Monday, March 31, 2008

Dan Walters Needs Our Help

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

Dan Walters is one of the leading opinion writers in California today. His conservative commentary has filled the pages of the Sacramento Bee for over three decades, and he's regularly syndicated in other local papers across the state. So when he devotes a column to high speed rail it's worth our attention.

Especially when he shows a total lack of understanding of the reasons to build it.

So Dan Walters needs our help in grasping why this project is so necessary to California's future.

After describing some of the very real issues with the overall funding plan, he devotes the second half of his column to an attack on high speed rail:

The most romantic bullet train vision is the lightning-fast trip from downtown Los Angeles to downtown San Francisco. But how many people really want to make that trip each day, and would it represent a marked improvement over the very frequent air travel now available?

I can anecdotally provide him with about two dozen names of CDP convention attendees who expressed the desire for a high speed train to connect San José to their homes in SoCal. But we can answer this charge much better by explaining why HSR will be not just an attractive - but necessary - transportation option.

First, attractiveness. We dealt with that last week when discussing the 5% increase in Acela market share on the Northeast Corridor. Acela isn't even a true high speed rail system - ours would provide double the speed. LA-SF is one of the busiest air corridors in the country, and if a flawed high speedish train can take nearly half the market share from airlines there, it should suggest it'll work here two.

Second, necessity. Walters assumes that present conditions will last for some time to come. But nowhere in his column are the words peak oil mentioned. Nor does he discuss soaring gas prices. Both will make it difficult and unattractive to continue flying between the two halves of our state, causing either supply disruption or fare increases beyond the ability of most Californians to pay. Walters may not believe in peak oil, even though it is a fact. But the constant rise in oil prices is going to have to eliminate cheap fares sooner or later.

He goes on to try and undermine the CHSRA claims on air travel:

The High-Speed Rail Commission's environmental impact reports contain some underlying air travel projections that are very difficult to swallow. It would have us believe that air travel demand between Northern and Southern California would nearly double between 2000 and 2010.

That flies in the face of actual airport traffic figures and seems to conflict with another commission projection that in the absence of building the bullet train, air travel times would increase only fractionally between 2000 and 2020.

This passage essentially says nothing. Demand may well have increased, but traffic figures have not met demand. Airports are congested - witness LAX or OAK on a weekend. Most California airports lack the capacity to add slots - Orange County is limited to 14 gates, LAX expansion has languished for three decades, SFO and OAK physically cannot expand any further into the bay. If peak oil is not real, then that means our population really will continue to expand - and without new terminals and runways, and in the absence of airplane innovation (most airplane R&D goes to fuel economy, as supersonic transport appears to be a dead concept) air travel times cannot physically increase.

How about auto travel? The commission projects that driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco, seven hours in 1999, would take eight hours by 2020. But as anyone who makes long-distance drives through the state knows, Interstate 5 is very lightly used now, at least outside urban areas.

This is wrong on two points. First, Interstate 5 is NOT lightly used outside urban areas. Certainly not in the San Joaquin Valley. It is a very heavily used artery. I have on several occasions been stuck in traffic jams in the middle of nowhere in Fresno County on I-5, and on several occasions found it took nine hours to drive from OC to Berkeley.

Second, those urban areas continue to expand. When new development pops up further north on I-5 near Castaic, or in the Tracy area, that adds congestion that a long-distance commuter will encounter on their drive between LA and SF. There never used to be a regular traffic jam on 580 in Livermore, but it's a fact of life now. One used to be able to drive through the Santa Clarita area on the way to LA without encountering much traffic, but that is now difficult.

California's traffic congestion is an urban condition, and the most likely patrons of high-speed rail wouldn't be long-distance travelers but commuters – a poor use of expensive, sophisticated technology.

Again, this is simply not true. Interstate 15 between SoCal and Vegas is another example of a non-urban interstate that regularly sees massive traffic jams. And Walters' argument that most users would be commuters is itself flawed - either because it is flat wrong (ridership on Amtrak California's intercity trains has been steadily rising for years now) or because it doesn't take into account the attractiveness of a quicker commute.

That explains why the most ardent support for bullet train service is to be found in the Central Valley, which is poorly served by airlines and whose main artery, Highway 99, is highly congested with auto and truck traffic.

Bullet trains would make commuting to and from places like Fresno, Modesto and Bakersfield easier. But wouldn't that merely encourage the sort of sprawl that we are supposed to be discouraging?

Sprawl is a product of land use laws and cheap oil. We're already losing the cheap oil, which itself is going to stop most sprawl in its tracks. As to land use practices, why should HSR be responsible for the lack of good smart growth planning in the Central Valley? The state ought to step in and subject all local land use planning decisions to AB 32 guidelines on carbon emissions, and localities need to improve farmland protection and infill development rules no matter what HSR's fate is.

Walters argued that:

even the most ardent advocates have yet to present a persuasive, fact-grounded rationale for spending so much borrowed money on an entirely new transportation system.

This blog is intended to be exactly that persuasive, fact-grounded rationale. HSR is necessary to our state's future.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

HSR at the Democratic Convention

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

Yours truly with Fiona Ma, who was sporting a CALPIRG High Speed Rail Spring Break t-shirt

So I spent the weekend up in San José at the California Democratic Party Convention. It was my first convention and a great experience overall. And in between some of the official meetings, I got a chance to talk to some present and future Democratic elected officials about high speed rail and our state's energy future.

As you saw above, I spoke with Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, who has taken a strong leadership role on this issue. We had a good conversation about high speed rail, and she told me about her recent trip to Japan to tour the Shinkansen. She pointed out the Japanese trains' phenomenal on-time record - averaging within six seconds of the scheduled time - and mentioned the Spanish AVE trains' guarantee of a full trip refund if the train runs more than 5 minutes behind schedule (which rarely happens). She has a clear grasp of the necessity and the value of the project, and is a very good public advocate for what is too often seen as an "esoteric" idea. Fiona Ma is definitely one of our most important allies in the Legislature on high speed rail.

