Tuesday, June 30, 2009

SF to San José Draft Scoping Report Available

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

Find it here: Draft SF to SJ Scoping Report (PDF). I haven't had a chance to look at this closely yet, but it apparently includes 950 letters from Peninsula NIMBYs - I love the way SFist described it:

The report includes over 950 letters from assorted cranky Peninsula NIMBYs, hippies, and Howard Jarvis looking Ayn Rand worshippers demanding that the high speed rail project be squashed underfoot like a pesky insect. That, or the rail authority should put the train in a tunnel all the way down the Peninsula from San Francisco to San Jose, because, you know, that would be like cost effective and practical and everything.

So, have a look at the document and post your thoughts in the comments. I'll have a fuller analysis on this either tonight or tomorrow.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Congress Likely To Delay Transportation Bill To 2011

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The US Congress is getting a reputation as the place where good ideas go to die. Although currently held by the Democratic Party, the real power lies with center-right Democrats who are generally skittish about significant change, and certainly wary of either spending money, finding new revenues for programs, or both.

We can see this in the health care and the climate change bill - but we can also see it in the discussion of the reauthorization of the Transportation Bill, due in 2009. In the House, Jim Oberstar has been pushing to produce a bill that would better fund public transit and shift the government's priorities away from roads and sprawl. Transportation for America has an analysis of his efforts here - it's a mixed bag so far.

But the most contentious aspect of all is the matter of how to fund the federal government's transportation obligations. The US highway trust fund has been on the verge of insolvency for a while now, dating back to the early Bush Administration. When then-Secretary of Transportation Norm Mineta proposed a gas tax increase to fix the problem, President George W. Bush said no, as Mineta recounted earlier this month:

In 2001, knowing the next highway reauthorization was set for 2003, we developed a six-year funding mechanism that called for a 2-cent-a-gallon gas tax increase in the first year, a 2-cent-a-gallon increase in the third year, and another 2-cent-a-gallon increase in the fifth year. As I recall, that would have been a $330 billion proposal and left us with a $7 billion unobligated trust fund balance after six years. We went to the Oval Office, and after we went through the entire presentation, President Bush takes a marker, circles the gas tax increases, and says, "Norm, I don't want any of those tax increases. Get those out."

So we went back and put a CPI inflator on the gas tax in the fifth year. Keep in mind that the gas tax had not been raised since 1993. We returned to the Oval Office, went through the presentation, and afterward President Bush said, "Norm, that's a tax increase. Get that out."

Bush may be gone, but his attitude now dominates a Democratic Congress. As Yonah Freemark noted over at The Transport Politic, there is no consensus on how to fund transportation, and Barbara Boxer suggests the most likely outcome is an 18-month extension of the existing transportation bill, which would push the issue out to beyond the 2010 midterm elections. To Freemark, the problem is that Congress isn't willing to face up to the revenue problem:

More importantly, no one in Congress is being frank about raising revenues to support transportation. Mr. Oberstar’s bill left the funding sections blank, and Mr. LaHood has been openly lobbying against any increase in the gas tax. Ms. Boxer’s comments today reaffirmed her opposition to the same and expressed her unwillingness to support a VMT system, which she called “too intrusive.” No one on the invited panel at the hearing provided serious alternatives to those two funding sources, nor did any senator, though everyone seems convinced that a major program expansion is necessary. Funds from the climate change bill, which might incorporate a carbon cap-and-trade system, may come into play, but those dollars are far off and uncommitted for now.

Mr. Oberstar has been adamant in his desire to push forward the next transportation bill now, but this hearing made clear that the Senate is not going to play along. Ms. Boxer is chair of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, and her position will effectively block Mr. Oberstar’s bill even if that legislation passes in the House. Without the support of the White House, Mr. Oberstar is loosing ground. His inability to pinpoint a stable funding source is similarly problematic.

What hasn’t been suggested, but that which I will continue to bring up, is a simple abandonment of the idea that transportation must be sponsored by its “users.” We are all beneficiaries of a strong transportation network, and filling the Trust Fund mostly with general fund sources is a viable and long-term solution that would require none of the shenanigans that currently deteriorate efforts to raise the gas tax or impose a VMT. Whether now or in 18 months, we’re going to need something better than today’s non-proposals from Ms. Boxer.

I wholly agree with these statements, and it is certainly time to provide general fund support for transportation projects. Infrastructure, especially mass transit infrastructure including high speed rail, is at the center of this nation's economic recovery effort and our 21st century prosperity. Unfortunately, Congress seems to have totally abandoned any interest in economic recovery or long-term planning, and is instead dominated by obsolete 20th century concerns about the politics of taxes and user fees.

Barbara Boxer's reluctance to propose revenue solutions, and her desire to kick the can down the curb, is part of a growing trend in her approach to policymaking that is much more risk-averse and centrist than we are used to seeing from the more liberal of our two senators. Facing re-election in 2010, Boxer appears to have concluded that she needs to play to an assumed political center, seeking bipartisanship (with James Inhofe? ha!) and avoiding anything resembling a tax increase for fear of how it would play with California voters.

These concerns are misplaced. Californians have shown they will support raising revenue for sustainable transportation solutions, as the November 2008 election made clear. Not just in the passage of Prop 1A, which after all was a bond, but in the passage of outright sales tax increases in Los Angeles, Santa Clara, Marin and Sonoma counties. Those counties have nearly 15 million residents, and over 67% of voters in those counties supported the concept Yonah Freemark described above, of asking everyone to subsidize mass transit, not just those who use it.

Boxer's unwillingness to lead is sadly being matched by President Barack Obama. Over the first six months of the Obama Administration a disturbing trend has made itself clear. Obama likes to talk a big game, and will make public statements promising a new era, broad reform, and an embrace of policy change. He then leaves all the details up to Congress, refusing to get involved in the nitty gritty of the negotiations. As a result Congress's natural tendency to either do nothing or do the wrong thing is asserted, and we get outcomes like an 18-month postponement.

How this affects HSR is unclear. High speed rail will be a part of the new Transportation Bill. How it will be funded remains totally unclear. Obama wants to see a long-term HSR program come out of Congress, but as with so many other aspects of his agenda, Obama is going to have to learn that if he wants Congress to do something, he is going to have to force the issue and make it happen himself.

Until Obama does, the US Congress will remain a graveyard for common sense and smart, proven, effective policy.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sunday Open Thread

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by Robert Cruickshank

Back in the USA after two wonderful weeks in Portugal. There was a fair bit of HSR news while I was over there - the ruling Socialist Party made the surprising announcement that the final decision to move ahead with the planned HSR line to connect Lisboa to Madrid was going to be postponed until 2010, after this year's legislative elections. The PS and its prime minister, José Sócrates, are worried about losing to the rival Social Democrats (PSD), who are not exactly strong supporters of the line even though Portugal and Spain have signed agreements to build it, and even though the EU has already planned to contribute financially to the project.

The PS wants to make the PSD look uninterested in solving the economic crisis, and Sócrates seems to think that making an election issue out of the HSR project would give his party a boost, as the proposal is generally popular with the public, and Portugal doesn't have to foot the entire bill. But the nakedly political ploy could well backfire. The EU was not pleased with the postponement, and Portugal's president, Aníbal Cavaco Silva (of the PSD), had to step in to ease concerns and promised that the project would still go forward. News reports spun it as a sign of weakness on the part of Sócrates and the PS.

