

The basic flaw with the "use I-5" claims, whether they refer to the San Joaquin Valley, the Grapevine, or both, is that they argue for bypassing between 2.5 and 3 million people. There is no good reason to do so. Given that the system needs all the riders it can get to pencil out financially, it is absurd to send the route through completely empty land along Interstate 5 and ignore the populations along the CA-99 or CA-14 corridors.

Especially when those corridors desperately need an intercity alternative. The Highway 99 corridor is notoriously congested throughout much of the Valley, as it is the region's primary transportation route. An increasing number of both trucks and cars use the route, and more will do so if and when economic recovery comes to the Valley. A 2005 estimate showed it would cost $25 billion to bring Highway 99 up to Interstate standards and handle the projected traffic loads. HSR can be built through the Valley for a lower cost but can provide for the movement of people (and improve the movement of goods, especially through projects like Fresno rail consolidation) in a way that can make the widening and upgrading of Highway 99 less necessary.

There's also an environmental reason: the San Joaquin Valley has some of the worst air quality in the nation. HSR will play a major role in addressing that.

The Central Valley is going to see increased population growth during this century. The question whether it'll be sprawl or whether it'll be dense urban infill. HSR can help support infill development by providing opportunities for transit-oriented development. City center stations would help pull growth inward instead of push it outward.

The CHSRA's route FAQ has some more good info on the CA-99 route:

The I-5 corridor has very little existing or projected population between the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles. In contrast, according to the California Department of Finance, well over 3 million residents are projected to live between Fresno and Bakersfield along the SR-99 corridor by 2015, which directly serves all the major Central Valley cities. Residents along the SR-99 corridor lack a competitive transportation alternative to the automobile, and detailed ridership analysis shows that they would be ideal candidates to use a high-speed train system. The I-5 corridor would not be compatible with current land use planning in the Central Valley that accommodates growth in the communities along the SR-99 corridor.

Express trains in the SR-99 corridor would connect San Francisco to Fresno in just 1 hr and 20 min, and Fresno to Los Angeles in 1 hr and 24 min. This corridor would link San Francisco to Bakersfield in about 1 hr and 50 min, and Bakersfield to Los Angeles in 54 min. The SR-99 corridor was estimated to have 3.3 million more intermediate-market ridership (passengers to or from the Central Valley) per year than the highest I-5 corridor projections (CRA 1999). Therefore, while SR-99 corridor travel times would be 11 to 16 min longer than the I-5 alternatives between Los Angeles and San Francisco, overall ridership and revenue for the SR-99 corridor would be higher.

Similarly, the case for Palmdale and against the I-5/Grapevine alignment is compelling. In addition to the fact that Palmdale/Lancaster has just under 500,000 people right now, whereas hardly any live along I-5 north of Castaic, there is the inescapable geological fact that the Tehachapi Pass is flatter, less seismically risky, and cheaper to construct than the extremely hilly I-5 corridor. The I-5/Grapevine route would require individual tunnels of 6 miles in length, more overall miles of tunneling, and would come closer to the seismically unstable junction of the Garlock and San Andreas Faults, one of the more dangerous of California's numerous faults. Typically, you want to cross faults at-grade and not in a tunnel, which is very difficult on the Grapevine route. See more in the CHSRA Tunneling Report.

The time difference is estimated at 12 minutes between Grapevine and Tehachapi, which isn't nothing, but neither is it a huge sacrifice, given the fact that Tehachapi is cheaper, more seismically stable, and serves more people.

Combine all this with the fact that there are forecast to be 1 million people in the Antelope Valley by 2020 (even if that isn't reached, there will be more growth here, as in the San Joaquin Valley), and it makes it clear that here as well, HSR should go where the people are. Even if the Tejon Ranch housing development is actually built, there still won't be as many people as in the Palmdale/Lancaster area.

Quoting again from the CHSRA route FAQ:

The most significant difference in regards to potential environmental impacts between the Antelope Valley option and I-5 alignments is in regards to major parklands. The Antelope Valley alignment would not go through major parks. In contrast, the I-5 options would potentially impact Fort Tejon Historic Park, Angeles and Los Padres National Forests, Hungry Valley State Vehicular Recreation Area, Pyramid Lake and other local parks. The Antelope Valley alignment would also have a lower overall potential for water-related impacts, less potential impacts to wetlands and non-wetland waters, and was forecast to have less impacts on urbanized land and farmland conversion than the I-5 options (because the I-5 options would result in more growth in the Central Valley).