This morning I met with Debbie Cook, who is running for Congress down in Orange County, challenging right-wing incumbent Dana Rohrabacher. Debbie Cook is the mayor of Huntington Beach, and she is also active in the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO), perhaps the world's leading group of experts and activists dealing with our looming energy crisis - she is planning their September meeting up in Sacramento. Debbie Cook made it clear that one of the driving forces behind her campaign will be sustainable transportation - Orange County, like the rest of the state, remains dependent on oil-based transportation systems, and she did a great job of explaining why that must change. Her candidacy for Congress will help give this state a much greater awareness of peak oil, and will also help spotlight another advocate of high speed rail.

HSR did not otherwise have a very high profile at the convention, which was mostly focused on endorsement fights, the presidential campaign, and the usual schmoozing. But it was good to encounter these two Democratic officeholders who will be likely playing important roles in our high speed rail campaign this year.

Many of my fellow bloggers, especially those from Southern California, expressed the wish that we had high speed rail up and running. The San José stop will be just one mile from the convention center, connected to it by the VTA's light rail line, and HSR would have made it a lot easier for folks to travel to and from the convention. Especially on a Sunday afternoon, exhausted from the weekend's revelry.

Friday, March 28, 2008

HSR Open Thread

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

I won't be posting until Monday, as I'm spending the weekend at the California Democratic Party Convention in San José. Last year's CDP convention passed a strong resolution in favor of the high speed rail project, and hopefully I can help convince some Dems to pitch in their support for the vote this fall.

That won't be the only thing I'm there to do - my other area of focus right now is activism on the state budget. If you're interested, you can follow the convention action at Calitics, where I am a contributing editor.

And if you aren't interested, but want to talk about high speed rail, well, here's an open thread. Have fun!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

LA to Vegas: The Other High Speed Rail Project

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

The California High Speed Rail plan is not the only high speed rail project being considered in our Golden State. Two proposals are in the works to link LA to Las Vegas via high speed trains. From a recent Riverside Press-Enterprise article:

A group of private investors is proposing to finance and build a $3.5 billion electrically powered passenger train called the Desert Xpress, running along Interstate 15 from Victorville to Las Vegas.

At the same time, a commission of California and Nevada officials is seeking to build a maglev train that uses magnetic forces to silently propel cars at 300 mph along a route from Anaheim to Las Vegas.

The Desert Xpress, which would average 100 mph, is undergoing an environmental study by the Federal Railroad Administration. The study will be released next year and used by various federal agencies to analyze the project.

The maglev train also is under environmental review, although the study is two to three years from completion. The idea that travel to Las Vegas -- a trip that 12 million Southern California residents make annually -- would be more attractive by train than by airplane and car has enticed promoters for years.

Growing up in Orange County in the 1980s and 1990s, I remember hearing almost once a year about a high speed train to Vegas. So these plans ought to be taken with a few grains of salt. Still, this is a corridor that could definitely use HSR - the traffic jams on Interstate 15 are epic.

The Desert Xpress project seems the closest to actuality. They claim to have conducted focus groups that show Southern Californians would be willing to drive to Victorville to catch a train to Vegas, and met with economic forecasters who suggest the plan is viable. $3.5 billion is a lot of money, but it's not outside the realm of possibility - especially if some of the Nevada casinos could be convinced to put up some of the funds.

The reason the train would run only from Victorville to Vegas is that it's much cheaper to build to Victorville. Construction through the Cajon Pass would be extremely expensive, and since Victorville is where I-15 currently narrows, it seems a logical place to put the route's southern terminus.

Still, not everyone thinks the Desert Xpress plan is viable:

Norm King, an associate at Cal State San Bernardino's transportation center, doubts either project is economically feasible.

If Desert Xpress is entirely self-supported, investors will seek to recover their investment from fares, said King, a former executive director of San Bernardino Associated Governments, the county's transportation planning agency.

"I just can't see that fares can even approach something that will pay for it," King said.

The maglev plan, by contrast, is promoted by a coalition of governments in Southern California and Nevada. They prefer to use the promising but extremely expensive magnetic levitation technology, which could provide speeds of nearly 300 mph to connect Anaheim to Vegas. The cost is tentatively put at $12 billion, and Congress is planning to provide $45 million to study the proposal further.

Obviously maglev has a lot of promise, despite its cost. But it is going to take federal investment to build this - neither California or Nevada are likely to be in a position to build it themselves, especially if our LA-SF high speed rail plan is approved by voters this November.

Personally I think a good solution might be to pool some federal dollars with private investment and money from CA and NV to get the Desert Xpress built and extended across the relatively flat desert to Palmdale, where it could share a station with the California high speed rail line. That would enable folks from LA to simply transfer at Palmdale, sparing them a long drive to the High Desert.

Or Amtrak could revive the Desert Wind, which was closed in 1997 due to Republican budget cuts. An overnight train from LA to Vegas would likely be popular, especially with weekend visitors.

In any case, this blog will continue to watch these plans and report on whatever develops, even as we maintain our primary focus on the LA-SF high speed route.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Acela Proves High Speed Rail Can Succeed in America

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

One of the common criticisms of high speed rail is that "nobody will ride it, Americans are too wedded to their cars and to their planes." But Amtrak's Acela train, a sort-of high speed train that serves the Northeast Corridor from DC to Boston, has recently increased its share of the travel market on the Northeast Corridor - from 36% in 2006 to 41% in 2007. That's a 5% bite out of air travel, along the nation's busiest air corridor.

