Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Anaheim-SF by 2014, and more Altamont-Pacheco

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

Today's Modesto Bee reports on efforts by Asm. Cathleen Galgiani to address the Altamont corridor and generate more support in the Stockton-Modesto region for the fall high speed rail bond vote. It's got a ton of information in it, but before I get to the Altamont vs. Pacheco nitty gritty, there's this rather stunning item:

High-speed rail supporters say eventually they'll run tracks north from Merced to Sacramento, passing through Modesto. That could happen by 2020, assuming the Bay Area-Anaheim line is done by 2014, Galgiani said.

That's a game-changing statement. Most public statements on HSR - my own included - have anticipated 2018 to 2020 as the opening date for the system. Galgiani is instead saying just six years out - 2014 isn't that far away. It's much easier for voters to envision a system that opens in five or six years, instead of ten to twelve years. Assuming this is accurate, it could be the deal-clincher with California voters. We should certainly begin playing it up, if we can get some further confirmation (not that I don't trust you, Asm. Galgiani, I just want to be certain).

Once you're done absorbing that, the bulk of the article focuses on the ongoing fight over Altamont vs. Pacheco. Personally I see this like Obama vs. Hillary - the decision has been made so let's move on to the big fight in November instead of dragging this out any further. Unfortunately not everyone sees it that way:

The $950 million carrot "was in the bond from the start," said David Schonbrunn, president of Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund. He said his group will sue to force reconsideration of the Altamont route, which was rejected, he said, because land along the Pacheco alignment is much cheaper.

"This is a real estate deal," Schonbrunn said, "not transportation. We think high-speed rail is the future of California, we think it's crucial and we think they're screwing it up badly."

I'm sorry, but if you consider yourself an environmentalist, or that HSR is the future of California, suing over the alignment runs directly against both goals. It will be immeasurably more difficult to win funds and a public vote for HSR if we have already rejected it - does anyone see Texas and Florida hard at work on an HSR system after they canceled their projects? Didn't think so.

The TRANSDEF arguments on HSR are disingenuous at best. On their site they claim that:

The Pacheco alignment (blue on the map below) would provide no additional public benefits for our region, doing nothing for congested corridors. In controversial (and we suspect corrupt) actions, the Pacheco alignment has nonetheless been recommended by both MTC and the High Speed Rail Authority staff. The only substantial beneficiaries of Pacheco we can see are speculators, who would open up vast areas of undisturbed wetlands habitat for sprawl development (the dark areas in the map below). For these people, public investment in High Speed Rail in the Pacheco Corridor would shower windfall profits on their holdings.

This is bunk. The Pacheco alignment provides service for the Monterey Bay region and provides faster travel times between SF and LA. Moreover, the map on their HSR page falsely implies that an extension to Stockton and Sacramento isn't planned, when instead it will be in the second phase and remains an integral part of the overall proposal.

But the claims of corruption are really too much. I have no reason to defend the CHSRA staff and board but there is no evidence to suggest land speculation. Galgiani's bill will prevent a station from being built at Los Banos, and anyone who bought land around that region expecting an HSR windfall is going to be very disappointed. Of course, as I have argued before, sprawl is an endangered concept thanks to the end of cheap oil. The fears TRANSDEF is trying to stoke here are not supported by any available evidence.

Further, other California environmental groups, like the Sierra Club, appear to have come around and are working constructively with the CHSRA to ensure the best, most environmentally friendly system possible:

Some environmentalists, however, are appeased by the amendment to Galgiani's bill prohibiting stops from Merced to Gilroy, to protect expansive waterfowl habitat. The Sierra Club of California continues to negotiate for resources to help valley agencies plan for transit-oriented development, or growth focused around depots to reduce vehicle trips.

"The role high-speed rail will play will push the valley either toward being more sustainable or less sustainable," Sierra Club advocate Tim Frank said.

Credit where it's due: I was critical of the Sierra Club for not being fully on board, but if their statements in this article are representative, they've made the right choice in working to improve the plan. TRANSDEF should follow suit.

Asm. Galgiani is working instead to improve service along the ACE Altamont corridor to build political support in the Stockton-Modesto region for the fall HSR vote:

Democratic Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani is pushing a bill that could win about one-tenth of the bond money, or $950 million, to upgrade Altamont Commuter Express trains taken by some valley workers to the East Bay. Bullet trains could use improved ACE rails to zip from the valley to the Bay Area in a fraction of the time required by cars, Galgiani said....

Galgiani notes that a recent bill amendment "elevates the focus" of Altamont trains. She envisions ACE adding tracks and grade separations, or running rails over or under roads where vehicles now wait for trains to pass.

"Essentially, we're preparing the ACE system so that it could share tracks with high-speed trains," she said.

ACE trains carry about 3,500 riders daily, including about 350 from Stanislaus County, spokesman Thomas Reeves said. Delay complaints because of conflicts with Union Pacific freight trains could be reduced if ACE had money to build more and longer "sidings," or turn-out spurs, used to let other trains pass, he said.