The Antelope Valley alignment traverses less challenging terrain than the I-5 options, which would result considerably less tunneling overall (13 miles 21 km of tunneling for the Antelope Valley option versus 23 37 km miles for I-5 options), and considerably shorter tunnels (maximum length of 3.4 miles 5.5 km for the Antelope Valley option versus two tunnels greater than 5 miles 8 km for the I-5 options) which would result in fewer constructability issues. Although the Antelope Valley option is about 35 miles longer than the I-5 alignment options, it is estimated to be slightly less expensive to construct as a result of less tunneling through the Tehachapi Mountains. In addition, due to its more gentle gradient, geology, topology and other features, the SR-58/Soledad Canyon Corridor offers greater opportunities for using potential high-speed train alignment variations, particularly through the mountainous areas of the corridor, to avoid impacts to environmental resources. In contrast, the more challenging terrain of the I-5 Corridor greatly limits the ability to avoid sensitive resources and seismic constraints. The alignment optimization system (Quantm) that was utilized to identify and evaluate approximately 12 million alignment options for each mountain crossing could only find one practicable alignment option through the Tehachapi Mountains for the I-5 Corridor.

For practical, financial, ridership, planning, and any number of other reasons, HSR should be built along the proposed route.

As we noted in the San Diego post last week, the purpose of HSR isn't to connect two points with a straight line. It's to move people. HSR serves people, not geometry. We need to find the balance between serving the most people possible and a sensible, non-circuitous route. I strongly believe the current CHSRA plan strikes that balance.

Reminder by Rafael:

Altamont Corridor Rail Project - Public Scoping Meeting
Today, Tuesday, Nov 17 3:00p to 8:00p
at Fremont Central Park Teen Center, Fremont, CA
39770 Paseo Padre Parkway, Fremont, CA, 94539
(510) 790-5541‎

If you attend and learn something new you feel would be worth sharing with readers of this blog, please email a summary to cruickshank at gmail dot com.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Sunday Open Thread - From San Diego

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

Sorry for the lack of a post yesterday - been busy all day with the California Democratic Party's Executive Board Meeting here in sunny, beautiful San Diego. Some news from the southwestern corner of the nation:

  • I had the chance to interview Janice Hahn, LA City Council member and candidate for Lieutenant Governor in 2010. We'll have the video up on a Calitics soon. One thing I asked her about was high speed rail - she's shown strong support for HSR recently, and I asked her if she'd be willing to be a statewide advocate for HSR should she be elected, since we seem to lack such an advocate right now. "Absolutely," she said, and proceeded to make a strong case for why California needs HSR.

  • Daniel Krause and I took a quick scoping tour of the proposed HSR route in San Diego, from the Santa Fe Depot north to Rose Canyon and University Towne Center. It seemed clear to us that a downtown station would be the best location for an SD station. Downtown San Diego has become a major regional destination, has a lot of density, and is well-served by the existing mass transit (San Diego Trolley). An airport station, which has a lot of local momentum, would be much less effective from the perspective of potential riders and certainly from the perspective of linking HSR to urban densification (which downtown SD has accomplished quite well). We also took a look at Rose Canyon, where CHSRA proposes an at-grade implementation. BNSF still uses this route for freight service, so track-sharing is an issue. Adding new tracks would mean encroachment on Rose Creek, which is what worries locals. Finally, we drove up to University Towne Center mall, which is an awful TOD location and doesn't seem like a good place for an HSR station. A possible alternative to Rose Canyon is possible though via a tunnel under UTC, along Nobel, and then south along I-5.

  • Scoping comments for the LA-SD route are due Friday, November 20th. From Dan Krause:

    It appears that most folks making comments support a downtown San Diego station. Unfortunately, the political momentum in the San Diego area is to eliminate the downtown station in favor of an airport station. While I think there is merit considering a scenario where there would be both a downtown and airport station, it is absolutely necessary for the downtown station to happen for a successful project segment.

    Comments are due for the scoping for the LA-SD section of the project-level eir-eis on Friday November 20th. Please consider sending a note to the following address and let them know a downtown San Diego needs to be preserved.

    Mr. Dan Leavitt, Deputy Director
    California High Speed Rail Authority
    Attn: Los Angeles to San Diego via the Inland Empire Section EIR/EIS
    925 L Street, Suite 1425
    Sacramento, CA 95814

Feel free to use this as an open thread for anything HSR-related, whether it involves San Diego or not.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Don't Let Arnold Schwarzenegger Divide and Conquer

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

One of the consistent points this blog has made since we launched in March 2008 is that HSR is part of an overall effort to revive passenger rail in California. HSR isn't a substitute for other forms of local rail - in some places, like the Peninsula and Southern California, it enhances local rail by enabling more and faster service on commuter lines such as Caltrain and Metrolink. Prop 1A recognized the need for a linked system by offering about $1 billion for non-HSR passenger rail in the state. And this site cheered on ballot initiatives for other local passenger rail projects, including Measure R in LA County and the authorization of funds for SMART in Sonoma-Marin.