So we will see what happens. I'm still getting over jet lag, so use this as an open thread. Tomorrow I'll be back to discuss our own HSR project here in California.

Friday, June 26, 2009

HSR and Historic Stations

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by Rafael


In a recent post, Yonah Freemark and Jebediah Reed over at the Infrastructurist lament the loss of 11 once-famous landmark grand stations around the country to strictly utilitarian underground platforms, arenas, office towers, strip malls, highways and parking lots. Case in point: Penn Station in NYC.

Fortunately, California has managed to preserve at least some of its own railroad history in the shape of historic passenger stations, e.g. LA Union Station, San Diego Santa Fe Depot, Sacramento's Depot, San Jose's Cahill Street (aka Diridon) station and many smaller ones as well. Built in the age of steam, before freeways, buses and private cars even existed, these buildings remind Californians of the importance of railways in their own history.

Now that state voters have approved $9.95 billion in GO bonds to kick-start a rail renaissance, visions of brand-new, ultra-modern stations have become the centerpieces of urban planners' ambitious plans to revitalize city centers and make using public transportation attractive again to a population that has become hooked on gas-guzzling cars. For practical reasons, many of these stations will feature run-through tracks, electronic displays and other aspects of modern rail technology. In particular, the 19th century notion of maintaining waiting rooms separate from the platforms makes little practical sense in the fast-paced 21st century, in which trains run very frequently and on time with just a minute or two of dwell time.

Should California's historic passenger rail stations

  • remain in daily use for the sake of continuity in spite of the associated passenger flow inefficiencies plus wear and tear,

  • be preserved in-situ as museums of a bygone age or,

  • be carefully relocated elsewhere for the sake of maximum convenience for passengers at the new transit hubs?
What would you prefer in the case of your own city's existing train station, and why?

Note: SF's Transbay Terminal is arguably a special case in that it was a station for electric trolleys, then a bus depot and now slated for wholesale replacement to meet seismic code. Since we've already covered the SFTT ad nauseam, I'd like to keep the focus on the issue of architectural/cultural heritage vs. utility where above-ground structures are expected to be preserved. Discussion of what you'd like to see happen at Caltrain's 4th & King property after electrification is of course fair game.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Questions for Senator Alan Lowenthal

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I have to admit that after reading Senator Alan Lowenthal´s op-ed I am unconvinced that he has actually answered the charges leveled in the original ModBee editorial. And I remain convinced that the evidence shows Sen. Lowenthal does not support the HSR project that a majority of Californians approved in November 2008.

If he wants to ensure transparency and responsibility in how the funds are used, he can do that without messing with how the funds are allocated - including but not limited to the Central Valley maintenance hub.

These are separate matters. But Sen. Lowenthal has chosen to conflate the two, using concerns about "fiscal responsibility" as his cover to gut the system as he has always intended to do.

Since June 2008 this blog has tracked Sen. Lowenthal´s desire to gut the HSR system by turning it into a method to fund merely incremental commuter rail improvements in the Bay Area and SoCal. Nothing in Sen. Lowenthal´s apologia disproves that conclusion about his intentions.

Sen. Lowenthal has shown himself to be quite willing to distort the situation and leave out relevant facts to make the CHSRA look bad. This includes his refusal to mention in the op-ed that the 2008 Business Plan was delayed because of the 2008 state budget crisis, which left the CHSRA without the funds to pay for the business plan.

The report from the Legislative Analysts Office that Sen. Lowenthal requested earlier this year provides further evidence of his desire to cut the Central Valley out from the overall project.

Using "fiscal responsibility" to attack HSR is an old game, as we have also tracked at this blog for quite some time. It is distressing to see Sen. Lowenthal playing that game in order to undermine the HSR project. If Sen. Lowenthal wanted to truly and effectively defend himself, he would answer the following questions (I will give him space on this blog to do so, and will post his replies unedited):

1. Does he support the HSR project as approved by voters in November 2008 - which specified a 220mph train to connect SF to Anaheim via the Central Valley?

2. Will he refuse to be a party to any efforts to tear the HSR system into pieces?

3. Will he admit that the 2008 Business Plan would have been produced on-time had he and his fellow Senators approved the state budget by the constitutionally mandated deadline of June 30?

4. Will he apply his "fiscal responsibility" goals to the Peninsula portion of the project, namely the efforts by a small group of NIMBYs to force the CHSRA to build an tunnel that will cost many more billions of dollars than the business plans currently anticipate for both the Peninsula section and the project as a whole?

5. Will he promise the people of California that his efforts to ensure "fiscal responsiblity" will not jeopardize the state´s chances at winning billions in federal stimulus funding this year for the HSR project?

6. Will he commit to lobbying Congress to pass a Transportation Bill that fully funds the HSR Strategic Plan, and will he acknowledge that this would be sufficient to fully fund the HSR project as laid out in Prop 1A?

We await the Senator´s response.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Sen. Lowenthal Defends Himself

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by Rafael

In a spirited op-ed piece in the Modesto Bee, Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach, pictured left) defends himself against earlier accusations ("Quit playing high-speed politics") that he was engaged in a "power grab" to prevent the use of prop 1A(2008) funds to construct a central maintenance facility for the HSR network somewhere in the Central Valley.

Lowenthal's claims his beef is not with the location of the maintenance site but something more profound: CHSRA's 2008 Business Plan, which he considers unsound. He notes that prop 1A(2008) only provides $9 billion of the $34 billion price tag he estimates for the entire starter line and that CHSRA has not yet actually secured the balance from non-state sources, i.e. Congress, local counties and cities and private investors. It also does not spell out contingency plans for coping with the possibility that the required funding will never materialize in full.

While claiming to be an ardent supporter of the HSR project, the State Senator has in fact taken a fiscally conservative stance: the state contribution should not be used for component projects such as a dedicated high-speed test track and maintenance facility that will only prove useful if and when HSR actually enters service in California - an outcome that is obviously contingent on securing all necessary funds for constructing the starter line. The whole public-private partnership concept allows CHSRA to remain rather more independent of financial oversight by the state legislature than is typical for a major public works project. Encouraging noises from Congress and the Administration are not enough to get this railroad built and as for private investors, those will come to the party late if at all. In other words, Lowenthal is a risk-averse pessimist who sees the glass as currently 3/4 empty.

Perhaps not as coincidentally as he would have us believe, spending the state funds conservatively implies priority for component projects at either end of the starter line. Orange County politicians, including Anaheim mayor Curt Pringle, insisted on tacking the LA Union Station to Anaheim ARTIC section onto the starter line to ensure at least a section of the BNSF Transcon line along highway 91 gets fully grade separated sooner rather than later. The ports of LA and Long Beach provide roughly one in seven jobs in the LA basin, so freight rail is a big deal both locally and at the state and federal levels. Note that the state-sponsored ACE project to eliminate or improve UPRR's grade crossings in the San Gabriel Valley is already underway.

Note that the Fullerton-Anaheim section is too narrow for quad tracking, so no more than 2-3 HSR trains per hour (each way, PDF p14) will actually serve Anaheim station.