(H/T to The Overhead Wire)

And that’s for a service that isn’t really HSR. Acela is a modern intercity train with a few high speed segments. The Acela is designed for 150 mph, but can only attain that speed in a few areas, thanks to aging overhead wiring. The CAHSR system would smoke Acela, by perhaps as much as 100 mph.

Wired Magazine explains some of the reasons for Acela's growing success:

The Acela is fast -- Hop on the train at Boston's South Station and you'll find yourself pulling into New York Penn three and a half hours later. Sure, flight time on the route is just under an hour, but add transportation to and from the airport, security screening, and waiting on the runway, and you could be looking at four hours or more.

You can get some work done -- On the Acela, you can use your cellphone (and service is decent for most of the trip), there are power ports at every seat, and you can start up your laptop without waiting for a flight attendant to tell you that the use of approved electronic devices is now permitted.

It's cheaper -- A roundtrip flight between NYC and Boston will run you between $350 to $425. The Acela will put you out $204, $325 if you upgrade to first class.

You might actually get there on time -- According to Amtrak, the Acela ran on time 73 percent of the time in 2007. Not great, but not horrible considering that Boston to LaGuardia flights scored a 67 percent on time record; Boston to JFK 61 percent; and Boston to Newark, a dismal 51 percent. If you're flying to New York, make sure you bring a book. If you're going to Newark, bring two.

Tasty snacks -- On the Acela, you have the option to scarf down braised short ribs with cheesy grits, four-cheese lasagna, pancakes or a variety of other culinary delights. The airlines certainly can't compete with that (though you do get free booze on the shuttle).

All these things hold true here in California, where HSR on the LA-SF route would be a very compelling attraction for travelers, for exactly these reasons. Leaving aside the concerns about sustainability, energy, and the environment, HSR is simply a better way to travel.

HSR demand is there. If we build it, they will come.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Spring Break for High Speed Rail Update

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

The San Francisco Citizen brings us a photo and some details about CALPIRG's High Speed Rail Spring Break Tour:

Included in the picture are, from left to right, SF Supervisor Aaron Peskin, former SF Supervisor and now Chairman of the CHSRA board Quentin Kopp, and State Senator Carole Migden. There were at least 100 supporters there for the kickoff rally yesterday, and a similarly decent number down at San José City Hall.

NBC 11 gave some good coverage, including these quotes from trip organizers:

"I'm spending my spring break on a road trip, but not to Cabo," said Jenn Engstrom, a second-year student at University of California at Berkeley.

Gambit Ramos, an organizer staff member from University of California, Irvine, came with his red bicycle, bearing a sticker reading, "I'd rather be riding high-speed rail."

(And can I just say, as a one-time UCI student and as a UC Berkeley grad, how pleased I am to see students from both those schools taking part in this?!)

Today they spoke in Sacramento and Stockton, and tomorrow they'll be in Fresno. The full remaining schedule is:

When: Wednesday, March 26th, 11:30am
Where: Fresno Convention Center (students will bike in with the Congressman a little before 11am)
Joining the Students:
Congressman Jim Costa
To join the Bike Event: Meet at Convention Center at 10:30am

When: Wednesday, March 26th, 3pm
Where: Bakersfield City Hall
Joining the Students:
Bakersfield Mayor Harvey Hall
Fran Florez, High-Speed Rail Authority Board Member
Staff from Congressman Costa’s office and State Senator Dean Florez’ office
To join the Bike Event: Meet at 2:30pm, location TBA

When: Wednesday, March 26th, 3:30pm
Where: Palmdale Transportation Center (39000 Clock Tower Plaza Drive)

Los Angeles
When: Thursday, March 27th, 10am
Where: South side steps of City Hall
Joining the Students:
Staff from Congresswoman Diane Watson’s office
To join the Bike Event: Meet at Union Station parking lot at 9am

When: Thursday, March 27th, 1pm
Where: Amtrak Station, 2150 East Katella Avenue Anaheim, CA 92806
To join the Bike Event: Meet at Amtrak Station parking lot at 12:30pm

When: Friday, March 28th, 9:30am
Where: Riverside Cesar Chavez Community Center (students will bike in from UC Riverside to the Community Center)
Joining the Students:
Riverside Mayor Ronald O. Loveridge
To join the Bike Event: UCR campus (corner of Canyon Crest Dr. and University Ave) at 9am

San Diego
When: Friday, March 28th, 1:30pm
Where: MTS headquarters downtown
Joining the Students:
Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña
State Senator Christine Kehoe
National City Mayor Ron Morrison
Escondido Mayor Lori Holt Pfeiler
SANDAG Executive Director Gary L. Gallegos
To join the Bike Event: Meet at Balboa Park at 12:30pm

Check back for updates - details may change last minute

It is also very, very cool to hear that they're biking for at least some portion of the tour.

Monday, March 24, 2008


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

Those are the polling numbers CHSRA Board Chair Quentin Kopp cited in a Sacramento Bee article over the weekend:

Kopp said the bond measure enjoys public support for the landmark project. As the bond reads now, 58 percent of Californians favor the bond and 32 percent oppose it, he said.

Now, we don't know any details of this poll other than what Kopp gave Judy Lin, the author of the Bee article. And those details matter. How many people were polled? What was the exact wording of the question asked of respondents? How many people said they were familiar with the high speed rail project? (If that number was above 40% I would be shocked.) All of that information is crucial to understanding this poll, and how seriously we ought to take it.

But for now, 58-32 is all we have to go on. And it is *very* encouraging. The rule of thumb for California ballot propositions is that the Yes position must be above 50% in the polls early on if it is to have a chance at passage. This is because most ballot props lose support as the election draws nearer. Negative campaigning is very effective, and as attacks on the proposition increase nearer the election, support ebbs. If you're well above 50% before those attacks begin, though, the chances are typically good that the proposition will pass.

