Tuesday, June 17, 2008

What's Going to Happen in the State Senate?

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

In the comments on yesterday's post rafael, one of HSR's strongest and most knowledgeable supporters, gave a list of changes to AB 3034 and the overall project that the State Senate is likely to consider. It's a good guide to how the politics may play out over the next week and I wanted to give my commentary on the specific details.

- an explicit phasing policy that prioritizes bottleneck sections that must enable high growth in freight and/or commuter rail in addition to separate tracks for HSR. In practice, that means the Caltrain and LOSSAN corridors.

I fear rafael is right that the State Senate is going to suggest this. To me this is gutting the HSR project as it delays the intercity aspect of HSR indefinitely. Faster service on the Caltrain and LOSSAN corridors would be valuable, but it should not come at the expense of the overall concept of giving Californians an affordable and sustainable alternative to driving and flying between north and south while also providing for commuters as well.

- priority for LA-San Diego over crossing Tehachapi Pass, based on ridership considerations. One option would be to switch from an SF-LA starter line to two shorter ones in Northern and Southern California, respectively. See this map for details.

I also think we are likely to see this - but we shouldn't. Someone has to take the lead in funding a Tehachapi Pass crossing. It is likely to remain the "missing link" for quite some time, unfunded and seemingly without priority, unless we step up now to ensure it gets built. This goes to the core of my objection to the commuter HSR-first strategy - it doesn't help us make the necessary leap. Californians already understand the role of trains in commuting, but what we really need is intercity rail capacity. That's the harder project to build, but also the one that can transform the state the most dramatically.

Further, the State Senate report acknowledged that commuter trips will only be 30% of the overall ridership, and that the LA-SF route offered the most lucrative revenues. If the State Senate suggests deemphasizing LA-SF, they cannot credibly use ridership as justification for doing so.

- an external engineering review of construction feasibility and SF-LA line haul time estimates for Altamont Pass variation 9 (excl. spur to Oakland), separately for San Jose Diridon and Santa Clara/SJC station options. Target date: ASAP

rafael has been arguing for a few weeks now that Altamont option 9 - which goes through San Jose but not across the bay - should be reconsidered. I'm willing to see the results of such a study, even though I continue to believe what's most important is resolving Altamont vs. Pacheco and sticking with one or the other. It's becoming like the Obama vs. Hillary thing - strong cases can be made for either one, but eventually we have to choose and focus on the bigger picture, in this case getting the bonds passed.

- updated cost estimates for all sections of the network, including especially the sections down to San Diego and up to Sacramento (the latter separately for Altamont only, Pacheco only and Pacheco+overlay options). Target date: October 2008.

I would suggest absolutely no later than October 1 for delivery of these estimates - which are certainly necessary. Ballots go in the mail in early October and we're going to need to have coverage of the estimates turned around pretty quickly.

- a prospectus aimed at investors, itemizing not only the many benefits and business opportunities but also known project risks. These include but are not limited to tunneling, ridership projections, the FRA waiver for running off-the-shelf European/Asian equipment and, land acquisition in urban/suburban areas and at stations. The prospectus should also quantify the opportunity cost of failing to construct HSR, itemized for each phase of construction. Target publication date: early October 2008 - CA voters should be considered investors, it's important to set realistic expectations.

I really, really like this. Especially quantifying the cost of NOT building HSR. The State Senate failed dramatically by not asking or even seeming to understand that question, but Californians deserve to make a fully informed choice. Only a comparison of the cost of building HSR and the cost of not building it allows that kind of informed choice to be made.

- explicitly tasking CHSRA with planning railroad operations, especially tools for optimizing the express/local mix and, processes and technologies for handling emergency situations involving both HSR and other railroad operators.

- formally tasking a separate organization responsible for day-to-day quality assurance of CHSRA research and decision-making, especially with regard to major expenditures such as finalizing the network structure and San Mateo county station, choosing trainset vendors and especially, awarding construction contracts.

These are good practices that an amended AB 3034 ought to embrace.

- spelling out the consequences of the outcome of the ballot initiative for CHSRA and HSR in California. If it's now or never, voters must be told as much.

Absolutely. This is an opportunity that isn't going to come back around again, and we're not going to get any federal money for HSR unless we take the first step. By voting against the bond Californians would be voting to shackle the state to soaring gas prices and an airline industry in crisis.

