Sunday, September 7, 2008

High Speed Nonsense in Tracy

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

One of the most bizarre and nonsensical anti-HSR op-eds appeared in the Tracy Press on Friday. Written by Craig Saalwaechter, the article makes high speed rail out to be some kind of "hurricane" that will destroy the state. Instead the author winds up defending a failed status quo, suggesting that California stand idly by in the face of looming environmental, energy, and economic crisis. If Saalwaechter wants to analogize HSR to a hurricane, his approach is that of someone who sets up a lawn chair as the storm approaches without putting plywood over the windows and getting the hell out of town.

Think of it as a big Y placed smack dab in the middle of California.

No, think of it as a big WHY?

Proponents tout its ability to eliminate commuter congestion, reduce air pollution and provide an alternate mode of transportation.

At last week’s transit forum sponsored by the city, I didn’t meet any Tracy-to-LA commuters, just Tracy-toward-the-bay commuters.

High-speed rail won’t help reduce their congestion along the Interstate 580-205-120 corridor.

Earth to Craig: Tracy is not California. It's one thing to point out that Tracy isn't going to immediately benefit from HSR. But quite another to assume that since Tracy isn't going to get an HSR station, nobody else will, and nobody anywhere will benefit. Commuters in the Bay Area and Southern California will see a significant benefit from high speed rail, whether you live in San Jose and commute to work in downtown SF, or live in Orange County and commute to LA, or any number of other combinations.

Of course, HSR riders won't just be commuters. They will also be travelers - tourists, business travelers, families going to see grandma and grandpa for the winter holidays. Lots of residents in Tracy have family in SoCal. Lots of residents in SoCal have family in the Bay Area. Given the ever-rising cost of gas and airfares and the cutbacks in flights, this is an important consideration for all Californians.

Saalwaechter's article mentions none of this. It's basically a bunch of non-sequiturs strung together to reach the 800 word requirement.

Supporters of the bond reluctantly claim that the total cost of the high-speed rail system could reach $40 billion. They expect $10 billion from the feds and the rest from “private investments.” Bet you can’t wait to see the shenanigans and shady deals that are put together by our bureaucrats in Sacramento.

This HSR supporter - me - has never been reluctant to explain the total cost of the HSR system. Of course it's $40 billion. Of course we expect $10 billion or more from the feds, and yes, we expect private investors. But there's no reason to imply "shenanigans" unless your worldview is so cynical that you probably have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning. The Authority has already been in discussions with private investors about what their needs are to invest. This is a discussion that will unfold over the coming years and involve the legislature's oversight in a public process. If Saalwaechter can't be bothered to be a good citizen and get involved in the process and actually read the documents, he shouldn't be making baseless claims.

And have you noticed that as projects grow from city to county to state, they get worse? Just look in our own backyard at the multi-county San Joaquin Delta College disaster. Gee, what a shocker that the big city of Stockton gets all the goodies and the neighboring towns get shafted.

This non sequitur is actually rather telling. To folks like Saalwaechter, ALL government projects are inherently flawed. There's not a good one in the bunch. Whether it's a school or a train or a bridge or who knows what else, anything government touches turns to dung in his mind. His objection is really to government, not to HSR. Otherwise he'd have more knowledge of the transit projects that came in on-time and on-budget, like the Metro Gold Line extension.

But back to Prop. 1A and its cost estimates. It’s a huge underestimate comparison, but let’s use recent and planned BART extensions as a template. The almost $2 billion Millbrae-to-SFO connection and the now estimated $7 billion Milpitas-to-Santa Clara line will be a total of less than 40 miles of 1960s technology. Total cost: $9 billion. Does that number sound familiar? Can you imagine the higher cost of a state-of-the-art bullet train?

BART's construction costs are unusually high owing to its unique technology. It's a distinction few in the public understand, since they see all passenger rail as basically being the same. It's an unfortunate legacy of decades of underinvestment in rail. But that doesn't mean that HSR will face the same cost overruns as BART - the technology is standardized, the construction methods are standardized. Any cost overruns will come due to inflation and the declining value of the dollar.