By contrast, CHSRA has thus far taken an approach long favored by planners: build broad political support for the concept, accumulate funding contributions and proceed on the assumption that the balance will be forthcoming. Eventually, the sum already invested becomes so large that it makes more sense to finish the project than to scale back its ambitions or cancel it altogether. Once that tipping point is firmly on the horizon, negotiations with private investors will get down to brass tacks. In other words, the CHSRA board is a group of optimists who see the glass as already 1/4 full, with prospects for more brighter than ever.

This also explains why CHSRA want to prioritize not just the contentious SF peninsula but also the Central Valley test track and associated central maintenance facility: it anticipates these will be needed to secure the all-important "rule of special applicability" required before its engineering staff can pre-qualify vendors of proven, specialized HSR equipment and draw up a shortlist. If the history of HSR projects elsewhere in the world (e.g. Taiwan) is any guide, there will be significant political wrangling over manufacturing jobs etc. that CHSRA may want to stay out of.

On a related note, Susan A. Fleming, Director of Infrastructure Issues at the non-partisan Government Accountability Office released a statement to Congress yesterday underlining that FRA has a vision for HSR but not yet have a well-defined strategic plan or organization for developing it nationwide, beyond the disbursement of already-approved ARRA funds. In particular, she pointed out that $8 billion ($9.5 billion if you include the earlier PRIIA act) represents just a fraction of the federal funds needed to build the California network's starter line, never mind anything else. Implicitly, she questioned the wisdom of using short-term stimulus funds on HSR before Congress has decided to reorganize USDOT and allocate tens of billions in additional funds. To create lasting value for federal taxpayers, HSR must be elevated to a strategic shift in policy. Currently, the numbers suggest merely a make-work effort in the short term.

Fortunately, the next surface transportation bill outlined earlier this week would address the concerns GAO has raised. The snag is that this bill is still quite far from the President's desk.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Tuesday Open Thread

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

It´s mid-afternoon here on the Algarve in Portugal. Beautiful weather, cool clear water, and a nice breeze making the last week of my visit here quite enjoyable. So what am I doing online? Other than being a total nerd, and taking a kind of siesta, I´m catching up on HSR stuff. Thanks so much to Rafael for his ongoing work in keeping the blog updated.

Some quick HSR related items:

  • AB 153 by Fiona Ma will be heard in the Assembly Transportation and Housing Committee today - the bill would clarify the eminent domain power of the CHSRA, to emphasize the agency does indeed have such power.

  • Apologies if this has been discussed before - it is a few days old - but the Mercury News has an article on two Menlo Park/Atherton moms who have organized to fundraise for the anti-HSR lawsuit, having collected over $30,000 (note: the original version of this post misstated the sum as $300,000) toward the legal bills. I´m really pleased to see that in this economic crisis there are people with that much money to waste, especially mothers who apparently don´t have to worry about the severe attacks on public education taking place in this state. Wouldn´t $30,000 be rather useful to local schools or to help feed the hungry?!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Next Federal Surface Transportation Program

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Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN)

Rep. John Mica (R-FL)

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR)

Rep. John Duncan Jr. (R-TN)
On Friday, chairman Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN) and ranking member Rep. John Mica (R-FL) of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure issued a press release and held a news conference on their blueprint for the next federal surface transportation program, described in a new committee report. They were joined by chairman Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and ranking member John Duncan Jr. (R-TN) of the subcommittee on Highways and Transit.

The event represents the kick-off for drafting the next iteration of the surface transportation bill, which typically sets priorities and secures funding for public works projects for a period of 5-6 years. Traditionally, it has also been a vehicle for members of Congress to "bring home the bacon" to their districts. This time, Oberstar and his colleagues want to use the opportunity to move away from prescribing specific projects (aka earmark pork) and toward a meritocratic system in which USDOT is instructed to evaluate competing grant applications. Those will have to be integrated into six-year strategic plans developed by the department and its counterparts at the state level, with annual performance metrics for each major project or program of smaller ones. It remains to be seen if members of the full House and Senate will be prepared to support this new philosophy.

In the hope that they will, the report details substantial reorganization objectives for USDOT such that it can execute evaluate programs and award grants according to legally binding procedures. For example, it calls for a new infrastructure bank within USDOT endowed with at least $50 billion for the six-year period that the new bill is supposed to cover. This money would be used to support strategic, sustainable investments in transportation systems, specifically High Speed Rail and (connecting) local transit. This would segregate public transportation funding from that reserved for highways, at least at the federal level. This new mechanism could essentially solve the federal component of funding California's HSR project. In addition, there would be a new Office of Project Expediting and also an Office of Livability, presumably charged with enforcing appropriate environmental mitigation for affected residents.

Secr. of Transportation Ray LaHood would like to focus his department on executing oversight of stimulus-related projects. He therefore asked Rep. Oberstar to extend current arrangements for 18 months by plugging a growing hole of at least $13 billion in the Highway Trust fund. However, Oberstar and his colleagues are unwilling to wait because they have concluded that the current system is broken.

The report's authors claim that over the past 30 years, many states simply haven't stepped up to the plate to fund their 20% of highway projects, never mind the 50% required until recently for rail and transit projects. As a result, available federal funds were not fully utilized. Perhaps the unspoken fear is that with the 2010 midterms approaching and the 2012 presidential election after that, any delay would make it even more difficult to pass legislation for a root-and-branch reorganization of USDOT. Of course, much the same is true of health care reform, financial re-regulation etc. The President's domestic agenda is already full, yet transportation infrastructure is a high priority in Congress.

The committee report calls for a total spending volume of $500 billion through 2015, of which 10% would go into the aforementioned infrastructure bank. Federal and state governments combined currently spend around $85 billion a year on transportation infrastructure, a sum the committee says is too small to maintain and expand the nation's aging systems and structures. It would like to see the number ramped up to $225 billion and then held at that level for the next 50 years. To fund the federal portion of this substantial expansion, the report calls for both federal and state gas taxes to be roughly doubled. Republicans in particular will presumably resist legislative efforts to implement that, though they may soon face a filibuster-proof Democratic majority in the US Senate.

Note that raising gas taxes to help fund rail and transit infrastructure construction is reasonable in that it reduces the pressure to keep adding lane-miles highways which are more expensive per passenger-mile of capacity, require far more land and lock in the country's arguably excessive dependence on oil.

by Rafael

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Thursday Open Thread

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by Rafael

I'm pressed for time today, so here are a few snippets of HSR-related news from around the world:

  • A new High Speed Commuter Train enters service in the UK today. Traveling at a top speed of 140mph, the Japanese-built "Javelin" is extremely light (for a train) and equipped with powerful electric motors. These permit rapid acceleration and deceleration such that the service can share the expensive HS1 tracks with Eurostar, whose trackage fees on the UK side have long been 10 times higher than in France. This is oneI reason why tickets are so much more expensive than those for similar distances within France. The new regional HSR service should reduce Eurostar's costs in the UK.

    For more on the concept of running both long-distance and purely regional HSR trains on the same tracks, see also our earlier post on "HiSpeed Services And Branding".