As we've been debating in some of the recent posts on this site, the political landscape for HSR this year seems unfavorable, at least according to some. The usual argument is that given the state's budget crisis, voters will not likely be willing to float $10 billion in bonds. I realize this is a valid concern, but I am confident we can pass this plan. Especially in November, when we are likely to see a very high turnout of progressive voters - the very folks who are most likely to get why HSR is such a good idea.

But to help ensure passage, the following points need to be driven home to California voters over the next 8 months:

  • HSR is necessary to our economic survival, in both the short term and definitely in the long-term. Californians need to see this as a necessary project that they kill at their own cost.

  • HSR is affordable - it won't break our state's debt ceiling, the system will likely generate a surplus as do all other HSR systems in the world, it's cheaper than expanding airports and freeways, and it will spur a lot of economic growth.

  • HSR is necessary for our transportation needs - this really depends on more people learning about peak oil, but perhaps $4 gas and fuel surcharges on flights will help get us part of the way there. Californians have to see that they cannot expect to drive and fly around the state for much longer. If they want to see mom and dad in Orange County at Christmas in 2020, they're going to need a high speed train.

  • HSR is necessary for our climate needs - it would eliminate 12.4 billion pounds per year of carbon emissions, equivalent to removing a million vehicles from the roads. If Californians really do take global warming seriously, they will see HSR as a compelling solution to the climate crisis.

Note the common theme: HSR is necessary. It isn't, as the Capricious Commuter said, "an esoteric infrastructure project." It is vital to this state's future. If we are to win the vote this fall, we are going to have to make sure Californians understand that fact.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Capricious Thoughts

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

Pantograph Trolleypole in the comments on the last post pointed me to The Capricious Commuter's thoughts on high speed rail. This person blogs for the Contra Costa Times, and is very down on our high speed rail plan. His post follows a very typical pattern of the dying print media: pooh-pooh some activists (in this case CALPIRG and their HSR spring break), then lament that government didn't produce perfection, and then dig up some libertarian gadfly who is not representative of public opinion to show how that public supposedly thinks. And ultimately all the post shows is how prevalent fundamental misunderstandings about HSR are in our state's media. The post closes with this:

But as cool as it might be to zip down to Bakersfield at 200 mph, I just can’t see it happening. Passing the $20 billion transportation bond required a unified campaign by the governor and legislative leaders to sell it to voters. In a year when those folks are pleading poverty, it’s just not gonna happen.

In fact, the Sacramento Bee reported yesterday that the HSR bonds currently have 58-32 support. More on this in the next post.

The problem with this framing is it assumes HSR is just some ultra-cool toy that only a few railgeeks and engineers will love. But that ignores some very important context. Taken a look at oil prices lately? Or studied up on peak oil? What that means is by 2018, when the system is slated to open, it is going to be extremely expensive to fly or drive from the Bay Area to LA. The expense may even be prohibitive for most Californians.

Even if one wanted to deny peak oil, the way some used to deny global warming, we are then left with the fact that to handle the expected increase in passengers, we will need to spend nearly $80 billion to expand airports and freeways. HSR serves the same passenger demand for half the cost. Wouldn't that be a smart investment?

I agree that the plan is imperfect. But as anyone who follows mass transit knows, the hardest part of a new system to build is the first line. Once that line is up and running it becomes MUCH easier politically to add new lines and extensions. Oakland may not be on the first line built. But it will likely be on the second or the third.

I do agree that the state budget crisis is going to cause difficulty for the bond vote. But I think he's also totally wrong in his framing of the matter. First, the HSR bonds do not come from the same funding pool as schools. Second, we can stave off the budget cuts to schools with some relatively easy and inexpensive revenue solutions - the only thing stopping this is Republican stubbornness. Third, an economic downturn and a fiscal crisis is actually a GOOD time to build infrastructure - the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges were, after all, built in the depths of the Depression.

We need to stop reacting to the state budget crisis as if paralysis is the only reaction. There is a growing movement and coalition determined to solve our budget shortfall this year. But regardless of how that turns out, we should not let a temporary crisis stop us from building a piece of infrastructure that is absolutely necessary for this state's economic survival in the 21st century. Not building HSR would be like not building the bay bridges or not building the State Water Project. It won't be an easy sell, but it is also a necessary sell.

In any case, this particular blogger doesn't seem to have much understanding of the ins and outs of transit funding, as shown by his rather dismissive and selfish comments on Capitol Corridor ridership (if you want more seats, we need to buy more cars, and the HSR bond would provide $950 million for such purchases). It would be bad enough if this was just some random blogger, but apparently the guy writes for the CC Times. I guess the best reaction is to echo UC Berkeley professor Brad DeLong's famous line, "why oh why can't we have a better press corps?!"

Friday, March 21, 2008

CALPIRG High Speed Rail Spring Break

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

The folks at CALPIRG are taking their support of high speed rail on the road (so to speak) during next week's spring break:

After more than ten years of planning, California is finally ready to start building a high speed rail line connecting California’s cities. First, California voters need to pass a ballot initiative in November to set aside more than $9 billion in bonds to fund its construction.

So, from March 24th to the 29th, we are spending our spring break traveling the proposed route for California’s high speed rail line, from Sacramento and San Francisco all the way down to San Diego. Along the way, we’ll meet with elected officials and the media to build support for a November ballot initiative that would secure funding to start laying the tracks.

