Saturday, January 31, 2009

Destination Lindbergh

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

While the Peninsula debates how to best implement the detailed plans for the high speed rail line that will serve their communities, San Diego is dealing with a somewhat different question altogether - a big picture "how do we bring people to and from our town?" issue that is now centered on Lindbergh Field. And HSR plays a potentially major role in determining San Diego transportation policy for decades to come.

The North County Times has a long article on the debate over Lindbergh Field's future, a debate made necessary by the apparent failure of long-discussed plans to build a new airport at Miramar. The basic problem, as anyone who has ever been to downtown San Diego knows, is that Lindbergh Field cannot be expanded beyond the one-runway configuration it already has. Hemmed in by San Diego Bay, the highrises of downtown, Interstate 5, and a residential neighborhood, it is impossible to expand capacity at Lindbergh Field. So San Diego officials are considering a $4 billion improvement project - and looking at a Lindbergh HSR station as a way to connect the airport to not just the city but the rest of the state, thereby creating new capacity at Lindbergh:

San Diego County Regional Airport Authority board members say they have no choice but to settle for Lindbergh's limited capacity. After a decadeslong search that cost tens of millions of dollars, voters overwhelmingly rejected the idea of building a new airport at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in 2006....

It's not as if increased capacity is totally out of the picture, said committee member Steve Peace, the former state lawmaker who wrote legislation to create the airport authority. He said the train station ultimately would be served by California's planned 800-mile statewide high-speed rail system and indirectly increase the capacity.

That's because 11 percent of Lindbergh's planes fly short hops to Los Angeles, carrying passengers bound for Los Angeles International Airport to catch overseas flights. With high-speed rail, people could take a bullet train instead, Peace said.

Of course, the HSR trains are not going to serve LAX, and even with a Green Line extension to LAX a traveler from SAN to LAX would still have to take two rail lines (Blue and Green) from Union Station to LAX, on top of the HSR trip up from SD. It's not clear that HSR would really work as a connection for those passengers.

A point that Wendell Cox, perhaps the chief HSR and passenger rail denier in the nation, uses to try and call into question the entire "HSR as airport relief" concept:

Cox, the transportation expert who has studied California's bullet train, countered there is "not a chance" that that part of the plan would fly.

For starters, Cox said the huge Los Angeles airport is not on the high-speed rail system, as proposed. And he said that with funding uncertain for the chosen route, it is unlikely the state would find money for a spur to LAX.

If it did, he said, the route would be so circuitous and lengthy ---- passing through Temecula, Riverside, Ontario and downtown Los Angeles before reaching L.A.'s west side ---- that it would fail to persuade many San Diego County residents to take a train instead of a plane.

But let's move this beyond Steve Peace's claim about overseas travel. It *would* make much more sense for folks trying to get to or from San Diego to other destinations around the continental U.S. to use HSR as a connecting system - to Ontario Airport, not LAX. Ontario, unlike Lindbergh Field or LAX, has room to grow, and is already slated to receive an HSR stop on the LA-SD spur. The estimated travel time from Ontario to downtown SD is 57 minutes - a reasonable method of connection for travelers headed to or from SD.

It's also worth considering San Diego's continued importance as a destination for travelers going to or from other destinations in California. Whether it's an Angeleno looking for a weekend getaway, or a family from Fresno looking to visit relatives on the other side of the border, Californians make up a big part of San Diego's travelers. HSR would play an extremely significant role in handling that traffic, easing the burden on not only Lindbergh Field but on Interstates 5 and 15 as well.

What HSR means to Lindbergh Field isn't a different option for folks headed to Tokyo or Sydney to catch their flight at LAX, but a new and expandable method of bringing people to and from San Diego, period. With HSR San Diego isn't forced to shoehorn a huge number of passengers into Lindbergh Field, but now has a completely new and high-capacity option for moving people around. It's no longer "Lindbergh or Miramar or Bust" but a more balanced set of transportation options.

Which makes Wendell Cox's closing line so absurd:

"It's time San Diego woke up to the fact that it is a world-class city, and probably the only world-class city without a world-class airport ---- certainly the only one in the United States," Cox said.

"I continue to be completely amazed that the leaders of San Diego settle for being a suburb of Los Angeles when they should take a back seat to no one. It shows a lack of vision that is astounding."

If "world-class" is to be defined as "on a par with other major first-world cities" then it should seem obvious to everyone except Cox himself that "world-class" cities in the 21st century are defined not by the number of runways at their airport, but by the number of high speed rail lines serving them. San Diego is larger than Málaga and can be compared to Marseille in several respects (both are the third-largest metro areas in their state or country, both are important maritime centers, both serve as a sunny beach destination, both act as a crucial link to the developing world to the south), and both of those cities are important destinations on their respective HSR networks.

Ultimately San Diego should be asking itself how it can use HSR to dramatically improve its connections to the rest of North America, instead of relegating HSR to a role supporting Lindbergh Field. HSR isn't a junior partner to a transportation strategy focused on interstate freeways and airports, but should be seen as a fully equal - and equally important - solution to San Diego's mobility needs for the rest of the 21st century.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Thinking Methodically About Interstate Rail

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

Over at The Transport Politic Yonah Freemark has a very comprehensive proposal for an interstate rail network that goes beyond merely figuring out which corridors should have HSR, and weighting these corridors using a specific methodology that prioritizes their funding and construction. Freemark's goal is to bring some order and sense to the growing nationwide movement for improved intercity rail, and provide a reasoned way of determining what ought to be built when:

In order to evaluate the different lines, the transport politic developed a system by which it could examine the cost effectiveness of each line both in terms of travel within the corridor alone (the Corridor Score) and within the system as a whole (the Overall Score). Travel between every city pair in the system between 50 and 500 miles apart was evaluated, and the results were compiled by corridor, whereupon they were divided by route mile to appraise potential ridership by mile of new construction. The results provide the basis for prioritizing routes and suggest a method by which the federal government could begin to imagine how such a high-speed rail system might be developed. (PDF with description of methodology, evaluation of every city pair, and scores for each corridor or here)

According to this methodology the California HSR proposal scores less than some of the Northeastern and Midwestern corridors, and within the California HSR corridor Fresno-Sacramento and LA-San Diego score higher than the LA-SF corridor prioritized by Prop 1A. The analysis also shows that, while popular with some, the LA-Vegas corridor is relatively "marginal" in importance though still worth building.

As a thought exercise in how to plan implementation of an HSR network without resorting to which state has the most pull in Congress, it's a very good discussion starter. But I have to question some of the assumptions that went into this. From the source data:

The equation is designed to allow for a simple comparison between different routes; while it does not calculate ridership, it provides a good estimate for which routes would be more or less used. It should not be taken as an exact formula or one that has been heavily researched, but it provides a good jumping-off point for more research on where to place new high-speed rail routes.

The calculation is based on the following assumptions:
•People are less likely to take a journey as the distance of the journey increases;
•Given a choice, more people would choose to travel to a bigger city than a smaller one;
•Travel choices are based entirely on city size and distance between cities;
•Density of metropolitan areas does not affect travel;
•There are no regional differences in travel preferences;
•No two city pairs compete with one another - as new routes open, new ridership is generated.

These assumptions are of course quite untrue in many ways. However, given time and data limitations, this formula provides a quick method of comparison.

I think the first assumption is questionable at best. LA-SF has a further distance than some other pairs, but compares well to Madrid-Barcelona, two cities with some similarity to LA and SF and with a similar distance. The new AVE line between the two cities has eaten deeply into air travel on what was one of Europe's busiest air corridors, just as LA-SF is one of North America's busiest air corridors. HSR compares well with door to door times using air travel on the corridor, and because it offers particular amenities that airplanes do not, it is likely that LA-SF HSR has some of the best growth potential in the country.

I know this site is inherently biased, but of all the corridors in America, there are few better suited to HSR than LA-SF. The Northeast Corridor surely outranks ours in most criteria, which is why it has a successful quasi-HSR system already in the Acela (and that deserves to be upgraded to full and true HSR). But I am hard pressed to think of many other corridors that make a more compelling case than our own.

The Transport Politic plan is a concept and a starting point of course, not a final plan, and so my comments are offered in a constructive and not critical or defensive manner. (Besides, CA is the only corridor that brings non-federal money to the table, guaranteeing us a privileged spot in terms of federal HSR funding - I don't think we have much to worry about on that front.) We need to begin treating HSR like a national network, to be built in phases according to objective criteria. Measuring that criteria becomes key, and it will necessarily involve a complex set of factors.

So, go over to The Transport Politic and read the plan. What do you all think about it?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Slow Orders

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

Should California cater to a small number of Peninsula NIMBYs and truncate the HSR line from LA to SF at San José? That's a question that has popped up during some of the Peninsula scoping sessions, as some residents think "well let's just drop everyone off at Diridon Station and put them on the Caltrain Baby Bullets! Isn't that good enough?"