Galgiani's bill is AB 3034, mentioned in yesterday's post and is coauthored by Fiona Ma of San Francisco. AB 3034 deserves our support. CALPIRG has a online tool to lobby the Assembly to pass AB 3034. Look for this site to step up its activism around this bill, which should help get the bonds passed this fall.

And remember: Anaheim-SF by 2014. Wow.


Tony D. said...

Extremely appalling is the position that Schonbrunn/TRANSDEF have taken on HSR alignments! Why on Earth can they take the same position as Calgiani and the Sierra Club? I guess we could counter attack and claim (falsely) that Schonbrunn/TRANSDEFF have a lot invested in Mountain House/Tracy real estate, but no need to go there. Your 100% right in that the primary alignment into the Bay Area from the south has been decided and that we all need to focus on November. Anyhow Robert, how much power does this Schonbrunn character and TRANSDEFF have? Could they really derail HSR and its sound planning with a frivolous lawsuit? I, along with many others, am perfectly fine with the Pacheco PRIMARY alignment and much upgraded Altamont/Calgiani high-speed corridor.

Brandon in California said...

I support your time and efforts on HSR here, and seem to concur with each post.Keep it up.

I wish ACE had greater ridership. It seems the Altamont alignment and ACE get much more credence than they/it seems to deserve!

Robert Cruickshank said...

I think TRANSDEF is trying to get attention and a lawsuit is a pretty standard tactic for doing that. I doubt it would get very far but the PR would not be helpful. I've always been agnostic on Altamont vs. Pacheco, I don't see much difference between the two, and since a decision has been made, let's stick with it and move forward.

As to ACE, I think it's a great service that deserves support and expansion. Galgiani's approach of using some of the HSR bond money to upgrade it and make it a faster corridor is very smart politics and good rail policy.

Anonymous said...

I think if ACE uses it's share of the bond money wisely to combine tracks that are useable for both ACE and the HS train is a good idea. If they simply upgrade the tracks and not consider a HSR alignment in the future through the Altamont then that money would go to waste.

Although I did not like the Pacheco alignment at first it has grown on me just because it is a move closer to getting this thing built. But I have not forgotten about my preferred route the Altamont. Maybe it can be revived in a second or third phase, I just don't think the East Bay will benefit without it.

Anonymous said...

$95 million for ACE is a useful amount for near-term improvements to the existing service. I'm sure San Joaquin and Amador Valley commuters would appreciate higher speed, but job #1 is getting ACE trains to run on time.

However, this is really just a quick fix intended to appease advocates of the Altamont Pass HSR option in the run-up to the November ballot. Unfortunately, Calgiani may have set unrealistic expectations when she suggested that the Bay Area - Anaheim line would be operational as early as 2014. CSHRA has indicated initial service in 2018-2020 if there are no delays, e.g. lawsuits over Altamont vs. Pacheco.

Moreover, afaik this first round of financing does not cover the Sacramento-Chowchilla and LA-San Diego HSR spurs. Stating that those will be fully operational as early as 2020 could backfire. More realistically, whether round two actually happens at all may well depend on how well the early part of the trunk line project is executed.

In the log run, San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties are expected to experience higher population growth than the rest of the state. At some point, therefore, it will make sense to move beyond minimal commuter rail to full-fledged, fast regional rail service 6-12 times a day in both directions.

Moreover, ACE is currently limited to the Stockton-SJ route. Central Valley to Oakland is served by Amtrak San Joaquin, but it's a slow service that doesn't run through the downtown stations. Also, there is currently no way to transfer to BART in Pittsburg.

Please study this map detailing one alternative for fast regional rail service in the area, based on dual-track alignments. Most sections would be dedicated to passenger service and feature third rail electrification. It avoids the construction of expensive new tunnels through the mountains.

In addition, it leverages existing BART infrastructure via gauge changer stations and bi-modal DMU equipment similar to that being considered for SMART.
In effect, ACE trains would eventually be regularly scheduled "guests" on the BART network. Except for the new Hayward turnoff, existing BART and ACE services would be unaffected by construction.

My proposal goes well beyond Calgiani's and would certainly cost a more than the full $950 million reserved in the bond for feeder services. It is therefore well beyond the scope of the November ballot initiative.

However, if Santa Clara county drops its super-expensive subway pipedream, ACE-on-BART could be implemented as an independent project in parallel with HSR phase one. There would be plenty of money left over for multiple AutoTram routes with frequent service in San Jose, centered on Diridon station.

Anonymous said...

@ tony d. -

TRANSDEF has a history of litigation, some of it successful. And while CSHRA conducted extensive consultation in the EIR/EIS process, it's always a matter of debate if a far-reaching public policy decision affecting so many taxpayers should be taken by a small number of unelected bureaucrats.

This lawsuit could have been avoided if the choice of route had been put to the state assembly instead. Altamont supporters also shot themselves royally in the foot by insisting on a new Dumbarton bridge instead of routing all trains around the South Bay.

Personally, I support the Pacheco alignment because HSR is supposed to be first and foremost a fast link between the Bay Area and SoCal - the two economic hearts of the state. However, the process that led to the decision was - in the eyes of TRANSDEF and others - biased and suspect.