WHERE WE’LL BE (all times are subject to change):

* Monday, March 24th: Bay Area Kick-off in San Francisco at 10am
* San Jose event at 2pm. (Camp in Sacramento)
* Tuesday, March 25th: Capitol Kick-off in Sacramento at 10am,
* Stockton event at 2pm. (Camp near Merced)
* Wednesday, March 26th: Fresno event at 10:30am.
* Bakersfield at 3pm. (Stay in Los Angeles.)
* Thursday, March 27th: Downtown Los Angeles event at 10am.
* Anaheim event at 1pm. (Camp/stay in Riverside.)
* Friday, March 28th: Riverside event at 10am.
* San Diego event at 2pm. Hang out. Have a party that night. (Stay in San Diego).

Sort of odd that they're not going to San José, but then again the Central Valley is key to the project practically and politically. I hope they're taking the San Joaquins from Sacramento to Bakersfield.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

High Speed Rail: The View from Monterey

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

This week's Monterey County Weekly has an excellent cover story on the high speed rail project.

It's written from the point of view of we who live in Monterey County, which is valuable because the line will never actually reach us at all. Yet there is a lot of enthusiasm surrounding the project, because we still like to visit family and friends in and take business trips to Southern California. The thought of taking a fairly short bus or train ride to Gilroy to reach the HSR station and then a 2 hour trip to LA is really enticing for us - currently we either have to take a 6 hour drive to get to LA, or drive an hour and a half to San José and fly down - at least a 4-5 hour trip when you include security and delays. This article, and support for HSR here in Monterey, shows how high speed rail will benefit the entire state, not just those specific towns along the line.

The article is a good introduction to the project and the politics surrounding it, and mentions the looming environmental fight over the Pacheco Pass alignment, and funding questions. I'll have much more to say about the Sierra Club's stance on the Pacheco alignment in a future post, but for now, go read the article, e-mail it to friends, etc.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Question Time - Can We Afford High Speed Rail?

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

As California faces a large budget deficit and a worsening economy, some are starting to ask whether we can afford this project at this time, considering those circumstances. One of the members of the Facebook group asks:

I think that will the bad news about the economy and the high oil prices will cause a storm of problems before the Nov 4th election because things will be much worse. Resulting in HSR being viewed too big a project to be passed. Especially if Govnator becomes opposed to it.

This is the most likely worst case senario. Yes?

It IS the worst case scenario, but a plausible one as well. Just last month a Contra Costa Times editorial called high speed rail "more cool than practical" as justification for slashing its funding to close the budget deficit.

This thinking is shared by a significant number of Californians, who have gotten it into their heads that in a severe recession such as the one we are entering, government should pull back, spend less, and do as little as possible to help stoke economic growth. This is straight out of Herbert Hoover, but there are a lot of Californians - even those who consider themselves liberals and Democrats - who fall into this trap.

However, I am confident that we can effectively push back against this kind of thinking. The key is to explain to Californians that 1) the HSR bonds are not going to blow a hole in the state's finances, 2) those bonds will bring back three times their value in leveraged funding and 3) if we don't build HSR, California's economy is toast in the 21st century.

As I noted last week, Arnold does appear to have come around and embraced the high speed rail bond plan. It is likely to have his support this fall. How much that matters will be an open question - unless he changes his tune on education cuts, he is going to have a very low popularity rating come November - but his support is better than his opposition at this point.

The HSR bonds, at $9.95 billion, seem like a large amount of money. And they are. But that investment will bring back rewards many times its value. The federal government is likely to provide between $20 and $30 billion in support for our HSR line, especially if a Democrat takes the White House in November. Private investors are already eyeing the project, and Lehman Brothers believes they can bring around $10 billion in funding. Even if that doesn't materialize, CA's bonds are the necessary "down payment" that will bring other funds to the table and get construction started.

Will that be enough to convince voters to take the plunge? Perhaps not. Too many Californians are stuck in outmoded, obsolete 20th century thinking - that in a recession you should cut back spending. The Golden Gate and Bay Bridges were built during the Depression, to help provide jobs as well as plan for future growth. In my high speed rail is economic stimulus post I explained just how much of a boon the project would be to a state entering a severe recession. Bad economic times, then, are actually an argument FOR this project.

More importantly, our economic future depends upon high speed rail. It's that simple. We need to show Californians that if we do not make this investment now, we are kissing the 21st century goodbye, as our economy will collapse when we can no longer travel easily around the state thanks to peak oil and high oil prices. California's present economy is built on cheap oil. Nearly every aspect of our economic activity, from housing to agriculture to movies to high-tech, depends on cheap oil. And certainly our transportation system, which is currently based on freeways and airplanes.

Peak oil alone suggests the towering need for high speed rail. As oil supplies decline rapidly over the next few decades, we will be screwed without a non-oil based alternative. At the same time, oil prices will continue to rise. And even if they did not, it has been estimated in the CHSRA implementation plan that it will cost $80 billion to expand our freeways and airports to meet the expected travel demand. HSR can meet that demand for half the price and at a tiny fraction of the carbon emissions, and without being dependent on fossil fuels.

In 1960 California voters approved nearly $2 billion in bonds to build the State Water Project, including the California Aqueduct, which made possible the last 50 years of economic growth. Same with the billions of dollars we spent on higher education, freeways, and other infrastructure in the 1960s. We are living off that legacy today, but it is fading fast, and we need new infrastructure, that matches new needs and challenges, if California is to prosper in the 21st century.

High speed rail is the most important project this state has considered in the last 50 years. We cannot reject it just because of a temporary budget crisis that can be relatively easily closed. Our future depends upon the passage of these bonds. That's what Californians are going to have tu understand when they vote this fall.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Legislators to Tour European High Speed Rail Systems

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

The California legislature takes its spring break this week, and 12 of them are going to Spain and Japan to learn more about successful high speed rail systems:

Eight California lawmakers are traveling overseas this week to study high-speed rail systems and other matters as the Legislature takes an 11-day spring break.