As Clem points out at the Caltrain HSR Compatibility Blog, however, not all "bullet" trains are alike:

Baby Bullets look sleek, and they impress when they blast by, horn blaring. However, they are nowhere near as fast on average as the proposed high speed trains. Timings from San Jose to San Francisco:

* Caltrain local: 96 minutes - max speed 79 mph - average speed 29 mph
* Caltrain Baby Bullet: 57 minutes - max speed 79 mph - average speed 49 mph
* HSR: 30 minutes - max speed 125 mph (a.k.a "half speed") - average speed 94 mph

HSR at "half speed" is still nearly twice as fast as the Baby Bullet.

Clem also points out that it's impractical to have "half speed HSR" trains run on just the two existing tracks - you can't mix speeds quite like that, especially given the heavy usage already on those tracks. The overall impact on a trip from LA to SF - the entire point of HSR, let's remember - would be significant:

Accounting for transfer time in San Jose, the effective speed of the Baby Bullet ride would approach three times slower than a single-seat HSR peninsula ride. The overall trip from LA to SF would increase from 2:38 to 3:15, an increase of about one quarter. If we compromise that much on the peninsula, why even bother with 220 mph in the central valley? Indeed why bother with high speed rail at all?

Which is is of course the entire point of the NIMBY objections from the usual suspects on the Peninsula. Folks like Martin Engel never accepted the public verdict - or even that of their own communities - which voted strongly for Proposition 1A, knowing full well that it involved sending HSR trains along new tracks up the Peninsula. Others on the Peninsula are grasping at straws by suggesting that HSR be held up just for their own personal interests - basically trying to impose a slow order on the entire system.

In an email, Alon Levy wonders if there's a strategic way to deal with this objection:

Anthony Perl's book New Departures ( - look for page 26) writes that the TGV had many detractors in the French government who thought it was an "unaffordable boondoggle." In response, the SNCF met them halfway: it only built the first LGV two thirds of the way from Paris to Lyon, and routed the line on the traditional line at lower speed for the remaining third. On the one hand initial costs were kept down, but on the other travelers could see for themselves the difference between full high-speed operation and rapid rail. As the SNCF had predicted, this created political pressure to finish the full LGV to Lyon, and then to extend it to other cities.

I wonder whether this solution is applicable to California, if cost concerns and pressure from Peninsula NIMBYs is too much. The high-speed track would initially run only from LA to SJ, with the trains sharing tracks with Caltrain to SF. It would reduce speed remarkably and make HSR less competitive initially, but not critically; it would at the same time showcase the difference between baby bullets and real bullets. It would require FRA waivers, but as far as I can tell so will the ultimate goal of running HSR in the same ROW as Caltrain.

Do you think it'd be an acceptable compromise if political or financial realities started to sour?

In this case Levy is suggesting calling the NIMBY bluff, using the slower speeds on the Peninsula segment as leverage public outrage at the situation to mobilize the political will to push through HSR all the way to San Francisco at a later date, especially if cost issues necessitate some sort of less-than-complete solution.

It's an interesting concept but I am not convinced it can work. California's record at filling in gaps in the transportation network is not promising. Although I oppose this project, the 710 freeway gap in Southern California has been a missing link in the system for nearly 40 years. NIMBYs in South Pasadena have had a great deal of success blocking its completion (they also helped influence the design of the Metro Gold Line in a less than ideal way, slowing the trains through that city's portion of the route). The cost of the Peninsula route isn't likely to drop anytime soon, and once NIMBY attitudes spread, they have a tendency to get entrenched - the same homeowners stay in their same locations, dominating local politics on the issues. Nobody wants to piss off such a united bloc, so the infrastructure project gets a lower priority.

Another concern is that a non-HSR solution along the Peninsula could sap public confidence in the system itself. It's already too easy for folks to blithely dismiss any government project as inherently doomed to failure, and to cast trains as terminally slow and inefficient. If, after having promised the public a true high speed train from LA to SF - not from LA to SJ - and we can't deliver it, then that may cause a loss of political support, not an increase.

It seems to me the best move is to build on the momentum of November 2008 and rally the public against the small-minded NIMBY interests on the Peninsula who want to block the high speed rail project. HSR, even on the Peninsula, provides jobs, sustainable transportation, a cleaner environment, and less carbon emissions. Californians are not going to allow a small group of people to block that effort. Certainly those who live near the tracks need to be treated fairly, but they do not and should not have the power to compromise this project.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Stimulus Update

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

Good news from the floor of the US House of Representatives: the Nadler amendment described yesterday was approved by the full House and is now part of the stimulus. The Nadler amendment would:

According to Nadler's floor speech, 1.5 billion will go to the transit capital formula program, which goes to all states, and 1.5 billion to the new starts program. The AFL-CIO and environmental organizations will "score" this amendment, he said, meaning they'll factor members' votes on this issue into their scorecard ratings for each Representative. Since it was a voice vote, though, we don't know who opposed the amendment, making that impossible.

John Mica (R-FL), ranking member of the Tranportation Committee and the House's leading pro-transit Republican, called this "an amendment we have to support." The Appropriations committee, he said, "took one of the most important parts out: that's the rail and transit." Transit infrastructure creates jobs, he said. "Support the Nadler amendment!"

Transportation Chairman James Oberstar (D-MN) said, "we heard very clearly from the major transit agencies in this counrty. They have options for buses. They have options for railcars that could be exercised within days." Manufacturers can ramp up production and create jobs all across the county.

Apparently members of Congress reported "phones ringing off the hook" about the Nadler amendment. Americans are fired up about passenger rail, and so is the House - which also defeated a ridiculous amendment from Arizona Republican Jeff Flake that would have eliminated all Amtrak funding in the stimulus.

It's true that HSR is not directly funded through the Nadler amendment, but its victory is very important for us anyway. HSR wins when passenger rail wins. The more lines that are built, the more people that ride rails, the more Americans who come to see the benefit of passenger trains and who will support efforts to fund them. Along those lines the Nadler amendment victory also shows that passenger rail is a political winner on Capitol Hill, and that can only help our cause when it comes to actual HSR funding.

Next up is the Senate, where we're likely going to have to fight this battle again. And this is where we will need Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein in particular to step up big for passenger rail.

UPDATE: Corinne Brown's response to the moronic Jeff Flake, who argued that Amtrak shouldn't be funded because after nearly 40 years it hasn't shown a profit:

There is no form of transportation that pays for itself. None whatsoever. Whether we're talking about rail, airlines, cars, none of that. We subsidize all of that.

I love it when someone talks sense like that. The Overhead Wire has more.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

HSR in the Stimulus: Call NOW!

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

Things move quickly on Capitol Hill, and we have a window for bringing real funding to intercity rail, which can include HSR. I'm crossposting this notice wholesale from Open Left:

1. several House members are submitting amendments to increase rail funding to the stimulus package:

The amendment would distribute $1.5 billion for the Transit Capital Assistance Program and $1.5 billion for Capital Assistance Grants, known as the New Starts Program.

The bill is introduced by Representative Nadler, and can be read here. There are other amendments introduced by Representatives Corinne Brown and Hare, that would increase rail funding by $3.9 billion and $500 million respectively. Any and all amendments to increase rail funding would be great.

2. These amendments must be approved by the House Rules Committee today in order to be considered on the floor tomorrow. The Rules Committee will be meeting at 12:30 p.m. Pacific to consider amendments to the stimulus bill.

This gives us just over one hour to make our voice heard for more rail funding in the stimulus bill. To do so, please contact the Rules Committee. Politely state your support for the Nadler, Brown and Hare amendments for increased rail funding. Ask the committee to approve these amendments for a floor vote tomorrow.

Their phone number is 202-225-9091.

This is a very short window, as the situation is fluid and happening fast. However, this also means we can make a difference. Please call now, and let the Rules Committee hear your support for the Nadler, Brown and Hare amendments to increase rail and mass transit funding.

And direct contact info for California Rules Committee members:

David Dreier - Republican from 26th District (San Gabriel Valley foothills). Phone numbers: DC office (202) 225-2305, San Dimas office (909) 575-6226, Toll-free (888) 906-2626

Doris Matsui - Democrat from 5th District (Sacramento). Phone numbers: DC office (202) 225-7163, Sacramento office (916) 498-5600

Dennis Cardoza - Democrat from 18th District (Stockton, Modesto, Merced). Phone numbers: DC office (202) 225-6131 or (800) 356-6424, Merced office (209) 383-4455, Modesto office (209) 527-1914, Stockton office (209) 946-0361.

