Saturday, February 14, 2009

Who's Afraid of Harry Reid?

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

At least once a day I do a Google news search for california high speed rail and then just plain old high speed rail (I also get daily Google News alerts, which are also useful). In recent weeks the searches have rarely turned up new material and so sometimes, I admit it, I have to scrape for subjects to cover in a daily post.

Not today.

The Republican freakout over Harry Reid's statement that the $8 billion in HSR stimulus money might could maybe partly be used to help with a high speed train from LA to Las Vegas has caused the media to pay attention to high speed rail again. This is partly due to the media, the DC-based media in particular, still being willing to indulge Republican whining on virtually any subject. You'd think they'd notice how little the public is interested in hearing that whining, and how little credibility the Congressional Republicans have especially after freely spending under Bush and running the nation's economy into the ground.

But until the media catches up with reality, we're going to continue to have stories like this one where all a Republican politician has to do is claim there's a controversy and, suddenly, controversy actually exists:

"Tell me how spending $8 billion in this bill to have a high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and Las Vegas is going to help the construction worker in my district," House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio complained as he and all his fellow Republicans voted against the stimulus. Republicans cited the rail project in accusing Democrats of breaking their word to keep the bill free of pet projects.

Let's be very clear on what is going on here. Boehner is trying to throw things against the wall in hopes something will stick. Unable to derail a stimulus bill that has wide public support, they've spent the last few weeks trying desperately to convince a skeptical public that the stimulus bill is laden with pork that will cause doom, DOOM, for generations to come.

It's also worth noting that Boehner is lying here. The bill does NOT include $8 billion for Vegas HSR, and as the LA Times properly notes, it doesn't earmark funds for ANY HSR project:

A Reid spokesman said the money was not being earmarked for any specific project but would be available on a competitive basis. "This was a major priority for President Obama, and Sen. Reid as a conferee supported it," said Jon Summers.

To Republican politicians like John Boehner, of course, passenger rail funding is pork. Inherently so. They oppose it on principle, and tend to repeat the discredited talking points of Wendell Cox and the Reason Foundation that rail is wasteful. Doesn't matter if it's HSR or light rail or streetcars or Amtrak - remember that a few weeks ago, Boehner and his fellow Republicans all voted to eliminate Amtrak funding from the stimulus. They failed, but it's a further sign that at least for the elected officials of the Republican Party, HSR denial is a way of life. As this week's vote showed, alongside California's passage of Prop 1A, the public does not support them on this.

So once we put aside the usual rantings of HSR deniers, what does this all really mean for California High Speed Rail - the SF-LA project we've been focused on here for nearly a year? The answer, as I explained to the Riverside Press-Enterprise, is that it is entirely good news.

Dug Begley's story explains that, in fact, the concept of a high speed train to Vegas is at least 20 years old, and that if this stimulus breathes life into it, that's probably a good thing:

But officials acknowledge after 20 years of talking about a bullet train across the desert, some residents are jaded about the possibilities. Robert Cruickshank, a high-speed rail proponent and creator of the California High Speed Rail Blog, said growing up in Orange County he heard for years how bullet trains were coming, but to no avail.

"The difference then is there was no funding," Cruickshank said.

To expand on this, as I did with the reporter over the phone yesterday (and I fully understand that he could only use snippets, and I am pleased with the snippets he used), the reason we haven't seen plans for HSR to Vegas materialize in those 20 years is that there was little political support for intercity passenger rail. Congress spent the 1990s taking a chainsaw to Amtrak, including canceling the Desert Wind in 1997. Until the United States was willing to embrace HSR spending, plans such as Vegas HSR would remain on the drawing board.

Now that situation has changed, and I believe that to be a good thing:

A line to Vegas could act as a nice complement to a north-south train, Cruickshank said, and has merit even though it's been a topic for 20 years with little to show for it.

"Anybody who's tried to go to Vegas on a weekend in traffic knows it would be welcome," he said.

Keep in mind the above, that the reason there's been "little to show for it" is that there's been no federal support for HSR spending until now. But the real point of this quote is to explain that if you propose it, they will come. Southern Californians would love to have this train. Complaints about the backups on Interstate 15 are commonplace among Californians, and if you could ensure folks had a way to get to Vegas that was fast and reliable, of course they'd take it. In Southern California, population 15 million, Vegas HSR is merely going to increase public support for high speed rail in general.

