Thursday, July 31, 2008

If Spain Can Do It, We Definitely Can

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

In a joint presentation to the CHSRA last month, a delegation of rail companies from Spain described their experience with ambitious construction and expansion of HSR. Renfe (Spain's national train operator) provided the most striking slides, showing that Spain and California are kindred spirits, both equally capable of building HSR to provide their citizens convenient, non-oil-based transportation options.

As you can see in the comparison below, the population profiles of the two are similar, yet California has a much more robust economy, again shattering the myth that we can't afford HSR. Further, California's population is heavily concentrated in the metro areas that HSR will serve (and California is actually smaller than Spain). Along with the millions from more rural areas who will be able to access HSR through feeder trains and buses, the critical mass of a customer base is there (and will only increase along with airfares, oil prices, and the state's population).

By 2010, Spain will have the largest HSR network in the world. Even if China one day surpasses the figure, this puts California's wrangling over whether to build any HSR to shame.

As you can see, very few of the early adopters of the Madrid-Seville AVE route were previous train passengers (and the 34% induced demand represents a stimulated economy):

Overnight, the Madrid-Seville line positively transformed the travel landscape as the modal market share for trains went from 14% to 54%:

The rest of the world is leading, and Spain is truly visionary. It is high time for California to show the rest of the United States that HSR is as viable here as it is elsewhere, including less affluent economies.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Wednesday Open Thread

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

Note: Robert is honeymooning all week. Regular posting will resume August 3. Until then use these open threads to discuss anything related to the California high speed rail project.

Comment Starter: How did you first become interested in high speed rail? Was it a trip on a European or Asian HSR system? Repeated trips on California passenger rail that led you think "a bullet train would make this SO much easier?"

Monday, July 28, 2008

Monday Open Thread

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

Note: Robert is honeymooning all week. Regular posting will resume August 3. Until then use these open threads to discuss anything related to the California high speed rail project.

Comment Starter: What is your HSR "elevator speech"? Give a succinct yet convincing argument for why we should approve Prop 1 this November and build the high speed rail project. What do you emphasize and why?

Saturday, July 26, 2008

What's Wrong With This Picture?

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

This is an open thread, but I thought I'd offer a conversation starter. In the spirit of the what's wrong with this picture puzzles of old, how many things are wrong with Michael Mahoney's odd anti-HSR op-ed published in Thursday's San Francisco Chronicle?

I'll start:

When the United States created the interstate highway system 50 years ago, the decision was made to run the superhighways into the heart of each city. The freeways smashed through the heart of urban areas, cutting neighborhoods apart, and inflicting noise and air pollution on the citizens. Finally, the citizens rebelled and the highway builders had to retreat.

They're back, now, only they're building a railroad to smash through the heart of the Central Valley's urban areas. By the time the citizens of Merced realize what harm has been done, it will be too late.

Unfortunately for Mahoney's argument, the rails came first. Merced, Modesto, Fresno, Bakersfield - they are ALL railroad towns. They were built around and in some cases because of the railroads. Their original street grids were laid out to match the alignment of the trains, and trains have been a regular feature of life in those cities for well over 100 years. HSR would in fact improve the situation in these cities with retaining walls and grade separations. Fresno is looking to use HSR to join the city's existing rail tracks in a single central corridor, reducing the impact on other neighborhoods. So Mahoney's argument here makes no sense.

There are many other glaring flaws with Mahoney's argument - I'll give you a hint for one of them: look between San Francisco and San José...

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Prop 1 and State Bond Debt

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

For my last post until the first week in August (the wedding is coming up on Saturday and I'll have the laptop taken away and thrown in the Sound if I keep writing!) it seemed fitting to briefly discuss the Legislative Analyst's Office overview of bond proposals that was published last week and is making its way into the state media. The LAO concludes that California can afford Prop 1 - but the analysis does not fully take into account all the benefits of HSR to the state budget and the economy. It's a good but imperfect overview.

The LAO assessment of Prop 1 is mostly a rehash of the basic facts about the system that we all know. The interesting stuff comes at the end:

The costs of these bonds would depend on interest rates in effect at the time they are sold and the time period over which they are repaid. The state would make principal and interest payments from the state’s General Fund over a period of about 30 years. If the bonds are sold at an average interest rate of 5 percent, the cost would be about $19.4 billion to pay off both principal ($9.95 billion) and interest ($9.5 billion). The average repayment for principal and interest would be about $647 million per year.

That $647 million per year figure is what the state media are latching onto, because they feel it fits their "omg trains will break the budget" narrative - the Central Valley Business Times article certainly implies this to be the case. But in fact the bond spending won't be an average of $647 million per year - some years, especially the next few years, it will be much smaller, and will ramp up in the next decade as contracts are signed and construction begins.

Obviously our opponents will latch onto this figure and claim either that this proves a state with a budget deficit can't afford the trains or that this is guaranteed to raise our taxes. Neither is true. As I have explained before HSR and the budget deficit are separate issues - the deficit will have to be closed no matter what happens to Prop 1.

But more important - and totally absent from the LAO report - is an assessment of what would happen if we do not build HSR. The cost of doing nothing is not zero. The LAO has a narrow mandate in assessing something like Prop 1, but by not assessing what the cost to the state budget would be of not building the project - in freeway and airport expansion, or in lost tax revenue from declining intrastate travel due to high gas prices - their report does not actually give us a complete picture. It has been estimated that to expand freeways and airports to meet capacity demands would cost the state between $80 and $120 billion, whereas HSR can handle much of that capacity for a cost to the state of $10 billion.

Some might quibble and say "well the true figure isn't $10 billion - it's $19 billion!" That's become a new tactic of the anti-transit forces. In Seattle they helped kill the monorail project by claiming its "true cost" was $11 billion once all financing costs were included, but that is an accounting method rarely EVER used to assess projects. Even if it were, it is dishonest to calculate all the financial costs of HSR alone while not comparing it to the financial costs of NOT building HSR.

More fundamentally the LAO report does not examine the broad economic impact of HSR. That too is beyond the LAO's too-narrow mandate, but we can and must include that in our own assessment and our explanation of the project to Californians. The HSR bonds will create as many as 450,000 jobs, providing an economic stimulus as well as tax revenue. As the world now recognizes, HSR is vital to a prosperous 21st century economy. We can have broad economic growth or we can not build HSR - but we cannot do both. Those who oppose HSR on fiscal grounds have their heads in the sand and are missing what is happening to the economy all around us. We have used up the infrastructure investments of 50 and 75 years ago - without investment in 21st century infrastructure our state will be hostage to ever-rising gas prices, while will hurt tourism, business, and everything else in our economy that depends on travel...which is everything.

The LAO also discussed operating costs:

When constructed, the high-speed rail system will incur unknown ongoing maintenance and operation costs, probably in excess of $1 billion a year. Depending on the level of ridership, these costs would be at least partially offset by revenue from fares paid by passengers.

"At least partially" is such an understatement as to almost render this section useless. Every HSR system currently in operation generates a surplus - meaning they pay for their own operating costs. The ridership issue that was once the cornerstone of HSR deniers has now receded as even they must understand that since passenger rail ridership in the US is soaring, and that HSR lines around the world do a booming business, California's HSR system is unlikely to face low ridership.

Finally, the LAO offered a overview of state bond debt that demonstrates Prop 1 would not really change the state's overall bond picture or debt level:

In short: California can afford high speed rail. And even though the LAO did not analyze this, over four months of posts on this blog shows the corollary to be true: California cannot afford to NOT build high speed rail. It is an investment in our future that will repay itself many, many times over. We cannot let a temporary budget crisis or a lingering, foolish anti-spending mindset turn us from those crucial facts.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Field Polls Confirms Large Prop 1 Lead

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

The Field Poll, widely considered the most accurate poll here in California by political scientists and analysts, confirms a large lead for Prop 1:

56% Yes
30% No
14% Undecided

The link above has the full poll details that you can read for yourself. It is very close to the in-house poll discussed here recently, where 58% supported and 33% opposed.

One other important factor was the level of public awareness of HSR and Prop 1. Not surprisingly, it is VERY low:

22% aware of plan, 78% unaware

That means we all have a lot of work to do. The fact that the public didn't know many of the details but still supported it shows they support the concept of HSR. Our opponents will and as you see in our comments are trying to sow fear, uncertainty, and doubt over the details. It is very important that we all do what we can to show that the HSR deniers' claims are bunk.