UPDATE: Nadler amendment appears to have been approved by Rules and sent to the floor. Will get firm info and then ask you to contact your members of Congress. CALPIRG is petitioning Speaker Nancy Pelosi to make good on her mass transit commitments.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Gavin Newsom's TGV Trip

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

San Francisco mayor and candidate for California governor Gavin Newsom is in France this week and toured the TGV, hoping to boost his profile on sustainable transportation. He also took the occasion to reiterate support for an HSR tunnel to the Transbay Terminal:

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom took a tour of the French high speed rail system (TGV) in Paris Monday and said that California's new version of the train is a "requirement" for the Transbay Terminal being planned for San Francisco's South of Market area.

"Since the onset of this project, I have been committed to the grand vision of Transbay, including high speed rail, a downtown extension for Caltrain and the visionary multi-use terminal itself," Newsom said. "Including the rail box as part of the terminal construction is necessary for this grand vision to be realized."...

Newsom's office has said that the plans are not certain as to whether the rail would come into the Transbay Terminal. He said it was vital that it did.

“We’re not going to build a $2 billion bus station under my watch,” said Newsom.

The Transbay Joint Powers Board, which oversees development of the Transbay Terminal, has considered building the first phase of the new terminal without the train terminal, and coming back later to excavate under the terminal and build for high speed rail only if subsequent funding materializes.

On Monday, Newsom came out against that idea, suggesting that the Transbay Joint Powers Board should not move forward on construction of the new transit center until funding is secured for the inclusion of high speed rail and it is fully integrated into the first phase of the project.

We've been calling for someone in San Francisco to assert some leadership on this and while it's great that Newsom is stepping up, the fact is that he does not bring much to the table in terms of financing. If he can get Senators Feinstein or Boxer to step up with including funding for the train box and tunnel in the stimulus, that would be fantastic. Newsom and Obama have a famously frosty relationship so that's not likely to help matters. Still, if Newsom can play a mediative role between the Transbay JPB and the CHSRA that would be helpful.

Newsom also said that the DTX and the train box would be ideal targets of an Obama stimulus. Unfortunately those chances appear to be receding. The DeFazio amendment I wrote about last night has been withdrawn:

We received word this afternoon that Rep. DeFazio's amendment that would have provided $2 billion in assistance to transit agencies was required to be withdrawn. We'll post more as we learn it, but had something to do with parliamentary issues.

There's reports out there that Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, is planning to offer an amendment to the stimulus that would add as much as $10 billion in rail funding. I don't know the details on that, but you'll surely get them as soon as I do.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Tale of Two Stimuli

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

Friday's New York Times examined China's economic stimulus plans which are heavy on high speed rail:

China is already two months into its effort. And while Democrats have put aside calls for big transportation projects, with the House bill allocating less than 5 percent of spending for the construction of highways, rail lines and mass transit programs, China is furiously pouring concrete and laying rails.

A $17.6 billion passenger rail line across the deserts of northwest China, a $22 billion web of freight rail lines in Shanxi province in north-central China and a $24 billion high-speed passenger rail line from Beijing to Guangzhou here in southeastern China are among the biggest projects. But extra spending is being planned in practically every town, city and county across the country....

China has already built as many miles of high-speed passenger rail lines in the last four years as Europe has in two decades. A new bullet train from Beijing to Tianjin, opened last summer, travels at up to 217 miles an hour; the top speed of Amtrak’s Acela Express trains in the Northeastern United States is 150 m.p.h., and it is only briefly attained.

The government has nearly finished the construction of a high-speed rail route from Beijing to Shanghai at a cost of $23.5 billion — almost equal to the price of the entire Three Gorges hydroelectric dam project on the Yangtze River. The authorities recently disclosed that they had 110,000 workers laboring to finish the route as quickly as possible.

China's economy, which saw rapid growth over the last 15 years as Americans consumed virtually anything China produced, is hitting the wall, and the government hopes that HSR will provide not just jobs, but seed long-term economic growth and make the country less dependent on energy imports.

Meanwhile, what are we doing here in the US? Stiffing high speed rail and other forms of mass transit so Obama can try in vain to win Republican votes by offering wasteful and inefficient tax cuts.

This blog has consistently argued for including significant HSR spending in the stimulus. Obama seems pretty strongly opposed to doing so, for reasons only he can explain. But we have an opportunity to push back against the failed policies of the past and strike a blow for mass transit.

Oregon Democrat Peter DeFazio is angry that Obama has excluded mass transit funding in the stimulus - and has decided to do something about it. DeFazio is offering an amendment to increase rail funding in the stimulus by $2 billion. It's not remotely enough - it should be at least a $15 billion increase - but at this point it's the politics that matter. A successful amendment will show that there is public and Congressional support for passenger rail funding. It will help beat back ridiculous Republican claims that such spending is "pork" and make it easier to pass HSR funding later in the year.

The DeFazio amendment will first be heard by the House Rules Committee on Tuesday. That is where our lobbying efforts need to be directed for now. California has three members of this committee (click their names to send an email):

David Dreier - Republican from 26th District (San Gabriel Valley foothills). Phone numbers: DC office (202) 225-2305, San Dimas office (909) 575-6226, Toll-free (888) 906-2626

Doris Matsui - Democrat from 5th District (Sacramento). Phone numbers: DC office (202) 225-7163, Sacramento office (916) 498-5600

Dennis Cardoza - Democrat from 18th District (Stockton, Modesto, Merced). Phone numbers: DC office (202) 225-6131 or (800) 356-6424, Merced office (209) 383-4455, Modesto office (209) 527-1914, Stockton office (209) 946-0361.

Contact them and tell them to vote FOR the DeFazio amendment. We will then let you know when and how to contact your member of Congress when the amendment goes to the floor.

More from DeFazio and policy geek Rachel Maddow on the stimulus:

UPDATE: Transportation for America has more information on the DeFazio amendment and the need to stop massive cutbacks in transit service across the country. Again, this is not HSR-specific, but a political victory here makes it easier for us to get HSR properly funded later in 2009. They are suggesting folks call House Rules Committee chair Louise Slaughter.

For those curious about talking points with the California representatives, note that for HSR to be successful, there must be robust transit connections at each HSR station. Cutbacks that transit agencies are currently facing will have a difficult time being restored in the future, and will hurt the development of a transit network around HSR stations.

Friday, January 23, 2009

First Peninsula HSR Scoping Meeting

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

Last night the first of the Peninsula HSR scoping meetings was held at SamTrans headquarters in San Carlos. The Palo Alto Weekly has a mostly decent story - once you get beyond the completely inaccurate lede:

The state agency charged with building a high-speed rail system between San Francisco and Los Angeles has yet to convince Peninsula residents about the merits of having electric trains zip through their communities at 125 mph.

But on Thursday, officials from the California High-Speed Rail Authority took a step toward quelling area fears with the first of three "scoping sessions" this month on what should be included in an environment-impact study on the 800-mile project.

That phrase "yet to convince Peninsula residents" lacks merit, as it is directly challenged by the election returns of November 4 which clearly show Prop 1A passing by a wide margin in San Mateo County - 61% yes to 39% no. Since the population of San Mateo County is overwhelmingly located within a few miles of the HSR route, this strikes me as clear evidence that Peninsula residents are convinced of "the merits of having electric trains zip through their communities at 125 mph." Especially when you consider the high profile the issue had on the Peninsula throughout 2008 - voters in San Mateo County well understood what they were getting themselves into.

The ridiculous lede of the article's author, Gennady Sheyner, is further belied by the rest of the article, which describes a fairly uneventful meeting. The following points stood out to me as the most newsworthy:

Some audience members asked whether Palo Alto or Redwood City will end up with a high-speed rail station. Palo Alto city staff is evaluating potential impacts of a high-speed rail station downtown and the city has not come out with an official stance.

The question over which city would join Millbrae as a stopping point between San Francisco and San Jose probably won't be answered for at least a year. The authority is in the "amoeba phase" of putting together its environmental impact report (EIR) for the project. The authority expects to work on the analysis and engineering for the San Francisco-to-San Jose segment until 2011.

I think it's safe to say that the final answer to this question will be determined by a combination of the engineering studies and local support. If Palo Alto comes out strongly against a station and Redwood City is supportive, then the CHSRA will likely find a way to make Redwood City work. If the reverse, then Palo Alto. The ideal situation is that both communities support a station and the engineering and planning work alone determines it on its merits. But that's not likely to happen - politics will play a role in the outcome, primarily the politics in each city.

Quentin L. Kopp, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, said 28 private companies, including Goldman Sachs, had previously expressed interest in investing in the project.

But he said it's not clear what effect the worsening economy would have on private contributions.

Kopp said the authority's consultant and management group are now reaching out to potential investors to gauge their current level of interest.

I would be surprised if firm answers are received at this time. The economic crisis is starting to dramatically and rapidly worsen and within months we will be in a global Depression. Once that happens things will actually start to shake out and we can get a clearer picture of which companies can participate. It may take until 2010 to get some firm answers on private participation.