Unfortunately, these are challenging times for sustainable mass transit advocates. The recession has been accompanied by a revival of Hooverism at both the state and federal levels. In 2009 California eliminated state spending on local mass transit, and has put on hold the issuance of bonds from Prop 1B in 2006, which includes money to improve existing passenger rail systems. The federal government has been a bit more friendly to transit, but the authorization of a new transportation bill that would provide stable funding for passenger rail of all kinds has been stalled all year and may not be approved until sometime in 2010 (if we're lucky).

This is an environment where mass transit advocates, especially passenger rail advocates, need to stick together and advocate for more funding for rail as a whole, with specific funding to local, regional, intercity, and HSR projects as appropriate. We need to advocate for a holistic plan, instead of doing what the Hooverites want us to do, which is fight over the scraps.

That coalitional approach is not made any easier by the actions of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The LA Times got around to reporting the controversy over the state's singular focus on HSR funds in its federal stimulus application, to the exclusion of other passenger rail:

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger quietly spiked an effort last month to win $1.1 billion in federal high-speed rail stimulus funds for 29 projects to improve the safety, speed and capacity of heavily traveled commuter corridors through Southern California.

Instead, he ordered state officials to seek money for only one project -- the proposed bullet train between San Francisco and San Diego.

The governor's decision was intended to increase the state's chances of receiving high-speed rail money, officials said. California is competing with more than 40 applicants from 23 other states.

Richard Tolmach, one of the state's main HSR deniers, has been peddling this story for weeks and apparently finally got someone to bite. He wants to frame this as further evidence that HSR is bad, should be opposed, and is a threat to other passenger rail in the state. And yet, there is logic in what Arnold did. With over $50 billion in stimulus applications submitted this month, and only $8 billion to go around, California was going to have to pick and choose among a number of worthy proposals. There was no way around it. And even if you disagree with the outcome, it cannot be denied that it does make sense for the state to have focused on the high-profile HSR project, which after all has received glowing praise from the very federal officials who are tasked with distributing these funds.

Even if all $1.1 billion in non-HSR funds were applied for, it is extremely unlikely that much of it would have ever been awarded by the feds. Federal officials have sold this as a high speed rail stimulus, so there would have been risk if they awarded that money to non-HSR projects like those along the Pacific Surfliner corridor.

There is also a legitimate argument to be made that even with the above in mind, since HSR won't be complete for another decade, there was benefit to applying to provide more immediate improvements to existing passenger rail systems. I get that, and appreciate that thinking. There's no doubt that California's existing intercity rail corridors need more investment.

But the decision to not pursue that investment in this particular round of funding is by no means a death knell for those efforts. The article explains some other options for providing funding for Metrolink Positive Train Control, one of the projects Arnold chose not to include in the stimulus application:

However, Richard Katz, a former assemblyman who sits on the Metrolink, high-speed rail and Metropolitan Transportation Authority boards, was more optimistic that conventional rail projects, such as positive train control, would not be jeopardized by the governor's concentration on high-speed rail.

For example, Katz said, Metrolink, which serves six counties, needs roughly $200 million to $210 million to install positive train control by 2012.

About $70 million has been requested from other federal sources, and efforts are underway to try to redirect $97 million from state transportation bonds that are earmarked to rebuild the Colton railroad crossing.

If positive train control cannot get enough federal or state funding, Katz said he believes the MTA would lend Metrolink the money.

As to the more ambitious - and necessary - projects to include more grade separations and new tracks along the Surfliner corridor, their future funding sources are less obvious. But that should not mean backers ought to turn their fire on the CHSRA, which did what any other agency would do and argue they should get funded first.

This is a crucial moment for passenger rail advocates in California. Either we can let Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has never been a friend to rail, divide us and weaken passenger rail - or we can unite and push hard for renewed funding for these other worthy projects. Here are four ways we can get started:

  1. One obvious place to begin is the federal transportation bill. There is no reason it should remain stalled in Congress. If Democrats lose Senate seats in 2010, as is projected right now, then it is not possible to push through a new transportation bill that would properly fund passenger rail. All hands will need to be on deck for that one.