Californians want and support HSR. And the more we talk about it, the more they learn about it, the bigger that support grows.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Ill Advised?

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

I really should be packing for my trip to Seattle, but this could not pass without comment. Tim Hunt has an op-ed in today's Oakland Tribune calling high speed rail "ill advised". Far as I can tell the only thing ill advised is his op-ed:

And, when it comes to transportation, the bullet train is a remarkable boondoggle. Its board approved the environmental impact report last week that identified costs between $42 billion and $45 billion. If costs were half that much, it's way past time for voters to end this fantasy of politicians who love to spend your money.

This is ignorant nonsense. Because a $10 billion bond will not be floated all at once, but dribbled out over time and as needed, it is not likely to necessitate a tax increase. If it did the cost to the average Californian would be $750 total - going off of arch-conservative Tom McClintock's own numbers - or $37.50 a year if paid in annual installments. I just paid that much to fill up my car last night, whereas high speed rail would save me money.

Remarkably Hunt does not mention anywhere in his column the high price of gas. Nowhere does he mention the airline crisis. Nowhere does he mention the energy or climate crisis. And if it's the economy he's so concerned about, what does he have against the 450,000 jobs that this will create, many of them coming within the next few years when they will be desperately needed?

The language of the "boondoggle" is frequently used by transit opponents. Any government project with a big price tag is immediately seen as a recipe for ruin. The involvement of Parsons Brinckerhoff usually amplifies these cries - but as we have explained before this is to miss the key details entirely. The Big Dig, the usual whipping boy of anti-government critics, was a highly unusual and deeply mismanaged project. Rail projects, especially high speed rail projects, have routinely been delivered on-time and either on or very close to the original budget projections - including here in California.

Unfortunately he goes on:

And for those who still dream about BART extending to Livermore, the bullet train is yet another negative. The approved EIR shows the route coming over Pacheco Pass and then up the Santa Clara valley to San Jose and then north along the Peninsula to San Francisco. Livermore advocates hoped for a route that went through the Altamont Pass to a high-rail connection in Livermore between BART, ACE and the high-speed rail. Pleasanton would sue the pants off of any agency wanting to move more trains — let along high-speed trains — through its downtown, but it might live with a few more ACE trains with most of the passenger traffic taking BART.

The high-speed rail board decision ends that possibility and should send a clear message to Valley voters as well as those voting across the state.

That's odd. Here I thought there was a meeting just last week on extending BART to Livermore. And this notion that the HSR authority "ends the possibility" of more ACE trains or undermining BART to Livermore? Did he miss the part of the plan where Altamont is specifically designated as an HSR corridor that will get funds even though it's not on the main track? That such funds would almost certainly lead to an ACE boost? That plan would be immeasurably boosted by passage of AB 3034 but instead of bashing Republicans that have held it up, he goes after the Authority with a charge so baseless that it leads me to wonder whether Hunt has even the slightest clue of the basic details of the project.

This is a silly boondoggle and deserves to be buried now instead of consuming more precious public funds.

Remember, the state is still $15 billion-plus out-of-balance and could not afford this silliness in the best of times, let alone now.

This is sleight-of-hand, as the deficit and HSR are totally separate issues. The state Legislative Analyst, a respected nonpartisan office, concluded the state could afford this bond. More importantly, not building this will worsen the budget gap as Californians lose jobs and reduce spending due to high gas prices they can't avoid. Again Hunt completely ignores the crippling impact of those high prices on our economy, to which HSR is a partial but valuable solution.

High-speed rail may have its place in America — most likely moving freight between the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles to processing centers in the Inland Empire around San Bernardino — but it's certainly not trying to ship people north to south to compete with airlines.

Why not? Acela has taken 40% of the market share on the Northeast Corridor from the airlines. HSR in Spain - which is very similar to California in how its cities are distributed - is successfully challenging the airlines, especially on the Madrid-Barcelona route, one of the world's busiest.

Hunt seems to be completely ignorant of both the stunning global success of HSR as well as soaring ridership on California trains. Were he better informed he might not be making these kind of arguments.

Voters likely will face a $10 billion initial investment to be followed by several more bonds. It's well past time to stop throwing good money after bad on this project that is so ill-conceived that it doesn't even have a business plan.

Wrong again. It does have a business plan. 8 years old, yes, but it exists. AB 3034 would mandate that the Authority update the plan, but Republicans opposed it. Not exactly a good way of holding government accountable or providing the public the latest information, is it?

And, what's more, the current legislation in Sacramento calls for the engineering to be done by Caltrans instead of contracted to an outside firm. Caltrans already is a major roadblock to getting projects moving. That provision to require Caltrans engineering is a sop to the engineers' union and other public employee unions, and another strike against doing things efficiently. Caltrans, despite some good efforts by appointed leaders, defines government bureaucracy that consumes vast amounts of taxpayer and private money with little to show in progress or improvements.

Again, this is simply false. The provision in question was struck from the bill when it was amended in the Senate Appropriations Committee. Once again Hunt fails on even the basic facts of high speed rail. If he can't get those facts right, can we trust his arguments? Of course not. The only thing "ill advised" here would be assuming Hunt's op-ed is of any value in assessing Proposition 1.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

From Opposition to Proposition

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

Netroots Nation is winding down here in Austin and I'm headed back to the West Coast later this evening. Outside the convention center the road is closed for construction of the Cap MetroRail Downtown station. Texas High Speed Rail is revived and planning their "t-bone" system, including an Austin stop. Inside the center, however, is where the real action was.

The speakers and the panels showed an increasing emphasis on energy and the environment. For a group of people who became bloggers primarily to react against the Bush Administration and the Democrats' failure to respond, it was a striking shift. If this weekend produced anything it was not just recognition that our country faces a major crisis, not just that it is time to begin solving those problems. What we are beginning to recognize is the linkage of democracy and public action to deal with the energy and environment.

Obviously Al Gore's surprise visit was one of the highlights. Gore emphasized the need for the public to hold elected officials accountable on the climate crisis - politicians can't be allowed to put parochial and short-term concerns to distract us from the larger tasks at hand. We can surely relate, as California politicians have been slow on the high speed rail uptake. Whether it's Mike Machado casting a spite vote against AB 3034 or Roy Ashburn using 11th hour objections to rally Republicans against the same bill, we in California are plagued by politicians who don't seem to grasp the need for bold and dramatic change.

It's not that we have no leadership at all - Fiona Ma, for example, has done some crucial work on this. But if high speed rail, or action on climate change, energy, the environment is going to be successful, we need to get Californians informed and involved. WE are the ones who are rallying the public to that end. This blog isn't going to achieve that alone on high speed rail, but we have built a bottom-up network of supporters, particularly at the Facebook group where we have over 33,000 supporters.

Debbie Cook, Democratic candidate for Congress in the 46th district (Huntington Beach and environs) gave an excellent presentation at the Energize America panel. She reviewed the public's understanding of peak oil, that we still have a long way to go. But she also made some deeply insightful points that nobody else made.

First, that America functioned just fine without reliance on oil. She showed a series of images of urban American life from the early 20th century, including communities that were dependent on rail, and explained that people living in those days were quite functional. We have become so used to cheap oil that we have a hard time envisioning a life without it. But it wasn't so long ago that we were able to live that way. Of course we've made enormous technological strides in the last 100 years, and that enables us to build a rail network that outclasses anything we had prior to 1950, as well as maintaining some amount of automobile usage.

Second, and much more important, was her point that we need to craft solutions that help Americans change the way they live to be more energy efficient. It's not enough to put LED lights on city streets or give everyone a hybrid, useful as those can be. Nor is it enough to have a "new Apollo Program" or a "new Manhattan Project." We don't need some government project where only scientists are involved, we need long-term solutions that get EVERYONE involved.

High speed rail is just such an example of that program. It will help make major reductions in carbon emissions and reduce our oil consumption by around 22 million barrels a year. And it does so by providing a form of transportation that all Californians can participate in daily, monthly, annually - whenever they want to. Getting people to be participants in change and not just passive recipients of change is key.

But the moment that brought the house down was Van Jones' speech this morning. Jones runs Green For All, a nonprofit focused on environmental justice and green jobs.