  • Meanwhile, Greengauge 21, a prominent HSR advocacy group in the UK, warns that the government's proposed top speed of 250km/h (155mph) for HS2 (the extension to London Heathrow, Birmingham and Manchester) will be insufficient to attract enough ridership. For the extension to be a commercial success, it claims the line will need to support top speeds of at least 300km/h.

  • VIA Rail, Canada's counterpart to Amtrak, wants to upgrade service to 125mph in the core Windsor-Quebec City corridor. This could eventually connect to the Midwest HSR network that proponents think was given a boost by the FRA guidelines published yesterday since it will eventually link eight US states. However, much like the hoped-for Pacific Northwest link between Vancouver BC and Portland (perhaps Eugene), there are simply no public funds on the table. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a conservative, remains opposed to improved passenger rail service in his country. In addition, the Canadian border agency is demanding C$500,000 per year to man the new border post at the train station in Vancouver. This was enough to derailed the effort to get at least the Amtrak Cascades route extended.

  • JR East has officially unveiled its new E5 series trains, which will serve the Tokyo-Shin Aomori route at a top speed of 320km/h (199mph) starting in 2013. The advanced active-tilt design will run on the existing Tohoku shinkansen line, which was built for a much lower top speed decades ago. While the Fastech 360 development platform for the E5 did achieve the desired top speed of 360km/h (224mph) on the same tracks, it failed to meet very ambitious targets for noise emissions and emergency braking distance. The signature retractable air brakes are not needed at the lower top speed defined for the E5 and were therefore cut from the final design.

  • A new report on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv HSR line in Israel has uncovered cost overruns and inadequate planning in a key section. It seems likely that heads will roll in the agencies responsible.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

FRA Guidelines On Federal Funds For HSR

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by Rafael

Earlier today, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) published a press release to notify the general public of guidelines for applicants seeking a slice of the $8 billion allocated in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) a.k.a. the stimulus bill passed in the spring.

The same guidelines will be used to evaluate applications for the $1.5 billion reserved for HSR in the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA) that was signed into law last October. The principal difference is that PRIIA funds are limited to 80% of total project cost. The proposed 2010 budget also includes a provision for an additional $1 billion in federal funding to be made available in each of the next 5 years and will presumably be allocated according to the same or similar guidelines as PRIIA.

USDOT Secretary Ray LaHood expects the first HSR grants to be awarded by mid-September. To allow for timely processing, the guidance calls for pre-applications to be filed no later than July 10 (preferably sooner). These are essentially expressions of interest with rough outlines that FRA will use to establish the volume of applications it will need to process and, to aid applicants in drafting their formal documentation. Final applications for Tracks 1, 3 and 4 (Projects, Planning and FY 2009 appropriations, respectively) due no later than August 24. Those for Track 3 (Service Development Programs, e.g. the California HSR network) are due October 2. These dates may be pushed back by at least 30 days if FRA decides to make changes to its guidelines in response to formal comments received no later than July 10.

Each application will be evaluated using 7 criteria in three categories. From 1 to 5 points will be awarded for each to reflect how well it conforms to the objectives of the federal government and Congress. The results are summed up, with different weights used for the various Tracks.

The first category addresses the return on public investment. This includes a rigorous analysis of financial costs and benefits of service operations. Further, it includes quantification of indirect benefits such as population mobility and safety, economic recovery benefits, energy efficiency, CO2 reduction etc.

The second category covers criteria related to project success, specifically project management and the sustainability of claimed benefits.

The third category examines the timeliness of estimated project completion and the risk of delays, which typically entail cost overruns as well.

These evaluation criteria will apparently be used to arrive at shortlists of candidates in each of the Tracks described above. The final selection among those will be based on what the guidelines refer to as "balance and diversity". This refers to the geographic extent of the projects, the level of technical innovation required etc. USDOT will explicitly favor those shortlisted projects that have already attracted non-federal investment. Tracks 3 and 4 explicitly require 50% matching funds.

Even so, these selection criteria remain quite fuzzy, so political clout on Capitol Hill and with the Obama administration will almost certainly play a significant role. Keep in mind that only projects in the eleven official high speed rail corridors are eligible at all. However, the Secretary of Transportation has limited powers to modify their definition. Brand-new corridors could only be created by and act of Congress, which would also have to amend the PRIIA and/or ARRA to make them eligible.

The Associated Press interprets the guidelines as favoring California and the Midwest over other regions. My own take is that Florida's HSR effort is still stalled and lacks funding commitments, though it is otherwise well placed thanks to the advanced state of its environmental impact review. In addition, Rep. Oberstar (D-MN) and Mice (R-FL) intended the NEC to be the primary beneficiary of HSR funds in PRIIA, to cut the Amtrak Acela Express' line haul times for New York to Washington, DC from roughly three to under two hours.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Tuesday Open Thread

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by Rafael

Should CHSRA push back against powerful state legislators like Sen. Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) on plans for a central maintenance hub and test track in the Central Valley or, focus on making sure it can keep paying its consultants in FY 2009-2010 (i.e. live to fight another day)?

Unsurprisingly, the Merced Sun-Star takes a dim view of the Senator's efforts to postpone construction in the Central Valley in favor of projects (e.g. grade separations) in the tail sections of the starter line. Can FRA be expected to draft the rules required for operation at 220mph without a suitable test track? Can CHSRA pre-qualify a shortlist of HSR trainset and technology vendors without one?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Monday Open Thread

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Comment starter: Senator Denise Moreno Ducheny has been promoting a bill, SB 409, to create a Department of Railroads. Good idea? Bad idea?

UPDATE: Live from Porto, Portugal, it´s your blog proprietor! Currently waiting for the 11:45 Alfa Pendular south to Coimbra. I have some pictures of Portugal´s rail network but they´re not uploaded yet. The Alfa Pendular is a Pendolino tilting fast train that shares tracks with freight and slower rail (including the intercidades and suburbans). The top speed we achieved coming north from Lisboa was 210 km/h (about 130 mph), but that was rarely sustained, and in fact there were several dead stops in the middle of nowhere and plenty of slow orders. We arrived at Porto Campanhã about 15 minutes late as a result. I have no idea what the typical on-time performance of the Alfa Pendular is.

Still, I think it is a very good model for how some of the HSR corridors in the US can be upgraded. The Amtrak Cascades are intended to achieve similar speeds, and Amtrak uses Talgo trainsets on the route for precisely that purpose, although more sidings and trackwork needs to be done to enable the Cascades corridor to achieve the high speeds. I could also see the Midwest HSR corridors using a Talgo or Pendolino system to achieve higher speeds and quicker travel times (and I believe Ray LaHood has indicated this is his preference for that corridor).

Of course, tilting trains of 130 mph capability aren´t a permanent solution, even if they are a very good first step toward improving the passenger rail network. Today the Portguese parliament is holding hearings on the government´s proposals to build an AVE-like system to connect Lisboa to Porto, and to connect Lisboa to Madrid. Eventually the government wants to build south to the beach resorts of the Algarve, although that´s a lower priority for now.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The NYT On California HSR

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Heads up: The Blogger service will be down for about 10 minutes of scheduled maintenance at 12:00AM PDT on Monday, June 15. We apologize for any inconvenience.