And the most important takeaway from all of this, by far, is that the events in Congress this week, combined with the results of the November election, indicate that both the American public and the majority in Congress along with the White House are strongly supportive of high speed rail. John Boehner is spitting into the wind here, demonstrating his irrelevance by trying to paint a popular concept as something illegitimate. The combination of voter support in California with political support in Congress means that when it comes to doling out the HSR stimulus money, California - and the SF-LA trunk route in particular - will be first in line:

Although an LA-to-Vegas line is not the priority in California, Cruickshank said it should not detract from efforts to build a high-speed line from San Diego to San Francisco.

In fact, much of the $8 billion could come to the West Coast.

"Only Los Angeles to San Francisco has any funding at all," he said. "This is the only high-speed rail in the nation that has a plan and any money behind it."

All Harry Reid has is a study. Vegas HSR, whatever it's value, is nowhere near the point of readiness that California HSR is, with completion of the environmental review and permitting process two years away at most. We have detailed engineering studies, a business plan, ridership estimates, and are now talking about final design details. No other HSR project in the country is at that point. And no other project in the country has that most precious of resources - a clearly identified and secured source of funding. The federal government loves nothing more than a local match.

Congress has shown that it strongly supports HSR funds. The people do as well. How much more in HSR funding we can get this year is dependent on a huge range of factors, but the $8 billion here is a huge signal that passenger rail's support in Congress is very strong. No amount of whining from the Republican minority will change that.


Anonymous said...

That Senator from Ohio needs to look at his own state as it tries to get passenger rail for the clev-cbus-cinn route and shut up. Yes this kind of 'pork" screaming is just why we need Kerry's bill to come thru or else we will have this unsure funding battle for the entire project.I did see that with this money CAHSRA would like to get some of the train yards and central base built.

Aaron said...

yeson1a, you're absolutely right. The CLE-CMH-CVG corridor is another place that's ripe for HSR, and asides for within the Greater CMH area, could just be rammed through alongside I-71.

At any rate, the Vegas-Disney gadgetbahn is a red herring, and the real likely winners in this are going to be Cal HSR and possibly some of the midwestern projects.

BruceMcF said...

Boner has got constituents who would be well served by both the Dayton and the North Suburban Cincinnati stations on the Triple-C trunk route of the Ohio Hub.

And, of course, since the Triple-C trunk already has designated corridor status, Ohio can get funding along that route for preliminary works that would be required in any event for the Rapid Rail route ... in particular for grade crossing upgrades.

Projects that some of Boner's constituents would get work on, in the Dayton / Cincinnati leg of the route, and therefore that others among Boner's constituents will get money from selling them groceries and meals and clothes and having mortgages not go into foreclosure, and etcetera and etcetera.

At least Strickland is not a moron, and was already talking up the Ohio Hub in the earlier stages of the stimulus so, unlike Boner, Strickland is likely to be requesting money to help out the people he represents. And while it seems a no-loss for Boner, there's a redistricting coming up, and if he ends up in a not-quote-so-safe Republican district, opposing the Stimulus bill not only should but actually could come back to haunt him.

Anonymous said...

I keep the cable news on a lot, and they continue to single out this Harry Reid Las Vegas Train just to stir up sht. This is what we get all the time, in the west, from the east coast media.

Rafael said...

I'm not too worried about Republicans at the federal level right now. Yes, they did make the stimulus bill worse by cutting spending and adding in an AMT patch that normally goes into the regular budget. Fortunately, the underspend can be corrected in additional bills later this year and next.

Now that three Senators have broken ranks on this landmark bill, they are both power brokers and pariahs in their own caucus. If the President focuses his bipartisan efforts on them while keeping the door open for others to join in, he will likely be more successful going forward. The bulk of the GOP delegation needs some time in the wilderness to realize that its reflexive histrionics appeal only to the GOP base, which is vocal but not large enough to make substantial gains in either house at the mid-terms.

This dynamic ought to mean additional federal HSR funding for at least the next two years, probably longer, albeit at a still-modest level. Actually implementing HSR in all 11 of the currently designated corridors - which don't even include a spur to Las Vegas - would cost someone several hundred billion dollars. That sounds like a lot until you realize it would be spent over the course of perhaps 30 years.

California will lead the pack for true bullet trains, the NEC most likely for rapid rail.

Anonymous said...

I hope they build a high-speed train from Las Vegas to either Palmdale or Victorville. Those areas are in need of jobs. Also, if you bulid in in a evacuated tube and use maglev you will use no energy. Also I hope they build it underground so they don't kill flora and fauna.

Anonymous said...

What fantasyland are you living in? No energy?

