Thursday, April 17, 2008

Feds Ready to Drop Big Money on HSR - But Will the Sierra Club Block It?

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

The current issue of Capitol Weekly is full of HSR material, including columns from Quentin Kopp and US Rep. Jim Costa in favor of the project. We'll get to those tomorrow, but of more immediate interest is this article by Anthony York on recent political developments surrounding our HSR plan.

One of the most welcome pieces of news is that Congress is looking to throw down some serious money on HSR next year:

A delegation of state high-speed rail board members recently went back to Washington D.C. seeking an answer to that very question. And the answers, according to Crane, were encouraging.

State officials say they have received indications from members of Congress that there will be roughly $60 billion set aside for high-speed rail projects nationwide in next year's federal transportation bill. And they are further encouraged that California, which is further along than any other state in its high-speed rail development, is well positioned to capture some of that money.

But, said Crane, "it will require a strongly unified and aggressive California Congressional Delegation" to capture some of those funds for the state high-speed rail program.

$60 billion is a pretty stunning number. The CHSRA has been aggressive in pursuing it - a major reason for having chosen the Pacheco alignment was that California members of Congress pressured the Authority to choose it. And given that no other HSR project in the country is anywhere close to being as developed as ours, it bodes well for the project finances. Of course, this is dependent on a Democrat winning the White House, as John McCain is a noted train hater.

It's also dependent on the California environmentalist community. Their support for HSR would seem to be a no-brainer - it would get millions of Californians out of their cars and planes, would provide dramatic carbon emissions reductions, and would kick off a national trend of moving toward sustainable, renewable, environmentally friendly transportation solutions. Reversing the American dependence on pollution-spewing transport would seem to be a holy grail for environmental activists - it sure is for me.

But not so much for the Sierra Club:

Meanwhile, some environmental opposition remains. The Sierra Club's Tim Frank said that while his group is encouraged by the decision not to build a rail station in those protected grasslands between Gilroy and Merced, his group still has concerns with the project.

"High-speed rail will be growth-inducing in the Central Valley," said Frank. "The question is, will it be good growth or bad growth?"
Frank said he wants to give the High-Speed Rail Authority some say over land use decisions as the Central Valley continues to grow.

"Now is the time when we have some leverage," Frank said.

I am as strong an anti-sprawl advocate as you are likely to find on the internets. But the Sierra Club is barking up the wrong tree here. They are defining themselves as an exclusively anti-growth organization, even at the expense of transformative action on global warming and pollution.

Sprawl needs to be ended in the Central Valley. But we also have to realize that sprawl is NOT a force of nature. It is instead a product of three major factors: cheap oil, cheap credit, and favorable land use laws. The first is disappearing for good, thanks to peak oil. The second doesn't exist now, and may never return. As a result the Central Valley is now the world leader in foreclosures. Certainly land use policies will need to change there, as they must statewide. But why should HSR alone carry that burden? AB 32 carbon reduction goals should be applied to new housing developments, and ultimately, localities will have to change their ways.

The loss of cheap oil and the shortage of cheap credit together will lessen sprawl dramatically in the coming decades. I fully support land use changes to further kill off sprawl, but it's not worth holding HSR hostage to produce the changes that need to happen anyway at the state and local level.

Unfortunately the Sierra Club has been attacking electric rail transportation more and more of late. In Seattle, where I lived from 2001 to 2007, the Sierra Club joined with right-wingers to successfully kill a ballot measure to provide a 70-mile expansion of the region's light rail system. The plan was unfortunately linked to an expansion of local roads, but the Sierra Club's opposition included the flawed charges that the light rail stations would have induced sprawl in suburban Seattle (flawed because Washington State's Growth Management Act would have prevented most sprawl). The Sierra Club promised to support a rail-only ballot measure in Seattle in 2008, but so far that support has so far been withheld.

Cathleen Galgani has addressed some of the Sierra Club's concerns in a new bill, written about in the Capitol Weekly article:

The bill makes one major concession to environmentalists, explicitly stating that there will be no rail station in Los Banos. Environmental groups including the Sierra Club opposed the Los Banos station, saying it would damage protected grasslands in the Central Valley.

I agree that there was no compelling need for a Los Banos station. And the Sierra Club can play a valuable role in ensuring that the Pacheco Pass route is designed and built with maximum respect for the surrounding landscape. But especially with the Los Banos change, the Sierra Club would be well-advised to declare victory and join us in supporting one of the most environmentally necessary and useful projects this state has ever considered.