  2. Advocates should also join the push for $4 billion in HSR funding in the FY 2010 budget. This would create a precedent for ongoing HSR funding at that level, creating less pressure on California government to try and get their HSR money from other rail projects.

  3. Passenger rail activists also need to get active in the push for a second federal stimulus. Although Obama Administration officials have dismissed such talk, it is only continuing to grow as unemployment continues to rise. Infrastructure is always a popular target of stimulus spending, and given how many states submitted passenger rail stimulus applications, it's clear there is an appetite out there for more money than what the feds have offered so far.

  4. We also need to fight back against the steady defunding of mass transit, including passenger rail, at the state level. All forms of passenger rail - streetcars, light rail, commuter rail, Amtrak California, and high speed rail - are necessary to meet California's 21st century challenges. Given our state's financial crisis, it may seem like a tall order to find new sources of funding for these projects. But it is imperative that we do so.

Folks like Richard Tolmach are happy to exploit the lack of proper funding to attack high speed rail and ensure that passenger rail in California remains a moderately successful but niche element of our state's transportation network. And given that HSR is necessary to Caltrain's survival, Tolmach's approach would jeopardize even the existing services we have.

We should not play his game. Nor should we play Arnold Schwarzenegger's game. Passenger rail advocates need to avoid the temptation to fall out over modal preferences, and instead unite to grow the pie, rather than fight over who gets to eat the ever-smaller slices.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Someone Has To Be First

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

This week's issue of the Sacramento News & Review includes an article discussing Sacramento's frustration at not being included in Phase I of the HSR project:

Even though the state’s high-speed rail system is slated to begin construction in about two years, it may not reach Sacramento for another 20 years, and even that isn’t certain. The Capitol Corridor line is one of the most heavily used conventional passenger rail lines in the country, but when it comes to high-speed rail, Sacramento is being treated like a backwater

First off, this is nonsense. Sacramento isn't being treated like a "backwater" - they're part of the planning process and are scheduled to be included in Phase II. There are a LOT of communities in California that aren't slated to get HSR service at all, from my own town of Monterey to Oakland to Redding to Santa Barbara to Palm Springs. The article is unfortunately taking the fact that someone else goes first to make it look like once again, poor old Sacramento is getting slighted. City officials are making similar comments:

That has chafed a few Sacramento leaders. Back in March, Mayor Kevin Johnson told The Sacramento Bee that he was “disappointed” at Sacramento’s second-tier status.

“I’m very interested in how we can expedite Sacramento being a part of the high-speed train,” Johnson said Tuesday. “We want to be a part of that first leg.”

I'm all for expediting the link to Sacramento. But the fact is, someone is going to get the HSR line first, and that means someone else won't. In this case, Sacramento is in the second tier behind the higher priority (more people, more riders, virtually no existing direct train service) route from SF to LA. It would be one thing if Sacramento were being left out entirely from the HSR project. But they're not. If they suddenly witnessed a population boom that gave them more people than the Bay Area or LA, I might say they had a case for moving up in the queue. Right now though, they don't. That's nothing personal. Strictly business.

Moreover, Prop 1A includes hundreds of millions in funds for the existing and popular passenger rail route connecting SF to Sacramento, the Capitol Corridor:

Even if Sacramento ends up being the last community in California to get high-speed rail, it might benefit from Prop. 1A sooner. The initiative included $950 million for upgrading conventional rail projects around the state. The idea is to beef up the local feeder systems for the eventual build-out of high-speed rail. Sacramento’s Capitol Corridor could attract a big chunk of that money in order to add additional track, to completely separate freight and passenger operations along the corridor, and to increase speeds for the commuter trains.

Dickinson noted that a rail trip to the Bay Area now takes about an hour and 40 minutes, a bit longer than driving. “But if we can take off 15 or 20 minutes, the train then becomes an extremely attractive alternative,” said Dickinson.

In fact, the Capitol Corridor is already programmed to receive a significant portion of that money. They were also programmed to get new train cars out of the 2006 transportation bond, Prop 1B, but Arnold Schwarzenegger's Department of Finance delayed that (the delays are over, but the new cars still haven't been ordered, through no fault of the Capitol Corridor). Improving the Capitol Corridor would give Sacramento a significant interim boost while they await the construction of their connection to the HSR "spine" at Merced.

So it's not clear that the situation is as dire as the SN&R would have readers believe. HSR is on its way to Sacramento, as is improved passenger rail service. In January the project-level scoping work will commence and locals will get a chance to weigh in on route and structures. In the meantime, locals are advocating for a Sacramento person to be given a seat on the CHSRA board:

Along with lining up its ducks, Sacramento could use a little political muscle to advance its interests. Cohn noted that the High Speed Rail Authority board, with nine members, is mostly composed of people from Southern California and the Bay Area. The one Central Valley representative, Fran Florez, is from the Bakersfield region—which is due to be connected on the first leg of the system.