Assembly members Charles Calderon, D-City of Industry; Mary Hayashi, D-Hayward; Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael; and Roger Niello, R-Sacramento, are on a trip to Spain sponsored by the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy.

Sen. Jim Battin, R-Palm Desert, and Assembly members Anthony Adams, R-Monrovia; Bonnie Garcia, R-Cathedral City; and Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, are part of a delegation visiting Japan.

One reason for the trips is to study the development of high-speed rail systems in both countries. A measure on the November ballot would authorize California to sell nearly $10 billion in bonds to help pay for a 700-mile high-speed rail system linking the state's largest cities.

I post this because it reminds me of last year's spring break trip, where Fiona Ma was aboard the record-setting TGV run - the train topped out at 574 kmh (357 mph).

It's worth noting that Spain's AVE trains were promoted by both the right and the left. Originally begun as a kind of vanity project by the PSOE (Spanish Socialists) to connect Madrid to the 1992 World's Fair in Sevilla, the line turned out to be extremely popular and profitable. PSOE lost the 1996 elections, but their right-wing successors, the Partido Popular, embarked on a major expansion of the system, including lines to Barcelona, Valladolid, Malaga, and a planned line to Valencia. PSOE is back in power in Spain and has completed these plans and announced further ambitions to connect to the Basque Country and to the Portuguese capital, Lisbon.

If Spain's bitter political rivals can agree on the value of HSR, surely California Republicans and Democrats are capable of doing the same. Republicans constantly proclaim themselves to be better for the economy and for business. As I explained yesterday, the economic stimulus that HSR would provide California is considerable. Let's hope that the Republicans on these trips come to their senses and see the need to support this fall's HSR bonds.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

High Speed Rail Is Economic Stimulus

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

The economic news grows worse by the day, and it is sometimes used as an argument against high speed rail - that we cannot afford such an enormous and expensive project at this time. But in fact, it is precisely because we are facing economic disaster that HSR is such a vital project - the most important this state has considered in the last 50 years (since the creation of the California Aqueduct).

Jerome Guillet is a French investment banker who specializes in alternative energy technologies. More importantly, he also runs the community site European Tribune and is a founder of the Energize America 2020 project, designed to wean America from its fossil fuel addiction and provide for new jobs.

And he is one of the foremost economic commentators in the netroots. On Saturday he linked sustainable mass transit - like HSR - to the economic crisis we face, and made a convincing argument that only through a project like California's HSR will America come out of this worsening situation.

Jerome's basic argument, which I have always shared, is that America made an enormous bet in the 1950s - that it could use oil and the automobile as the basis of the economy, society, and transportation instead of rail and mass transit - and that here in 2008, it is clear that bet has been lost. We spent billions creating an infrastructure based on automobiles, and since 1980 have been using debt to continue our economic dependence on oil. Debt was used to mask stagnant incomes, and while this was less problematic in the 1980s and 1990s, soaring oil prices *and oil dependence* in the 2000s led to massively increased debt loads to make up the difference between incomes and costs.

Some might wonder about the role of the housing bubble - isn't that the cause of our present economic troubles? It is, and it proves the point. The housing bubble was, in essence, a double down on the original gamble - that cheap oil would last indefinitely, allowing housing prices to also rise indefinitely, which in turn justified reckless lending practices. It isn't pointed out often enough that the housing bubble popped just as oil prices climbed above $3/gal in 2006-07.

Now our economy is left with massive debt, incomes that stagnate and are therefore unable to pay the debt - that is, a "crisis of solvency" - and a nation that still relies on oil for its transportation needs. That reliance is going to make it much more difficult to grow the economy - oil is now at $110/bbl with little end in sight, creating costs that ripple and cripple the economy.

Jerome points out the obvious course of action:

Too much debt and not enough income was the problem.

And the solution is simple: stop debt (this is happening on its own anyway). and boost income.

How do you do that when there isn't enough money around?

By creating real activity rather than the money-shuffling kind.

And, as it were, there is a sector that is "real" and has an urgent need for action: infrastructure, and in particular energy-related infrastructure.

A plan that focuses on a few simple things:

* massive public support for energy efficiency refurbishment of existing homes;

* a massive, New Deal rural electrifaction scale plan to build renewable energy assets and the corresponding grid infrastructure;

* a similarly massive plan to develop smart public transportation, both locally and intercity

That last point includes High Speed Rail. The California High Speed Rail Authority estimated that 450,000 jobs would be created as a result of building the proposed HSR system - a massive economic stimulus that, because it would be based on sustainable, non-oil energy, would not be subject to the same price fluctuations as the state's current oil-based transportation systems of interstate highways and airplanes.

In the 1950s California approved bonds to create the California Aqueduct, which enabled the last fifty years of economic growth in our state. We are at a similar place now, where we need to invest in some massive public works to not only secure our state's future, but to help ameliorate our present economic crisis. HSR is long overdue in California - so let's not waste any more time, and approve the bonds on this November's ballot.

UPDATE Some key numbers from Grist:

Number of jobs created by spending $1 billion on defense: 8,555

Number of jobs created by spending $1 billion on health care: 10,779

Number of jobs created by spending $1 billion on education: 17,687

Number of jobs created by spending $1 billion on mass transit: 19,795

The warfare state has failed. Perhaps now we can try the high speed rail state?!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

HSR and P3: A Shotgun Wedding?

