Monday, May 19, 2008

Fiona Ma: It's Now or Never

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

As you probably know by now, we here at the California High Speed Rail blog are HUGE fans of Fiona Ma. She has taken the lead on high speed rail in the state legislature, and her trip on the record-breaking TGV journey in April 2007 was the turning point in public awareness for high speed rail in our state.

Last month Ma attended the Ecocity 2008 conference in San Francisco, and gave a powerful speech explaining the environmental and economic benefits of high speed rail. Among the points she mentioned was that transportation is the largest source of California's carbon emissions, and that the only way we will meet our AB 32 targets is to build high speed rail. The video below covers the speech, at around 10 minutes long (Ma's remarks begin at 00:45).

One of the key points she made was that California's leadership is crucial for the rest of the country to embrace high speed rail. "If we do not pass it in November, we will never have high speed trains in the US," she told the audience to loud applause. She is probably right - California is seen as a national leader, especially on technology and global warming action. But if California doesn't pass the bonds this November, it will embolden HSR deniers and discourage HSR supporters - and even more importantly, might derail the momentum currently building in Congress to drop billions of dollars on HSR. And even if momentum continued in DC, we might find that places such as Texas, the Northeast Corridor, and the Great Lakes states will move ahead on HSR while California is left behind. A defeat of the bond this November WILL kill our chances for HSR for the next ten years.

But Fiona Ma was confident that we will win in November. As she told the audience:

I think this is the perfect storm. The high cost of gasoline, the congested roadways, the long lines at the airports, and now with the airline crisis, I really believe that this is the time that Californians will pass this bond in November.

The HSR deniers don't want to discuss any of these problems - but Californians understand these problems very well. No wonder 58% of voters back the high speed rail bonds. They get it, just as Fiona Ma gets it.

Fiona Ma also called on the bloggers to help publicize high speed rail - and we've been doing exactly that for two months now. The California High Speed Rail Blog: We Do Our Part!


Anonymous said...

I just read the polling data. Actually 58% support the bond measure worded that Federal and private funds are demanded.

Only 54% support the bond, if these statement are omitted. The survey is about +/- 3%. Less than 1/2 the voters know anything about the project at this time.

Supporters shouldn't count their chickens before they are hatched. Opponents should do likewise.

Anonymous said...

God this had better pass. Without this project going forward I feel that the future of California is in great jeopardy. I know that we have crazy budget problems right now and that spending of this nature is going to be a hard to sell to some voters but this needs to pass. Hopefully this year is the year that California gets it act together on High Speed Rail.

Rafael said...

@ anonymous -

I think Mrs. Ma is right when she says there is something of a perfect storm in favor of HSR right now. The chances of getting the bond measure approved aren't going to get any better.

Between now and November, there will be increased publicity on both sides of the argument - the sheer scale of the project demands no less. I'm not too worried that so many haven't even heard of it yet, their ears will perk up after the summer.

My concern is more that there is too much contradictory and false information out there. CHSRA needs the funds and the people to conduct a professional marketing campaign for its project. The new web site is a step up, but by itself it will not be enough. Once voters buy into the idea of building an HSR network at all, they will want easy-to-find, concise information about a host of nitty gritty.

With structurally high gas and diesel prices a hot-button issue this election, even Republicans like Rep. Mica and Rep. Boozman that have been very critical of passenger rail in the past now favor electric high speed rail projects around the country. The Democrats, by and large, do so anyhow. $10 billion is a big chunk of change in absolute terms but a small line item on the federal budget. For reference, the regular DoD budget is now over $500 billion. If Californians approve their bond and private investors materialize, the feds will do their part to make HSR happen.

A bigger problem is that there are few transportation officials anywhere in the US who know anything at all about rail, especially intercity passenger rail. Whoever builds the first HSR system will need to provide on-the-job training for bureaucrats from around the country.