Jones was on fire talking about what we as a nation need to do to change the politics around energy, the environment, and the economy. He rightly pointed out that conservatives and the right frequently claim to be acting to the benefit of the poor and the middle class by opposing new spending and taxes - but that this is an outright lie. Providing green jobs and green technologies HELP these people in extremely significant ways, providing jobs, a healthy environment, and long-term stability in transportation and energy costs. He specifically targeted the right's ridiculous push for oil drilling - a solution that will do NOTHING to lower prices at the pump and would merely provide oil in ten years' time to China and India at a massive cost to American jobs and health.

He also exhorted the audience to become more assertive in their goals and their activism. He hit a crescendo when he said we need to "move from opposition to proposition" - to reclaim the initiative and the agenda in this country from the drillers and those who would have us continue the failed policies of the 20th century. We know those policies have failed. It is time for us to propose something better - not just better for some, but better for everyone.

It was a stirring speech and even though he did not specifically mention it, Proposition 1 is a great example of what Jones told us. High speed rail's critics are not the friends of California's working people. Working people in LA and San José and Fresno need good, green jobs. They need cleaner air. They need affordable transportation. Even if the bonds cost them each $750 that would be more than made up for by the impact of new jobs, higher wages, and fast affordable transportation that, as we have repeatedly discussed here, is essential to this state remaining competitive in a global economy.

California is poised to lead a significant breakthrough in how our country deals with the environmental, energy, economic, transportation crisis. Passage of Prop 1 would be a signal to the rest of the nation that it is possible to take bold yet sensible action within our existing and largely broken political system. It offers Californians hope that there is a way out of this crisis, that we are not going to be permanently stuck with the consequences of 50 years of bad decisions.

High speed rail is just the start. But it's a necessary start. The journey begins in November when we pass Proposition 1.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The View from Washington, DC

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

While Robert is out of town (Congratulations to you and your fiancee!), it's an honor to help fill the big shoes he leaves behind for the time being. I represent the National Association of Railroad Passengers, the only national, membership-based organization that works for better intercity passenger train service in the country.

As consumer advocates representing the traveling public, we understand the tremendous benefits that HSR will provide to Californians. The Executive Committee of our Board of Directors formally endorsed the project last week. As a Los Angeles native, I grew up to become painfully aware of the differences between the California we have now, and the greener, more dynamic California we will have once HSR is up and running. I greatly look forward to working in the coming months with state rail advocacy groups such as RailPAC, our allies with environmental and other public interest concerns, student organizers, and other citizen proponents of Proposition 1.

From Washington, DC, the outlook for intercity passenger trains in general is brighter than it has been for a long time. The bipartisan, blue-ribbon National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Commission submitted its report to Congress this year to provide a framework to reauthorize surface transportation programs for the next five years.

What's significant is that the report recommends that the Congress allocate $9 billion annually in dedicated funding for passenger rail, currently the only mode of surface transportation that does not have a dedicated funding source. (Until this year, states like California could not leverage a federal match for its investments in new trains or tracks. We now have a $30 million federal pilot program for the current fiscal year. It's paltry, but it's a start.)

Amtrak and passenger rail programs received $1.362 billion in the current year, against an estimated need of $1.8 billion just to keep pace (and after years of even worse starvation diets). As the appropriations process moves forward for 2009, we may see a slight increase, but until we get the kind of federal commitment called for by the NSTPRC, it's just tinkering around the edges.

NSTPRC also provided a framework of ten major programs around which Congress should base future investments. The only one that was mode-specific is Intercity Passenger Rail, reflecting the short shrift that trains have gotten in a distorted market over the past several decades (examples of other programs include Metropolitan Mobility, Federal Lands, and Research & Development).

Proposition 1 will be a major shot of adrenaline to HSR in America, giving Congress greater policy and political incentives to heed the Commission report and emboldening other states to follow California's lead. As California-style innovation goes, so goes the nation. NARP's resolution notes, "California's initiative in high-speed rail will likely be replicated elsewhere in our country, placing California, once again, in a transportation leadership role."

As for the private sector, we are seeing more examples every day of investors coming to understand HSR operations as a good risk. Italy, notoriously stereotyped for its bureaucracies, will see its first private HSR service in 2011:

The new rail operator, NTV, is a $1.4 billion project that will link Rome, Milan, Turin, Venice, Florence, Bologna, Naples, as well as Bari and Salerno in the south, officials said. It will make a total of 54 journeys a day.


The service, which will run on Italy's existing rail network, will use 25 11-car AGV trains by French engineering company Alstom SA, which will be delivered in three years.

Alstom said NTV will be the first operator worldwide to use its AGV very high-speed train. The trains will be equipped with specially designed seats, Internet connections and on-demand TV, traveling at a cruising speed of around 190 mph on existing Italian high-speed rails, the company said.

California may end up looking to Italy as a model, one in which passengers will enjoy a range of options for fast, safe travel along publicly-owned, well-maintained trackage.

But none of that can happen here until we have the kind of glistening, new infrastructure that only the public sector can provide, to unleash the potential of public-private partnerships.

There's no question that the federal government can end modal discrimination and make it a national priority to assist states like California that want to end their dependence on oil-based mobility, enliven their economies, and improve their environment and quality of life. But it takes political commitment, and we and our members will do everything in our power to make it happen. But we'll need your help on the grassroots level, too.

Prop 1 will be a great start, but not the end of the heavy lifting. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

More Details on AB 3034's Fate

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

This week's issue of the San Francisco Bay Guardian has an article on HSR by Steven T. Jones, who was at the CHSRA board meeting last week. Most of it focuses on an overview of where the project is at, which will be familiar to regular readers of this blog. It also has some good quotes from San Franciscans about their support for the project.

Jones also includes some new information on the fate of AB 3034, which failed to come to a floor vote on Monday:

Sen. Mike Machado (D-Stockton) was unhappy with the Pacheco choice and decided to oppose the project, meaning that proponents needed three Republican votes to win the two-thirds needed for passage and only Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria) was willing to cross party lines, Capitol sources told the Guardian.

That is both interesting and unfortunate. Machado needs to understand that this isn't about Stockton alone. Just because Altamont wasn't chosen doesn't mean we should block the project. Machado endorsed Hillary Clinton in the primaries but is presumably supporting Barack Obama now - it's not much different for HSR. You can't withdraw support just because your choice didn't win out.

It is welcome news that Maldonado, my own State Senator, did finally back the bill. He had previously expressed doubts about it, supposedly concerned that it gave nothing to his district (a ridiculous concern) but he now saw the light. Unfortunately because Machado voted no that still left two Senate Republicans who could not be bothered to look to the benefits for their own constituents and voted against AB 3034.

Some Senate Republicans tried to go further:

Meanwhile, a project opponent, Roy Ashburn (R-Bakersfield), sought to kill Prop. 1 by doing what's known as a "gut and amend" to an unrelated bill, SB 298 by Senate Minority Leader Dave Codgill (R-Modesto), in an attempt to push the bond measure back to 2010.

If he can find the two-thirds vote in both houses — which most sources consider unlikely — it would be the fourth time the bond measure has been delayed. So barring any unusual political deals, the high speed bond measure is still up in November.

I'm shocked, shocked to hear this. Of course Ashburn wanted to postpone the vote - he wants to kill HSR dead. That's what was behind his absurd 11th hour objections to the lack of a business plan (which AB 3034 would have provided) and his push for a reorganization of passenger rail oversight into a Department of Rail (couldn't that have been proposed much, much, much earlier?). Ashburn simply doesn't support this project but doesn't have the guts to tell his Bakersfield constituents, who will see significant benefits and dramatic economic growth from HSR.

Still, we don't need AB 3034 and never really did. The Final EIR does not include a station at Los Banos and does not include Union Pacific ROW use (so Stuart Flashman's one-man crusade to kill HSR has even fewer legs to stand on). The original plan proposed in 2002 and contained in Prop 1 is fiscally sound and a solid map for building high speed rail.

California cannot meet the challenges of the coming decades without high speed rail. Those who raise objections based on this or that small issue are missing that much larger point. They implicitly believe that the status quo is just fine and we have no need to make major changes. Tomorrow Al Gore will give a major speech attacking just such thinking and calling for a "reset" of how we approach the climate crisis, junking what Martin Luther King Jr called "the tranquilizing drug of gradualism" for a call for a new "hero generation" of dramatic change.

HSR is one necessary part of that bolder, very necessary strategy for dealing with the problems that ail our state.