Palo Alto City Councilmember Yoriko Kishimoto attended the meeting and asked authority officials about potential parking facilities at the proposed stations. Kopp said the agency has yet to resolve that question, though the answers may lie with the host cities.

"I think in the end it will probably be up to each city," Kopp said. "We may make a recommendation, but I don't personally believe in usurping local authority."

This is a very smart statement by Kopp. It is something that needs to be worked out with each host city, although I think the bias needs to be against providing a lot of parking. Some, but not too much, with the details to be worked out by planners who emphasize sustainability and transit accessibility. It goes without saying Kopp's reply is the diplomatic one, and leaves the question in Palo Alto's lap, where it probably belongs - let them hammer out the question of whether they want to encourage driving or not.

The comments section of the article includes some questions from Palo Alto residents about the impact to the community in terms of HSR's footprint - how many houses may be taken, what about parks and schools along the route? Definitely questions that should and will be answered as the project engineering continues. One resident wonders why they don't just put HSR down the middle of Highway 101, which aside from being a stupid idea in its own right misses the point of HSR on the Peninsula - to help upgrade Caltrain's service capacity as well as connect HSR from San José to San Francisco.

HSR denier Martin Engel has decided that having lost the battle over HSR itself, a tunnel in Menlo Park/Atherton is his new white whale:

CHSRA against tunnels? Not really. They do want a tunnel between S.Tomas Expressway and the Diridon Station. Rafael has pointed this out for us already....

Even though Kopp, in his royal declarations, has denied bond issue funding for the 1.5 mile tunnel to the Transbay Terminal, we all know that it will happen regardless. So, they don’t oppose tunnels and therefore, given that this new rail system will be in business for another 145 years, it should be underground. Not because of NIMBYs like us, but because every major city has its intercity rail systems and commuter subways underground. San Francisco will. The Peninsula should. Major rail systems have no business running down the middle of high-density, high population cities. In 75 years, that's what the Peninsula will be.

By this logic, Martin, the entire system should be built underground whenever it is in or near a major metro area. It is not in fact the case that every major city has its intercity and commuter rail systems underground; there are numerous European examples where this simply is not the case.

Engel clearly does not care about the overall project, since paying for a tunnel on the mid-Peninsula would be a colossal and unnecessary waste of money for the CHSRA, which needs to, you know, build the entire line from SF to LA. Just as in the battle over Prop 1A, now in the discussion over the tunnel Engel believes that the entire state of California's budgetary and transportation policies should be oriented to give him exactly what he wants as a property owner near a rail line that was built a century before he even acquired the property.

Martin Engel may never admit this, but Menlo Park and Atherton should: unless they plan to pay for it themselves there is no chance whatsoever that an HSR tunnel will be built through their communities. None. And maybe that's the point here - Engel is merely trying to whip up public controversy in hopes of derailing the project (his term, not ours). A shame, really - Peninsula residents should come to their own conclusions about the project, instead of catering to a single individual.

The next meetings will be held:

San Francisco: San Francisco State University, 835 Market Street, 6th Floor (Rooms 673-674), San Francisco, California, January 27, 2009 from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Santa Clara County: Santa Clara Convention Center, 5001 Great America Parkway, Great America Meeting Rooms 1 & 2, Santa Clara, California, January 29, 2009 from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Written comments on the scope of the San Francisco to San Jose HST Project EIR/EIS should be provided to the CHSRA by March 6, 2009, and can be sent to with subject line San Francisco to San Jose HST.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

California as HSR Model?

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

While we are debating the role of passenger rail in the economic stimulus, our neighbors to the north (Canada, not Oregon) are looking to us in California for direction on their high speed rail concepts. An article in Monday's Globe and Mail explores what we have to offer, and concludes the key point is private partnerships:

The success of Proposition 1a should come as welcome news to Canadian high-speed rail advocates, who have long dreamed of such service between Windsor and Quebec City, and connecting Calgary, Red Deer and Edmonton...

The implications for Canada are clear: If we want to drag Canadian passenger rail service out of the 1960s, Ottawa must include private partners, a development that could mean selling the moribund Via Rail to a transportation consortium that understands the technology, the market opportunities and is willing to invest.

I am not convinced VIA Rail's problems stem from any innate "moribund" problems but from a persistent lack of support from both Liberal and Conservative governments, but the author seems to believe that the great lesson of California is that private partnerships are necessary to building HSR.

I don't think that's entirely accurate. Private investment has been seen as a way to round out the final financing numbers and in particular a way to earn the backing of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The key to California HSR's success is public support - from Proposition 1A to the all-important federal contribution. I have always argued private investors will be interested in participating, but that their role should be limited. John Lorinc, author of the Globe and Mail article, doesn't agree and seems to bring an agenda primarily driven by free market ideology and not evidence:

What's clear is that pure private plays don't work, while publicly owned passenger service tends to suffer from a lack of investment. (An exception is Spain, where the state has moved aggressively to build high-speed rail since 1994.)

Earlier attempts to privately develop such networks in Texas and Florida failed because of inadequate financing.

Publicly owned passenger service has not suffered from a lack of investment in China, France, Germany, or Italy (I'm sure there are other examples out there; those are just the first four that come to mind). And of course HSR in Texas and Florida wasn't failed by financing problems but was killed by the Bush brothers.

Not surprisingly, it is Alberta where talk of privately operated HSR has been centered:

In Alberta, meanwhile, a consortium led by retired banker Bill Cruickshank [no relation] has lobbied Alberta to consider a privately operated high-speed rail link between Edmonton and Calgary, to be financed through a proposed partnership between the consortium and public backers. Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach made positive noises about the plan, but has refused to release the results of a market assessment conducted in 2007. As Mr. Cruickshank notes, "If the government said it wouldn't work, I'm sure they would have told us."

High-speed rail, as Mr. Cruickshank argues, is tailor-made for public-private partnerships. Such train networks are extremely capital intensive and therefore depend on public financing to get going. But as a transportation service that competes vigorously with airlines, private operators will bring the necessary marketing savvy, as well as the ability of amortizing capital costs over a long period.

I can't disagree that HSR and PPP are a good match - given the logic of PPP. Whether that logic is the best possible method of building and operating HSR is another matter entirely. I am pleased that Bill Cruickshank understands the transportation and environmental benefits of HSR and has been a strong advocate for passenger trains in Alberta. And, given the political realities in that province, PPP is probably the only way an Alberta HSR will ever become real.

But that would be a conclusion Alberta draws on its own. That is not the California lesson. No, what California shows is that if you give voters the choice, they WILL commit public funds to high speed rail, and that private investment may have a place but is neither necessary nor sufficient to HSR success. HSR deniers spilled a lot of ink arguing that Prop 1A was a stealth tax increase on Californians but voters approved it anyway - and approved outright tax increases for trains in San José, Marin-Sonoma, and Los Angeles. The Canadian Liberal Party's Green Shift may have been ill-conceived and poorly sold by the inept Stéphane Dion, but given the choice, it is likely that Canadians too would vote to spend public money on high speed rail, even if it cost them more in taxes.

What California shows is that the key is generating public support for high speed rail as a concept. The specific mechanism of funding, from the role of private financing to the generation of public monies, are important but not determinative. Canadian HSR supporters, whether they are in Alberta or the Windsor-Québec City corridor, should focus their efforts on making the case for HSR to the public and in the halls of Parliament and provincial assemblies. Public funding can either bring private supplements or, if the groundswell is strong enough, be itself sufficient for HSR projects.

Now to convince DC Democrats of that fact...

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Why the Transit Stimulus Fight Matters

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

Over at Grist Ryan Avent looks at the politics of the stimulus and makes some interesting conclusions about what this could mean for projects like high speed rail:

Think all news is bad news during this epic recession of ours? Think again -- over the past three months, real wages have increased 23 percent, an enormous gain. At a crucial period for many working families, paychecks are going a lot farther than they did back in the summer.

The explanation is simple: wages are flat, prices are down. The labor market operates on a bit of a lag, so while the recession affected oil demand and prices very quickly, layoffs and falling wages are emerging more slowly. Eventually, the weak economy will catch up to workers (those who still have jobs), and spending power will decline.

But this is important to remember given the trends of the past decade. When economies are growing, oil prices rise. This means that even while wages are growing, it's difficult for consumer spending power to keep up, unless we reduce the intensity of oil in our economy.

It's a point I've repeatedly made - oil prices have declined only because of the weakening economy. When the economy grows again, oil prices will rise again and eat into wages, jeopardizing the recovery. To break that cycle we must move away from oil. High speed rail is a key part of that overall strategy, which is why it and other forms of mass transit must be included in the stimulus.

Avent goes further to talk about the politics of the stimulus:

The lack of transit spending is unquestionably political, and not logistical, in nature.