So picture this: You drive over to San Francisco, and after waiting through long Homeland Security lines, you start your Southern California trip from the marble-laden San Francisco station, with your hair figuratively whipped by 200 mph winds. You race down the peninsula watching blue “Your Tax Dollars at Work” signs whiz by. You roar into the polished granite San Jose station and literally fly off toward Gilroy.

Oh, no, the train is slowing, and you see a “Track Closed” barrier ahead. As the train grinds to a halt, you notice there is no Gilroy station, just a retired garlic worker wearing a conductor’s hat sitting in the sun at a card table! Off in the distance, you faintly hear, “Sorry folks, we ran out of HSR money.”

This is where his column, already shaky to begin with, goes off the rails completely. From the 200mph speeds in a "marble-laden station" to a train that stops in the dead of nowhere his fantasy makes little sense. Obviously the underlying concern is the Authority will run out of money before the system is completed. That's a real issue, but Prop 1A - as amended by AB 3034 - has some pretty strong safeguards preventing such a situation. The bond money can't be spent on more than 50% of station and track costs, essentially requiring a federal commitment before construction can begin.

Recently it was written (Our Voice, Aug. 30) that this 800-pound gorilla of a proposition may generate $11 million for the Altamont corridor. It could improve the ACE tracks or lead to building a separate rail line. With the costs of land acquisition, planning, designing and environmental impact studies, that money would be burned up before the first spike is driven.

Even with some nebulous matching-fund scheme, the current cost of rail track construction would net Tracy about 3 miles of track. Well, if Alaska can have a bridge to nowhere, we can a track to nowhere.

But nowhere does he define "the current cost of rail track construction." If he wants to call Tracy "nowhere" he's free to do so, but here I thought he opened his column by arguing Tracy needs a commuter connection to jobs in the Bay Area. If he's making speculation about costs that aren't based on any evidence, and if he's contradicting himself within a single op-ed, can we really take what he says that seriously?

Prop. 1A would do absolutely nothing to improve our commuter problems. So why would we saddle our residents with this massive state bond debt?

Furthermore, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is floating a 1-cent increase in sales tax to close the current $15 billion deficit. If BART costs are any indication, expect the true cost to put in the stations and 800 miles of track to easily exceed $100 billion. So expect repeated massive income and sales tax increases in the future. Do we really need this debacle?

As I noted above, BART is not HSR. I'd love for him to show me an HSR construction project anywhere in the world that saw 250% cost overruns. If he can't he's not credible.

More importantly, Saalwaechter is making the same mistake as dozens of other HSR deniers - assuming that the cost of not building HSR is zero. It's not. The cost of not building HSR is north of $100 billion, when you include the cost of expanding freeways (which Saalwaechter supports), the cost to travelers in higher fuel prices, the cost to businesses and workers of those fuel costs, the costs of climate change, and the lost economic opportunity for jobs and growth that HSR provides.

Ultimately the problem with this op-ed is that it assumes the status quo works just fine. That we can stop big bad government in its tracks and save ourselves from disaster. For that argument to work you have to ignore a LOT of evidence that demonstrates disaster is coming and that our current transportation system is not tenable.

California is going to have to pay to extricate itself from this crisis. There is no way around it. The question before us is whether we spend $10 billion on this bond or north of $100 billion to try and manage without HSR. When you look at the complete picture, as the HSR deniers never do, HSR clearly is the cost-effective, fiscally smart solution.


Anonymous said...

Actually as you probably note, Robert, we found the article right to the point and put it on our website immediately.

Hopefully the press is starting to wake up to our arguments and realize how CHSRA is trying to sell "snake oil" to the California voters.

We have asked for the business plan that was due on Sept 1st and was mandated by Prop 1A and agreed to be provided by the CHSRA. So far no response, but the question will be asked of Rod Diridon at the Sept 9th, Menlo Park study session, so maybe he will tell us why it has yet to be delivered.

How many failures of this politically run agency can be tolerated. They spend millions of dollars and years of time producing a CEQA document that studies a ROW that they can't use because it is owned by another party. This along with many other deficiencies in the EIR leads to a lawsuit.