Also, there is strong competition for dollars from local/regional rail and freight rail projects - both entirely valid, given that most of the US rail system has been on life support for half a century. However, CHSRA has a completed EIR/EIS and most competing projects in California do not. Given that rail needs several decades of sustained investment across the board, intercity passenger rail is a good place to start.

Anonymous said...

This year California should worry about a structural deficit that insiders now say is $22 billion. The state is in trouble and our Governor hasn’t got a clue. His popularity is plummeting. Diridon the other day again talked about needing the support of the Governor. I’m wondering now if the bond measure wouldn’t have a much better chance of passing without his support.

For my part I think this is a lousy project. This blog keeps promoting it on solving problems that don’t exist now, but will surely be problems in the future if we don’t act now. Well we have plenty of problems existing right now which need our attention and money right now. Transit agencies in the Bay area want projects that are estimated to cost three times what the available funds will cover. What get approved? Its not so much fun living in California these day. Has California passed it golden age?

Rafael said...

@ anonymous @ 7:22 am -

HSR is a long-term project, it will take 20+ years to build, which is why it needs to be kicked off asap.

Commuter rail services can be upgraded in well under a decade, provided local politicians use some common sense. BART to SJ is currently estimated at $300 million per mile, an outrageously high number. At some point, SJ officials will need to pull the plug and fall back on alternatives such as standard gauge heavy rail, light rail, streetcars, AutoTrams and/or regular buses. Don't blame CHSRA for their pig-headedness.

As for California's chronic poverty, blame the state's totally useless constitution. As long as you have a directly elected governor, gerrymandered districts, endless propositions that account for 80% of state spending and a requirement for a 60% majority on the budget, the state will be in perpetual financial crisis. Fiscal discipline depends on letting one lot of politicians make the decisions for four years and then holding them accountable at the ballot box.

Anonymous said...

If BART is estimated at $300 million per mile, it will cost even more.

Makes you again wonder how CHSRA, with a straight face, can place an estimate of $5 billion for the 50 mile stretch from San Jose to San Francisco. It just makes no sense.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Problems that don't exist now? I suppose the bankruptcy of four airlines and cuts on LA-SF flights due to fuel costs aren't a problem. I suppose global warming and pollution in the Central Valley that is so bad it's causing soaring respiratory illness rates aren't problems either. I suppose $4 gas isn't a problem.

And by your logic it's apparently bad to anticipate problems before they fall upon us. Each of those things I mentioned above will be in MUCH worse shape in ten years time unless we start now on fixing them. Your suggestion, anon @7:22 AM, is that we ignore these problems until our transportation networks have collapsed. That's foolish.

The state budget deficit and the HSR bond plan are unrelated. The budget deficit is a product of 30 years of taxes that are too low - and therefore new revenues are the solution - whereas big infrastructure projects are properly funded with bonds. Arnold's popularity is taking a hit, sure, but he's not at George Bush levels of dislike either. I would rather have his support than have his opposition.

Finally, anon @ 11:48 pm, I'm NOT counting anything before it's hatched - the 58% support for HSR is a great place to begin, but we're still several months away from election day. If HSR is going to be built there will need to be an all-out grassroots campaign for it, and this blog exists to help provide that.

Robert Cruickshank said...

BART and HSR construction costs cannot be equated. BART is a specialized system requiring unique parts, systems, and construction methods. HSR by contrast is an off-the-shelf technology that, because it is widely used around the world, means correspondingly lower construction costs.

That's another example of the flawed assumptions lacking evidence that HSR deniers like to traffic in. It's a sad commentary that they cannot find any actual facts to use to attack HSR, and instead resort to flawed assumptions and must ignore so many issues, such as rising fuel costs and global warming.

Anonymous said...

BART doesn't run at 200 MPH, nor require the perfectly aligned tracks and other expensive hardware. You are simply mistaken to believe that the high cost for BART is due to the reasons you cite.

I just read the Mercury article on BART cost and it is not 300 million per mile but rather 385 million per mile ( 6.2 billion for 16.1 miles).