The possibility remains that the Congressional leadership and the Obama administration are waiting for the 2009 transportation bill overhaul to adjust spending priorities, and indeed, that vote will be hugely important for the future of the nation's infrastructure. There may also be scope for funding in Obama's energy bill. But there is reason for concern here.

The security of our economy and our environment depend upon a sea change in transportation planning. That transit and rail were so easily sacrificed in stimulus negotiations should send us a message -- now is no time for transit supporters to ease up on their legislators. We'll need to fight until the money is in the pipeline.

Emphasis mine. The story is that transit funding WAS in the stimulus until someone either in Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, or Barack Obama's office took it out. All three have at one point or another expressed commitment to support HSR and mass transit, so this goes to prove Avent's point - that we have not yet won a victory for sustainable transportation in Washington DC, and that we must continue the fight to ensure that we do win. Otherwise transit and HSR funding might get thrown overboard again in the name of political expediency. We must show our leaders that it is actually costly for them to do so.

UPDATE: Elana Schor at Talking Points Memo explains that mass transit and passenger rail got the shaft in order to make room for more tax cuts, quoting Oberstar:

The reason for the reduction in overall funding -- we took money out of Amtrak and out of aviation; we took money out of the Corps of Engineers, reduced the water infrastructure program, the drinking water and the wastewater treatment facilities and sewer lines, reduced that from $14 billion to roughly $9 billion -- was the tax cut initiative that had to be paid for in some way by keeping the entire package in the range of $850 billion.

Stupid. Just stupid. Tax cuts do not grow the economy; in this environment they will be put in the bank either as savings or as debt service. If they felt that strongly about cutting down infrastructure projects to pay for tax cuts (which is already poor policymaking) then roads and not rail should have been the target.

What this shows is that the new leadership in DC - in both the Congress and the White House - are not committed to mass transit and passenger rail when the going gets tough. Just because it's easy to say on the campaign trail shouldn't mean it's easy to abandon once in power.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

WiFi on Wheels

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

First off, Happy Inauguration Day everyone! I suspect somewhere north of six billion people all around the world may breathe a collective sigh of relief at 12:01pm EST when the Dubya era is finally well and truly over. We'll have to wait and see if President Obama can bring about the fundamental change he has promised, but kudos to the American people for giving the first nominee of African descent ever this opportunity.

For transit enthusiasts, the logistics of the inauguration extravaganza appear promising: the Obamas and the Bidens chose to arrive by train, millions of spectators are using the Washington subway and buses to attend this historic event, cars are banned and there's a strict no-fly zone over the capital. The fly in the ointment is that these decisions were taken for their historical significance and security reasons, respectively, rather than environmental or energy security considerations. So far, the incoming administration is paying only lip service to HSR.

A new post on Treehugger brings the scale of the challenge into sharp relief. Analysis of the lucrative business travel market has shown that at almost 1.4 million trips, San Francisco-Los Angeles was the 7th busiest route in the world in 2004. Given that the alternatives for travel within California are time-prohibitive at present, that 7th place is actually not surprising. Even five years later, corporate etiquette still requires that meetings with important customers and partners should be conducted face to face. Trade shows and skills development are another major driver for corporate travel. Perhaps by now some of the following city pairs have moved further down the list thanks to HSR:

5. Milan-Rome
8. Amsterdam-London
11. London-Paris
13. Marseille-Paris
16. Boston-New York

For business travelers, perhaps even more important than raw line haul speed are fast transportation to and from downtown stations, punctual service and especially, improved productivity en route. A year ago, SNCF began introducing reliable broadband internet access on Thalys and TGV Est, with plans for expanding it to other parts of the TGV network. SNCF's Eurostar service will cut journey times from London to Amsterdam to less than four hours in 2009, though WiFi is still limited to hotspots at selected stations unless you bring your own 3G wireless router.

CHSRA should definitely seek commercial partners to provide no-fuss WiFi connectivity to its customers, preferably based on low latency terrestrial relay networks (802.16e-2005 or later) already tested by Caltrain, albeit at lower train speeds. Videoconferencing and shared desktops are fast becoming good enough for business use, but these applications tend to be both bandwidth-intensive and horribly sluggish over links based on geostationary satellites. CHSRA is not yet doing a good enough job of anticipating the kind of on-board services HSR customers will be expecting a decade from now. Reliable broadband data networking for fast-moving vehicles is a global industry segment that Silicon Valley ought to dominate. However, the initial focus should be on adding value for passengers rather than the even more demanding infrastructure applications (cp. ERTMS Level 2).

For corporate travel policies to take full advantage of HSR, it needs to offer a significant cost advantage over airline travel. For a business, the largest single line item in that equation is the opportunity cost of having someone in transit while he or she is on the clock and racking up expenses. Therefore, boosting productivity is even more important than boosting line haul speed or reducing fares. Perhaps more relevant is that WiFi would allow operators to offer fewer express and more semi-express trains, boosting economic development in the Central Valley - a macroeconomic benefit for the state that the airline industry cannot afford to deliver.

Still, the core business travel market in California will still be SF-LA and, HSR can expect to capture between 50% and 80% of that after a ramp-up period of several years. The exact figure will depend primarily on how the price of jet fuel develops. Note that airlines will figure out ways to offer WiFi as well, but that trains will always offer more seat and desk space. Also, you spend a larger fraction of total travel time actually sitting down in a train, so there's more opportunity to take advantage of any WiFi services on offer. You can use your cell phone while waiting in line to have your shoes inspected at the airport, but fine-tuning your Powerpoint slides? Not so much.

Note that leisure trips were not included in the analysis the Treehugger post refers to. However, if you want cheap HSR fares for the general public, you absolutely have to poach business customers from short-haul commercial aviation. Fortunately, the same networking technology that persuades the suits to choose clean, all-electric trains over dirty, oil-guzzling planes will also attract leisure travelers and tourists - even if they have to pay a little extra for it. Marrying WiFi and HSR could well be the killer application that supercharges ridership between the Bay Area, the Central Valley and SoCal, creating new jobs throughout the state. Now that's change we should all believe in.

Inauguration Day Open Thread

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

As critical as I've been of Barack Obama's stimulus proposals, it is nice to be waving goodbye to George W. Bush, who didn't lift a finger to help high speed rail, attempted on several occasions to kill Amtrak, and whose second Secretary of Transportation, Mary Peters, did much to undermine light rail projects around the country.

With Obama in the White House we have the chance to finally make the national investment in sustainable transportation and passenger rail in particular that has been desperately needed for several decades now. The fight will continue, of course, to make the opportunity a reality. But after the last 8 years, it's nice to know that Americans and Californians are willing to embrace change and admit that a new direction is needed.

Monday, January 19, 2009

HSR Deniers to California: Pay For Our Tunnel!

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

As the Peninsula scoping meetings begin this week local media is starting to take notice - which is a Good Thing, as public awareness of and involvement in HSR planning is a necessary prerequisite to project success. It also means the battle in the mid-Peninsula (is that what you all call it? correct my terminology, please) over a tunnel is starting to heat up. One of the leading HSR deniers, Martin Engel, is championing the cause of burying the HSR tracks in a tunnel through at least Menlo Park and Atherton, and potentially through neighboring cities as well should they be interested. Engel is circulating a letter, which he has helpfully posted in the comments to the Almanac News article I just linked, in which he asks the California High Speed Rail Authority to provide a tunnel at "no additional cost burden to localities" on top of the cost burden he claims is already imposed by Proposition 1A:

There can be no question that the CHSRA has an obligation to mitigate the negative impact of the train corridor development. That means not elevating the rail grade in any way, either by berm, retaining walls, or viaduct. Although there will be claims that tunneling is far too expensive and cannot be afforded by the rail authority, the fact is that not to do so will be far too expensive to the residents and cities adversely impacted by the elevated system. The harm and costs with elevated alternatives will be irreparable.

Whenever someone says "there can be no question" that's usually a sign that, in fact, there can be and usually ARE lots of questions. The CHSRA's mitigation obligations apply to NEPA and CEQA rules, not to Martin Engel's concept of urban design. Engel would need to demonstrate that grade elevation is an inherently and universally negative impact, and would need to show in particular the specific costs to residents and cities as a result of this. Instead all he has are assertions and claims, which of course are all he's ever had. Engel of course assumes that there will be no cost benefits to grade elevation - that the absence of diesel emissions and the safety improvements (no more trains hitting pedestrians or autos) will not bring significant savings.

Asking (or not even asking, but imposing upon) the residents of Atherton and Menlo Park to accept the horrendous and costly burden to be imposed by the rail authority is unacceptable. All of us in California, and in the United States, will already be required to make major financial contributions for the construction of this rail system through demands placed on our taxes. So will our children. This intrusive and deleterious imposition adds further injury to injury. We cannot accept it.

