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.


Martin Engel said...

1. You basically make four points here as you stress the necessity for convincing California voters of the efficacy of these points, regarding the high-speed train: 1. It’s necessary for our economic survival, 2. It’s “affordable,” 3. It’s necessary for our transportation needs, and 4. It’s necessary for our climate needs.

2. That premise is based upon the theory that the government needs to pump tax dollars into the economy and this high-speed train is the vehicle for doing that. If that were indeed the case, then this train is the least likely expenditure that this state should be making. There are so many far higher priorities that such investments are called for, such as urban/regional transit in the northern and southern population centers, for example, that an expensive luxury train deserves to be relegated to the bottom of any shopping list for the state. Water issues, school issues, health issues, existing infrastructure issues, and these critical concerns are just off the top of my head, require state support well beyond what they presently receive. You know as well as any one that it is much more newsworthy to build things for which politicians can cut ribbons than to invest in repair and maintenance of existing roads and bridges. But the health of our economy rests far more with maintenance and repair, not building new, dazzling toys.

3. Affordability is a highly subjective variable. I ask you this question again, how much is too much? They now say $42 billion. They say that only $9 billion will come from state bonds. You can’t believe that. Bay Bridge? Boston Big Dig? Is, let us say, $100 billion too much for this train, even with all its ostensible virtues? Do you really believe that European trains are “profitable?” Has any American passenger train ever been “profitable?” Please, Robert, start doing some homework other than Morshed’s press releases.

4. Necessary for our transportation needs? Have they convinced you of the massive gridlock of cars on I – 5 that will require a train that is predicted to carry 117,000,000 people each year from SF to LA? Have you driven up and down I – 5 on various days? Peak oil? Who says so, the petroleum industry? Gas price panic may be premature; the market seems to be working as demand now drops. Anyhow, it’s not a supply problem. Just how many moms and dads need to go to Orange County for Christmas in 2020? Divide that number by the cost of building and operating this train. It sounds like you are selling “new and improved” toothpaste. Bottom line here; this train will not advance or even impact transportation in California.

5. Climate needs. Have you any idea what the environmental impact of the construction will be? The manufacture and maintenance of the hardware, rolling and otherwise? Do you know what is going on globally, regarding climate change? The global distribution of coal, for example? What we do or don’t do in California is Mickey Mouse regarding greenhouse gasses. How will this train “eliminate 12.4 billion carbon emission pounds per year? What if it doesn’t actually reduce vehicular traffic anywhere in the state, but, in fact, increases it? There’s a lot of wishful thinking and very little independent analysis going on. Let me say this as bluntly as I can; this train won’t improve our climate.

Robert, every one of your issues and arguments emanate from the promoters of the train who obviously have an intense vested interest in getting it funded. What you call “the common theme” is your common theme, not the inevitable conclusion based on the data you cite. The train is a solution looking for problems. Voila, it (and you) found them.

Robert Cruickshank said...

I'm sorry you believe that my words and ideas are merely parroting the CHSRA. I've read maybe one or two of their releases, and as far as I can tell they haven't exactly been putting it in the terms I have. I'd *love* it if they did. But this is all mine.

I also think we're going to continue talking past each other. You won't accept peak oil as reality - the folks writing at The Oil Drum aren't oil company flacks - and you are far too quick to dismiss the environmental impact of the train.

You also seem pretty determined to view this train as an "expensive luxury," which it's not - and I could point you to the page in the CHSRA implementation plan (page 24) that lists the operating surpluses of existing HSR systems, but you'll probably just dismiss it as the creation of CHSRA flacks.

It's just not worth debating with someone who won't accept evidence. I'd much rather talk with the undecided Californians instead of a person who has already closed his mind to this concept.

As to government spending for the economy, HSR is certainly not the only or even the first expenditure that should be made. We've been on the wrong track as a state for 30 years, and that's given us a hell of a lot of catching up to do. But that doesn't mean we don't try. HSR would be economic stimulus in the immediate and the long-term future, just as the bay bridges were in the depths of the depression.