Needless to say, CHSRA will need sufficient funds to do all this extra work at such short notice in addition to actively marketing the project to investors. Any amendment by the State Senate should ensure it doesn't run out of money before the November ballot.

An excellent point. If CHSRA is being tasked with additional projects they will need the money to properly deliver these studies and updates. Otherwise the State Senate is setting them up to fail.

I would close by saying that any alteration of the construction plan - if LA-SF is to be abandoned as the first phase - MUST, absolutely must, ensure that the north-south link will be built. The State Senate cannot change this project into commuter rail alone. It needs to keep in mind the need to connect north and south without missing links. It needs to keep in mind the need to provide a truly statewide alternative to oil, which only intercity HSR can offer.

What else should the State Senate include in an amended AB 3034?


Anonymous said...

If anyone knows me, I've said a lot, but the actual answer is Support HSR. It's 80% right, so let's let it go, without trying to perfect the last 20%.

What would be the alternative?


crzwdjk said...

If they really want to prioritize just one thing above all else, it would have to be LA to Bakersfield. It's the big missing link in the state rail system, and absolutely needs to get built one way or another. HSR bonds are practically the only way to do this. If you really want a train from LA to San Diego, it's much more cost effective to just throw money at LOSSAN for incremental upgrades to 125 mph electric service and a running time of under two hours. Likewise for the Capitol Corridor and whatever else in Northern California.

Anonymous said...

I agree with robert on the decision between altamont and pacheco. FOr me, it seems like once HSR is off and running and is the success it will be, that the other route will be used as well. They are both good routes, and having altamont to go SF-Sacramento and serve the East Bay better and Pacheco to get more directly from SF to LA through the peninsula would be a great combination.

Anonymous said...

I agree fully with both Rafael and Robert. I think that Altamont or Pachecho is not necessarily important over the other, but we need a firm decision to move forward with another. Also, I feel like directing initial money at the Caltrain and LOSSAN corridors is a great way to deal with some of the more engineering and logistically challenging sections while money is being raised from the Federal and private sources. However, I don't think we should run a single high speed train until LA-SF is completed - the Senate should only be prioritizing bond money to the ends of the line; when private and federal money comes through, the entire LA-SF segment just needs to happen, and by 2020 at the latest.

Rafael(and Robert), you have made some very important points here, things that I can only hope the state Senate is considering. To that end, is there anyway or anyone that can transmit these suggestions in a credible way to someone in Sacramento that can put them into action or consider them? I think a lot of great ideas are discussed on this forum, but as citizens of the state we are very powerless to influencing what happens with AB 3034.

Rafael said...

@ robert cruickshank -

first off, thank you for today's post.

Just so we don't misunderstand each other: my recent advocacy of Altamont variation 9 is not based on a desire to enable more long-distance commuting between the Central Valley and the Bay Area.

On the contrary, I believe that would actually create some tax base problems for SF peninsula cities and counties that would have to be mitigated, e.g. via changes to the proposed fare structure.

Rather, my objective is to broaden popular support for the bond measure in the Central Valley by restoring trust in CHSRA's decision-making processes, by connecting Sacramento early on and, by keeping a firm lid on total network cost.

A visible effort to minimize total capital outlay in the planning phase would send a clear financial signal to non-state investors. That in turn would give all California voters greater confidence that approving the November bond won't leave them stranded with a half-built system.

For belts-and-suspenders, perhaps the State Senate should make this explicit in its amendments of AB3034: "Approval of the bond would be interpreted as voter intent to get the entire proposed network built. However, there will be no further California state bond issues nor California state tax increases to facilitate that outcome. The balance of funding for the high speed rail project will have to come exclusively from non-state sources, including but not limited to the federal government, private investors and the cities and counties served."


In the context of keeping down total system cost, arcady's suggestion of upgrading diesel-electric service using FRA-compliant rolling stock between San Diego and Anaheim merits further discussion.

Adding a second track to the south coast line before improving the existing one might well be cheaper than building a brand-new, fully electrified alignment along the Inland Empire and down the median of I-215 and I-15.

Between Amtrak Surfliner, Metrolink and Coaster, there is ample evidence of demand for passenger rail service in the south coast corridor. Passengers headed for LA or Northern California could transfer to one of the frequent HSR trains in Anaheim. The planned HSR network extension down to Irvine could be eliminated.

Moreover, dual tracking would create extra capacity for freight trains down to San Diego, whereas HSR along the Inland Empire actually competes for ROW space with freight traffic headed to neighboring states.

