Thursday, March 6, 2008

Will High Speed Rail be Built in Pieces?

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

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.


無名 - wu ming said...

the killer political app is that a major infrastructure plan is including the central valley. i share the concern that leaving sac out of the first stage sort of screws over an area that desperately needs more transportation infrastructure (and the fear that they'll never get around to building out spur), but i understand the strategy of starting with the main leg first.

altamont pass would have made it easier to sell to gagliani's constituency.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Initially I did not think the two options were that much different - but it does seem now that Altamont was the better choice.

There was strong pressure on the CHSRA board, especially from members of Congress, to choose Pacheco. Given the need for federal funding the board wasn't really in a position to disagree.

Brandon in California said...

No, Pacheco was not the better choice. See my 9/27/07 post here:

CHSRA - Valley to Bay Area EIR/EIS

Basically, Altamont means HSR lines/routes would be split to serve additional end terminals. Assuming line capacity is capped, eventually less service would be enabled to the different lines.

San Francisco would get less service if Altamont were selected. So would San Jose.

無名 - wu ming said...

farley -

but the delta cities of sacramento, stockton, modesto would be a whole lot closer to a HSR station, and the 580 corridor wouldn't be left stranded, with the altamont route.

when one looks at it from a non-bay area vantage point, pacheco becomes a whole lot less compelling. patting the fastest growing, most-polluted segment of the state on the head and telling them to wait their turn isn't a terribly wise political strategy in the long run, especially if this thing ends up delayed on the sacramento-stockton spur.

bond measures are a whole lot easier to pass when all major regions trust that they're getting benefit from the infrastructure. a look at the election map for the transportation and levee bond acts a while back reveals that the supposedly anti-tax, small government valley is more than happy to pay if they think they're in on the deal.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand why they can't just have the train go strait under the bay from SF to Oakland and then follow the I-80 over to Sacramento. With the Pacheco route, there will be no good way to travel from SF to Sacramento. Furthermore, everyone is talking about doing the SF-LA trunk line first, when it would be more reasonable to do an SF-Sacramento line and an LA-San Diego line first, and then connect the two through San Jose. The whole route is poorly-designed.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Testing for Wordpress import.