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.


Pantograph Trolleypole said...

Looks like he is out of touch with Californians if he doesn't know I-5 gets crowded all the time. I drive down to visit my sister a few times a year and its ridiculous.

luis d. said...

He must be blind to not see the congestion on I-5 in parts where their are no city's in the middle of nowhere! I-15 is also a good example, and I-580 is horrible daily even at times (Hours) on the weekend! This project is initially serving long distance travelers, and buisness people from L.A to S.F, but hopefully once it's built it will also be of great use to commuters both in L.A and the Bay Area! Maybe the Altamont alignment will help people in the valley get to their jobs into the Bay Area and aleviate some traffic from I-580 since it is a major artery into the East Bay!

Martin Engel said...

Hi, Robert. As we move into the summer bond measure lobbying season, we may find more people saying no to this train, all your energetic support to the contrary notwithstanding.

• No, the tickets from SF to LA won't be $55 in ten years.
• No, there will not be 117,000,000 million passengers per year.
• No, there will not be annual revenue of $3 billion and profits of $1 billion.
• No, the train will not take huge numbers of cars off any road, including I –5
• No, it won't be faster than flying.
• No, it won't be environmentally better in 10 years.
• No, the $9.95 billion will not be enough from taxpayers; we will be "hit" on for much, much more.
• No, the total costs will not be $40 or even $50 billion; it will be more like $100 billion or more by the time of completion.

I shall ask you, today, one question only: How much money do you believe would be too much to spend on this project, $40 billion, $80 billion, $100 billion; that is, is there any upper limit in your mind that would be excessive?

Anonymous said...

martin engel
Do the airlines or Auto Industry pay you? Or are you just Mentally Ill? You have no discussion since your points are NO just because you say so and nothing more! Denial is what you seem to be spreading! Well I say your wrong and this project will get funded so get out of this and all 1,000 + blogs, threads and any other websites relating to Rail & HSR just spreading dumbness like a disease!

Anonymous said...

Wow Martin. Will it cost $55 in 20 years? Due to inflation, probably not. Will it be the equivalent of $55 today? Far more likely. Will any plane that flies using jet fuel be able to compete at that price? Unless new sources of oil are found to drop the prices back to the golden age for consumers in the late 80's and 90's, I highly, highly doubt it. Your hatred of trains is a shame. They are the solution to keeping mobility in the future when gas will become cumbersomely expensive. Spend money now or spend oodles more in the future. I also love your faster than flying comment. Sure, the flight will be quicker, but that leaves out so much more of that journey. You are supposed to arrive an hour and a half before your flight and unless you live right next to the airport you will also need to account for that. Then you have to deal with the hassle of the metal detectors. Then you need to wait for checked luggage if you have any, account for what will likely be plenty of air traffic delays, etc. Hopefully you get the point.

Anonymous said...

Ticket prices. Let's at least make sure we're comparing apples to apples.

I went to and priced flights from San Jose to Burbank on April 25-27. Let's say the plan is to go down Friday night and come back Sunday night.

Both directions, I can get a $39 flight in the morning but afternoon-evening is $67 to $96.

In real life, I've never been able to use those super-cheap fares to travel on my schedule. They're either sold out or not at the times I want to go.

$55 (in today's dollars) is near the low end of what Southwest is charging, and probably lower than what most people end up paying.

And we haven't even added the airport "facility fees" yet.

Anonymous said...

Hey Martin, How about the $450 billion the federal government spent on the interstate system between 1960 and 1993. WITHOUT GOVERNMENT SUBSIDIES THERE WOULD BE NOWHERE TO DRIVE YOUR CAR!!!


Robert Cruickshank said...

Hey, anonymous, play nice. martin engel is wrong but we're not going to tolerate personal attacks here.

nicolasm and miketeevee have given good responses to martin's claims. I would just add a few things:

1. The overall cost of HSR must be placed in context. Air travel is going to become more expensive - the era of cheap tickets is coming to an end. Inflation means the price will be higher than $55 in 2018, yes, but it will likely be far more affordable than driving and flying.

2. Most of martin's comment is merely his own assertions, either not backed by evidence or flying in the face of evidence. A few days back I posted the recent stats from the Northeast Corridor, where the Acela trains now have 41% of the overall market share. That ought to put to bed any notion that it won't attract numerous passengers.

3. The beauty of HSR is that it serves both commuters AND long-distance travelers. Both have a need for high speed service, and HSR would provide this with a mix of express and local trains.

Note: there will be no April 1 post here, owing to my coming down with this nasty flu bug.

Anonymous said...


I hope you sent a letter/email to that effect to the Bee.
Commentators have a tendency to live in an argument-based world not in a fact-based one. A hazard of their profession.

Rubber Toe said...

Hi Robert,
Nice yo have come across your blog. I may post comments from time to time if I have something to add.

Concerning your initial post about "peak oil". Most people or organizations who banter about whether it makes sense to build the train don't ever get into this discussion. A very big part of whether it makes sense to build it centers around what the alternatives cost, the alternatives being to increase the capacity of the airports or increase the capacity of the highways.

If people are going to either drive or fly, then they are going to be using oil, barring a switch to an alternative fuel system in the next 20 years. Peak oil comes into play because as the supply of oil starts decreasing, the cost starts increasing. While the recent price increases may or may not be attributable to speculators, the basic concepts of supply and demand win out in the end, and we will see *much* higher oil prices in the future. The more cars they build and drive in China and India will dictate the upward slope of the oil cost curve.

While it is virtually guaranteed that the price of oil will be increasing in the future, the exact opposite holds true for electricity provided by renewable energy. The cost of power from wind and solar, while currently more than conventional sources, is decreasing over time. So, to effectively compare the cost of a 1) train ticket, 2) airplane ticket or 3) two tanks of gas 20 years in the future is a pretty big WAG no matter who you are. For example, if you had said 3 years ago that oil would be $100 per barrel when it was then $20, you would have been laughed out of the room. Same thing if I said that in 20 years oil would be $500 per barrel. Point is, nobody knows for sure.

It's a question of whether you want to be making a long term (i.e. 30 years) bet that the price of oil will flatten out and not keep increasing, or do you want to bet that renewable energy will be cheap enough by then to *massively* shift the equation in favor of the trains versus planes/cars.

To those that say that $40 billion is too expensive, and that the system might end up costing $100 billion I would pose the following question back... First, tell us how much it is going to cost to expand the airports and highways to handle the same capacity, then tell us how much it is going to cost to operate those systems when oil costs it's current $100 per barrel, $200 per barrel, and finally $500 per barrel. I have not done the calculation but it would be interesting to see the result.

Assumptions drive the outcome. While things like the cost to expand airports, build highways, and even build trains are quite a bit easier to predict because they have all been done before, predicting the cost of a dwindling resource 20-30 years into the future is not something that you want to make a big bet on. If you build the train and power it with wind and solar power, you are guaranteed that the operational cost to run the train will *never* increase due to energy costs. Of course this assumes long term contracts and even perhaps dedicated power plants, but people building wind and solar projects are very happy to sign long term contracts. Try to find a natural gas power plant to sign a fixed cost 20 year supply agreement...


Anonymous said...

I support high-speed rail, but also agree with Dan Walter's editorial.

With the ill-advised decision to route the line through the Pachecho alignment, the HSR is simply not attractive or useful to anyone living in Sacramento, or the northern part of the valley. As we get closer to election time, there will be many more editorials like this -- not just in Sacramento, but also in the East Bay.

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