However, as usual, there are also issues:

- CHSRA long ago scoped diesel-electric service out of its further EIR/EIS deliberations, so arcady's idea would probably have to be pursued as an independently funded regional rail project.

- there are a number of geological hazards, such as occasional landslides at San Juan Capistrano and Del Mar Bluffs.

- a top speed of 125mph would require full grade separation on a line very near the beach. With cross road traffic volume inherently low, a lot of existing level crossings would have to be closed. That will be an issue all over the state, but perhaps especially so for towns whose economies depend so heavily on access to their beaches.

- reducing top speed to 110mph would permit the use of cheaper four-quadrant level crossings, provided that combined freight and passenger rail traffic volume did not impact the capacity of crossing roads too severely. FRA does have quiet zone regulations to eliminate train horn noise that e.g. SMART up in Marin/Sonoma intends to make use of, but the number of daily passenger trains that could be operated would still be limited.

- even with a 110mph top speed and dual tracks, line haul time between San Diego and Anaheim (~90 miles) could be around 1:20. There are some sharp corners in portions of the alignment, so average speed might be no more than 70mph. Adding a transfer to an HSR train and its line haul through Orange County, getting from San Diego to downtown LA could take 1:50 or more vs. 1:15 via the proposed HSR spur, which would not involve a transfer.

- perhaps San Diegans would accept these longer travel times if the solution could be implemented a decade earlier. However, there is also a big risk that they would reject the HSR bond altogether if bullet trains will never make it down there, especially if funding for an upgraded south coast line is in limbo.

- even if San Diegans did accept the trade-off, towns along the Inland Empire would lose out. In particular, rail service from LA and Orange County to Ontario Airport would remain limited to Metrolink.

- Palmdale Airport would still be on the HSR network. If the San Diego HSR spur via Riverside were canceled in favor of upgraded diesel-electric service down the coast, then HSR construction between LA and Palmdale would have to be given equal priority with the LA-Anaheim segment. For most people, flying is the only viable long-haul option, so LAX will need relief whatever the future price of oil.

Rafael said...

@robert cruickshank -

you have expressed a concern that breaking ground at the four ends of the proposed network would reduce the grand HSR project to a pedestrian upgrade of existing commuter rail service.

1. The technical term "commuter rail" means FRA-compliant diesel-electric equipment running at a top speed of 79mph, typically on tracks rented from freight operators. As the name suggests, the primary purpose is getting people to and from work.

Note that while ACE is targeted specifically at commuters who work in Silicon Valley, both Caltrain and Metrolink run trains in both directions all day long. These services should really be thought of as "regional rail".

The State Senate report did not suggest reducing the entire HSR project to commuter or regional rail. Rather, it advocated priority for construction of dedicated HSR tracks where space is at the greatest premium and/or grade separation will be most difficult to achieve.

2. While the LA-Anaheim section is just ~30 miles long, it is critical to the entire HSR project because Orange County is the second most populous county in the state.

So what if prioritizing this section means that commuters there will be among the first to benefit from HSR? Surely, getting Southern California residents to get out of their beloved cars at all builds useful political support for separately funded projects for subways, light rail and nice buses, in addition to demands for networks of lanes dedicated to bicycles. Traffic planners have not yet woken up to the opportunities that recent advances in bicycle electrification hold, because as usual, technology adoption is a chicken-and-egg proposition.

The likelihood of additional public investment in feeder infrastructure over and above the $950 million already in the bond will in turn attract private investors to funding the north-south link. They can deal with all sorts of risks, but ridership is the toughest nut to crack.

3. LA-San Diego (~160 miles) and SF-Sacramento (~170 miles) are both bona fide intercity routes that also serve numerous secondary towns in-between. Defining these plus LA-Anaheim as phase 1 would amount to 360 miles of brand-new fully grade separated double track plus 19 of the 26 stations. That represents to half the total network distance and about 75% of total system cost.

How would this amount to "gutting the HSR project"? There's more than one way to skin a cat.

4. Between Tracy and Stockton, CHSRA's analysis of the Altamont Pass options called for train speeds in excess of 200mph. This would permit stress testing the equipment revenue operations early on, which Mehdi Morshed considers essential. Such speeds will not be possible in Southern California.

5. The state is only putting up $10 billion and the remainder has not yet been secured, so it is simply not in a position to give an ironclad guarantee that the entire network really will be built. That's frustrating, but c'est la vie.