“Not one of those board members is from Sacramento,” Cohn said. He suggested that Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg could appoint a Sacramentan when a seat opens up.

For example, board member Lynn Schenk is still serving on the board, even though her term is expired. Board rules allow members to stay until their replacement is chosen. Schenk is the governor’s appointee, but Steinberg could suggest a candidate for the governor’s consideration.

“Between the governor and Sen. Steinberg, who knows?” Cohn said. “But we need to be represented.”

I think finding a Sacramentan for the CHSRA board is a reasonable thing to do. Of course, Schenk is from San Diego, so it doesn't quite make sense to leave the other city to be served in Phase II unrepresented in order to give something to Sacramento. Surely there can be some way to resolve that matter.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

San Diego Group Opposes UCSD/Downtown SD HSR Alignment

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

While the Peninsula NIMBYs tend to get the most attention from HSR advocates, the fact is that there are NIMBYs across California. It's not a phenomenon unique to the Bay Area. The NIMBYism we're seeing on the Peninsula is generated by a desire among those who benefited from the late 20th century model of land use to preserve that model, to oppose anything that might conceivably threaten or change that model. Despite the fact that such changes are absolutely necessary to produce economic recovery, energy independence, and environmental and climate security, for a certain segment of Californians those imperatives are less important than protecting what they've already got, exactly as it currently is.

High speed trains particularly suffer from this problem. Late 20th century California saw trains as an anachronism, and the worldview of most NIMBYs simply has no place for them. They live in an automobile world, where the idea of using high speed trains to grow city centers as denser and bigger population and job centers is fanciful. Wedded to a 20th century model of land use, they have no investment in 21st century technology. In fact, they see such technologies as an inherent threat to their worldview, and so they instinctively oppose their construction in their neighborhoods, convinced against all evidence that the way we do things right now is not only good, but can be preserved indefinitely.

Since that worldview is shared across California, it makes sense that we're going to encounter NIMBYism along much of the HSR route, no matter where it goes. And that makes it imperative that we not give in to such NIMBYism, rooted as it is in an irrational but deeply held defense of a status quo that has already failed for most Californians. Sending high speed trains to city centers, instead of stopping short of those centers, is an essential part of not just the system's overall viability, but in the project to rebuild the California Dream and provide broader economic prosperity for more people.

That's some necessary background for assessing new developments down in San Diego, where several neighborhood activists and elected officials are proposing a new but inferior alignment for HSR in the city. Instead of the line jogging westward toward UCSD and turning south to serve downtown San Diego and Lindbergh Field, they propose sending it all the way down Interstate 15 to a terminus at a football stadium:

The Interstate 15 corridor between Mira Mesa and Qualcomm Stadium would be the preferred route for the southernmost leg of California's proposed $40 billion high-speed train network, not a path that would take it through University City, a coalition of San Diego-area elected officials said today.

"A straight line is the most efficient way to get between two points," San Diego City Councilwoman Sherri Lightner said. "The meandering path that is suggested at present does not achieve that."

This "straight line" argument is becoming more and more common, even though it is complete nonsense. High speed rail means indirect routes designed to serve more people are not only still much faster than any other form of transportation, save for the airplane (which NEVER flies a straight line from runway to runway), but are more efficient at moving people within and between metropolitan areas. The primary purpose of HSR is to move people, NOT to get from Point A to Point B as fast as possible. Good HSR design will find the right balance between the two, not sacrifice one for the other.

What Lightner calls a "meandering path" is actually a path that follows the population. Hardly anyone actually lives in Mission Valley, certainly not at Qualcomm Stadium. But a LOT of people live in University City, directly across Interstate 5 from UC San Diego. And even more people either live in, or want to visit, downtown San Diego, whether for business or pleasure. (Count me as one of those people - I'll be there this weekend.)

The CHSRA map makes this clear. Qualcomm Stadium is noted by the black Q I added, near the junction of Interstates 8 and 15:

More about their proposal:

Instead of following Interstate 5, the coalition called for more study of keeping the trains on Interstate 15, past Mira Mesa to Qualcomm Stadium. The trains would then follow Interstate 805 to Tijuana's Rodriguez International Airport.

The Interstate 15 to Qualcomm Stadium route was studied by the California High Speed Rail Authority, but was largely dismissed because it doesn't end up in downtown San Diego or link up with Lindbergh Field.

