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.


Brandon in California said...

I want to see a concrete commitment to HSR too; just like most here. But there is no way California or the Northeast is ready to turn dirt on something substantial.

Sure, the NEC probably could have some smaller projects, but doubful they total $ billions, let alone hundreds of millions.

I mentioned before... the Feds could help purchase ROW. Some of that will bleed into the economy and not sit in someones bank account.

Tom said...

What can be done for CAHSR within 90 days that will also stimulate the economy? CAHSR is no where near ready to start building now.

Also, why does the FRA require such heavy equipment? European and Asian rail is lighter and they seem to be doing fine (except for the ICE accident, but I doubt the weight of the equipment would have mattered).

Rafael said...

@ Brandon -

buying ROW speeds up the HSR project but it doesn't put people to work right away.

@ Tom -

HSR is not yet ready to lay track, but there are undoubtedly some portions of the project that could be started quite quickly if need be. Completing the planning process and associated preliminary engineering is an obvious avenue for immediate spending that keeps people in gainful employment.

Moreover, there's the train box and DTX tunnel in San Francisco, the San Jose Diridon Station, the Anaheim ARTIC station, plus at least prep work for stations in Milbrae, Gilroy, Bakersfield, Palmdale, Sylmar and Burbank, Norwalk, perhaps even the run-through tracks in Los Angeles. (Fresno and Redwood City/Palo Alto are still up in the air)

The reason I'm suggesting an early focus on stations is that construction there will be a highly visible sign of commitment to build the entire line. In addition, I suspect there are hundreds of grade separation projects that are not controversial and could break ground fairly quickly.

Also, there's plenty of work to be done on detailed geology surveys in the sections that will require tunnel construction. That is often the long pole in the tent for railroad construction projects, so a head start would be very useful.

Mind you, I'd prefer not rush CHSRA because that can cause a lot of problems. What's missing is a clear signal from PEO that HSR will be eligible for funding in the context of a program of bills related to strategic investments over the next few years. The Kerry-Specter bill is a good start, but no more. There is no legislative agenda (in terms of content, not precise dates) for the entire term.

Wrt equipment, FRA insist on extreme buff strengths because those minimize safety costs for the freight companies and maximize them for passenger rail. The rail freight industry does not, in general, want to see increased passenger rail service on its tracks or even its ROW. UPRR's behavior is much more typical than BNSF's in this regard. The FRA exists to "promote" rail service, which in practice means freight rail because those companies contribute to political campaigns.

BruceMcF said...

This part of the stimulus shows that the "shovel ready" was mostly about business as usual projects ... there is more than $1b in shovel ready projects in Chicago alone in providing container freight throughways in a system with a massive number of breaks in line because of the original hodge podge of independent railway companies bringing lines into the city from the east and from the west.

Anonymous said...

I feel a bit stimulated. :-p

Anonymous said...

I will take 29 million for CAHSR..that will keep the planning work going. We should receive some money this summer from the Amtrak rail bill. BUT for all of us here in Cailfornia, if our estemed Gov and the Senate/Assembley dont stop this stupidy we wont have any credit to issue prop1a bonds something really to worry about.

BruceMcF said...

Note that there is a specific pot of money that can be used for many of the kinds of works that are discussed in the post:

Transit Capital Assistance Recovery Funding: $6.000 billion

These funds will be used to purchase buses and equipment needed to provide additional public transportation service and to make improvements to intermodal and transit facilities. ...

Fixed Guideway Infrastructure Investment Recovery Funding: $2.000 billion

These funds will be used for capital projects to modernize or improve existing fixed guideway systems, including purchase and rehabilitation of rolling stock, track, line equipment, structures, signals and communications, power equipment and substations, passenger stations and terminals, security equipment and systems, maintenance facilities and equipment, operational support equipment including computer hardware and software, system extensions, and preventive maintenance. Funds will be distributed through the existing fixed guideway formula.