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

As those of you who have been reading me at Calitics for the last year know, I love high speed rail. And you'd also know that I am deeply skeptical - to put it mildly - of public private partnerships (P3). So what am I to do when they are joined together in a shotgun wedding? From a press release put out by the California High Speed Rail Authority:

California High-Speed Rail Authority Executive Director Mehdi Morshed, joined Governor Schwarzenegger Tuesday in participating in a roundtable discussion at the State Capitol regarding the importance of investing in California's infrastructure and maintaining the state's economic growth through public private partnerships.

Mr. Morshed noted the California proposed system of high-speed trains offers a unique opportunity to develop a new model for “P3” or public private partnership financing....

Mr. Morshed noted that high-speed trains are attractive to private investors because California’s proposed system will bring a $1 billion annual profit or surplus, once built.

Now it's not as if this is totally new. The 2002 Implementation Plan always envisioned that private financing would play some sort of role in the HSR project, although at the time it was expected to be limited to the bonds.

But what exactly is meant by "private financing" - and how bad might this really be for HSR?

The Authority’s finance team anticipates public-private partnership opportunities will include project debt financing, vendor financing, system operations and private ownership.

I can live with private involvement in debt and vendor financing, even though government can always borrow more cheaply. System operations is iffy at best - government runs the French, Spanish, German, and Japanese lines quite well, and when system operations were privatized in Britain, the results were deadly. Private ownership, however, is a line we must not cross - public ownership of infrastructure is key to an effective, safe, and affordable transportation system for Californians. High speed rail is an economic catalyst and an environmental and sustainablity necessity. It needs to be held in public hands for public uses, and not hollowed out for private profit.

And that $1 billion is a very, very enticing figure, especially for private companies and investors, who likely see in public infrastructure the kind of profit opportunities that they are now being denied in real estate and financial speculation. But that $1 billion would also be incredibly useful in building out the full HSR network envisioned in the 2002 Implementation Plan - or extending the service beyond its current routing (building an Altamont Pass alignment, for example).

In Europe, those operating surpluses are regularly plowed back into expansion of the HSR network. Spain's first HSR line, the AVE train from Madrid to Córdoba and Sevilla, proved so profitable that RENFE (Spain's government-owned rail network) was able to plow that money into recent extensions to Malaga, Valladolid, and Barcelona. France's state-owned rail network, SNCF has been able to do the same with expansion of its TGV lines as well. The operating surplus alone does not pay for these projects, but it helps reduce the added bond or tax monies needed to construct the new lines. Or, the surplus could be used to pay the bonds off ahead of schedule.

So there is a strong incentive to use those operating surpluses for HSR upgrades and extensions or bond repayment, instead of handing it over to private investors. But it seems clear that P3 is the price of obtaining Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's support for the plan. From the press release:

The bond measure, which is within the Schwarzenegger Administration’s current debt capacity guidelines, will also provide nearly $1 billion for improvements to local and regional passenger trains projects that complement and connect with the high-speed train system. The bond is also a significant component of the Governor’s Strategic Growth Plan as described in his proposed 2008-09 budget.

That section, especially the language about "debt capacity guidelines," seems a very clear signal to me that Arnold is going to throw his weight behind the November HSR bond - but only because it promotes his goal of P3 for public works.

It's a shotgun wedding, and the question is, how should we react? Is HSR worth the price of P3? Already we're having to accept a lot of tough things to get this project moving. The Pacheco Pass alignment seems less ideal from a ridership and environmental perspective. And the plan floated by Fiona Ma and Cathleen Galgani to drop the insistence that LA-SF be the first line to open risks building a system that contains a missing link.

But neither are these poison pills. As I noted above, the Implementation Plan always called for private investment, to leverage the state, local, and federal funding. What seems more worrisome here is that Arnold is using HSR to advance a privatization agenda that is already being implemented in our state. HSR is too important a project to force into a shotgun wedding with Arnold's privatization push.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

HSR by the Numbers

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The high speed rail movement has just welcomed a powerful new ally to its ranks - the California Public Interest Research Group, or CALPIRG. A recent CALPIRG study, A Better Way to Go: Meeting America's 21st Century Transportation Challenges with Modern Public Transit emphasizes high speed rail as a solution to our environmental and transportation challenges.

Steve Blackledge, a former policy director for CALPIRG, provides some useful stats fleshing out their case:

The report found that thanks to public transit, each year California saves more than 486 million gallons of oil, the rough equivalent of taking more than 800,000 cars off the road. As a result, California is far less dependent on oil than we otherwise would be and consumers are less susceptible to gas price spikes. Additionally, the state of California is committed to reducing our global warming pollution by 25% by 2020, a commitment that will be difficult to reach unless we reduce our dependence on cars. Public transit already prevents almost 3.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution annually....

In fact, this November, California voters will have the opportunity to support a bond measure to cement the state’s commitment to building high-speed rail. The rail line would take up to 92 million car trips off the road each year and take 18 million travelers who would otherwise fly. That means a lot less traffic, a lot less pollution, and billions in avoided costs in road and airport expansions.

We can add some more stats to those Blackledge provides. HSR alone would:

  • Reduce carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to removing 1.4 million cars from the road

  • Reduce CO2 emissions by up to 17.6 billion pounds/year

  • Reduce California’s oil consumption by up to 22 million barrels/year

(From Ryan Loney at the Support HSR Facebook group)

And the $9.95 billion high speed rail bond on the November ballot would direct $950 million toward investment in other intercity rail systems that would link other communities to the HSR line, generating further savings.

Of course, there's one last stat that should be noted. Oil prices neared $110 a barrel in trading today. The price of oil has soared for 5 years now - in 2003 the price was a mere $25/bbl. As peak oil begins to make its presence felt, the price of oil will either continue to soar, or supplies will fall - or both.