San Diego City Councilwoman Donna Frye said environmental and community concerns over the the proposed route through University City have not been adequately addressed.

"The Rail Authority map showing the Carroll Canyon and Miramar Road routes are imprecise," she said. "They offer little clue to their potential impact to Rose Canyon and other sensitive areas."

This is really unfortunate framing coming from Frye, who should have been elected mayor of San Diego in 2005. Either she's deliberately misleading the public, or simply doesn't understand how planning works. Of course the CHSRA map is imprecise - the entire purpose of the current scoping process is to get public input on what the specific route should be, and examine the impact on the canyon.

What Frye, Lightner and others are really saying is that they think HSR is going to disturb the existing land use patterns and aesthetics of University City, and they would prefer that not even be considered. Instead of finding a way to make HSR work, they basically propose dumping passengers in an empty parking lot. Sure, the Q has a trolley station, but downtown San Diego is the central hub of all of the SD Trolley lines:

What they propose is essentially forcing intercity travelers to transfer to light rail at the Q to make it to their downtown destinations. That's even more inferior and impractical than making people transfer to Caltrain at Diridon Station to continue the journey to downtown San Francisco. If you have luggage, you're screwed, and the extra time on a much slower light rail train would make the overall travel time from downtown LA to downtown SD much less desirable.

Further, you're giving up a huge number of riders who would be using the train to/from downtown SD, including the University City/UCSD stop - a part of the city of San Diego that currently has no passenger rail service.

The CHSRA dutifully said they welcomed the feedback and would look at the proposal. Which is what they ought to do. Hopefully they'll reach the same conclusion they did before, which is that the Qualcomm Stadium terminus is inferior and impractical.

In the meantime, let's hope more San Diegans get engaged in the process, letting their elected officials know they support a train that will serve populations where they already are, instead of empty parking lots.

UPDATE: Matthew Fedder posted in the comments a letter he wrote to Lightner and Frye, and I thought it worth excerpting here, as he makes the environmental case FOR the University City/downtown alignment:

The purpose of having stops in UTC and Downtown is to support transit-oriented development in San Diego. In other words, bring the transit conveyances to where people live. And there are no more dense centers of population in San Diego than UTC and Downtown.

The Qualcomm parking lot is a no-mans land, the poster-child for automobile-based, sprawl-oriented development, with only one trolley line to serve as an oil-free, environmentally friendly alternative to get San Diegans in, and visitors out. It also happens to be a parcel of land that is expected to be completely re-worked in the near future - a project which, ironically, Counceilor Frye has opposed on the basis of the additional car-trips it will add to Mission Valley. You think think that's bad? Imagine 48,000 boardings and de-boardings a day in a location with almost no connection to public transit.

Exactly. Dropping passengers in the Qualcomm parking lot would be a cruel joke, a sign that San Diego isn't willing to truly embrace sustainable transportation or smart growth principles.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Spoiling the Bunch

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

One thing that's become clear since the passage of Prop 1A one year ago is that the project's opponents have learned from their defeat. Instead of launching a frontal assault on the concept of high speed rail, which a clear majority of Californians support, they've decided to focus on generating local opposition along the route in an effort to abuse the CEQA process to undermine the project. It's a Gulliver strategy - tie the giant down with dozens of little but potent attacks across the state and maybe, just maybe, you can kill it outright.

Much of this effort has involved a truly stunning amount of disinformation on the part of the HSR opponents. They have learned well how to use what Stephen Colbert aptly described as "truthiness" - where people see something as true because they "feel" it to be true, because a statement comports with their own inherent biases, even though it lacks basis in evidence.

Truthiness has been rampant on the Peninsula. HSR opponents like Martin Engel have been effective purveyors of misinformation, such as the idea that HSR would be some sort of "Berlin Wall" along the Peninsula (it won't), or that it will require mass demolition of housing along the Caltrain corridor (it won't), or that the CHSRA is determined to destroy communities (it isn't). Of course, it doesn't matter that there are no facts behind these claims, because to NIMBYs, these claims "feel" true. Anything that is perceived to alter the aesthetics of their community is seen as a threat. And Engel is very adept at playing on those sentiments.

One major element of their strategy is to paint the HSR project as some sort of Death Star aimed at the Peninsula, and to paint Quentin Kopp and Rod Diridon as the Emperor and Darth Vader. Both men have a long history on the Peninsula, and have been involved in their share of controversial projects, so in them Engel has found an easy target. If he can find ways to paint them as mean, out of touch, and unwilling to listen to public input, then he and other HSR opponents will have delegitimized the CHSRA and the HSR project. And that helps them gain ground in the local battles, where most residents want HSR but also want it to be built the right way. Engel doesn't want it built at all, so anything he can do to discredit the CHSRA helps pull more people away from the "sensible compromise" camp and into the "kill it!" camp.