This would be Engel's "we have not yet begun to fight!" statement. The only financial burden that would be involved with HSR is if we don't build it - the cost of traffic, global warming, air pollution, and lost jobs that all would result from not having HSR. Engel includes this to argue that Menlo Park and Atherton are already paying for HSR, so it's not fair to ask them to pay for undergrounding, though it was quite fair for BART to insist it of Berkeley.

Engel finally gets to the point:

What are we saying is this:

1. No elevated structures on the Caltrain corridor through Atherton and Menlo Park.

2. No additional cost burden to localities for the construction.

3. Only acceptable solutions to involve below-grade-level alternatives.

4. Unambiguous negative impact of construction easements, shoofly tracks, business closings, eminent domain takings, and revenue loss for the cities of Menlo Park and Atherton due to property devaluation, to be clearly acknowledged in the EIS/EIR.

5. Acknowledgement of unambiguous negative impact of any elevated rail-supporting partitioning of Menlo Park and Atherton. Required plans for and commitment to construct definitive mitigation.

It is my hope that the residents of the Peninsula do not share this extremist and impractical position. By asking the CHSRA to pay for undergrounding, Engel is in fact asking for everyone else in California to subsidize his vision of what a city should look like. That East Oakland and Fresno and San Bernardino should not worry about education cuts and health care and jobs but direct money to a vanity tunnel through one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the entire state. I'm sure that's going to go over quite well with the voters.

We want HSR to be built the right way through the Peninsula, and believe that a grade elevated structure can be constructed in a way that complements the cities of Menlo Park and Atherton. We hope that the residents of those cities pursue those options, or find the money themselves to pay for a tunnel. We're not going to do it for them.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Globalized Rail Industry

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

Over at the European Tribune DoDo offers an excellent look at how globalization has affected the manufacturing of HSR trainsets. This clearly has implications for our own high speed rail system, since most of the manufacturers who would provide trainsets for California HSR are based in other countries (though I hope and expect they will produce the cars here in CA). Anyhow, it's a very good read and surveys not only the technical aspects of HSR technology but the political considerations behind them, how shifting markets in both Europe and Asia have driven innovation. For example:

Alstom's ambitions in particular were long hampered by SNCF's unwillingness to order the AGV: they preferred the lower price and reliability of the TGV (and the higher capacity of the double-deck Duplex) over (relatively minor) improvements in performance.

The AGV, you'll recall, was the trainset that Fiona Ma rode in 2007, a trip that did much to raise the profile of HSR here in California. Had SNCF been willing to order the AGV it could have made that technology a more readily available option to us in California. True, that option is still there, but it's my belief that the CHSRA will - rightly, in my view - prefer to go with a more commonplace trainset than something untested and new.

Perhaps it will be Spain that pushes the envelope most effectively:

Finally, there is the above mentioned announced threat to everyone from Spain, the Talgo AVRIL. To cut Madrid-Barcelona times to 1h45m(!), the targeted service top speed is 380 km/h. With Talgo's expertise, this should be considered with more seriousness than China's ambition -- but not without doubts. Talgo named its current top product Talgo 350, but it is certified for only 330 km/h (with insufficient power and ride quality among the likely reasons).

380 km/h is about 236 mph, which would achieve the CHSRA's stated goal of 220 mph top speeds on the line. If Talgo can deliver that service to RENFE then it becomes much more likely California can get that as well.

It's likely that all of these will be evaluated when the Central Valley test track is built. But I have to believe that past performance will be a factor as well - if, say, the Talgo AVRIL can reliably accomplish its intended speeds in Spain then it would augment a successful test here in California.

Ultimately this decision has political ramifications, and the state of the global HSR market will play a major role. So go have a look at DoDo's post to get better acquainted with that market.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Finally, Some Stimulating Details

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

Yonah at The Transport Politic breaks down the transit funding in the draft stimulus package and generally finds it wanting:

the bill does virtually nil for intercity rail, providing only $1.1 billion for Amtrak and state-based rail provision. The bill notes that the Northeast Corridor alone needs $10 billion in upgrades. How will this funding solve that problem, or tackle those of other corridors around the country? Where’s the money for high-speed rail operations?

The closest the proposed stimulus comes to funding HSR is this:

• “Preference” for FRA-compliant rolling stock; implication is that agencies could buy non-FRA compliant stock (i.e., lighter European or Asian trains) - this would be a change in policy, which currently doesn’t allow such trains
• Preference for projects “that support the development of intercity high speed rail service;” $300 million won’t actually allow for the creation of HSR, but it could help push towards that goal… this implies that local non-HSR corridors would not be as likely to get aid
• Federal share can be up to 100% of total cost, also a change in policy

Some of this suggests a willingness to shift priorities, but overall the funding here is just too tiny to make a significant dent in our transportation needs, our HSR needs, or even our economic needs. Several economists including Krugman are saying the stimulus ought to be doubled, which sounds about right to me.

Rep. Jim Oberstar, chair of the House Transportation Committee and passionate rail advocate, has been rather outspoken in his anger about the underfunding of transit in the proposal. He explains what may have happened to make the stimulus plan so weak:

Basically CBO got numbers from the Bush administration DOT that said it was not possible to spend money on these projects within 90 days, meaning they're not "shovel ready". Oberstar explains that's BS and it's ridiculous to be taking numbers from the Bush folks at DOT that are getting ready to high-tail it out of town. He's really mad about this and I know he's going to fight to get more spending on infrastructure.

Meanwhile former Providence, Rhode Island Mayor Joseph Paolino opines for HSR on the NEC in the Washington Post:

Constructing a system for high-speed rail will be expensive, but these are not normal circumstances. Obama takes office next week amid the worst economic crisis since the Depression. Large public investments and innovation are key to reviving the economy and putting people back to work. High-speed train service on the Northeast corridor would be an excellent place to start moving our citizens, and our economy, into the 21st century.

Obama and his economic team, including the stuck-in-the-1990s Lawrence Summers, clearly are not thinking in terms of fundamental change, or even in the terms of real economic recovery. Until they shed their hesitant and small-minded approach to the stimulus they're going to be doing America a disservice. I don't want much - just some money for actual HSR projects in the stimulus as a down payment on and a sign of future intentions to fund HSR in California, the NEC, the Southeast, the Midwest, Texas, and the Pacific Northwest.

Come on, Obama. Time to show America the change you've been promising.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Silly Fearmongering on the Peninsula

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

In today's San Mateo County Times John Horgan paints a ridiculous picture of an HSR project doomed to destroy Peninsula communities. Of course, since this is the same guy who confused Colma and Bayview I suppose we should take his brand of HSR denial with a grain of salt. Still, he's not likely alone in his opinion, and any opportunity to explain how HSR will benefit the Peninsula is worth taking.

Horgan writes:

THERE is a fresh sense of urgency in some San Mateo County communities as plans for high-speed electrified rail along the Peninsula proceed faster than originally anticipated.

Passage of Proposition 1A last November, which provides an infusion of nearly $10 billion to get the project rolling, was just the start. Now, it appears entirely possible that the federal government, which is printing money faster than anyone can spend it to counter a very tough recession, will inject more billions into California, some of it for transportation infrastructure....

The deadline for local comments, concerns and suggestions regarding these efforts is now less than six weeks away.

OMG doom! They're coming to bulldoze your communities tomorrow!!1!!1

Well, nevermind the fact that HSR construction won't begin until 2010 at the earliest, and even then it'll be focused on the test track in the Central Valley. Construction on the Peninsula is several years away at best. We keep hoping here that Obama will include HSR in the stimulus, but that's not a sure thing, and regardless of how the Obama Administration goes about fulfilling its HSR promises, federal money isn't going to accelerate the CHSRA's timetables.

That didn't stop Horgan from trying to create some sense of crisis, and so he goes on:

There is already considerable worry in places such as Menlo Park, Atherton, Burlingame, portions of San Mateo and other hamlets that the new system will dramatically alter their small-town ambiance by widening the rail corridor, walling it off (thus dividing communities in half), exercising eminent domain and installing unsightly overhead electric wires.

They may not have much choice. The high-speed rail poobahs, in concert with the state of California, have a great deal of authority to forge ahead, regardless of cries of outrage from individual municipalities impacted by what's ahead.

Horgan's revisionism here is hilarious. The rail corridor was there before most of those cities were. (And funny how he uses the term "hamlet" to describe one of California's most highly urbanized corridors.) The "small town ambience" is a modern-day fiction, existing only because of the decline of freight traffic along the route and the desire of some residents to pretend they're in rural New England as opposed to urban California.

The litany of horrific things the HSR project will do to these communities is interesting in what it leaves out - an end to diesel pollution, an end to loud train whistles, an end to deadly collisions between train and automobile and train and man.

Peninsula residents will benefit greatly from those amenities as well as the HSR service itself. No wonder cities like Menlo Park, far from expressing "outrage", voted for Prop 1A as did San Mateo County as a whole. The margins were not close.