Especially when there is up to $60 billion waiting for us in DC.


Rubber Toe said...

I'm speaking here as a lifetime member of the Sierra Club. Believe me, you have absolutely nothing to worry about when it comes to whether or not the Sierra Club will support or oppose the HSR ballot proposition come November. They will unequivocally support it. And I wouldn't be surprised to see them throw some money behind ads to support it. If the airlines start spreading FUD it is even more likely that the Sierra Club would feel the need to step into the debate.

Take a look at their official transportation policy here:

They have a paragraph devoted to stating why they prefer electric intercity rail over expanding airports or the highway system.

They have even gone so far as to send out mailings to encourage their members to write their congressperson and senators to support specific bills related to HSR. Here is one example of that back in 2001:

If you are really worried about what the Sierra Club thinks about the upcoming proposition, I would encourage you to send them an e-mail and ask specifically for a policy statement concerning the proposition. As the election approaches, assuming the politicians don't pull it off again like the last 2 times, such a statement from the Sierra Club will no doubt be coming out. I may write a letter to the national organization requesting this. A nice donation may even get us a response sooner rather than later :-)

The only reason that I could imagine they might hesitate would be if the alignment went through Henry Coe state park. I do remember reading about some opposition to that alignment. Would anyone happen to know what the current plan is for that area? I'm not in a position to dig it out of the environmental plan at the moment.

I do remember that my first thought on hearing about the opposition to the idea of running it through the park was "Why not just tunnel under it and avoid the conflict"? Then I heard that some people were even opposed to that idea, which seems crazy. If you build it under the park and leave the park untouched whats the problem?


Rubber Toe said...

And speaking of dropping big money, take a look at this news that came out just today:

If you crunch the numbers in the article it works out to about $38 million per mile, and they would get it done in 5 years. If the LA-SFO leg is 390 miles, you're looking at about $15 billion.

The Chinese are smart enough to drop $31 billion to connect Beijing to Shanghai by HSR and the pundits over here are telling everyone how stupid we are for trying to do something similar in California. They should start telling the Chinese government what a bad idea it is, and why nobody will ride it, and leave us alone.

Maybe we should just write the Chinese construction company a check and turn them loose?


Robert Cruickshank said...

In December 2007 when the Pacheco alignment was chosen Bill Allayaud, director of Sierra Club California, threatened to sue over the choice which would have a devastating impact on the HSR bond vote this fall.

No such suit appears to have materialized, but it wasn't exactly a confidence-inspiring statement.

I definitely hope that the Sierra Club will back HSR, but their threats on CA HSR and their sabotage of the light rail plan in Seattle last year still give me cause for concern. I'm heartened to see that their official transportation policy supports intercity rail, but the real test of that policy is whether they will actively support the California HSR plan. It's easy to support a concept in theory, but what matters is whether a group supports a plan that is not perfect, not ideal.

I've heard concern about going through Henry W. Coe State Park, but I don't see why an HSR alignment would go through there - the plan is to have a station at Gilroy and follow Highway 152 over the Pacheco Pass, which would not impact the Coe park at all. As I understand it, the main environmental concerns are at the pass itself (there's a state park there) and with some of the grasslands and wetlands east of the pass, near Los Banos. But proper design and engineering should be able to avoid major damage and mitigate any impacts.

The Sierra Club's m.o. has always been to drive a hard bargain. In some cases that is valuable. But more and more, they have been using that tactic against fellow progressives and to the detriment of environmentally friendly transportation. I hope it doesn't happen here.

As to China, their HSR line should provide a strong boost to our own - showing to Californians "if we want to remain competitive in the global economy, surely we need to match this kind of infrastructure investment." Those who oppose HSR are happy to see California's economy stagnate.

Anonymous said...

hold the phone there second Robert. While it is impressive that the Chinese can move this quickly on huge projects, but I'll take slow-ass democracy any day over modernization "borne from the barrel of a gun"

The Chinese are a model for what you can do if you don't give a sh*t about the environment, the people, or anything other than showing off for the world.

I'm glad that the Sierra Club has spoken up, even though I think that they are wrong. I'm sure that they will get on board, provided that no one wants to build HSR through a state park, of course.

It seems like their big problem was a Los Banos station, which is now moot, the next step is to regulate zoning and new growth around future stations in the central valley where there is minimal development, and encourage higher density development in places like Palo Alto and Fresno and the like.

Anonymous said...