Also, I will be traveling to Germany this week for a few days on business. There will be Open Threads on both Monday and Tuesday, followed by the promised post on the new features and poll on the new banner options later in the week.

by Rafael

In his article "Getting Up To Speed" published in the New York Times magazine section on June 10, Jon Gertner discusses why California is pursuing high speed rail at all. He also mentions obstacles past, present and future and, looks into what HSR has done for other countries - notably France.

While I encourage you to head over to the Gray Lady for the full article, here are a few quotes:
  • Earlier this year, President Obama, who on a trip to France in April conceded he was "jealous" of European high-speed trains, submitted budget and stimulus plans that together allocated approximately $13 billion for high-speed rail over the next five years. It seems almost certain that at least some of that money, and perhaps a significant percentage of it, will go this fall to California’s project, which is the most developed of any U.S. high-speed-rail plan. Ray LaHood, the U.S. secretary of transportation, told me recently that Californians "are obviously way, way ahead of everyone else."

  • Judging by the experiences of Japan and France, both of which have mature high-speed rail systems, [California High Speed Rail] would end the expansion of regional airline traffic as in-state travelers increasingly ride the fast trains. And it would surely slow the growth of highway traffic. Other potential benefits are also intriguing: a probable economic windfall for several cities along the route, with rejuvenated neighborhoods and center cities; several hundred thousand jobs in construction, manufacturing, operations and maintenance; and the environmental benefits that come from vehicles far more efficient and far less polluting than jets, buses and cars.

  • As someone who never understood the zealotry of hard-core train enthusiasts, I found the project’s other selling points more compelling: center city to center city in a few hours without airport lines or onerous security checks. No bus connections. No traffic. And no counting on luck [for on-time performance].

  • On a plane at 30,000 feet or in a car on a highway whose inclines have been tamed and curves eased, you can forget the great sweep of California’s topography. Rediscovering it on the Surfliner is something to say in its favor.

  • The rail authority has never been especially popular; for years its cause has been criticized as a science-fiction dream and, more recently, a government boondoggle to dwarf all previous government boondoggles. Even for the less cynical — editorial boards and legislators, mainly — legitimate philosophical questions about its mission have never fully subsided. Can California really afford such a project? Shouldn’t transportation dollars be spent instead on upgrading urban mass transit or commuter rail, both of which would also ease freeway traffic? Over the past decade, specific parts of the rail plan — tunnels, mountain passes, stations, environmental impacts, costs, ridership estimates, the technologies needed, you name it — have been challenged at nearly every turn by officials and citizens alike, as have the motives and wisdom of rail-authority board members and staff employees.

  • One of the most crucial distinctions with the [bullet] trains, finally, is invisible: they have a signaling technology, called "positive train control," that keeps tabs on the location of the trains in operation. If a train gets close to the one ahead of it, it slows down automatically — or shuts down altogether if it gets too close. A big seismic tremor or act of sabotage trips the system, too.

  • [California High Speed Rail] will require an entirely new set of safety regulations from the Federal Rail Administration. The F.R.A. has largely focused on requiring trains to demonstrate crash worthiness, whereas in Europe and Asia the emphasis is on avoiding crashes.

  • By law — that is, according to the bond measure that authorizes the rail project — the California train has to travel between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 2 hours 40 minutes. Adding distance might add too much time. [CHSRA Engineering Coordinator Tony] Daniels showed me a printout of a computer model demonstrating how a particular German high-speed train, one of the best in the world, would do on the longer route. "It comes in at 2 hours 39 minutes and 53 seconds,” he said. “That’s too tight for me."

  • At some point soon, perhaps by 2012, the rail planners will start the procurement process, Daniels told me. The project calls for around 100 trains, each about 656 feet long, each holding 400 to 500 passengers and each costing $30 million to $35 million.

  • At peak times, double-decker trains carrying more than 1,000 people leave Paris every 30 minutes for Lyon. "Those trains are full, full, full," [President of Alstom Transport] Mellier told me.

  • When I spoke with LaHood, I asked what the administration learned from the experiences of Japan and France. "That these things can’t happen unless you have real intense involvement from the government," he replied.

  • When I asked Schwarzenegger about the social effects of a rail line, he quickly replied, "I think people will look at the state and not just say, 'Oh, my God, I have to go from the south to the north, what a schlep.' "

Minor quibbles:

  • CHSRA will not seek additional funds from the state of California, beyond the $9 billion in GO bonds that voters approved in November 2008
  • The revised definition of the starter line is SF - Anaheim, not just to LA. CHSRA has estimated the cost for it at $30-$35 billion.
  • The distance from Bakersfield to Merced along hwy 99/UPRR ROW is around 158 miles, not 58.
  • Kawasaki Heavy Industries (Japan), Talgo (Spain) and others also know how to build trains capable of running at 220mph. It's just that there are as yet very few track sections in the world designed to permit such speeds in commercial operation.

Considering that California will ultimately ask Congress for $12-$16 billion to supplement state and other funding in the starter line, it's good to see such extensive reporting about the project from an East Coast journalist. If nothing else, Mr. Gertner's article underlines how the success or failure of Express HSR in the Golden State has the potential to make or break future prospects for this clean, safe and efficient mode of medium-distance transportation in other states. After aborted attempts in Florida and Texas, it's all the more important that California stick to its plans while also fixing the state's dire budget crisis.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Saturday Open Thread

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Have at it in the comments. Play nice. And anons, pick a username and stick with it. Rafael is working on some site upgrades. Once we nail down the site design, I think it will be time to explore different options for providing comments. Any thoughts on good services? (I can still remember when all you could do on Blogger for comments was use Haloscan. Those were the days...)

Friday, June 12, 2009

SJ, SF Mayors Push Transbay, Diridon, Caltrain Upgrades

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Yesterday, San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom issued a joint press release announcing the Bay Area region's preference for stimulus and other HSR spending the Bay Area to be directed towards upgrades to the Caltrain corridor, the expansion of SJ Diridon Station, and the establishment of the new SF Transbay Terminal as the SF terminus.

Newsom had already come out in support of Transbay. Enhancing Diridon was a foregone conclusion. But the announcement apparently portends a broader regional agreement.

We should learn more about this announcement of regional aspirations at this morning's meeting of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which is brokering the agreement. More details from the Chronicle:

The proposal would turn the Diridon Station in downtown San Jose and the planned new Transbay Terminal in downtown San Francisco into major regional transit hubs.

In addition, the Caltrain Station at Fourth and King streets in San Francisco's South of Market would be expanded to accommodate high-speed rail.

The proposed package also seeks funding to electrify Caltrain and to equip its rail cars with automated train-control equipment that senses impending danger on the tracks. The train tracks in San Bruno would be separated from truck and auto traffic.

Together the projects would cost $3.4 billion, said Randy Rentschler, government affairs manager for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. The region will ask for $1.6 billion in new federal stimulus money to help pay for the improvements. Additional funds would come from the nearly $10 billion funding pot backed by California voters for high-speed rail.

The Bay Area will seek additional funding later to pay for other projects.

One could argue that the explicit advocacy of Caltrain upgrades is a rebuke to NIMBY calls for taking HSR off the Caltrain corridor altogether, but I'm not sure the powers that be would bother to dignify such fringe proposals. This could turn out to merely be formalizing exactly which upgrade projects should come first. (Incidentally, Caltrain was awarded $9 million in stimulus funding for unrelated projects this week.)