High speed rail isn't just an environmentally friendly method of transportation. It is a necessary project if we are to manage the climate and energy crises of this century.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Question Time - HSR Land Impact

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

A recurring feature here at the California High Speed Rail Blog will be answering questions about the project, particularly those that involve common misconceptions on the part of low-information voters. These might be questions that come up in the comments, in e-mail, or on other websites (as is the case with this inaugural edition).

The first one comes from the CAHSR Facebook group:

Where do you propose this railway go? Undeveloped land in CA is practically non-existent and I think we should save what we do have left. This is a great idea, but its large-scale development could do more harm than good for our disappearing CA natural habitat. What do you guys think?

This is a perfect example of someone who has heard about the concept of high speed rail in CA but knows nothing about its details. In fact, the California High Speed Rail Authority produced a detailed Implementation Plan back in 2002.

The plan explains that the HSR tracks will be built alongside existing rails, particularly in urban areas. In the Bay Area, it will follow the Caltrain line from the Transbay Terminal in downtown SF to Gilroy. In SoCal it will follow the Metrolink line from Palmdale to downtown LA, and then south to Irvine. The route to San Diego follows rail lines out to Riverside, and then follows Interstate 15 to downtown SD.

In the Central Valley the HSR tracks will follow the UP line down the spine of the valley from Bakersfield to Sacramento. The only construction along new right-of-way (ROW) would be between the Bay Area and the Central Valley and between the Bakersfield and Palmdale. Even in these cases the line is expected to follow existing roads - such as Highway 152 over the Pacheco Pass - as much as possible.

Following existing ROW - and especially existing track - means that the impact to surrounding communities is minimal, while bringing those cities immense value. The HSR stations would be upgrades and extensions of existing stations, such as LA Union Station, or are already at the centerpiece of urban planning, such as the Transbay Terminal in SF. Virtually all the cities along the line want HSR and support its construction.

The route over the Pacheco Pass is controversial, as will be discussed in future posts here. And although there will be some impacts to land, the environmental benefits of HSR - including its low carbon footprint, non-oil based propulsion, and mass transit aspects - would help mitigate any land impact. Finally, the HSR implementation plan seeks to limit the ability of localities to use HSR as an engine for sprawl, and there have been efforts to write language into the bond proposal to provide strong development rules and open space protection measures.

Consider the alternatives - expansion of airports and freeways is far more damaging to the environment, requires more land, and is more costly to both the state and the individual traveler than HSR.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Will High Speed Rail be Built in Pieces?

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Ever since the California High Speed Rail plan was published in 2002, the proposed bond funding plan has always insisted that the first section to be opened would be the link between LA and SF. Although the full buildout would include lines to Sacramento and San Diego, LA-SF was rightly seen as the backbone of the system, providing a sustainable, reliable, and rapid transportation option linking the state's two main centers. As with European HSR lines, a successful first line generates political support, public enthusiasm, and financial resources to expand the network.

With that in mind I am a bit hesitant to embrace a proposal from Fiona Ma and Cathleen Galgani that would, according to an AP report:

allow the bonds to be used for all segments of the proposed 700-mile rail system. The bond's current language dedicates the money only for the proposed segment between the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas.

I think this is a bad idea, but first, some background.

Significantly, the bill not only has Arnold's backing, but was drafted by the administration's advisers and the California High Speed Rail Authority board of directors. Quentin Kopp, chair of the board, "said he had been told by Schwarzenegger's chief of staff, Susan Kennedy, that the Republican governor supports the bond proposal." Which is certainly welcome news after years of delayed votes (the plan was originally to have been voted on in 2004, and then in 2006).

Ma and CHSRA director Mehdi Morshed explained the new bill this way:

Ma and Mehdi Morshed, the rail board's executive director, said the bill could broaden public support for the bonds by allowing all areas served by the project to compete for money.

The bill would require the board to give top priority for bond funding to segments of the project that could attract the most federal, local government or private financing and that also could be used by other passenger trains.

What is happening here is the resolution to a months-old conflict between the rail board and the governor's office. Arnold had been trying to undermine the project by, as I explained at Calitics in June 2007, insisting that federal and private funding be secured first, *before* going to the ballot - even though that is ass-backward, as a state funding commitment is necessary for the feds and investors to commit. The Ma-Galgani proposal seems to satisfy Arnold's insistence on leveraged funding by privileging those portions of the route that can find it.

Further, it may satisfy a political need. Back in May 2007 I wrote about concerns that the LA-SF priority was going to lose votes in other parts of the state. I didn't buy that thinking then, or now, but it does appear to have combined with the desire to buy Arnold's support at whatever cost to produce this proposal.

And it's not a good proposal. The core selling point - the "killer app" if you will - of the high speed rail plan is that it offers an alternative to flying and driving between the Bay Area and Southern California. Instead of a hassle-filled, expensive, environmentally ruinous flight, or a long, expensive, unsustainable drive, Californians could hop a train in downtown SF and be in downtown LA in 2 1/2 hours.

As we enter the age of peak oil and global warming, perhaps our greatest transportation need as a state will be long-distance intercity service. We will not be able to fly and drive between the two great metropoles of our state for much longer.

But with this plan, it is precisely that portion - LA-SF - that is *least* likely to get bond funding. There are no other local services that can be leveraged, and federal funding is still uncertain (especially if noted train-hater John McCain wins the White House). What this proposal will produce is HSR along the Caltrain line from SF to San Jose, HSR along the Metrolink line from Santa Clarita to LA and Anaheim, and leave an enormous gap in between. A missing link that will hurt ridership and limit political support for the project, while the costs of filling the link continue to soar.

The Ma-Galgani plan is well-intentioned - but wrong. We need to instead make the case to Californians that our state cannot survive without HSR. Emphasize the environmental and sustainability benefits, as well as the convenience. A winning coalition is built not through gimmicks, but through showing people the underlying value of the system.