So if the funding of these elements can be boosted, there would be substantial opportunities to get started on stations and transport interchanges. It would unlikely that any of the grade separations are at a position to be started, but in corridor where the grade separations are to be shared with existing passenger railways, the Fixed Guideway Infrastructure Investment Recovery funding could be used for that as well (grade separations are a collection of track and structures).

Brandon in California said...

FYI, I know that in spades. Copied from above...

"I mentioned before... the Feds could help purchase ROW. Some of that will bleed into the economy and not sit in someones bank account."

Anonymous said...

The FRA requires such heavy cars for the safety of the workers in mail-sorting cars. And the restriction to 3 inches of underbalanced comes from a single test done in the 30s on the New Haven Railroad on a car with a soft suspension. The standards need a thorough review, but the good news is that it's starting to happen, partly with FRA-compliant Crash Enegry Management systems, and partly through Caltrain's efforts to get a waiver.

Anyhow, for intercity rail even $300 million is a significant sum. It could pay for the electrification of the Capitol Corridor, for example.

Rafael said...

@ BruceMcF -

applying for a slice of the $2 billion available for improvements to existing rail alignments that happen to be shared with HSR is a really good idea. Road-rail grade separation projects could benefit from this slice of the stimulus package and perhaps, from the $30 billion reserved for highways as well.

Both the Caltrain and the LOSSAN corridor come to mind, they are busy enough to justify grade separation even without HSR. Fresno would also be a viable candidate, given that they've been trying to get BNSF out of their downtown area for 90 years.

@ anon @ 1:43pm -

according to Caltrain's Project 2025 presentation, electrification costs around $10 million per mile. That means $300 million would not even cover San Jose to Oakland, never mind Sacramento. You can't do infrastructure on a shoestring, just about anything takes billions of dollars.

On the other hand, a single F-22 fighter is currently estimated to cost $350 million and it's completely useless in asymmetric warfare.

BruceMcF said...

@ Rafeal, the Fixed Guideway is distributed by formula, so it would be a matter of California allocating its share to that work.

But its also worthwhile pushing for an increase in the rail funding, which is around $4b compared to bus funding of $6b and highway funding of $30b, while at the same time any station interchange work that can be pushed ahead ought to be, if it can share in the $6b in bus and "intermodal" funding.

Alon Levy said...

according to Caltrain's Project 2025 presentation, electrification costs around $10 million per mile.

Do you have a link for this? This number is really weird - it's about half as much as the TGV's cost for building a line from scratch.

Clem said...


Latest estimate is $785M to electrify Caltrain. That is infrastructure only. The new trains are another $422M. Total bill: $1500M

I agree, it's ridiculously high. Probably because they will look no further than the Northeast Corridor for ideas about how to do it, and will build us a similar system ready for a Cat III hurricane and heavy ice storms. Not to mention the occasional earthquake.

Alon Levy said...

Wow. That's even higher than I thought - it's 10 million per kilometer. To put things in perspective, JR Central estimates that building maglev from Tokyo to Nagoya will cost about 15 million per kilometer.

Why is construction so damn expensive in California?

Tom said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom said...

How the heck can building **maglev** from scratch in Japan cost only $5 million more per kilometer than simply electrifying Caltrain?

Alon Levy said...

I have no idea. But just to put things in perspective, at $15 million/km, the entire CAHSR network would cost $17 billion, and the LA-SF starter line could be built for less than the $9 billion authorized in Prop 1A.

CComMack said...

Upgrading an existing system to a new technology, while keeping it functioning during the work, will always be more expensive than building from scratch; it would have cost Massachusetts only half as much to tear down the Central Artery *before* building the Big Dig, but they declined to do that for what I hope are obvious reasons.

If you'd like to sacrifice current Caltrain service for a year or two during the electrification project, I'm sure that would lower the cost to ~$9M per mile. But I' also sure that you, I and everyone else would scream bloody murder if such a step were seriously proposed.