Note: Beginning tomorrow posting will be more sporadic on the blog, until August 4. I am headed to Austin for Netroots Nation, and from there am going to Seattle where I will be married on July 26. After a week on the Oregon Coast I'll be back in Monterey to renew the fight for Prop 1 and high speed rail.

Over the next few days I'll be putting up a few posts, but mostly you'll have open threads to discuss HSR as you will. I've also got some guest posts lined up, which should be a great way to broaden the discussion. Have at it!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Big Public Support for Proposition 1

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

Recent polling data from J. Moore Methods (hat tip to Californians for High Speed Trains) shows a significant amount of public support for Proposition 1.

Q: "Would you support or oppose a statewide $10 billion dollar bond measure to build a high-speed train system linking the major population centers in Southern California with the Central Valley and the Bay Area?"

July 2008: 58% support, 33% oppose, 9% no opinion

May 2008: 53-36-11

Feb. 2008: 54-39-7

Nov. 2007: 52-42-6

That's big movement in just the last two months. And that's after the non-issue of the Union Pacific right-of-way letter emerged. And despite the state budget deficit, support has merely grown over the last eight months.

What's responsible? Gas prices, obviously. As the price of oil rises, and as it dawns on Californians that this is a permanent, long-term shift, they understand instinctively the value of high speed rail. Don't believe me? Let's see the numbers:

Voters’ top reasons to support the High Speed Train bond are as follows:
-Providing a safe, affordable transportation alternative (77%),
-Reducing dependence on foreign oil (74%),
-Reducing traffic congestion (69%).

It's a shame that even though Californians understand the value of high speed rail, Senate Republicans are still trying to kill the project after six years of delay. AB 3034 isn't necessary to the passage of Proposition 1, which is a sound proposal - but the details of AB 3034 would only make a good plan that much better. Republicans had years to propose changes and improvements, but they suspiciously waited until the 11th hour to raise the objections and try and derail AB 3034. The usual right-wing suspects are ecstatic at this but as the poll numbers above suggest, they are once again swimming against the tide of California public opinion.

Senate Republicans and wingnut editorialists aren't offering Californians ANY solution to high gas prices. None at all. High speed rail IS a solution. It's not the only one, not by a longshot. But it would be very helpful to our state. We've delayed long enough. We're going to the voters this November one way or the other, with Prop 1 as-is or with an AB 3034-enhanced plan. Either way, we are going to win.

Monday, July 14, 2008

AB 3034 On Ice?

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

See update below

The Fresno Bee is reporting that although AB 3034 passed out of the Senate Appropriations Committee today, it has been delayed on the Senate floor by Don Perata, who was concerned that it might not attract the two Republican votes it needs to pass (since it needs a 2/3 vote). The Fresno Bee's story currently explains:

Republicans, Democrats and Gov. Schwarzenegger agree that the current ballot measure lacks oversight language. But the two parties have not agreed on how exactly to fix the measure, which lawmakers originally crafted in 2002.

It's entirely possible that this stems from Roy Ashburn's concerns about "oversight" though exactly what is at issue isn't clear from this report, though there may be more details in the morning. Ashburn has been upset about the lack of a new business plan, but AB 3034 would provide for just that - an updated business plan. I don't know exactly what kind of oversight he and the Republicans want, but I'm not averse in the abstract to strong oversight rules for this or for any other project. The devil is as always in the details.

I have also heard that Abel Maldonado, my own State Senator and a moderate Republican whose vote is crucial if AB 3034 is to meet the 2/3 requirement, has voiced concerns that there isn't much for his district in this bill. That's nonsense. He has probably forgotten that his Central Coast district includes southern Santa Clara County, which will benefit immensely from high speed rail as San José and Gilroy (just outside his district but close to Morgan Hill and San Martin which ARE in the 15th) will both have stations. Additionally, residents in the Monterey and Santa Cruz County portions of his district will have much faster travel options for getting to the rest of the state, particularly Southern California, and vice-versa - always an important consideration for our tourism-dependent economies. The $1 billion for non-HSR projects will also benefit the 15th district, helping fund the Coast Daylight service from SF to LA via Salinas and San Luis Obispo, potentially helping improve service on the Pacific Surfliners, and helping Santa Cruz and Monterey with our own local rail projects.

We can also look to other Senate Republicans who would be acting against their constituents' interests in blocking AB 3034. We already explained how Ashburn would be letting down his Bakersfield constituents; the same would be true of Jeff Denham - residents in Merced in particular would see dramatic economic benefits from the HSR station that will be located in their community, and the bill would get Modesto one step closer to a station of their own. Dave Cogdill, Senate Minority Leader, also has constituents who would see major benefits, particularly in Fresno. The same holds true for Dick Ackerman, from Fullerton, and Tom Harman who represents Irvine. Surely they wish to bring economic opportunity, affordable transportation, and development opportunities to their residents.

The Senate will be in recess until August 4, which is the soonest that AB 3034 could come up for a vote. Perhaps that's convenient since I'll be out of town from this Thursday until that date. But time is running out for Proposition 1 to be amended, so hopefully legislators can see the light and the importance of ensuring that this bill passes so that voters have a solid proposal before them this November, a plan to build the nation's leading rail infrastructure and catch up with the rest of the world before it's too late.

Update: Tuesday 7:30 AM: More details have emerged. The Riverside Press-Enterprise reports that TODAY is the printing deadline for the November ballot and that there might be some sort of "supplemental ballot" with a revised Prop 1 while the original Prop 1 would remain on the ballot. Sorry folks, that's not remotely workable.

The article goes on to detail some of the Republican objections:

Republicans said the bond should be postponed again. Not only does the state face an estimated $15.2 billion shortfall, they said, but there still are questions about the high-speed program's business plan.

State Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth, R-Murrieta, said the bond measure should be delayed because "it's not fully cooked yet."

State Sen. Bob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga, also opposes the bond. The proposed amendments were too little, too late, he said.

These folks have never been strong supporters of the HSR bond. Hollingsworth has been talking down HSR since at least 2007. Dutton is trying to have it both ways, as was Roy Ashburn - they claim the measure needs revisions, but they then vote against the revisions. It's absurd. If they were truly supportive of the project they'd have backed AB 3034 and wouldn't be delaying it like this. Obviously their goal is to kill the bond without having overtly done so.

The Sacramento Bee has more details on the "oversight" concern - Ashburn wants to shut down the Authority and replace it with a Department of Rail. Perhaps it's a good idea, perhaps it's not. But it's an 11th-hour objection that should have been raised earlier. Cathleen Galgiani noted that AB 3034 would have strengthened oversight of the Authority and limited their ability to spend money on themselves. Further changes could certainly be made over time.

It seems to me that Republicans are using niggling objections as an excuse to kill the bill and, therefore, to try and kill the project outright. Republican politicians believe that things like oil drilling are preferable to providing the sort of sustainable transportation that California needs to remain competitive in the 21st century. We can win the Prop 1 vote without AB 3034 - but AB 3034 would have made it easier.

It is a shame that Sacramento Republicans preferred to kill the bill and try and kill the entire project rather than have worked with the bill's sponsors and supporters from an earlier date to seek changes everybody can live with.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

HSR as Strategic Value

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

There's a fascinating op-ed in the Yomiuri Shimbun by Yoshiyuki Kasai, chairman of the Central Japan Railway Company, focusing on the strategic importance of HSR. Kasai makes a point I've been trying to push out here on the blog - that in the 21st century, a global economy is simply not competitive without something like high speed rail. Dependence on oil is the mounted cavalry of our time.

I don't agree with all that Kasai writes - he supports maglev, for example - but it's a useful read on how the global perspective is changing. Non-oil based infrastructure projects aren't just a way to move people. They're a sign of modernity, of a society that has both feet firmly planted in the 21st century, of a society that looks ahead to the strategic challenges of a new era and chooses to meet them sensibly, instead of choosing to foolishly cling to the delusional belief that the 20th century can continue.

Railway services are regaining importance in the 21st century as a high-speed means of transit amid the global recognition of energy security and environmental protection as the most pressing priorities for mankind in the new century

In the 19th century, European states regarded railway construction as a synonym for industrialization and expansion of imperial rule. In the United States, private companies, spearheading transcontinental railway construction, played the strategic role in opening up the frontier and, with state-sanctioned privileges, developed vast areas at their discretion. For its part, Japan joined the railway development race half a century later. By the end of the 19th century, 750,000 kilometers of railroad tracks had been laid around the world.