Unknown said...

High speed rail is needed as the cornerstone of the new transportation plan that California will have imposed on it by the very economy and the cost of oil/gasoline. California is so suited for rail it's almost amazing. We spend billions on additional road building to our own detriment when the costs of the blind continuance of that policy will eat us alive both in initial cost and in continuing costs and environmental costs.

I had to laugh over the I-5 strawman, has that commenter driven on the freeways at either end of I-5 to the Bay Area, the Stockton-Sacramento area, or the Los Angeles area. Clogs are becoming the norm.

Once we have high speed rail the connections of medium and low speed rail will come to it.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Thanks Rolf. It once took me 9 hours to drive from LA to Berkeley via I-5 in the Central Valley near Christmas a few years back - traffic crawled at around 20mph from Coalinga to Tracy.

And one thing I didn't add, though I intended to, was that HSR would help upgrade existing commuter rail. Caltrain, for example, would be able to use HSR's overhead wires for their own trains, making for both cleaner and more frequent runs along the peninsula.

Anonymous said...

dont california bond measures require 66% approval?

Robert Cruickshank said...

No, only tax increases require a 2/3 vote. Hopefully that rule will be changed this year as part of an overall solution to and reform of the state budget problem, but we don't need 2/3 for this.

Anonymous said...

People like "martin engel" are the people we need to dodge because they think their so right they're so wrong! Much of what he said didn't make sense! I mean all this MIS-INFORMATION from these people is bad for the project since people aren't informed or just ignorant people who don't have the common sense to see the benefit of this project.

Anyway I have one question Robert, you said Caltrain will be able to use the same overhead wiring. Will it be able to go at a higher speed on those tracks? Or will Caltrain just slow the High Speed Train like the Acela on the NE Corridor?

Make it two questions, Now that Pacheco has been chosen for the route, will Altamont still be constructed in a late phase? If so will ACE train be upgraded to Electric overhead and It's own tracks next to the UPRR tracks? Maybe go faster? Thanks for your efforts in this project!

Robert Cruickshank said...

I don't know the details of how Caltrain and HSR would share the route, although I don't think they were planning on sending trains up the Peninsula at 200mph anyway. In a densely populated area they're going to have to run closer to 100mph. I know the CHSRA has done studies on this but I don't have the link offhand. The fastest speeds were always going to be attained in the empty spaces; most HSR lines are like that.

Another difference is that much, much more of the CA HSR route is through open spaces and unbuilt land, allowing for faster speeds on a much larger proportion of the route than Acela.

As to the Altamont corridor, the CHSRA has designated it as a "high speed commuter rail" corridor - and presumably some of the $950 million in the bond targeted at other non HSR passenger rail systems might go to ACE. There are indeed plans to build separate tracks for the ACE trains and ideally have an electric overhead, but it will need to be funded.

Anonymous said...

Martin Engel lives on the Caltrain right-of-way slated to carry the CHSR between SF and SJ. Almost any google search for a transit project in the bay area will yield a detailed protest from Mr. Engel in the first 10 search results (I don't know this guy but just search "dumbarton rail corridor" "Caltrain electrification" or something else like that and there he is.)

Anonymous said...

To all of the train supporters out there, please keep up your support of this far-reaching project. I am from the Bay Area and I have lived in Europe for many years and I know how nice it is to be able to nearly always have the option of riding a train instead of driving a car. It's a great way to go for anyone who needs time to study, work on a computer and it's certainly more fun for children than sitting in a car (some train cars even have play areas with slides, etc.).

It is very encouraging to see the momentum growing behind this project. The passenger rail tracks that are laid in the near term will help make it easier for California to reduce its climate footprint and provide a fuller breadth of transportation options (and transit oriented development) in the long term.

Thank you!