That's the background to the latest controversy manufactured by Engel. At last week's CHSRA board meeting, Rod Diridon said he hoped Ogilvy, the CHSRA's new communications contractor, would do a better job fighting the widespread misinformation on the Peninsula. Engel decided to turn this valid criticism of both the Peninsula opponents and of the CHSRA's public outreach into something else entirely, as explained in the Palo Alto Daily Post:

[Diridon said:]"Misinformation is causing serious media relations problems in the mid-Peninsula -- Atherton, Menlo Park, Palo Alto area especially. That misinformation coming
sometimes from inadvertently our own staff. But then again, it's being presented by opponents, blatantly providing false information to the media and then having no correction. No information being provided that would counter that misinformation and I think you related to that earlier.

Robert here: There is no doubt this is a true statement. Project opponents have been spreading lies and the media has fallen for it. This is a potent attack on the NIMBYs, which is why Engel wants to undermine it. Back to Diridon:

"So would you relate to those two examples, not those two specific cases but those examples as kind of in-the-weeds detail that you really need to be on immediately, so that it doesn't, the kind of thing are like a sore that festers, or the rotten apple in the barrel, if you would like to use another example. And you got to get that apple out of the barrel immediately and please figure out a way and let us know at some time in the future and call us individually or give us a report on how you would be creating kind of flying squads of emergency response to nip those problems in the bud.

"You want to avoid them if you can but if you can't avoid them you need to have a way of countering them immediately so that, misinformation isn't allowed to float around, it's corrected. So please consider that as early tasks."

Makes sense, right? Diridon here is merely explaining what has already happened on the Peninsula. One could use any number of other metaphors here - "poisoned the well," "spread like a cancer," anything to illustrate the point that the lies and distortions peddled by Martin Engel and others have spread on the Peninsula and threaten the project. It makes sense for Ogilvy to figure out how to respond to that misinformation. Nowhere in Diridon's statement did he say he wants to attack individuals - just the untruths they have spread.

Of course, Engel decided to continue making stuff up, and used this statement as his way to try and defuse the effort to counter the lies. In a move reminiscent of Sarah Palin's claim about "death panels," Engel spun this as Diridon having attacked himself:

When Diridon told an Ogilvy representative "you got to get the apple out of the barrel immediately," Engel interpreted that as an assignment for Ogilvy to silence high-speed rail dissidents.

Engel said, "Here is Diridon basically saying, 'Take car of these people. Their information needs to be corrected with our information. We need to shut them up because they are a pain.'"

There is no way you can draw the conclusion Engel did from Diridon's quote - unless you place truthiness about actual truth. The quote was very clear: Diridon was referring to the lies, not the people who tell them. Diridon explained as much to the Daily Post reporter:

"What I referred to was that one piece of misinformation will be repeated and repeated and therefore cause a lot of confusion," said Diridon, a former Santa Clara County Supervisor who now sits on the rail authority's board of directors.

But that truth doesn't matter to Engel, who went further in his baseless claims:

Engel said, "Everything they put out is misinformation. That is what's so ironic about this."

"Everything" is misinformation? Ridiculous. What you see here is that Engel is engaged in a classic case of projection, where you take a criticism of oneself and deflect it onto the person making the criticism. And Engel does this for the purposes I laid out at the beginning of this post - to convince the "silent majority" on the Peninsula that CHSRA and its board members are somehow engaged in bad faith and are making mean statements about nice people.

If Engel was confident that he had a solid case against HSR based on the facts alone, he would feel no need to resort to these kinds of manufactured controversies, deliberate misinterpretations of statements, and continued spreading of misinformation. We who support HSR do so on its merits, and we have no hesitation making an honest and factual case for its construction. I suppose that's our weakness, since we aren't willing to embrace truthiness the way HSR opponents will.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Western Rail Alliance Proposes HSR Routes, Including LA-Phoenix

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

Over the last year or so, since the passage of Prop 1A and the election of a high speed rail-friendly president, there has been a surge of interest in high speed rail across the country, and new organizations and consortiums have come together to propose new projects - as well as to revive ones that had been left for dead (looking at you, Florida).