Their choice of the Pacheco route should certainly be discredited by much of what has been written in your blog here.

So you may label the Tracy article
"High Speed Nonsense in Tracy", we would label it "Good Sense on High Speed Rail from Tracy"

Robert Cruickshank said...

The difference is that you like the op-ed merely because it makes the same baseless charges you usually do, whereas my response is based on the (lack of) facts in that op-ed.

I always knew the Authority was being set up by you HSR deniers to fail on the business plan no matter what they did. First you whined that October 1 was too late for you all to review it effectively. Then after Ashburn moved it to September 1, Arnold gave the Authority three days to produce it.

Three days.

Even if they met that goal the document would be incomplete, which you'd use to "prove" the Authority is incompetent. Since they've decided to honor the spirit of the plan and make sure it's done right instead of done in haste, you're attacking them anyway.


Anonymous said...

Our changes are not baseless, just because you label them as such.

How you can again say CHSRA just had 3 days to produce the business plan when they agreed long ago to the Sept 1st date is beyond me.

In any case, it has yet to be produced, it was mandated in Prop 1A and the date was agreed upon by CHSRA in the content of the law. I hope you don't think that is also baseless.

In point of fact when I gave input to the Senate Transportation and Housing committee, the business plan was my key point.

I was and still am upset that the voters are being asked to approve a project of this magnitude and adequate financial information is not available. At that time the business plan was to be due on October 1st. Absentee ballots are mailed on October 1st and about 50% of those ballots are returned within 10 days. Absentee ballots are almost 50% of the votes being cast these days.

Oct. 1st was way too late for many voters to have a chance to view the results. So the date was set to Sept. 1st, and now they have not met that and who know when they are going to deliver.

I simply don't understand why you would not support at least CHSRA meeting this requirement. Do you fear what it might say?

The real test is in an independent peer review of the plan, which will not be available until after the election has been completed.

What should have happened is the business plan prepared by CHSRA and on a parallel course an independent business plan presented as prepared by a group such as the Berkeley Transportation Institute. That Is what my input to the Senate committee requested.

So there is no plan. Will there be one? I have requested a copy and thus far nobody has it and that includes Senators as far as I know.

Anonymous said...

What a stupid rapid anti-rail,,jarvis the comments..looks like there from young people..the one that will vote yes..not the whiney old gray haired dudes!!

Brandon in California said...

I don't believe everything I read and hear... and often check the facts. Or the setting of the discussion.

To it...

The Tracy Press has a circulation of less than 10,000. And they only print on three days out of the week!

This is a paper that does not have the luxury to scrutinize submitted material for their paper. They must accept most everything to fill their pages. My mom could submit an article about UFO sightings in the foothills and get it printed in the Tracy Press!!!

As of this writing, the article only has 255 hits on the count... I probably created 3 of them myself while cruising their shallow site.

IMO, too much attention and therefore credibility is given to the article. Let's discuss something from a paper with greater influence.

It's also laughable, not laudible, that the HSR denier site highlights the article as endorsing their position.

C'mon guy, can't you do better than that?

By the way, where did it go.... the HSR denier site? It does not show-up in the first 2 pages of a google search?

Mmm... I guess the main stream media is catching on!

無名 - wu ming said...

time driving from tracy to stockton train station: 25 minutes.

train from stockton to fresno: 2 hours 10 minutes.

HSR from fresno to LA: 1 hour 18 minutes.

even before the HSR extension to sac is completed (which presumably will go through stockton, right next to tracy), that's a lot faster than the current way to get to LA from tracy, which is driving an hour and a half to sac or san jose and flying (with attendant wait and delay times), or else driving all the way down 5 through the grapevine.

one wonders what these people think about state-constructed freeway or airport expansion. if building a train line is beyond the ability of CA, how are we ever going to handle those transportation demands? it's the same government and contractors that handle any projects.

besides, if i lived in tracy, i'd be doing everything i could to encourage people building more ways of getting the heck out of town, not isolating myself.

Anonymous said...

Someone needs to explain to me why HSR is cheaper to construct than BART.