It may be hard for us to imagine, but the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Transcontinental Railroad were the moon shot and ICBM of their time. Before the cheap oil boom temporarily revolutionized transportation, nations understood that a vibrant rail infrastructure was essential for economic development. Today most nations now understand that HSR is similarly necessary for strategic advancement - witness the massive HSR program in Spain, or the continuing expansion of the French syste, or the project in places as diverse as Argentina, Morocco, Iran, and Vietnam. If California thinks they can remain globally competitive without a reliable method of moving people around the state that isn't dependent on sky-high oil prices they're insane.

Today, a short while after the beginning of the 21st century, high-speed railways are gaining a new dimension of strategic importance. Needless to say, high-speed railway operations that ensure safe, punctual and rapid mass transit have tremendous advantages in meeting 21st-century requirements, such as advanced energy consumption efficiency and the use of nuclear electric power and other clean energy sources.

Notice what Kasai points out as having "strategic importance" - safe, punctual, rapid mass transit. Advanced consumption efficiency, the use of clean energy sources. Nuclear is surely controversial, but California's wind and solar potential is among the most promising in the world. The CHSRA is expected to release its own study on renewable and carbon-neutral energy sources anytime now, and BART has embraced solar power. The strategic challenge of the 21st century is no longer to build enough aircraft carriers or freeways - it's whether we can build infrastructure that can keep a modern society functioning without being dependent on fossil fuels.

Many countries, including the United States, which has so far been less enthusiastic about high-speed railways, are showing interest in rapid transit development. Such a situation effectively means that Japan, which boasts a decisive edge over other countries in the fields of high-speed transit technology, expertise, installation and operations, now has a strategic card in its hand.

Japan has a right to brag here. A nation that is famously dependent on imported resources can boast a transportation system that is largely, if not totally, self-sustaining. France can make the same boast, as its power comes mostly from nuclear sources. Does California really believe it can keep up with just Southwest Airlines and Interstate 5?

Kasai argues that the US should follow the European model and use public funds to build the infrastructure while using HSR fare revenues to pay for the operating expenses. It would be an investment on par with those we made in the middle of the 20th century, when we built bridges, freeways and aqueducts with public money that were essential to California's dramatic late 20th century economic prosperity. If we wish our prosperity to continue we need to make a similar investment in our time - and HSR is that investment, as Kasai argues:

If a maglev train plan is adopted by the United States, Japan should consider exporting the best of its high-speed railway system to its ally. Now that high-speed railway transit is considered essential for the strategic needs of the 21st century, it is significant that Japanese technology could contribute to such a U.S. initiative as a key step to consolidating the alliance between the two countries.

How secure an alliance is can be determined not only by military cooperation, but also by multifaceted and collaborative relationships through the sharing of roles and interdependence in industrial fields.

That's how Kasai ends his article, and though we can substitute HSR for maglev, I really like how he closes. Global relationships in the 21st century will not be sustained by military cooperation, but by the "multifaceted and collaborative relationships" described here. America's longtime allies in Japan, France, and Germany have an enormous amount of technical skill and innovation to share with us - as well as capital. Perhaps it is time for an American Marshall Plan, where those nations we helped in the late 1940s can come and return the favor in the 2010s by providing the technical knowhow to help California join the 21st century and build high speed rail.

As with the original Marshall Plan, though, the benefits weren't given - you had to ask for them. President Truman didn't ride around Europe throwing dollar bills from the back of a truck, and nobody will do so today. If Californians don't pass Proposition 1 this year, they will be consigning themselves to permanent and fatal dependence on an obsolete model of fueling our economy. Friends around the world like Yoshiyuki Kasai want to help us help ourselves. Why would we say no?

Saturday, July 12, 2008

HSR Is An Attractive Investment

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

In the comments on the previous post there is an interesting discussion about private investment in high speed rail, including some understandable concerns about whether that money will materialize given the worsening credit crunch facing the global economy.

California HSR is actually very well positioned to benefit from this, and there is every reason to expect that private investors will line up around the block to be a part of it. To understand that point we must first look to France where SNCF has turned a profit by emphasizing high speed rail. (H/T to The Overhead Wire)

Guillaume Pepy, SNCF chairman and chief executive (PDG) since February, says that, unlike his predecessors who had to manage a railway recession, he is presiding over an accelerating boom. The state-owned SNCF delivered a net €1.1bn (£875m) profit last year and first-half figures, due next week, are said to be sparkling. Pepy envisages up to 80m extra passenger trips this year or an increase of around 8%.

"This change will speed up because we are facing a twin energy and environment crisis," he says, pointing to surging fuel costs and growing personal worries about carbon footprints. "People want sustainable mobility and, in France, more trains and more SNCF."

Rail travel is booming around the world as well as here in California, as the latest numbers prove. Given that oil prices are going to remain high for the foreseeable future, we can reasonably expect train ridership to continue rising.

In other words, ridership will grow. And what do private investors look for? Growth opportunities. Don't be fooled by the weakening economy - there remains an enormous amount of capital sloshing around global markets, looking for a good rate of return. Currently a lot of that capital is in oil, creating speculation that is partly responsible for the high level of oil prices (but only partly - the underlying fundamentals of insufficient supply to meet demand remain likely to keep prices high for a long time to come).

But even though oil prices are on a long-term upward trajectory, they are also volatile. Over the last week prices fell by $10/bbl before rising again. Private capital would prefer a much more stable and reliable investment. Something fixed, that won't be ephemeral, and something that offers the prospect of long-term growth.

Meaning infrastructure. It's no accident that the largest funds are looking to own physical things instead of worthless mortgage tranches or the declining dollar. Abu Dhabi's purchase of the iconic Chrysler building is but one example of the trend. More relevant is Argentina's high speed rail example, financed by a French bank.

High speed rail would be an extremely attractive investment even in a bad economy and during a credit crunch. It offers returns with very little risk. Every high speed rail system in the world has strong ridership levels and most generate operating surpluses. SNCF relied on it to return to profitability. Here in California the long-term airline crisis and oil crisis, as well as global warming rules, will help sustain high levels of demand.

The key is public funding. A presentation at the June 2008 CHSRA meeting explained the results of a survey of private investors who might be interested in our project. Many were supportive, but said that they needed a minimum of 60% public funding to be willing to invest, and would be most comfortable with 75%. In other words, the state of California needs to provide the first stake, and then the federal government.

Given that HSR is such an undisputed global success, it should not be difficult to attract private investment. Proposition 1 is the necessary first step to bringing that about. If we vote for it, we will build it - and they will come.

Friday, July 11, 2008

AB 3034 Update

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

Yesterday the Senate Appropriations Committee met to discuss and approve AB 3034. The committee proposed just a few amendments, most of them minor. The most significant change was the deletion of the controversial provision agreed to in the Senate Transportation Committee giving project design and engineering work to Caltrans. Several Senators and engineering companies argued this move was unconstitutional and it will no longer be part of the bill.

The committee also plans to change slightly the language regarding phased construction. Leland Yee's amendment provided that no bond funds could be spent outside of the SF-LA-Anaheim "spine" until that project had been fully completed. Here's Yee's version (indicated by strikethrough text):

for the usable segment
of the high-speed train system between San Francisco
Transbay Terminal and Los Angeles Union Station and Anaheim.
Once construction of the San Francisco-Los Angeles usable segment is
fully funded, all remaining funds described in this subdivision
shall be used for eligible capital costs, as described in subdivision
(c), for the following high-speed train system corridors:

And here's the new language (indicated by italics):

(2) Upon a finding by the authority that expenditure of bond
proceeds in corridors other than the corridor described in paragraph
(1) would advance the construction of the system and would not have
an adverse impact on the completion of Phase 1 of the high-speed
train project, as adopted by the authority in May 2007 and described
in paragraph (1), the authority may request funding for capital
costs, and the Legislature may appropriate funds described in
paragraph (1) in the annual Budget Act or separate statute, to be
expended for the following high-speed train corridors:

(A) Sacramento to Stockton to Fresno.
(B) San Francisco Transbay Terminal to San Jose to Fresno.
(C) Oakland to San Jose.
(D) Fresno to Bakersfield to Palmdale to Los Angeles Union
(E) Los Angeles Union Station to Riverside to San Diego.
(F) Los Angeles Union Station to Anaheim to Irvine.
(G) Merced to Stockton to Oakland/San Francisco
Oakland and San Francisco via the Altamont Corridor.
(3) Nothing in this section shall prejudice the
authority's determination and selection of the alignment from the
Central Valley to the San Francisco Bay Area and its
certification of the environmental impact report.