It's encouraging to see a regional consensus emerging around Transbay, which should hopefully end the public political squabbles. What do you think? Will this announcement put an end to the issue, or merely galvanize opposing forces and bring the funding and technical challenges of Transbay further into the fore?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Thursday Open Thread

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So I'm off to Portugal for 2 weeks, and you will be in the capable hands of Rafael and Matt Melzer, who will be doing some guest posts. There will be some open threads every other day, although if any of the guest posters want to move one of those to another day in order to post something, particularly if it is timely, they're welcome to do so.

Today's topic: rising gas prices. Breaking the magic $3 mark across the state. It was when gas prices stayed above $3/gal for an extended period in mid-2006 that the housing bubble burst. Sure, the bubble was going to burst eventually, but it burst at a specific time and due to specific causes, which we can't overlook. Further, the gas price spike of 2008 surely helped play a big role in sending the economy into a tailspin in the latter half of that year.

As a number of economists are coming to realize, any economic recovery could be strangled by rising gas prices. The underlying factors are still there - peak oil, exacerbated now by slackening investment in production. Any hint of recovery is going to send gas prices soaring.

So tell me again why we would NOT want to be investing in a form of transportation that is not dependent on the fluctuating price of oil? That could promote economic growth instead of throwing a drowning economy an anvil?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Mountain View Won't Join Peninsula Coalition

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At least not at this time, according to this report of last night's council meeting:

At a study session, council members discussed outreach efforts for high-speed rail and whether it should join the Peninsula Cities Consortium.

The consortium currently includes Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton, Burlingame and Belmont — cities that have been largely critical of the authority's plans for a major high-speed train running through the state.

Though no formal vote was taken, a small majority of the seven council members — including Mayor Margaret Abe-Koga and Council Members Tom Means, John Inks and Mike Kasperzak — said they were hesitant to join the consortium at this time.

Though consortium cities don't have to follow any particular viewpoint and are free to disagree with the other cities, Mountain View council members said they would rather stay independent.

"I'm not necessarily sure I want to have my voice drowned out or watered down by the other cities," Abe-Koga said.

The current member cities share essentially the same opinion of high-speed rail, Means said, and Mountain View would likely be outvoted on controversial issues.

Reading between the lines here, it sounds like Mountain View doesn't want to get locked into an anti-HSR NIMBY position as is being advocated by the Peninsula consortium. Good for them! It's nice to see cities along the Caltrain/HSR line understanding and welcoming the benefits of electrified, fast passenger trains, instead of blithely assuming in the face of all available evidence that the status quo is just fine and doesn't need to change; or assuming that there will magically appear the money to tunnel from Bayshore to Mountain View.

Not everyone on the Mountain View city council agreed with the inclination to stay out of the consortium, but even those who suggested the city participate did so out of a "rather be inside the tent than outside" mentality.

Still, I think the opponents of joining the consortium have it right. That Peninsula consortium has no real useful or productive purpose and is headed down a blind alley. They don't want an above-grade solution, but they are unwilling to admit the reality that a tunnel will cost too much money. So they'll ultimately be stuck fighting over whether to oppose the whole Caltrain/HSR project or whether to support it, instead of offering constructive feedback.

If that was the goal of the consortium - to explore ways to integrate an above-grade solution with the Peninsula corridor communities in the most effective ways possible - then the consortium would have a lot of value. But we all know that isn't its purpose. Mountain View is better off talking directly with the CHSRA, instead of wasting time on a consortium that is not likely to produce any productive outcomes given its current attitudes and composition.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Harry Reid Abandons Maglev for DesertXpress

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Some VERY welcome news from the LA Times:

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader and an ardent supporter of high speed rail systems, said today he no longer favors construction of a maglev -- or magnetic levitation -- train between Anaheim and Las Vegas.

Instead, the Nevada Democrat said he now favors a conventional high speed train between Victorville and Las Vegas -- a privately funded venture that is farther along in the planning process and cheaper to build than the maglev proposal, which has been studied for almost three decades.

“I”ve been working on this for 30 years," Reid said. "We’ve gotten nowhere. Maglev projects have been abandoned around the world. It’s time to stop talking and start doing something.”

One year ago today I posted one of my first criticisms of the maglev project, and in the 12 months since I have frequently called for Reid to abandon the maglev project and throw his considerable backing behind the much more realistic DesertXpress steel-wheel HSR proposal - which the Senate Majority Leader has finally done. Reid cited financial reasons for his decision:

Citing a recent Government Accountability Office study, Reid said he had lost confidence in the maglev project, which the report stated could cost up to $40 billion -- far more than originally estimated.

“Maglev is not a priority for me anymore,” Reid said. “We need to get people moving. The I-15 is not working.”

After the Republicans hammered him for asking for HSR stimulus funds for the train, Reid had a lot of incentive to drop the insanely expensive maglev plan. Now he is well-positioned to direct some (although probably not more than "some") HSR funds to the DesertXpress project.

This doesn't mean the maglev project is completely dead. It's just mostly dead. The Southern California Association of Governments still backs maglev, but I am doubtful how long that'll last. With Harry Reid switching to DesertXpress that means the Nevada political establishment will as well. And SCAG will be left alone in backing a maglev project with 20 years of history but no future at all.

The US needs a rail modernization project, not a great leap forward into the technologically and financially unknown. Until we've got steel wheel HSR up and functioning on the key corridors in the USA, maglev is going to have to remain a dream.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Sunday Afternoon Open Thread

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I'm headed to Portugal for two weeks this coming Thursday and am spending the day getting my preparations done. Our trip will take us all over the country, from Porto to Coimbra to Lisboa to Faro and the Algarve (where I'm hoping it won't yet be totally overwhelmed with British tourists). Not only will it be representative of the various regions of Portugal, but it's a trip that can be done via high speed rail. Comboios de Portugal operates the Alfa Pendular, a tilting train of the pendolino family. The trains have a top speed of 220 km/h (136 mph) which isn't exactly TGV or AVE speed, but certainly qualifies as a kind of HSR. It connects Porto to Lisboa (the nation's two largest cities) in about 2 hours. So I'll get to see the Portuguese HSR system in action, although before the planned upgrades of the Porto-Lisboa line to 300 km/h (to be completed by 2015) and before the HSR link from Lisboa to Madrid is completed (due in 2013).

Anyhow, enough about me. Two brief HSR items for this Sunday afternoon:

  • The FRA presentations from the Sacramento meeting have been posted online (h/t to Matt Melzer). Haven't yet had a chance to look these over, but if you do, be sure to offer your thoughts in the comments.

  • The Bay Area Council Economic Institute has proposed $7 billion in infrastructure stimulus for the region, including HSR-related projects such as upgrading Diridon Station.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Corridor of Death

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There is an unfolding and horrifying story coming out of Palo Alto that directly impacts not only the high speed rail project, but the whole community. In the last two months two students at Gunn High School have committed suicide by throwing themselves in front of passing Caltrains. Last night passersby helped stop a third student from doing the same:

The 17-year-old boy, a student at Gunn High School, apparently walked to the East Meadow Drive crossing at about 7:45 p.m. Thursday and was contemplating suicide when he his mother came on the scene, police Agent Dan Ryan said. The motorist saw the mother pleading with her son and stopped to help, as did a Palo Alto police officer, Ryan said.