I understand BART uses a non-standard gauge, but the concrete overpasses are the same, the ROW costs are the same, and the bureaucratic overhead and system costs can't be all that different.

I am a HSR supporter not a 'denier', but if BART and HSR have vastly different cost projections for particular segments (e.g. Fremont to San Jose), any reasonable person would have to wonder.

Anonymous said...

Also commuter traffic was explicitly put forward as a justification for the Altamont alignment by HSR supporters. So its unfair to go after a Tracy paper for pointing out the obvious fact that the project no longer provides them any commuter benefit.

Maybe if we're lucky BART can make it out there in the same decade that HSR is constructed. :|

無名 - wu ming said...

if that, stated soberly, was the argument that the paper made - namely, that the pacheco alignment doesn't help much with the 580 commuter corridor - i don't think most here would have much of a problem with it. it's the over the top hyperbole that does the article in.

Rafael said...

@ anon @ 12:48 -

BART and HSR both require full grade separation, which is expensive in densely built-up areas.

The reasons the HSR network is cheaper per mile are fairly straightforward:

a) by definition, most of the HSR intercity network runs through open countryside, where it is much cheaper to lay track - even though the construction tolerances are much tighter. That means the average per-mile cost is much lower than for BART.

b) the spine of the HSR network is much larger than all of BART put together, so there are better economies of scale in procuring land, materials and labor for getting it built.

c) since this is the first HSR project to be built in North America, vendors will compete aggressively in the reasonable expectation that other medium and high speed rail projects will follow. Nothing drives down prices like competition. BART features broad gauge, proprietary signaling and proprietary rolling stock technology - all of which reduce competition.

d) BART operations require subsidies, which the Bay Area counties served must fund ahead of any strictly local transit services. There is little incentive to keep a lid on recurring costs and, this includes debt service. If a new county - especially a wealthy one - wants to extend BART service into its territory, it has to pay a king's ransom for the privilege.

All of this leads contractors and any politicians/bureaucrats who wish to collude with them to jack up the price by insisting on gold-plated solutions. e.g. one subway line instead of multiple bus rapid transit lines for Fremont to San Jose.


Basically, BART delivers reasonable service at unreasonable cost. By contrast, HSR will deliver excellent service at reasonable prices - unless lawyers manage to throw a spanner or two in the works, which they well may.

Brandon in California said...

^^^ I believe a and b above from rafael answer the question concerning mile-for-mile construction comparisons.

Basically, the SJ BART extension is VERY capital intensive. Tunnels, grade crossings, etc. It has been a couple years, but as I recall very little of the extension was actually at-grade. 5+ yrs ago the cost per mile was estimated somewhere around $250million per mile.

HSR capital cost per mile appears much cheaper b/c of exactly what rafael speaks to... on a system level basis much of it is at grade with few grade-crossings and such. The cost per mile in much of hte open valley will be around $25 miilion per mile... give or take.

Anonymous said...

The readers of this blog might want to learn the reason the CHSRA is not going to produce a business plan.

Rather, they are claiming they don't have the budget to produce the plan.

The full reply to my request for a copy of the plan is posted on

Spokker said...

It's yet another example of the cost of waiting. We could have voted on this in 2004.

It's 2008 and costs are escalating and corridors are being messed with. It's time to break ground on this thing already.

Besides, save the money that would have been spent on the updated business plan for the slew of lawsuits coming.

Mike Fogel said...

I think you should cut Saalwaechter some slack. It's obvious he doesn't have grip on the basics of the function of government, transportation, economics... even stringing together a coherent essay. He's in over his head.

Really, the blame falls on the Tracy Press. If you can't find someone skilled to write up an op-ed for your official position... just don't do it. This kind of mumble-jumble just makes you kinda wince.

There are arguments against high speed rail. Too bad Saalwaechter wasn't able to defecate any of them out into that op-ed.

Speaking of which, you realize that by linking to mumble-jumble like this, you increase it's page rank, and thus increase it's traffic? You might want to consider providing a text link, but not a hyperlink, to prevent google from thinking the mumble-jumble is anything but mumble-jumble. You could still link to well-written & researched criticisms of CAHSR...