IMHO, there is a real risk that private investor enthusiasm for running a spur up to Sacramento and one down to San Diego could wane after SF-LA is built. By contrast, the entire state will always have a vested interest in getting HSR tracks across Tehachapi Pass built, so scheduling that last would keep the momentum going throughout the project.

Anonymous said...

Robert quoting Rafael writes:

- updated cost estimates for all sections of the network, including especially the sections down to San Diego and up to Sacramento (the latter separately for Altamont only, Pacheco only and Pacheco+overlay options). Target date: October 2008.

We certainly do need updated cost estimates for the whole project. The revelation that UPRR is not going to allow HSR on their ROW must be accounted for. Similarly, the Sante Fe RR is most likely going to take the same position. The current cost structure for the entire project is bogus.

The amount being requested for the bond measure was based on the current cost structure. Those estimates as pointed out in the senate report are outdated and need to be revised.

The revised numbers would need to be peer reviewed by a completely independent group and not by a paid group from the CHSRA. Without such a process, the voters will never believe the cost estimates for the project have any validity.

I don't see how this can possibly be done in the time frame for a fall 2008 ballot.

Anonymous said...

About new cost estimates of the entire project, I agree that the 10 Billion figure is probably off the mark. But if a higher figure is announced right before the election it would kill off a lot of support gained.

Also who is going to lead the state wide PR campaign? I wear my high speed rail t-shirt a few times a week but I have a feeling that wont be enough...

Anonymous said...

I'm with arcady in that the biggest hole in the system today is the lack of connections between Bakersfield and LA. Having to switch over to a bus to do a SF-LA run is a major barrier to more ridership.

That said, I recently did two legs on that trip, and the busses and trains were at around 80%. And on time, too.

Much nicer than flying or driving, even with the cursed bus section.

I have been pleasantly surprised to see how much more new rail we have in Northern California these days, and how useful it is becoming.

Anonymous said...

Just want to thank Rafael for his posts on the various alternatives for the Bay Area to Central Valley crossing.

I agree whole-heartedly with the general premise that a workable Altamamont configuration (one that does not drastically increase north-south travel times or drastically reduce operating service levels due to bifurcated lines) has many benefits over the current preferred alternative that would require building too much unnecessary track (i.e. building both the Altamont overlay and a Pacheco pass) or would settle for inadequate travel times between the Bay Area and Sact'o, rendering the system useless to a significant portion of the travel market.

I would happily support Altamont alternative #9 if an engineering study were performed that proves what Rafael has already surmised. The potential cost savings and additional market served would be a terrific improvement.

I also agree that the approach of building from the ends and meeting in the middle merits serious consideration for the many reasons already specified. I think this approach, along with a more popular and efficient route configuration, would serve to increase public support for the bond and reduce overall risk for the project while not threatening the eventual completion of the north-south connection.

Many of the concerns that are being expressed in the print media lately have to do with the cost of the proposal and a disbelief in the ability to complete the project on budget. Those concerns could be alleviated by adopting an approach of building the network out from the ends towards the center in piecemeal fashion.

Robert, I don't think for a minute that the northern and southern ends would end up not ever connecting, however if you don't market this project as a Southern California-to-Northern California system, I think you will lose a great deal of the appeal to voters. It needs to have the vision of a complete statewide system while having the prudence of being constructed from the population-dense areas outward in reasonable-size (and reasonable-cost) chunks.

As for where to go from here, I'm not sure that there is time to implement too many of rafael's suggestions though in that the election is only months away now. Endorsements are already being made and the deadline to amend the proposition is fast approaching. The time to drastically change the measure has come and gone, and we are really now in campaign phase where the measure needs to be advocated for and put to a vote. To put it off for another 2 years or longer would be both frustrating and harmful to the goal of implmenting this thing in any of our lifetimes.

What is needed now more than ever is for political leadership (both elected officials and the CHSRA) to step forward and strongly advocate for this project, to acknowledge the concerns that have been raised to this point (some of which are probably legitimate, others not so much), and to make a public commitment to take these concerns into consideration and to align the project with a strategy that mitigates them to the best degree possible. I think this is more crucial than any further engineering studies or financing reviews.

I think it's okay that not every detail has been resolved yet. It's frustrating that so many years have gone by and we seem to have made little to no progress, but I don't think this means that we are not ready as a state to take the step forward and put some money down on this venture. Enough work ahs been done to say that there is a reasonable plan to implement HSR and that we need to put it up to a vote as to whether we move ahead or decide to skip it.