Many are prepared to accept the behind-the-scenes influence of politicians as par for the course. Others are not. You may consider TRANSDEF's lawsuit frivolous, but I doubt a judge is going to dismiss it out of hand. The trouble is, even if they lose they could cause expensive delays and cost over-runs.

That's why it was important for Asm. Gagliani to extend an olive branch, though in the long run I fear it will take more than a few freight bypasses to settle the issue out of court.

Tony D. said...

anon 7:37,
Thanks for commenting on my initial post. It just bugs the hell out of me that some small group that didn't get its way (over alignments) could cause possible delays and cost over-runs with a lawsuit. You're right in that olive branches need to be extended; but they also need to be ACCEPTED. My view as a citizen of Santa Clara County is that if BART to SJ doesn't happen, why not put that funding (now pegged at $6 billion) towards a full-fledged ACE high-speed corridor. Talk about an expensive "olive branch" from people who supported the Pacheco alignment! $4-6 billion for ACE, in conjunction with other monies, would get SCCounty/Bay Area TWO high-speed rail lines, which in my view is the ultimate scenario. By beloved San Jose doesn't get its sexy urban metro, but our entire region benefits with a shifting of Measure A funding/priorities.

Robert, anyway you could forward my idea to someone who is "large and in charge." Diridon, Guardino, etc.?

Anonymous said...

I think a lot of people forget that cities along the Altomont corridor DO NOT WANT the high speed rail running through their backyard (i.e. Fremont, Livermore, Pleasanton). They found out the route would need to be expanded to 4 tracks running over the hills and they didn't like that idea. If I recall correctly, the city councils spoke out against the project.

So it makes me mad people are taking out their angers on the CAHSR authority alignment choice. Go take your anger out with your city councils which you voted into office. I too thought the HSR alignment would attract more riders through the Altomont Pass, but changed my opinion when the city councils spoke out against it. Suit yourselves.

Besides, if the HSR project is a huge success, which I believe it will be. Caltrain can use some of their equipment to add/run an east line and allow more room on the tracks between San Jose and SF. Making a spider web of commuter trains.

Lets just start building the segment as planned for alleviating congestion between SF an LA. People need to realize that not everyone can have this train run next to them, but get over it. This is why we are falling behind on everything we do. Too much politics!!

Robert Cruickshank said...

Well, tony d., I don't have any pull with the CHSRA board (despite what our critics say). But taking the $6 billion from the BART to San José project that is never going to happen would be a good way to get the money we're looking for to upgrade the Altamont corridor, along with some of the money that Galgiani is seeking from the November bond.

As to TRANSDEF, on what basis exactly are they planning to sue? Why would a judge take them seriously? Their threat is to try and tie up the CHSRA in litigation. It's pointless and damaging to the environmental, economic, and transportation needs of our state.

As to the decision-making process, leaving it up to the Legislature would have been very unwise. They would not have had it settled until later this year, as the budget is pushing aside all other issues. It was right to have the CHSRA decide it. Pacheco has been chosen and let's make it work instead of endlessly rehashing this argument. That horse isn't getting any deader.

Kevin Gong said...

Unfortunately, I think Assemblywoman Galgiani's statement that HSR might be ready by 2014 won't pan out in terms of engineering. That's 6 years from now, and the funding hasn't even been secured yet nor do I believe that CAHSRA has contracted with anyone for construction of any portion of the system. Take the Transbay Terminal for one, it's not slated to be complete until 2019 at the earliest. I'd love to see it, but I'm not sure how that's realistic...

I've never heard of these TRANSDEF people, but I agree with you Robert. They're beating a dead horse, and arguing over the alignment at this point only hurts the project overall. I do applaud Asm. Galgiani for pushing for a greater share of feeder system funds going towards ACE; this can only improve HSR in the Bay Area.

Tony D. said...

I can't remember the source, but I do recall reading something about certain segments of the HSR line opening around 2013; ie San Francisco to San Jose line, Irvine to LA. Perhaps it's easier to bring the current Caltrain line up to speed as opposed to segments in the mountains (tunnels, bridges). Can you foresee the HSR line being opened in phases or all in one segment in 2018?

Brandi Eng-Rohrbach said...

Here's an article about the return of a Coast Daylight service on Amtrak from a Central Coast newspaper. Interestingly, the article says the supporters of this are thinking of opposing high speed rail. I know this doesn't pertain directly to the battle of the passes but it is rail news in another part of the state that won't reap the benefits of HSR.

Anonymous said...

The inclusion of the 950 millions in the fall bond measure is nothing but pork. It was included to get various other transportation agencies (I believe there are 36 in the Bay area alone) from opposing the bond measure.

After all there is only so much money to go around. Were these agencies going to get nothing while the total pot was going to be delivered to CHSRA?

It is all money and politics.

Anonymous said...

If the Altamont alignment is built, is it suitable for high speed rail? The present ACE alignment takes 2 hours from Stockton to San Jose. It has a lot of turns.

- Wad