Face the reality, San Jose to San Francisco, claimed by CHSRA to cost $5 billion for a 50 mile run is a completely un-realistic estimate.

Robert Cruickshank said...

No, anon, you don't get to define reality according to your own rules. BART is a fundamentally different kind of system than HSR and many, many studies have shown that BART's unique technology and rolling stock play a major role in its high costs.

If you cannot explain your out-your-ass claim that the CHSRA estimates are unrealistic, then you need to not make baseless claims.

luis d. said...

Anonymous -

Robert is right, if you didn't know BART uses a very different type of operating system, rolling stock and equipment actually the first of it's kind which makes it VERY expensive compared to "off the shelve" European High Spead Trains, Beleive it or not.

I know it's hard to beleive just because BART doesn't reach speed's anywhere near HSR, but just because HSR Trains run at higher speed doesn't mean they cost more. It's about how they are built and how they operate that determines cost not speeds.

Also Bart uses a different gauge of track wich requires customization of BART's train cars and it costs more to custom buid the cars, the tracks, etc.

HSR equipment is less expensive because their is basically little to no customization, same track, same gauge, same power lines, same train cars. They just paint them differently!

Anonymous said...

@ anonymous

I believe HSR is planning to use Caltrain rails, which should cut down on costs, no?

Rafael said...

There are three fundamental reasons why BART to SJ is so expensive:

1) San Jose insists on tunneling underneath several miles of its downtown area rahter than using cut-and-fill. This is complicated by a 102-year old narrow bridge with creosote-soaked foundation pillars.

For reference, San Francisco is estimating the much shorter tunnel between 4th & King and the new Transbay Terminal will cost well over $1 billion.

2) BART is eager to tap into Santa Clara county's deep pockets. Alameda county isn't much interested in upgraded standard gauge services.

Note that some $145 million "left over" from the SFO extension paid for by San Mateo county will now be used for the Warm Springs extension in Alameda county. The project includes a subway section under Fremont's Central Park.

3) The technology BART uses is indeed non-standard, which makes it more expensive. However, the difference isn't enough to explain the extremely high per-mile cost of new BART construction projects.

Of course, there is no technical reason why San Jose must contract with BART for its subway. Caltrain will switch to electric multiple unit rolling stock and, unused standard-gauge single-track alignments through San Jose and up the East Bay exist both north and south of downtown. VTA light rail already connects them.


HSR is a somewhat different animal. Speeds up to 150mph can be achieved on legacy track, provided it is straight, fully grade separated and in excellent state of good repair. Whether $5 billion will be enough to upgrade the entire Caltrain corridor for high speed operation depends on how CHSRA intends to implement grade separation there.

If the Google Earth map of the HSR route on the Authority's web site is up-to-date, virtually the entire alignment will be moved partially (embankment) or completely (cut and fill, trench, tunnel) under the ground, presumably to mitigate visual and noise impacts. That would mean replacing all existing underpasses with low overpasses and also cause some problems for the creeks that act as storm drains. Moreover, it would severely disrupt Caltrain operations for several years.

A cheaper and less intrusive alternative would keep most of the alignment at grade, add noise abatement screens where appropriate, convert major level crossings to over- or underpasses and close minor level crossings altogether. Unfortunately, nearby residents might not accept that - especially in tony Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Atherton.

Cas said...

I live in the Seattle area and just found out about your site. Washington state has long-range plans for high speed rail from Portland (with help from Oregon) to Vancouver, BC (with help from the provincial government), but nothing concrete has ever been put together and we're years from having this on a ballot.

In short, we need California to set a precedent so that we can start to build a similar system in the Northwest--hopefully one using compatible technology so that in the long-run integration is possible. We're already following California's lead on carbon emissions.

The problem is that too many people in this country want to keep building expensive roads when that's unrealistic. The LA freeway system is already a negative example of why that doesn't work. Please, give us a positive example to point to.