There's lots to consider. Take the sensitive matter of placing the rails underground, much as BART has done south of Daly City and Colma.

One high-speed rail honcho has warned privately that going underground will be a doubtful and quite expensive alternative here.

"It would cost three times as much (as a surface option)," he said recently. "If the cities want it underground, they are going to have to pay for it themselves."

Lots of luck. But the guy is probably speaking a frank and depressing truth, or at least something close to it.

Finding a fiscal mechanism for miles worth of a pricey underground approach seems like something of a long shot at this point. But you never know.

Maybe the feds can print even more lucre. Hey, why not? What's another trillion among friends? Hope springs eternal.

Anyone who thinks the federal government would pay for undergrounding the HSR/Caltrain route through the Peninsula is out of their mind. The cities most certainly will have to pay for it themselves, as Berkeley did with BART - and as you might say San Mateo County did with BART, as the cost of undergrounding the line south of Colma was one reason among many for the ongoing cost to the county of the SFO extension.

Besides, there's no better way to cause problems for federal HSR funding than to give HSR deniers the notion that the money is going to help rich folks near Stanford have their own Big Dig. Even if that wouldn't properly describe the project, such nuances escape our opponents.

If these cities want to preserve their late 20th century version of "small town ambience" rather than look to how European cities have built quite livable cities with HSR, or to how their own cities lived for nearly 150 years with a busy rail line, then let them pay for it themselves.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Obama Administration Responds on HSR

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

Although it has just barely been eclipsed by "Ending Marijuana Prohibition" high speed rail has been atop or near the top of the most popular issues listed on the Citizens Briefing Book of the Obama transition team. So they decided to respond, with this video from Nancy Sutley. Sutley is going to be the chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and was until her nomination a high-ranking advisor to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Here's her response (only the first segment is on HSR):

There's no firm commitment here to HSR, which is lame, but Sutley clearly gets the value of HSR and even gave a shout-out to the California project. It's a good sign that the incoming Obama Administration is going to take HSR seriously. Then again, we've had many "good signs" - it's time for some concrete plans!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

"A Revolution In Travel Habits"

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

That's how the Guardian describes the dramatic success of Spanish high speed trains (h/t to lydik in the comments to the last post):

Spain's sleek new high-speed trains have stolen hundreds of thousands of passengers from airlines over the last year, slashing carbon emissions and marking a radical change in the way Spaniards travel.

Passenger numbers on fuel-guzzling domestic flights fell 20% in the year to November as commuters and tourists swapped cramped airline seats for the space and convenience of the train, according to figures released yesterday.

High-speed rail travel - boosted by the opening of a line that slashed the journey time from Madrid to Barcelona to 2 hours 35 minutes in February - grew 28% over the same period. About 400,000 travellers shunned airports and opted for the 220mph AVE trains.

Last year's drop in air travel, which was also helped by new high-speed lines from Madrid to Valladolid, Segovia and Malaga, marks the beginning of what experts say is a revolution in Spanish travel habits.

lydik is right, I have a huge soft spot for the AVE trains, which were my first HSR experience - and also because I love Iberia (my wife and I are going to Portugal later this spring). It's also because while many Americans have a stereotype that Europeans are all a bunch of train-riding sophisticates, in fact air and auto travel in Europe is still a major form of transportation.

That was particularly true of Spain - but no longer:

In a country where big cities are often more than 500km (300 miles) apart, air travel has ruled supreme for more than 10 years. A year ago aircraft carried 72% of the 4.8 million long-distance passengers who travelled by air or rail. The figure is now down to 60%.

"The numbers will be equal within two years," said Josep Valls, a professor at the ESADE business school in Barcelona.

This is worth noting since Spain and California are very comparable in terms of travel habits and population densities. As with Spain, California's big cities are often more than 300 miles apart (379 miles from downtown SF to downtown LA). Like California, Spain experienced a property-fueled economic boom during this decade. But unlike California, Spain has devoted a significant portion of the tax proceeds from that boom to building sustainable high speed rail, particularly under the PSOE government of José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. Lines to Barcelona and Málaga have opened within the last year, along with a Madrid bypass enabling faster travel from Barcelona to destinations in Andalusia. Connections from Madrid to Valencia, Galicia, and the Basque Y are also under construction.

Spain has also had success at lowering carbon emissions via HSR:

The high-speed train network is also helping Spain control carbon emissions.Straight tracks and few stops mean AVE trains use 19% less energy than conventional trains. Alberto García, of the Spanish Railways Foundation, has calculated that a passenger on the Madrid-Barcelona line accounts for one-sixth of the carbon emissions of an aeroplane passenger.

All of this is something we can look forward to here in California - and further reason to ensure that the state gets its act together, passes a budget, and gets back to economic stimulus via infrastructure projects like HSR.

PS: On that note, the Obama Transition Team has a "Citizens Briefing Book" where users rate up projects and ideas they feel are most important. "Bullet Trains and Light Rail" are currently the #1 most popular idea. Login and be sure to vote for this to further communicate to the Obama Administration our conviction that HSR is a vital part of this nation's future.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Bear Market Republic

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

With the credit crunch on in full force and the California state budget still in limbo as usual, there's a distinct possibility that CHSRA will be shut down for an indeterminate number of weeks Real Soon Now(tm). This raises a simple question: can HSR supporters do anything to keep the Authority's lights on in 2009? Perhaps there is.

CHSRA has always looked to the private sector for a slice of the total investment in the HSR project, it's a key aspect of the 2008 Business Plan. Given the scale involved, they naturally looked to institutional investors as well as vendors for that money. Given the economic environment, they have put efforts to secure private investment on the back burner to focus narrowly on federal dollars.

So far, CHSRA appears not to have gone through the simple legal process of setting up a California C Corporation called say, FlyCalifornia, with say, one billion shares gathering dust in the virtual closet. Doing so would enable the authority to sell equity in the project. But who would buy any of that equity in this economy?

Well, actually, how about YOU? After all, it was you, the people of the Golden State, who voted for the HSR project in the midst of a recession. Why not give you an early opportunity to make a personal investment in it as well?

Let's say CHSRA decided to seek an initial round of financing involving say, 10 million shares at a nominal unit price of say, $30. That would represent just 1% of the total number in the closet. However, the corporate equity would relate to all of the infrastructure to be created by CHSRA, i.e. the starter line plus the phase II spurs plus trainsets etc. There's risk in investing early, but also reward: the total dollar value of the complete project is estimated at $45 billion (in 2008 dollars) and may well rise. In that sense, a price point of $30 a share right now would represent a fairly sweet deal.

Every household in the state would receive a regular investment prospectus in the mail - with additional ones available at city halls, post offices, libraries and on the internet (print-it-yourself) - that would give the residents a chance to purchase a number of shares. The prospectus would spell out the risks and rewards as usual for share offerings. To keep things simple, the purchase options would be 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, 500 or 1000 shares per application. The larger bundles would come with volume discounts, so a bundle of 1000 shares might only cost say, $24,000. Individuals could file multiple applications, as long as the second and subsequent ones were for 10 or more shares. Individuals or businesses interested in purchasing more than 1,000 shares would be asked to contact CHSRA directly, either during or after the initial offer period.

In addition, applicants could decide to purchase ticket vouchers between any two HSR stations on the starter line at the price advertised on the CHSRA web site at the time of the offering (and itemized in the mail drop). Vouchers would be redeemable within the first 24 months of operation of the segment in question, whenever that turns out to be. Alternatively, holders could use them as a regular gift card for general merchandise from the company at any time prior to expiration.

All vouchers requested in a given application would have to be for the same origin and destination and, their total face value could not exceed the amount invested in shares in that same application. In addition, an upper limit of $1,000 worth of vouchers per person would apply, irrespective of the number of applications filed. An offer of inflation-proof advance ticket vouchers would complicate processing but also blunt opponents' argument that fares will end up being much more expensive than currently advertised.

If someone decided they wanted to submit an application, all they'd need to do is check the box next to the number desired, select the number and type of vouchers desired (if any), sign the document to approve all the inevitable legalese and, attach a valid check from a California bank (or US mail money order) for the full amount due. Purchases in excess of $10,000 should be accompanied by a bank check rather than a personal one. Credit cards would not be accepted. The signed application, check and a self-addressed envelope (included in the mail drop, marked postage paid) would be packaged up in an envelope (also included, marked apply postage due) and sent off to CHSRA.

The applications would be processed in the order received, provided they are postmarked no later than a given day, e.g. 30 days after the mail drop goes out. In the event demand exceeds supply, only applications postmarked no later than the day of the last regularly processed one would be retained. In this scenario, more than the originally intended number of shares would be sold. All other applications would be declined and returned with the checks voided.