One of these groups is the "Western Rail Alliance," a semi-official group that includes land-use planners from Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, and Utah. Late last week this group unveiled their list of proposed routes, one of which includes California:

The idea, in a nutshell, is that planners in each state can best negotiate rail routes within their cities and have the expertise to find funding to develop high-speed rail between those cities. The current participants in the alliance are the local RTC [in Clark County, NV], the Regional Transportation Commission of Washoe County in Reno, the Maricopa Council of Governments in Phoenix, the Utah Transit Authority in Salt Lake City and the Denver Council of Governments. The organizations also have made overtures to the Mid-Region Council of Governments in Albuquerque, but it has not signed on to the alliance yet.

They also have made contact with planning organizations in Tucson and Boise as potential future members.

Right now, the alliance is working toward turning itself into a legal non-profit organization. It also will move toward expanding membership to include prospective suppliers and service providers that could be a part of the effort to build high-speed rail in the Southwest.

Recently, Skancke made the first public presentation about the alliance, speaking to a lunch meeting of the North Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce.

At that session, Skancke outlined the first five routes the alliance will focus on: between Los Angeles and Phoenix; between Las Vegas and Phoenix; between Las Vegas and Salt Lake City; between Salt Lake City and Denver; and between Salt Lake City and Reno.

Now, before you all run off to the comments to criticize this, let's be clear: these routes aren't going to be built anytime soon. They don't appear on the USDOT HSR map, nor are they likely to anytime soon. This certainly isn't going to get funded in any official way, aside from very preliminary studies, for many years.

And that's as it should be. Of these five routes, only LA-Phoenix made it onto The Transport Politic's Interstate Rail Network proposal (in the last of four phases). There are many higher priority corridors that should come before these five.

Yet that shouldn't cause us to dismiss the concept out of hand. My interest in high speed rail isn't specific to California, although this blog is. I quite strongly believe this country should invest in building a national HSR network, proceeding first along the highest priority corridors and over the next 2-3 decades, filling in the gaps so that by 2040 or so, there would be a much improved passenger rail network that could get one from coast to coast faster than you can today. Doesn't mean you'd have a 220mph bullet train going from SF to NY, but one could stitch together a network of long-distance trains that could have faster and more reliable travel times than Amtrak's current routes.

In any case, it can't hurt to take an evening and consider what the Western Rail Alliance is proposing. LA-Phoenix could be a very valuable route for California, depending on the alignment. Any LA-PHX train would include stops in San Bernardino and Palm Springs, reaching a part of the state with a growing population. The train could follow Interstate 10 east toward Phoenix over a relatively easy alignment, with only the climb out of the Coachella Valley posing engineering challenges. Or it could continue southeast to the Imperial Valley, which sports the highest unemployment rate of any California county at 30%, hit Yuma, and then find a path back into Phoenix. This route would be less direct and therefore more costly and with a higher travel time, but there's pretty much nothing between Indio and Buckeye along the I-10 route, so it's worth at least a study.

Las Vegas-Phoenix is already witnessing a major transportation project, the Hoover Dam Bypass, scheduled for completion next year. Aside from Kingman and Wickenburg, this route would also be running through mostly empty land.

Las Vegas-Salt Lake City has the benefit of serving more actual settlements between its two endpoints, including the rapidly growing Utah city of St. George, along with several towns scattered along Interstate 15 before the Wasatch Range metropolis at Provo (and giving a boost to cities just beyond the urban edge, like Nephi). Salt Lake City-Reno would also connect some smaller towns, such as Wendover, Elko, and Battle Mountain, but would otherwise be passing through completely empty land. Would be interesting to see how fast you could crank up the trainsets over the Bonneville Salt Flats.

The most intriguing, and almost certainly the most difficult, is a proposed Salt Lake City-Denver HSR route. Perhaps this one will appeal to the people who think the Grapevine should have been the alignment for the SF-LA route. If you think the Grapevine is easy for HSR, you're gonna love the Rocky Mountains!

An earlier Las Vegas Sun article examined one subset of the SLC-Denver route, the I-70 Coalition which has been proposing passenger rail as a solution to the traffic problems through the Rockies on Interstate 70, especially from Denver to the ski resorts in winter. There's been some discussion of maglev for this corridor, but no firm plans as of yet.

As a relatively young person, I might actually live to see some of these projects get built. As China pours hundreds of billions of dollars into their HSR system as an economic stimulus measure, it's not silly to start thinking on a nationwide scale for HSR. Perhaps none of these corridors are yet deserving of federal money, which for now needs to go to the higher priority corridors. But if the western states wanted to start planning these routes, and were willing to start funding it themselves, I wouldn't object. Better we start thinking about this now, instead of continuing to delude ourselves into thinking the status quo is tenable.