What about the energy required to magnetically levitate the train? Sorry pal, but even in a vacuum weight still = m*g. There is still gravity. The vacuum just reduces the energy during propagation, but what about the additional energy required to create the 1000s of miles of tunnel!!!

I don't have any of these #s, but I would guess that maglev will end up costing something at least 3x more than normal HSR to build AND operate.

Alon Levy said...

Anon, Palmdale and Victorville need depopulation, not jobs. Every person living in the High Desert has to get water from elsewhere, and have air conditioning running continuously for six months a year. This is hardly the most ideal environment for conservation.

Alon Levy said...

Also, Robert, I have no idea where you're getting the idea that the voters strongly support HSR. Prop 1A passed by a squeaker.

Anonymous said...

alon, not that much of a squeaker, especially xince before the downturn support was in the 70s

Anonymous said...

680,000 plus votes is not that close...and in this economy. If this had been voted on in 2006 it would have passed by 1million plus..but who cares 1A won and now on with the work

Owen Evans said...

I commend you Californians on putting your money where your mouth is, so I'd like to see you guys walk away with half, or $4 billion, of the total HSR stimulus money. $14 billion would probably pay for a meaningful first segment, say LA to San Jose.

I'm from NC and we have a HSR project in cooperation with Virginia that has been going through the EIS process for close to a decade now, and the final completion and Record of Decision is about 2 years away for us, too.

Our approach is more incremental than California's plan, meaning we can make a worthwhile impact with far less money than CA needs. If the NC project gets somewhere in the neighborhood of $1 billion between state and federal sources, we could probably get our "minimal operational segment" done, cutting trip time from Raleigh-Washington from about 6 hours to just under 4.

Trains will initially be diesel powered and run at 110mph, but the right-of-way will be built straight enough for 150+mph electric trains. There's not much local funding behind our effort, but I have confidence that NC and VA could scrape together a few hundred million to match if we get any from the stimulus.

The stimulus money for HSR will be available until September 2012. I presume that means that contracts must be awarded and dirt must be turned by then. That's a tight timeline, so all of these projects might benefit from some expedited environmental review, and I expect many contracts to be awarded on a design-build basis which will expedite things even further by allowing contractors to start construction as the 100% designs are completed.

Rafael said...

@ Owen E -

the way AB3034 was written, the state of California will only pay up to 50% of any given segment of the HSR line. If the state were to win $4 billion in federal funds out of the $9.5 on the table (HR 2095 + stimulus), that would be great but not by itself enough to release the whole $9 billion reserved for HSR in prop 1A (the other $950 million is earmarked for HSR feeder systems).

I didn't realize plans in Virginia and NC were already well advanced, that's excellent news.

Fwiw, I think spending $1 billion of federal funds on upgrading the South-East Corridor from DC to Raleigh and Charlotte makes a lot of sense, perhaps more if non-federal sources chip in at least 1/3 of the total cost.

FRA permits grade crossings up to 125mph, though they have to be hardened for speed above 110mph. I'd strongly recommend prioritizing quiet zones for affected towns over the extra 15mph, though.

What rolling stock is being considered? The Talgo XXI might be interesting, as might a non-tilting diesel version of Bombardier's Acela Express. Whatever you buy will need to meet EPA Tier 4 emissions for locomotives.

Btw, spending money that the federal government makes available usually means having the contract signed and sealed, with a timetable for construction to start soon afterwards. If a program expires by a certain date, that doesn't necessarily mean dirt has to be turned already.

Your best bet of what "soon" means for the $8 billion in the stimulus bill is to look it up in Title V of HR 2095 (110th) on, since the joint explanatory statement on the conference report referenced that bill as the basis for implementation procedures.

Spokker said...

The general public will not read a thousand word explanation of why what Harry Reid said didn't matter. All they will see is pork.

That's why it's important for people like Reid to not run their mouth when the situation over high speed rail funding is so sensitive.

Owen Evans said...

Did not realize the Prop 1A legislation was written to only release funds at a 50% match level. I understand CAHSR calls for some private funds as well; what are the prospects for that? Assuming you could get all $9 billion released at a 50% match level, how much of the line could be completed?

About the SEHSR...
Talgo XXI has indeed been mentioned for the Southeast HSR line. However, I expect that if we DO get money from the stimulus, they will use it to completely restore the S-line before paying even $1 for new rolling stock.