Otherwise, purchase certificates would be printed (one for shares and one for tickets, if any) and mailed out as soon as the check clears. Bouncing checks would be handled as usual. Bulk purchases worth $1,000 or more would be sent via US mail, courier service or made available for ID verified pick-up in Sacramento, as requested by the applicant.

If CHSRA could not sell all 10 million shares, that might still be fine. After all, it doesn't need on the order of $300 million in 2009, even half that much would see it through the year. Admittedly, processing an application for just a single share might well cost $30. However, it would at least create some temporary jobs and more importantly, a mailing list. It would also give California residents a chance to own a small, tangible piece of the HSR dream many years before it becomes reality.

Shares would initially be traded privately by joint notification of a brokerage to whom CHSRA has subcontracted the relevant accounting, i.e. industry-standard processing fees would apply. By contrast, ticket vouchers would be gifted or traded directly between private partners. Anonymous trading on an established exchange floor would not be possible until a regular IPO much later in the project's gestation. This is consistent with how angel investors buy stakes in start-up companies, though they usually don't have to wait nearly as long for their payday.

Any takers?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Menlo Park Wants To Talk

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

With the California High Speed Rail Authority, that is:

Five months after joining a lawsuit against the proposed California high-speed train, Menlo Park officials are launching a negotiation campaign with the same state body it is suing.

The campaign will be launched Tuesday after the city council last week voted the high speed rail issue as its top priority for the upcoming year. The effort will consist of a subcommittee of two city council members and various city staff officials who will send comments to and meet with officials from the California High Speed Rail Authority....

Mayor Heyward Robinson said the subcommittee's formation does not mean the city will pull out of the lawsuit fighting the project's environmental certification, which Menlo Park and Atherton joined in August along with several other groups. Instead, officials will simultaneously negotiate with the High Speed Rail Authority while remaining a plaintiff in the suit against the state body.

"They're different entirely," Vice Mayor Richard Cline said on the suit and negotiations. "One is
going to be handled from a legal perspective "... and the second part will be representing our community and having a dialogue about the (planning process)."

It's good to see Menlo Park taking a proactive approach to working with the Authority on HSR planning, although it would be immeasurably helped if they dropped the lawsuit. After all, Menlo Park residents voted FOR Prop 1A with the clear knowledge that it meant a high speed train would run through their community.

Menlo Park officials likely believe this is a carrot-and-stick approach. And yet this frivolous lawsuit runs the risk of further delaying the HSR project. The state's budget crisis is already making it unnecessarily difficult for the Authority to proceed with its planning work. The last thing they need is to be burdened by a lawsuit.

It's time for Menlo Park to work constructively with the Authority, and drop the lawsuit.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Republican Budget Stalemate Hurts HSR Project

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

At yesterday's CHSRA board meeting the effect of the state's budget crisis on HSR became clear - unless Republicans stop obstructing a budget solution, the Authority may have to suspend planning and design work, and terminate contracts with consultants and engineers whose accumulated expertise on our HSR project has become vital.

The California High Speed Rail Authority's budget for the current fiscal year, which ends in June, included $29 million from the sales of high-speed rail bonds authorized by voters in November. But because of the state budget crisis, the credit crisis and the poor market for bonds, the state treasurer has not sold any of the rail bonds.

That's left the rail authority without cash at a time when Californians are eager to see the 800-mile fast train system built. At an authority meeting Thursday, officials said they had halted payments on engineering and design contracts in progress and are holding off on awarding new contracts.

"Unfortunately, I have quite a backlog of bills that need to be paid, but no money to pay them," said Carrie Pourvahidi, deputy director for the authority.

The article is a bit misleading on this. The credit crisis and the poor market for bonds are part of the issue. But the state budget crisis is THE central issue. The crisis has led Treasurer Bill Lockyer to refuse to try and sell authorized bonds, and led the Pooled Money Investment Board to stop all infrastructure spending. To the extent that the market for California bonds isn't good because of the budget crisis, it's because the bond markets are concerned that the state may default on its debts.

And why is that a possibility? Because Republican politicians - from legislators to Arnold Schwarzenegger - continue to block a budget solution. I usually try to keep my more partisan comments to Calitics but we cannot escape the fact that it is Republican obstruction alone blocking a solution. Democrats have compromised far more than the media reports - agreeing to nearly $8 billion in spending cuts that have their labor allies VERY angry with them. Speaker Karen Bass agreed to most, but not all of Arnold's demands on cutting environmental and labor protections. But Arnold vetoed the Democrats' solution, and Republicans refuse to budge.

That won't stop HSR deniers from using this manufactured budget crisis to blame HSR. They've done it before - when the CHSRA wasn't funded as a result of the summer budget delay, pushing back the release of the 2008 Business Plan, HSR deniers said it was a sign the CHSRA was a flawed agency unfit to manage the project. It is likely we will see the HSR deniers use thus cash crunch story for the same purposes.

Arnold has proposed giving the CHSRA the funding they need:

On the other hand, the governor's early state budget proposal for the 2009-10 fiscal year includes $123.8 million for high-speed rail, just a half million dollars short of the agency's request.

But if he keeps blocking budget deals, this doesn't really matter. If consultants and engineers are let go, they may decide to take their expertise elsewhere in the country or in the world, and we will not easily replace them.

The big picture involves conservative anti-government ideologies. One reason the HSR deniers oppose the project is they refuse to accept that government can plan and implement this kind of project effectively, even though HSR has been successfully built by governments around the world. By starving government of revenue they are able to "prove" their case with a self-fulfilling prophecy. They opposed Prop 1A and HSR, so they starve the Authority of funds and then say "oh wow they can't manage money!"

California Republicans need to recall their Constitutional obligations to this state and provide it with a balanced budget that protects Constitutionally-guaranteed services - and respects the will of the millions of Californians who voted their endorsement of HSR by approving Prop 1A on November 4.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

New Republic: Obama Needs A Bigger HSR Commitment

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

The New Republic's Senior Editor John Judis has a column out today concerned that Obama's stimulus is too modest and doesn't adequately prepare a new basis for American prosperity - and that high speed rail should be at the core of the solution.

First, his assessment of the problem:

Still, I worry that the president elect is underestimating the problem he and the country faces.

We may not simply be facing a steep recession like that of the early 1980s, from which we can extricate ourselves in a year or two, but something resembling the Great Depression of the 1930s....There's much to like in Obama's plan. But there are two important ways he may have to go further. Most economists agree that what finally pulled the U.S. out of the Great Depression was military spending for World War II....I am not suggesting that the United States start a world war in order to solve the world's economic problem. But I am suggesting a strategy that could be called the fiscal equivalent of war.

It would consist not merely of updating or repairing the nation's infrastructure, but in undertaking massive new investments that would expand the scope of American industry, and address other urgent problems in the process: global warming, over-reliance on petroleum, and the need to revive America's domestic manufacturing capabilities--not just to provide jobs, but also to provide tradeable goods that can reduce the country's current account deficit.

This blog has made similar arguments since March of 2008, so it's good to see a prominent political magazine getting into the act. This economic crisis is as serious as it gets, but Obama has not shown he grasps that. The stimulus is laden down with tax cuts for business and block grants to state DOTs for transportation projects - which in most states are highway projects.

So Judis argues Obama needs to more centrally embrace a much bolder economic stimulus - high speed rail.

One area that is ripe for such investment--and that is not, from what I have seen, a declared priority of the Obama administration--is high-speed rail....Investing in high-speed rails would be very expensive, but unlike tax cuts--the benefits of which can be siphoned off in the purchase of imported goods--the money spent would go directly to reviving American industry and improving the country's trade balance. That doesn't just mean jobs creating dedicated tracks or new rail stations: Though the U.S. abandoned train manufacturing decades ago to the French, Germans, Canadians, and Japanese, this kind of production could be undertaken by our ailing auto companies or aircraft companies--if the federal and state governments were to place orders. And building trains that would run on electricity would be a paradigmatic example of the "green jobs" that Obama often touts.

What Judis is explaining is a key value of both HSR and the stimulus. If we are going to spend nearly $800 billion, shouldn't we be taking steps to ensure that money stays here in the US, building things that will provide long-term value?

So far Obama has been making the consistently wrong moves on the stimulus, and even members of his own party are expressing concern and criticism. It's time for the president-elect to offer the bold solutions he promised in the campaign, and putting HSR at the center of a Green New Deal as John Judis suggests would be an excellent way to start.

UPDATE: The Judis article is getting lots of coverage around the blogs: Matt Yglesias, Atrios, and Ryan Avent, to name a few. Yglesias and Avent seemed too willing to accept that HSR can't be built quickly - the beauty of Judis's argument was that we needed to accelerate how quickly we can build sustainable transportation infrastructure. Environmental rules are good, and surely there are ways we can improve them to help get good projects built more quickly. Too often those rules are posited as working against mass transit. They ought to be working together.