So as I read that, the Appropriations committee has constructed a usable compromise between Yee's position and those who wish to see the bond funds become available to all segments of the ultimate HSR route. It allows the Authority to request bond funds be used for other segments of the route but only if they've determined it won't adversely impact Phase 1 - the "spine" from the Bay Area to SoCal. This is a good compromise and will allow the project to move forward with strong support from around the state.

The language also gives the Authority final determination over how to connect the SF Bay Area to the Central Valley - meaning that if this passes, Pacheco will definitely be the route used. It's about time we settled that long-running debate.

The Appropriations committee will meet again on Monday to give a final vote on the amended version of AB 3034. This blog supports the new language and believes it should pass out of committee. From there it's not clear what the schedule for consideration will be - after Monday the Senate is scheduled to go into recess until August 4. Presumably the Senate as a whole could vote on the project on Monday once the Appropriations committee passes it - that would be the ideal outcome, allowing us to move forward with the campaign to pass Proposition 1 in November.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Arnold Embraces Prop 1

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

So reports NBC11:

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has placed his support behind a costly high-speed rail system in California.

Schwarzenegger told NBC11 he wants California to lead the way in transporting commuters across the state at near-record speeds while reducing global warming at the same time....

On the very spot where the Transcontinental Railroad was established nearly 140 years ago, Schwarzenegger told Luery that a less-than-three-hour trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles represents the type of progress that can take place in the Golden State.

"I think we need high speed rail," Schwarzenegger said. "If you think right now our trains in America are running the same speed as 100 years ago. That's not progress. I think we can do much better than that."

Arnold has been playing footsie with high speed rail for a while now. He tried to gut the funding for the Authority last year, only to then publish an op-ed in the Fresno Bee expressing support for the project. His support appeared to be dependent on HSR providing public-private partnerships, which AB 3034 would help produce.

His approval rating has been dropping, but he still remains the dominant political figure in the state, and his support for Prop 1 is certainly more welcome than opposition. Whether Arnold will campaign for Prop 1 around the state remains to be seen, and it would certainly do much to both prove the depth of his commitment to the project and to build a stronger consensus for Prop 1 across party lines.

Of course, Arnold's longtime Republican rival and dedicated train hater Tom McClintock was quick to attack high speed rail:

"It just doesn't pencil out," said state Sen. Tom McClintock, R-Thousand Oaks. "It's $40 billion just in construction. That's more than $1,000 for every man, woman and child in this state -- all for a train that will go from L.A. to San Francisco in about two hours longer than it takes to fly there."

McClintock called the system a boondoggle and said that the money would be better spent improving California's highways.

$1,000, perhaps, but that is spread out over 30 years - which is $33 a year, or 64¢ per week. I might be able to dig that out of my couch cushions. In the life of the HSR project most Californians will recognize well beyond $1000 in savings at the pump and at the ticket counter.

It's also no surprise McClintock raises the old "airplanes are faster" claim. In fact, if you include travel time to the airport, and the wait in the terminal (including security) a flight from LA to SF will take roughly the same amount of time as the high speed train - just over two and a half hours. What's more, HSR offers a far more convenient form of travel - business travelers can conduct cell phone conversations, perhaps use WiFi or even videoconferencing, instead of being crammed into a plane where cell phones and WiFi are verboten.

McClintock also shows his total ignorance of the airline crisis which will make air travel within this state more expensive and less frequent. For most Californians, HSR and feeder rail lines will become the primary method they use to get around the state.

Instead McClintock wants to shackle Californians to soaring oil prices. I mean really, $40 billion in highway expansion? Not only will that not buy you very many new freeway lanes, but it would be doubling down on California's reliance on oil. The McClintock solution to high gas prices simply doesn't exist - he thinks we should just pay it and continue driving as if everything's normal.

Thankfully not all Republicans agree - Curt Pringle, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and others recognize the value of HSR. With their support voters will too.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Pacheco It Is

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

The California High Speed Rail Authority today approved the EIR, including the Pacheco alignment. This comes as a surprise to nobody, but it may hopefully lay to rest the long-running debate over whether it or the Altamont alignment is the best way to connect SF to LA. I never had strong feelings either way - each had their pros and cons, neither clearly outweighing the other. Yes, Pacheco provides us folks in Monterey a closer stop, but it wouldn't have been difficult to get to San José for the Altamont alignment if that had been chosen either.

It's time now for HSR advocates to unite behind this project alignment and help ensure the bond is passed this November. The last piece is AB 3034, which goes before the Senate Appropriations Committee tomorrow in Sacramento. It's not clear what will happen - whether Leland Yee's changes, including reprioritizing the SF-LA "spine", will remain. There isn't a great deal of time to make these changes, as the bond language has to be prepped for the ballot presumably sometime in August.

The HSR project is moving from the refinement stage to the campaign stage. It's about time. The bond vote was postponed twice, of course, but it's hard to imagine how 2004 or 2006 could have been better - high gas prices, the airline crisis, global warming, soaring passenger train ridership are all showing Californians the value of high speed trains. With a huge turnout in November Proposition 1 has an excellent chance of passage.

There'll be one fewer reporter to cover it though. Erik Nelson, aka the Capricious Commuter, is leaving his job with the Bay Area Newsgroup - 29 employees were to be fired, and Nelson chose to switch places with one of them. He's heading to Afghanistan, or somewhere near to it, where his wife works as an NPR correspondent. He may not have always had the firmest grasp of the HSR project but he was willing to engage the public through his blog, and his knowledge of HSR did improve over the last few months.

As the California political press corps shrinks, blogs like this become more important in getting information out to the public about HSR. Thanks to all our commenters for helping us do that. On to November!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

HSR Seizes European Short Haul Market

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

So reports The Times today on how soaring fuel costs are driving passengers to high speed trains:

The airline industry has been crushed by the price of kerosene and deserted by passengers fed up with delays. After decades of disappointment, false dawns and virtually bankrupt Channel Tunnels, we have finally arrived at the age of the train and the evidence is in the crowd at St Pancras.

Only eight months after opening its doors in November, the new station is choc-a-bloc at peak hours, an exciting but slightly nerve-wracking development for Eurostar and its biggest shareholder, SNCF, the French state railway.

Traffic growth on Eurostar is accelerating like an Alstom locomotive, increasing by 21 per cent in the first quarter, compared with the same period in 2007, and revenues are up by a quarter. Those figures were no flash in the pan, a boost from all the hooplah at last year's opening of St Pancras. Traffic in the second quarter has grown at similar rates, insiders say.

While Eurostar thunders through Kent, the competing service to Paris and Brussels is lost on a never-ending building site west of London. The Terminal 5 fiasco has not helped British Airways's short-haul European business, but by next year (assuming no new operational disaster) it should have ironed out the wrinkles.

Then, BA is left with the awful question of whether short-haul air traffic has any future in Europe. The answer has to be a resounding “no”.

There are a LOT of reasons for high speed rail and we've covered all of those and then some on this blog (no really - check the archives!), including economic stimulus, the environment, declining oil supplies, and air quality. But it may be that the airline crisis is the tipping point that convinces Californians of the value of high speed trains.

For many years, even at the beginning of this year, a common reaction to the high speed rail proposal was "why would I take a train when I can take Southwest for $50?" Until this year Californians assumed that cheap air travel would always be there for them within the state.

No longer. As more and more media outlets report on the airline crisis, and as Californians make the correct link between higher fares and the higher prices they pay at the pump, they realize that cheap airfare is about to become a thing of the past. And since driving isn't an attractive replacement, owing to cost and time, high speed rail is the perfect solution for shorthaul intercity trips within our state.

I promise this isn't going to become "the airline crisis" blog. You'll continue to hear more about the full range of benefits of the HSR project. But it may be that the airline crisis is what cements in the public mind the need for high speed rail. And it should put the final nail in the coffin of the ridiculous ridership debate - as if there's any doubt about HSR's ability to attract enough riders with this knowledge in mind...

CHSRA Meeting: The Authority held its public comment meeting on the Final EIR today in San Francisco. Owing to my obligations here in Monterey I wasn't able to get to the meeting until around 3 PM, by which point it was already over. If only there were some sort of high speed train to get me to SF...oh well. As rafael told me there wasn't much new - the usual pro and con comments ahead of tomorrow's vote to accept the EIR.