The S-line is the former Seaboard Coast Line from Petersburg to Raleigh that was deactivated around 1981 when all the tracks were pulled up. In its day it was a pretty fast railroad, with some restricting curves. But it runs through essentially the middle of nowhere, and since there are no existing tracks and no traffic on the line, they have the luxury of starting from scratch. They're planning on grade separating the line wherever possible. They will also do a lot of realignments (40 miles of the 116 mile Raleigh-Petersburg corridor will be new ROW) to make the line generally good for 125-150mph. Only, they won't actually run trains at 125-150mph yet, because that would require electrification, new rolling stock, and more stringent maintenance standards (Class 8, vs. Class 6 for 110mph.) The idea is to build the alignment, structures, embankments, etc right so they don't have to be redone for faster speeds and electrification when ridership or fuel costs justify it.

Interestingly, where they are realigning the track away from the old right of way, they want to build a greenway trail on the old track bed.

BTW, absent an additional project, north of Richmond and south of Raleigh would remain 79mph territory. There has been some talk of basically extending the electric NEC to Richmond. That project isn't nearly as far along as the Richmond-Raleigh segment.

Anonymous said...

@Rafael -
Talgo and Acela have nothing at all in common, other than running on rails. Talgo trains don't even have trucks or axles. The Talgo is actually a very radical train design, and it might be just the thing for western corridors. It would be neat to see these trains running in the US, especially the proper Talgo locomotives rather than the ridiculous looking oversized F-59s.

Anonymous said...

BTW just saw on sfgtv MTC proposing 75 million towards getting the train box built up front with the transbay terminal project. So i guess that bodes well?

Anonymous said...

also the doyle drive project qualifies for the stim funds for "highway in national parks" hmm. Well thats good too. unrelated to hsr, but still good. and the central subway will apparently qualify for the new starts money.

Anonymous said...

and the bart oakland airport connector qualifies for the stim funds too. wow that's lots of money for the bay area. yay. Thanks nancy!

Anonymous said...

apparently MTC and sfMTA have been following the money very closely hehe... they have the spending break down all planned out already!

Rafael said...

@ Owen E -

right now, obviously, securing private investment for an HSR line would be tricky because the credit markets are still frozen. However, by the time dirt can be turned in 2011, things may already be looking up. Btw, the state of California can also match funds chipped in by counties and cities.

However, while the AB3034 legislation requires only matching funds for any given segment to go ahead, the sum available from the state ($9 billion) is actually only around 27% of the total. Politicians at the state level will be jockeying for position come appropriations time to ensure their neck of the woods gets its slice of those $9 billion. We'll have to see how things play out, but it seems unlikely that the state will spend all of its little pot of gold on say, SF-SJ plus LA-Anaheim in the hope that non-state actors will pay for all of the construction in-between.

@ anon @ 7:20pm -

A non-tilting diesel version of the Acela Express would have the advantage that Bombardier already has manufacturing facilities in North America, including the US IIRC.

I'm well aware of the unique design features of Talgo trains, especially the light weight, independent wheel suspension, passive centerline tracking and passive tilting.

I mentioned the Talgo XXI specifically because it's the FRA-compliant version of the UIC-compliant BT, which is operated very successfully with a number of European railways. It was also the rolling stock of choice for the DesertXpress project, whose website appears to have gone away altogether.

In many parts of the country, HSR is likely to be rapid rail at 110-125mph with grade crossings, rather than a true bullet train system as in California. If there is enough aggregate demand, Talgo might decide to set up an assembly plant in the US, in addition to their government relations in DC and service operations up in Seattle (on account of legacy Talgo trains plying the Cascades).

IFF the FRA relaxes its rules on mixed traffic subject to signaling upgrades, that plant could produce the lighter BT version just as easily.

Anonymous said...

Just a quick question...supposedly money from the stimulus has to be used by 2010 at the latest. Will it be possible for CHSR ro break ground by that point?

Rafael said...

@ anon @ 4:45am -

most of the funding under the transportation heading is available through Sep 30, 2011. HSR funds are an exception, their expiration date was changed to Sep 30, 2012 in conference.

This is a reflection of the fact that this bill is officially the "American Recovery and Re-Investment Act of 2009", which is broader than a pure near-term stimulus. There aren't any shovel-ready HSR projects right now, but the concepts is a better fit for Obama's energy policy than constructing even more highway lane-miles and runways/gates at airports.

Note that HSR represents just 1% of the entire bill.

Anonymous said...

I was looking for more HSR info, less politics. I'm bipartisan, we had 535 idiots in Congress from both parties.

neroden@gmail said...