@ Robert -

I'm not so sure the airline industry is in fact spreading FUD on HSR, which would free up slots for more lucrative long haul flights. There are no plans for additional runways for any Bay Area airport, which is why SFO director Martin strongly supports HSR in California.

In response, I sent emails to both SFO Customer Service and Dan Leavitt at the CHSRA suggesting that they reserve IATA and ICAO codes to refer to HSR stations in airline booking systems. SFO Customer Service welcomed the idea, Mr. Leavitt has not replied yet.


Proposed IATA and ICAO codes for California High Speed Rail & Desert XPress stations

Objective: codesharing in airline reservation systems

Convention: IATA train station names should start with Q, X or Z and not conflict with existing train station or airport codes anywhere in the world. To avoid confusion, pick X as the first letter for all IATA railway station codes for California and Nevada HSR. For the corresponding ICAO code and consistency, prefix with K for region USA (lower 48 states).

Note: some obvious codes are already taken, others would sound too similar to either existing codes or new ones proposed here if communicated verbally.

Verification: codes are unique on Apr 15, 2008 (non-authoritative)

XTT KXTT San Francisco Transbay Terminal**
XSK KXSK San Francisco 4th & King**
XRC KXRC Redwood City*
XPO KXPO Palo Alto*
XMV KXMV Mountain View*
XSJ KXSJ Santa Clara/SJC**
XDI KXDI San Jose Diridon

XOL KXOL Oakland
XOA KXOA Oakland Coliseum/OAK
XUN KXUN Union City

XSO KXSO Sacramento
XST KXST Stockton
XMO KXMO Modesto

XBA KXBA Bakersfield
XBU KXBU Burbank
XUS KXUS Los Angeles Union Station

XNW KXNW Norwalk
XAN KXAN Anaheim

XCI KXCI City of Industry
XRI KXRI Riverside
XMT KXMT Murrieta
XEC KXEC Escondido
XUY KXUY University City
XSA KXSA San Diego

XSR KXSR San Bernardino**
XVV KXVV Victorville**
XLV KXLV Las Vegas (Nevada)**

* only one of these needed, Mtn View may make most sense
** reserved for future use

Rubber Toe said...

When I spoke of airlines spreading FUD, I was thinking back to this episode, where Texas granted authority to a private consortium to build an HSR system. Southwest Airlines essentially killed the system:

It will be interesting to see what the airlines will have to say about the HSR proposition. Maybe the only good thing working in our favor is that they are so strapped for cash, they won't have any money to fight against it.

The HSR would probably take at least 50% of the business away from the LAX-SFO corridor, if you look at London-Paris as an example. If the airlines aren't making any money on short haul, then they should be happy to give that segment up. Apparently Southwest was making money back in the 90's when they fought against the Texas HSR system.

And yes, I was speaking a bit tongue in cheek suggesting that we write the Chinese a check and let them build the system. Their environmental record is abysmal.


Anonymous said...

@ robert -

check out this interactive map of
Southwest airlines destinations.

Aircraft are most profitable when they are in the air. Short-haul flights involve a lot of time on the ground, increased wear and tear and high fuel consumption. Given chronic congestion at the primary CA airports, increased FAA vigilance / lawsuits and expensive oil, codesharing sounds like a good idea for growing Southwest's total revenue.

Also, HSR would be much faster than Metrolink and make Southwest service to and from Ontario airport that much more attractive. Idem for Palmdale.

Robert Cruickshank said...

I'm sure the airlines will fight HSR. They may be having cash flow issues but they have a way of finding money to lobby to protect their current dominance of intrastate travel.

Still, I don't think it will work this time. Folks are getting fed up with air travel. A lot of that is the fault of the TSA and "security theater" but the cost of air travel is undeniably rising. A lot of the support for HSR in California isn't about peak oil or carbon reductions but about having a better, more comfortable way to travel.

The CA HSR system will easily take 50% of the market share between SF and LA - already the Acela has 41% of the Northeast Corridor, even though that's not a true HSR system. Given the inability of airports to expand, the steadily increasing cost of oil, and financial problems with the airlines, I wouldn't be surprised if HSR takes more than 50% share within the first 10 years.

As I understand it, LA World Airports (LAWA) - the City of LA's agency that operates LAX, Ontario, and Palmdale airports - is counting on HSR to help with their expansion plans. Since it is next to impossible to expand capacity at LAX, LAWA is trying to shift flights and passengers to Ontario and Palmdale - and HSR is key to that strategy's success.