The real action on HSR continues to happen at the State Capitol, where the Senate Appropriations Committee was expected to debate AB 3034 yesterday - but instead postponed that until Thursday at 10 AM. It's anybody's guess what's going to happen to the bill. We hope to have someone there for the meeting on Thursday.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Air France Looks to HSR for its Future

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

I've been meaning to get to this article for a few days now, and though our friends at Trains for America and The Overhead Wire have mentioned it, I hope you won't mind if I bring up the rear, so to speak. Air France is looking into entering the HSR business when the EU deregulates it in 2010:

With the high price of fuel raising the cost of flying, Air France is looking into replacing some of its short-haul European flights with high-speed rail service in partnership with a French train operator, a move that analysts said could lead to significant savings.

HSR would provide Air France with better service by bringing passengers to Charles de Gaulle from around the region for their long-haul flights; and would help their profit margin by lowering costs:

The main advantage for the airlines would be improved profitability, Van den Brul said....

Shifting passengers onto trains from planes would result in "significant" cost savings, a particular concern for airlines struggling to cope with record high oil prices.

Energy accounts for about 40 percent of an airline's total costs, against only around 10-15 percent for rail.

So it makes perfect sense for Air France to look into this model. SNCF has found a cash cow in their TGV system, which has generated so much operating surplus that the French national rail operator can use that to subsidize other services and even give some money to the French treasury. Air France recognizes that HSR is vital to a strong, reliable, and affordable transportation system - that it helps the airlines do their jobs better and more profitably.

Trains for America notes that this model would work well here in the US:

New York-Los Angeles, Miami-Seattle, any overseas travel for obvious reasons… some routes are too far for even fast trains to really compete with air travel. But Minneapolis-Chicago, Boston-Washington, Los Angeles-San Francisco, these are the lengths where high-speed trains are eminently more practical than planes.

And they're absolutely right on that point. Mineta-SJC's woes might be eased by HSR, allowing passengers easier access to it and allowing airlines to focus on the long-haul routes that trains aren't going to be able to displace. HSR can connect cities like LA to SF in roughly the same amount of time as it takes to fly, considering door-to-door time and time at the airport terminal. HSR also has a significant cost advantage as it isn't dependent on the constantly rising price of oil.

American carriers would find this especially valuable. Our dollars bring less purchasing power on the global market and already airlines like United and Delta are cutting service. Southwest hasn't yet been impacted, but that's not because they are magically immune. Instead Southwest, which dominates the intrastate air market in California, benefits from massive use of fuel hedges. They locked in much of their fuel costs at around $51/bbl - but those hedges expire between 2010 and 2013. By that time Southwest will no longer be able to offer cheap fares and will have to cut flights just as everyone else is doing.

HSR would be a boon to these airlines. And that explains why, in contrast to the shenanigans we saw in Texas in the early 1990s, the airlines haven't opposed HSR here. They recognize its value because it helps them make a profit. In turn HSR will help Californians afford to continue traveling within the state as well as connecting to airport hubs to take them around the continent and the globe.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Airline Crisis Comes to San José

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

Today's Mercury News provides an in-depth look at Mineta San José Airport expansion and asks whether it will be a "waste" as the price of oil leads to dramatic cuts in flights and services:

With the airline industry in disarray amid the startling rise in oil prices, new questions are emerging about the impact on San Jose's lofty $1.3 billion airport expansion.

Even as airport officials promise a state-of-art new terminal will open by 2010, they are also grappling with some disturbing trends that might eventually lead to fewer flights here. Increased traffic is key to paying off the expansion - and while airport officials are reluctant to speculate about long-term trends, nobody can say whether the short-term belt-tightening now under way will be enough to weather a protracted downturn.

SJC officials are in a tight spot - to keep airlines there, they have to have low fees. But to repay the $1.3 billion in bonds that were sold to finance the project, they need income. If flights are cut and the number of passengers drops SJC would have to get more money in fees from the airlines - which would cause the airlines to cut back service further.

THAT is what true financial risk looks like. SJC gambled that air travel would remain a viable form of transportation well into the future - and that oil prices would remain low. They may lose that bet.

The fear that fuel prices may rise even higher looms over San Jose's Aviation Director Bill Sherry. He recently showed the city council data from industry analysts who estimate that if oil goes to $150 a barrel, national passenger levels could fall by 23 percent. At $200 a barrel, they could plunge by 35 percent.

The airport's original $100 million budget for the fiscal year that began this month projected a passenger growth rate of 1 percent. If traffic instead decreases by 10 percent, officials say revenues for the airport - which is self-supporting and receives no money from the city's general fund - would fall as much as $9 million.

The price of a barrel of oil is going to fluctuate for some time. $150 is certainly possible within the next few weeks, just as $99 is possible within the next few months. But the long-term trend is upward, there can be no mistaking it. The result, as I have consistently argued on the blog, is reduced service:

Delta Airlines spokesman Anthony Black said the rising cost of oil means one simple solution: "Fewer flights and fewer markets." The company has already cut back flights nationwide by 13 percent since December and now operates nine daily flights into San Jose.

I don't welcome this - SJC is my primary airport, given how expensive it is to fly out of Monterey. This means my own travel options are going to be reduced and made more expensive.

What is to be done?

"The airport is the dance hall, and the airlines are the pretty girls," quips Forrester Research travel-industry analyst Henry Harteveldt. "You have to have the pretty girls to get the guys to show up - and the guys are the passengers."

Of course, SJC isn't the only dance hall in town. The other SJC - Diridon Station - is poised to become one of the Bay Area's key transportation nodes. HSR would complement Caltrain, the Capitol Corridor, and VTA light rail, all of which currently serve San José Diridon. Theoretically BART will be added into the mix, and even though I do not expect that to actually happen, Diridon Station will still be well positioned to use its "girls" - modern, high speed trains - to attract the "guys" - passengers - for travel purposes. HSR can move travelers quickly to SFO, and the Capitol Corridor can take passengers to OAK (where the Amtrak California line already has a station). Of course, HSR will also connect passengers to other points in California, notably in Southern California.

Whether we want to continue the tortured dance hall metaphor or not, it is clear that passenger rail is showing rates of growth that the airline industry cannot match. HSR won't replace the mid or long-range flights, but it would help passengers in the Santa Clara Valley have affordable and sustainable travel options, which they clearly are going to need in the future.

The real "financial risk" in this case is that the Silicon Valley places all its eggs in Mineta-SJC's basket, relying solely on airlines and an airport that both might face serious financial problems in the near future. Wouldn't it make sense to hedge against the risk by building a transportation system that has proved to be a global success, and that maximizes the ongoing passenger rail trend?

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Ashburn vs. Yee

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

The California Chronicle has two short articles about the State Senate's approach to high speed rail, focusing on Democrat Leland Yee of San Francisco and Republican Roy Ashburn, whose district sprawls across eastern California but is based in Bakersfield. The articles help explain the politics surrounding HSR in our state capital, and may give us a preview of what we can expect to unfold Monday morning at 10 at the Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on AB 3034.

The Yee article focuses on his work to restore the "spine" of the HSR corridor, from SF to LA and Anaheim, which as you all know was threatened by AB 3034's provision for building smaller, potentially disconnected HSR corridors instead. The article quotes my comments from Tuesday in support of Yee's position, and includes this portion from a Yee press release:

"The high speed rail bond has always been about finding ways to get millions of people out of cars and airplanes and into a cost-saving and environmentally-sound transportation portal," said Yee. "A piecemeal approach is not what is best for commuters, visitors, or the economy, and is certainly not what is best for our environment. As an advocate for high speed rail, I will continue to be steadfast in securing the San Francisco to Los Angeles corridor of the bullet train and then branching out to other cities."

Yee and I are in full agreement on this. For HSR to have maximal impact on our state's transportation habits, and to provide a badly-needed link between two cities currently connected by an airline industry in crisis, we need to link SF to LA first. I recognize that this can cause worry to those in Sacramento, Stockton, and San Diego who won't get HSR at the outset - but they ought to be reassured that once Californians see this system in operation, and see its value, they will not hesitate to support the extensions to Sacramento and SD, extensions that remain part of the overall state HSR plan.

The article on Ashburn provides some more details on his opposition to the HSR project:

Senator Ashburn asked tough questions, noting several problems with the measure. The Authority has failed to develop a business plan and lacks real experience in constructing such a large-scale project.