Police called Caltrain dispatchers, and an approaching northbound train was stopped in Mountain View, Ryan said.

It's difficult for transit infrastructure to be designed in a way that can stop someone truly determined to kill themselves from doing so, as the Golden Gate Bridge and BART have discovered. That being said, this rash of suicides reminds us of the inherently dangerous nature of grade crossings where fast, heavy trains are operating. (Light rails and streetcars have potential issues - but then so does any other vehicle operated on the roads.)

This is particularly the case on the Caltrain corridor, where people are routinely hit or killed along the at-grade tracks, despite an intensive public education campaign by Caltrain.

So why are Palo Alto NIMBYs fighting to preserve such a deadly situation? I have less objection to those supporting a tunnel - they're being unrealistic, but aren't calling for the preservation of a clear untenable situation. For those who argue from a "tunnel or nothing" position, or who claim that the status quo should be preserved, I'd like to hear their thoughts on why the deadly corridor isn't worth doing something about.

Obviously grade separations on the Caltrain corridor aren't a cure for teen suicide, nor are they going to ensure that there is never a deadly accident of any kind ever again in Palo Alto. But shouldn't the death toll be as much a part of the conversation, if not moreso, than a bunch of people whining about property values?

Friday, June 5, 2009

Special Elections Have Consequences

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by Rafael

Future HSR feeder services cut back, raise fares

The San Francisco Chronicle reports today that Caltrain will raise fares and cut service:

The board took no action on the $99.4 million budget plan Thursday - that will come later this month or early next month - but voted unanimously to declare a fiscal emergency. That move allows the transit agency to bypass state environmental reviews and enact service cuts and fare hikes at an accelerated pace.
The decision follows similar ones by BART, SF Muni and AC Transit in the East Bay. Squeezed by cuts in the state budget, reduced commuter ridership and lower sales tax revenues at the county level, all of these bureaucrats essentially have no choice but to increase revenue and/or cut services to plug rapidly expanding holes in their respective budgets.

Down south, Metrolink is also raising fares, but LA Metro will maintain both fares and service levels in FY2010. Indeed, it boasts of service enhancements, even as it cuts expenses by $130 million and taps into reserves. Note that many of these "enhancements" are actually cuts in selected bus routes.

NCTD also intends to maintain both service levels and (most) fares in the coming fiscal year, having already implemented cuts and fare hikes in the current one. MTS in San Diego has passed a framework budget but warns of further cuts to come as it fills in the details.

The mixed picture suggests that Southern California, long considered a bastion of the automobile, now actually has a mass transit network in better fiscal health than the Bay Area. However, the reprieve will only be temporary if the recession last longer than expected.

Special elections have consequences

Amtrak California aka Caltrans' Division of Rail is funded by the state of California, which is all but bankrupt. Since voters rejected a delicate compromise in a complex package of propositions put to them last month, chances are subsidies for the Pacific Surfliner, Capitol Corridor, San Joaquin may well be slashed severely in coming weeks as lawmakers in Sacramento figure out how to balance their budget through cuts alone. Unfortunately, while service cuts and/or fare increases are required at multiple levels in the short term, they also set in motion a vicious circle of ever-decreasing ridership and ever-greater traffic on the state's highways. That's exactly the opposite of what is required for a sustainable recovery and population/economic growth in the long term.

Of course, California is hardly alone in its budget woes, but very few states require a 2/3 majority to pass a balanced budget. Considering its population now exceeds that of Canada, which requires just a simple majority, perhaps it's time to admit the obvious and amend the pertinent sections of the state constitution in 2010 such that the change is hard to reverse. You can either have high taxes and high-quality public services (e.g. dense transit networks at multiple distance scales) or, low taxes and few public services. The other permutations are simply not sustainable, there is no tooth fairy and also no prospect of reasonable compromise.

Having sole authority and responsibility for balancing the budget tends to concentrate the minds of politicians on both sides on drafting feasible, coherent multi-year policies instead of engaging in ideological trench warfare. In addition, there could well be a drop in the number of spending decisions taken via single-issue ballot propositions, especially expensive ones without a dedicated revenue stream. And yes, while I am in favor of California HSR, I do believe direct democracy was a bad way to get it off the ground. Such mega-projects ought to be proposed and promoted not by bureaucrats but by elected officials who are directly accountable to the people.

Turning a vicious circle into a virtuous one

Meanwhile, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood is trying to plug a hole of his own in the federal highway trust fund. With healthcare and electricity infrastructure high on the President's domestic agenda, it is possible the next major transportation bill won't be passed before the 2010 midterm elections. For now, expect Congress to kick the can down the road, i.e. to take on more debt rather than raise federal fuel taxes, a concept that is widely perceived as politically impossible. Then again, so was electing an African-American POTUS a couple of years ago.

However, at some point, both the state of California and the Obama administration will have to reconcile their lofty ambitions of green energy and transportation systems with the hard reality that investments in such infrastructure will only pay off if perpetuating the status quo becomes prohibitively expensive for private businesses and consumers alike. No pain, no gain. Both should cut other taxes if and when they can, but they really need to ramp up those on petroleum-based fuels to gradually reduce total vehicle-miles traveled per capita, to partially shield consumers from oil price volatility and, to boost the utilization rates of fixed-cost transit infrastructure (incl. bicycle paths).

Ironically, sharply higher gas prices are also exactly what the domestic auto industry needs to increase profits per sale after it sheds excess unit volume capacity in the context of its present restructuring effort. GM in particular is risking the farm - soon to be your farm - on its expensive E-Flex architecture, essentially electric drive with an "emergency" generator to extend the range.

Meanwhile, HSR already has a proven track record of returning operating surpluses after an initial ramp-up period, overseas and even in the Acela corridor. There is every reason to believe it will thrive without annual subsidies and perhaps even cross-subsidize local and regional connecting transit operations. In the long run, HSR will prove a far superior investment to paving over ever more land with asphalt, precisely because it promotes an alternative to land development patterns that rely on cheap oil while creating additional new opportunities for the US manufacturing sector.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

June CHSRA Board Meeting Today 10AM

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The monthly California High Speed Rail Authority board meeting will be held today at 10AM at Sacramento City Hall. The agenda can be found here and includes the following items:

  1. Swearing in of new board members Richard Katz (Governor’s appointee) and Russell Burns (Assembly Speaker's appointee) and reappointed board member David Crane (Governor's appointee).

  2. A staff presentation regarding coordination with Caltrans on the application for a major share of federal stimulus funding.

  3. An update on bills being considered by the Legislature for board discussion and possible action.

  4. Selection of a Program Management Oversight contractor.

  5. A presentation on the alternatives to be analyzed under the Environmental Impact Report and Statement in the Anaheim to Los Angeles Union Station Section, preliminary alternatives extending north from Union Station to State Route 134, and the schedule for completion of the Anaheim to Los Angeles Project EIR/EIS.