There should be upfront acknowledgements made by CHSR advocates that the overall proposal is both necessary and sound and that a flexible approach to implementing the system will allow us to resolve the various issues that will arise as the rail system is designed and built. It is not necessary to have every right of way secured or engineering plan completed before the general public has even voted as to whether they want to do this or not.

And honestly, if we can't get this bond passed in the current social and economic environment, then it seems unlikely it will ever happen. The public is more interested in the green issues and transportation options, and economic security than ever before. If we can't sell this project now, then maybe Californians are just not ready for HSR.

I'm still hopeful that we are ready and that the bond will pass and the project will start to pick up steam. I guess we will know soon.

Rafael said...

@ matt spencer -

one final thought on how the State Senate ought to amend the text of AB3034.

The clear legislative intent of the Assembly was to leave open the possibility of constructing a high speed rail alignment through the Altamont corridor.

The changes suggested below give the authority the legal leeway to stick with its present Pacheco Pass only recommendation or, to switch to a Altamont variation 9 either as-is or with modifications and also, to recommend Pacheco Pass plus an overlay network. However, it would not be required to make any changes.

The objective is to ensure the authority still has legal wiggle room to adjust its interpretation of the bill between now and November 4 should it decide this is necessary to maximize the chances that voters will pass the bond measure.

In particular, it is not soliciting final comments on its Final Bay Area to Central Valley EIR/EIS until July 8, after the wording on ballot initiatives can no longer be changed.

If the Senate upholds to present language, the authority would in effect have to disregard any comments that would lead it to conclude that it needs to make such adjustments. That in turn would set up the possibility of a legal challenge against the authority's EIR/EIS process, which could tie the entire project up in the courts for a few years.

Below, the text in italics should be replaced by the one in boldface.


(c), for the purpose of including, but not limited to,
the following high-speed train system corridors:
(B) San Francisco Transbay Terminal to San Jose San Jose or Santa Clara to Fresno.
(C) Oakland to San Jose San Jose or Santa Clara.
(G) Altamont Altamont Pass Corridor connecting the Central Valley to the East Bay the northern Santa Clara county station chosen for corridor (B) and, optionally, to Oakland.

(2) Nothing in this section shall prejudice the authority's
determination and selection
prevent the authority from determining and selecting of the alignment the alignment or alignments alignment from the Central Valley
to the Bay Area in its certification of the environmental impact report.


(b) Maximum nonstop service travel times for each corridor that
shall not exceed the following:
(1) San Francisco-Los Angeles Union Station: two hours, 42
minutes minutes via Pacheco Pass or two hours, 57 minutes via Altamont Pass.
(3) San Francisco-San Jose San Jose or Santa Clara: 31 minutes.
(4) San Jose San Jose or Santa Clara-Los Angeles: two hours, 14 minutes minutes via Pacheco Pass or two hours, 25 minutes via Altamont Pass.
(8) Sacramento-San Jose San Jose or Santa Clara: one hour, 12 minutes minutes via Pacheco Pass or 54 minutes via Altamont Pass.

Rafael said...

Note that the amendment I proposed above has a second advantage: in the event that obtaining land for the currently preferred Pacheco Pass route proves much more difficult than anticipated for some reason, Altamont-only at least remains an option.

Admittedly, since UPRR owns all of the San Jose-Gilroy, San Jose-Niles SPML and Altamont corridor rights of way, the amendment doesn't generate much in the way of negotiating clout. However, it costs nothing to put in and at least affords some flexibility in CHSRA's dealings with UPRR. I'm not privy to UPRR's plans for future operations and therefore, do not know if one corridor is more valuable to them than the other.

Anonymous said...

@rafael ---

I so agree with you. Building HSR first in the major expansive metro areas first is critical. Along the Caltrain ROW, cities are constantly encroaching on the Caltrain ROW.

Millbrae is now taking chunks out of the ROW right near the Millbrae BART "disaster".

And have you seen the mess that San Mateo is? I do not see how grade separating there is going to be possible without taking out some existing buildings.

It ain't going to be pretty.

I personally feel that HSR should bypass the Millbrae/San Bruno/San Mateo mess. Here is a map of 2 alternates I would support.

The second alternate has the huge advantage of bypassing San Mateo and its congested downtown area.