Actually, the CHSRA does have a Business Plan. Of course, it was finalized in June 2000, and desperately needs to be updated - which AB 3034 would direct the Authority to do. The frequent postponement of the bond and the low levels of funding for the Authority are the culprits here. The 2000 study was still of value in 2004, but should have been updated for 2006 and surely for 2008. But the CHSRA has not had the level of funding to both prepare a business plan AND continue with the necessary EIR statement preparation and other important studies and planning that voters also needed to see before a vote. And since AB 3034 will produce that updated business plan, it doesn't make sense for Ashburn to oppose it on those grounds.

The project manager is the same contractor that was responsible for many of the problems associated with the "Big Dig" in Boston, recognized as one of the worst transportation planning boondoggles in recent memory.

He is referring to Parsons Brinckerhoff, which surely did screw up the Big Dig. But this is also a deeply misleading statement in several respects. One of the key problems with the Big Dig was poor oversight by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, which often turned a blind eye to reports about bad contracting practices in order to speed up construction only to have to spend money correcting those problems. Sound oversight of PB has produced good results in other major projects, and is a necessity no matter who ultimately designs, builds, and operates the system.

Unfortunately Ashburn and many other critics use "the Big Dig" as a kind of bogeyman, assuming that every large public works project will inevitably meet with the same problems as that project. That view ignores the details that caused the Big Dig to experience problems, and more importantly ignores the scores of public transportation projects that have been delivered on or close to the original budget. Seattle's Central Link light rail project will open next summer on budget. Same with the Metro Gold Line extension to East LA.

More importantly, the Big Dig was an unusually complex project, one that had rarely been attempted here in the US or abroad. HSR, on the other hand, is a familiar project to global engineers and builders. It's so common as to become routine. The most complex engineering will be the tunnels in the Tehachapis - but tunnelling through mountains is by no means new or difficult, especially here in California where Caltrans, PB and others have much experience with this; and the tunnel from Fourth and King to the new Transbay Terminal in San Francisco. There will be some cost overruns on the HSR project, no doubt about it - but I do not expect them to be large, and they will be due to factors outside of our control, such as the global inflation in construction materials and the declining value of the dollar.

To use the Big Dig as a reason to not ever build any ambitious project is therefore absurd and ignorant. It's a high profile screw up - but it's also an outlier, not representative of the whole.

Ashburn goes on:

Public employee unions successfully inserted language preventing competition by the private sector.

This refers to the controversial language the Senate Transportation Committee included in AB 3034 last week regarding Caltrans being given project design work. As Erik Nelson explained that provision was not given a final adoption by the committee. Even if this change is adopted, it does not speak to the quality of the project - Caltrans has one of the world's most successful project design records - but to politics. Ashburn and the Senate Republicans are ideologically opposed to public entities doing this kind of work. Such dogma should not be construed as a legitimate criticism of the HSR project.

The article notes that though "some of Ashburn's concerns" were addressed, presumably meaning the business plan, he still believes that the project is flawed:

"After six years and $58 million spent, the full-time Rail Authority still has yet to come up with a viable business plan, but they want the voters to trust them with 10 billion more of their hard-earned dollars," noted Ashburn.

As I discussed above, this is a weak argument at best. Ashburn knows perfectly well why such an update wasn't done and he knows that it will indeed be done in time for voters to assess it before they vote in November.

It would be a shame for Ashburn to oppose a project that would provide such enormous benefits to his constituents, especially those in Bakersfield. Bakersfield is poised to reap significant economic benefits from high speed rail. As permanently high gas prices might make it an uncompetitive location for business, HSR will provide Bakersfield residents with a fast connection to the state's major economic centers, as well as to their airports. It will position Bakersfield to become a bedroom community for Southern California workers, and with the station located downtown Bakersfield can construct a lot of transit-oriented high-density development to serve those workers.

Bakersfield has been hot extremely hard by the foreclosure crisis, with one of the highest foreclosure rates in the nation. The city's growth depends on reliable transportation, and Highway 99 and Interstate 5 aren't going to do the job if fuel prices remain high. The new residents and the subsequent job growth HSR would provide will provide a stable and growing economy for the city for some time to come.

It is a shame Ashburn would toss all that away because the Authority didn't have the time or money to update their business plan. Ashburn's objections are grasping at straws, and he knows it. Let's hope he comes around this week and supports this vital project.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

CHSRA Seeks Public Comments for Final EIR

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

The California High Speed Rail Authority is holding its monthly meeting this coming week in San Francisco - a full agenda and further information are available on their website.

On Tuesday July 8 the meeting's first day will be dedicated to public comments regarding the Final EIR/EIS. This will include the alignment and station location information - one hopes we can finally start to settle the Altamont/Pacheco argument, even though the ultimate resolution depends on the outcome of AB 3034.

The meeting will be held at the Judicial Council Conference Center, 455 Golden Gate Avenue, San Francisco, at 1 PM on Tuesday. Day two of the meeting begins at 10 AM on Wednesday.

The Central Valley Business Times wrote about the upcoming meeting today, closing on this puzzling note:

Money to build the system is yet to be found.

Um...what? "Yet to be found?" No mention of Proposition 1 or the fact that the HSR bond was originally approved for the ballot in 2002?!


Anyhow, I hope as many of you can make it to the CHSRA meeting as possible. The more strong public comments for the Final EIR and for the project, the better!

Enjoy your 4th of July holiday, everyone. I'll be on Caltrain heading to the Giants-Dodgers game tomorrow. The Salinas extension can't come quickly enough!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

A Golden Spike

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

This article has been making the rounds of the transit blogs today - it's an op-ed piece from the Boston Globe explaining how much John McCain hates trains:

For years, McCain, in the comfort of cheap gasoline for autos and airplanes, made Amtrak a personal whipping boy. Despite the fact that governments in Western Europe and Asia zoomed far ahead of the United States by supporting high-speed trains to relieve congestion, promote tourism and now as we are coming to know, save the planet, McCain has spent considerable capital in denying the passenger rail system the capital to modernize.

In 2000, when he was chairman of the Senate Science, Commerce and Transportation committee, McCain killed $10 billion in capital funding for Amtrak. He denounced Amtrak as a symbol of government waste, claiming, "There's only two parts of the country that can support a viable rail system - the Northeast and the far West."

I knew that McCain was deeply anti-rail, but I hadn't realized he played such a key role in gutting Amtrak funding. $10 billion for capital funding in 2000 would have revolutionized Amtrak. Instead of a system that does the best it can with hardly any money and with severe track issues, $10 billion would have paid for an enormous amount of track improvements, electrifications, new train cars, all of which could have helped more Americans get around on the rails.

Derrick Jackson, the author of the op-ed, goes on to demonstrate McCain's lack of interest in rail, despite the clear interest from the American public:

In the section of McCain's website called "reforming our transportation sector," there is no mention of rail. There is only his clean-car challenge to automakers, his $300 million prize to design battery cars, and enforcing only existing gas mileage standards. When The Washington Post reported on how President Bush's fiscal 2006 budget did not include a subsidy for Amtrak, would kill both $20 million for the next generation of high-speed rail, and $250 million for railroad rehabilitation, it quoted McCain as saying on television, "I'm glad the president is coming over with a very austere budget."

The luster of austerity is gone. Public transportation is becoming a real issue for the campaign trail. If so, McCain has all but handed Obama a golden spike to beat him over the head with.

Not all Republicans are so misguided. Republicans like Curt Pringle, Arnold Schwarzenegger and John Mica understand the value of high speed rail. But Republicans in the State Senate, like Sen. Jim Battin, don't understand it. Instead they prefer to attack trains, even though our state has desperate need for them, whether they're light rail, commuter rail, or high speed intercity rail.

John McCain will fight against federal funding for high speed rail. Barack Obama will deliver that funding. If we want this project to happen, Californians need to understand that choice. It doesn't matter what party you identify with - high speed rail has value. We welcome support from all quarters.

Republican politicians are only hurting themselves with their anti-rail stance. As voters in California and America begin to see the value of rail, and as Republican voters come around on the issue, anti-rail zealots like McCain will only find themselves deeper in the political hole. America is changing, embracing trains as a smart solution to our transportation needs, and to our energy and environmental crisis. California is leading the way. Will Senate Republicans join in - or will they follow McCain down the dead-end track?