Can't make it to Sacramento for the meeting? Neither can I (I'm still in DC). But the CHSRA has promised to webcast the meeting at this link. Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Joe Biden: CA Well Positioned For HSR Stimulus

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I'm here in Washington, DC for the week for other business, and unfortunately I wasn't invited to the big HSR confab that Joe Biden and Ray LaHood held today with state leaders. But the outcome was further evidence that California's HSR project is in line for a big windfall this year from the HSR stimulus:

Though California is in the throes of a budget crisis, Vice President Joe Biden said Wednesday that the state's high-speed rail project is well-positioned to compete for a significant share of the $8 billion that the Obama administration set aside in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for rail lines.

..."The reason why California is looked at so closely -- it's been a priority of your governor, it's been a priority of your Legislature, they've talked about it, a lot of planning has been done," Biden said in a conference call with reporters.

The vice president said the administration wants "to get shovel-ready projects out the door as quickly as we can. . . . So California is in the game," he said.

This reinforces Ray LaHood's previous comments that CA is going to get a ton of HSR money from the federal government. Again, we don't quite know how much, but the amount is likely to be significant.

There was some debate back in 2008 and early 2009 about whether the promised federal commitment to HSR would actually materialize. Clearly, it has. Obviously that needs to be an ongoing commitment, and that is where the battle over the 2009 Transportation Bill will become so important. But with Barack Obama, Joe Biden and Ray LaHood, we seem to have the right team in place to ensure that the feds will follow through on HSR.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Ray LaHood's European Vacation

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US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has been touring European HSR systems in recent days and is coming away impressed:

Spain's bullet train system is a model to follow as America plans how to spend the money the government is injecting to stimulate the economy, the U.S. transportation secretary said Saturday....

The Spanish network is likely to interest the U.S. government because its specially designed, electrified tracks — first devised for the French TGV system — are not as expensive to lay and run as some German or Japanese alternatives.

And Spanish state-of-the-art tunneling technology has proved successful in boring efficiently through mountain ranges to reach the cities of Valladolid and Malaga.

LaHood met with Spain's Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to discuss how investing in such a train system could stimulate job creation in the U.S.

"Yesterday I traveled on a train at close to 350 kilometers (215 miles) per hour, the fastest I've ever ridden on a high-speed train," LaHood said. He said he had enjoyed a conversation and beverage aboard and found the experience very civilized.

"Our leaders have made the decision that America will have high speed rail," LaHood said.

As a longtime aficionado of the AVE system I am pleased, but not surprised, to see LaHood taking to the Spanish system. Because the Iberian Peninsula had its own rail gauge, Spain had to build all-new tracks using standard gauge for the AVE - meaning they have dedicated HSR tracks just as California will. Of particular interest is the tunneling technology Spain has employed, as The Transport Politic points out:

What is clear is that the distinctively Spanish obsession with using tunnel boring machines (TBM) seems to be a model for the Transportation Secretary; these semi-automated devices save on both time and cost in building underground rail corridors. For example, the 3.5 mile tunnel under downtown Barcelona, which is part of a larger project that will allow high-speed trains from central Spain to reach France, will only cost 180 million Euros to build. That’s far cheaper per mile than any similar U.S. tunneling project, and part of the explanation is the efficient use of those TBMs.

TBMs will be a godsend here in California where significant tunneling in the Pacheco Pass and Tehachapi Mountain areas will be needed to complete the system. Of course, I am sure that the Peninsula NIMBYs will seize on this as well as an argument that their tunnel is financially viable - which it probably isn't, and besides, they need to defend the position that their tunnel is more important than the all-important Pacheco and Tehachapi tunnels which are sorta necessary for the whole project to work as intended.

It's also possible that the tour is going to reconfirm for Ray LaHood the importance of adopting European safety standards for HSR trainsets. The FRA's weight rules need to be modernized - the current rules are an embarrassment and an impediment to proper HSR development in America. As the head of the Department that includes the FRA, LaHood is in a strong position to insist that the FRA enter the 21st century.

Perhaps the most important aspect of LaHood's visit is intangible - a renewed commitment to building European-style HSR here in America. Currently the only project that meets that standard is California's. I have every reason to believe this trip to France and Spain will bolster LaHood's demonstrated conviction that California's HSR project is deserving of robust federal support.

Monday, June 1, 2009

HSR Stimulus and Project Timetables

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The CHSRA's recent application to the US Department of Transportation for federal HSR stimulus money may wind up causing construction on the HSR project to begin not in the Central Valley as was originally planned, but in the Bay Area and Southern California, as this article from the Valley Voice explains. Keep in mind though that this doesn't mean the Central Valley is being left behind, but only that construction will commence slightly later, and that the Valley is still the key to the whole system:

High Speed Rail Authority spokesperson Kris Deutschman said it is true that both the northern and southern segments of the rail system are further along in the planning stage than the Central Valley, but what actually gets built first is yet to be determined. At one time, it was believed the Valley segment would be one of the first constructed.

However, earlier this month, the Authority approved a list of shovel-ready construction projects likely to qualify for $8 billion in federal stimulus funding for high speed trains.

According to the Authority, one of the project elements selected was the entire Los Angeles-to-Anaheim and San Francisco-to-San Jose corridors, where the Authority is expected to have completed the project level environmental documents this year and qualified and selected design build teams to begin construction of the sections by the 2012 deadline.

The Authority also selected a second stimulus project that would be the identification, selection and negotiation of right-of-way acquisition in the Merced-to-Bakersfield section, including the system's planned maintenance facility, but not the rail system.

That Merced-to-Bakersfield ROW is key because that's where the all-important train testing will occur:

Georgiana Vivian, with the Authority, told members of the Tulare Sunrise Rotary Club that because of the federal stimulus funding, the projects first considered “shovel ready” must be built first. Right now, the San Francisco-to-San Jose segment is by far the farthest along, with the Los Angeles-to-Anaheim segment second.

Vivian said construction on the Central Valley segment may not begin for another seven years, but Deutschman said that does not mean that portions of the Valley line could not be built sooner and there is a key reason at least a portion of the Valley line is important.

“We need to test trains on long stretches of flat land and the Valley would be best for that,” she said. Vivian said the timetable is to begin testing trains by 2015 and that the Authority must test the trains and tracks for three years before passengers can be carried. That means the earliest riders will be able to get aboard the high speed rail is 2018.

I think what Vivian meant to say was that construction on the full buildout of the Valley segment might not happen until 2015 or 2016, but that a test track will be built much sooner. As I understand it, that's about the same as what occurred with BART, where an East Bay test track was built in the late '60s even though the first segments of the system did not open until 1972, with the full buildout (as of the 1970s) not occurring until 1974.

The article also examines the status of a Visalia-Hanford station (the CHSRA is studying it but isn't committing to anything yet) and notes that Castle Airport near Merced is likely to be the location of the primary maintenance hub, with two smaller maintenance facilities "at either end" of the line (i.e. somewhere in the Bay Area and somewhere in SoCal). As to what we can expect from the stimulus:

Deutschman said the Authority should hear by the end of June if it is going to get any stimulus money, but it is confident some will come. When asked how many dollars the high speed rail might get, she replied, “All I'm hearing are billions.”

That sounds about right, given what we've heard from Ray LaHood. Just how many "billions" it'll be is an open question. I'd like to see something in the vicinity of $3 to $4 billion.