Technically, this is not true:
"Only Los Angeles to San Francisco has any funding at all," he said. "This is the only high-speed rail in the nation that has a plan and any money behind it."

Southeast High Speed Rail has a plan (quite extensive) and a lot of money from North Carolina. And as of very recently, it got a meaningful amount of money from Virginia. As two people have already commented on. :-)

Charlotte-Winston/Salem-Raleigh/Durham-Richmond-DC is likely to get money as well as SF-LA.

The other corridor with "in the pipeline" projects and money is Portland-Seattle. Money there will mostly go around Tacoma.

Both of these projects need much less money than CAHSR (for starters they're shorter) so CAHSR still stands to get the lion's share.

To comment further on SEHSR (and I agree with what the other commenters have said): the section from Richmond to DC has currently been focused on capacity increases rather than speed -- triple-tracking, mostly. I doubt they'll be thinking about increasing maximum speeds there for years.

The section from Raleigh to Charlotte (via Winston-Salem) is another matter. NCDOT has been reconstructing it to maximize speed along the entire route, and attempting to eliminate as many grade crossings as possible. The track will be good for better than 79 mph in many places (though probably 85-90 is the best you can expect on this curvy route). As soon as some form of Positive Train Control or Automatic Train Stop system is agreed with Norfolk Southern, this section will be sped up above 79 mph. That change looked like it would be a long way off until the Metrolink disaster -- but now that PTC is mandated, Norfolk Southern will undoubtedly be eager to install it on this shared passenger-freight corridor, and so will NCDOT, so I expect you'll see faster speeds on the North Carolina RR route within five years.

Anonymous said...

Frank, levitation does not require energy, there are easy to make levitation systems using only passive components (usually a diamagnet such as bismuth or pyrolytic carbon and a ferromagnet). Obviously there are minor friction components due to induced currents from the earth's magnetic field, remaining gas in the tube and any number of other second order effects (light pressure from the headlight? synchotron radiation going around corners?). But the original poster is correct that evacuated tube magnetic levitation is many orders of magnitude more efficient than any other form of bearing and can be considered a reasonable approximation of zero-energy. That's why we use them for energy storage and very high speed experiments.

m*g is the force, not the energy, energy is force * distance, which in levitation is unchanging.

Maintaining a vacuum isn't tremendously hard. For example, graphene sheet is impervious to all gases including helium.

Having said that, I think such technology would be a bad investment given the performance, flexibility and off-the-shelf nature of railed vehicles.

BruceMcF said...

"Actually implementing HSR in all 11 of the currently designated corridors - which don't even include a spur to Las Vegas - would cost someone several hundred billion dollars." ... but many of those corridors were only ever intended to be Rapid Rail, which is "HSR" under the definitions of US legislation.

The preliminary costing of the Ohio Hub in 2002 dollars was $5b, extending substantially beyond the designated Triple-C corridor to include Cleveland/Buffalo, Cleveland/Pittsburgh, Columbus/Pittsburgh, Columbus/Detroit, and Columbus / Fort Wayne connecting via the Midwest Hub to Chicago.

Fully implementing the 9 Rapid Rail corridors would cost "someone" $45b, if they average the same cost as the Ohio Hub. Add $50b each for California and the NEC, and that's "someone" paying $150b.

John Thacker said...

Vegas HSR, whatever it's value, is nowhere near the point of readiness that California HSR is, with completion of the environmental review and permitting process two years away at most. We have detailed engineering studies, a business plan, ridership estimates, and are now talking about final design details. No other HSR project in the country is at that point.

Incorrect. Southeast HSR is at that point, if you're talking about completion of the EIS two years away at most, a business plan, ridership estimates, and detailed engineering study. And we're talking about a project (SEHSR) that has by far the best projections for profitability (farebox recovery over 100%) in every FRA study and state and local support for track upgrades in anticipation of HSR service. Know what the feds like even more than a local source of funding? A local source of funding and operating profitability.

Of course, in both cases, neither are going to start building in less than two years, so of course this isn't "stimulus" in any Keynesian sense, regardless of how good an idea it is. (Well, perhaps stimulus for those doing the EIS.) It's merely a good idea that was shoved into a convenient bill.

You're also dreaming if you imagine that Congress is going to let all $8 billion go just to California, regardless of how well advanced your plan is.

John Thacker said...

Although SEHSR does have a few track upgrades on the Raleigh-Charlotte portion that are currently being worked on and could be accelerated or started. The EIS time on that portion was shorter than the S line portion, so there's work that could be (and had been) done.