Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Will Dianne Feinstein Vote for High Speed Rail?

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

Today's San Jose Mercury News includes a fantastic op-ed by State Senator Dean Florez (Fresno) and Erin Steva of CALPIRG, calling on US Senator Dianne Feinstein to support the $4 billion for high speed rail currently pending in the Senate:

Sen. Dianne Feinstein has established herself as a high-speed rail champion. She has another great opportunity to stand up for high-speed rail, since she serves on the House-Senate conference committee that will finalize the bill. Its eventual choice will send an important signal to the country about Congress' commitment to high-speed rail as an innovative solution to our nation's transportation challenges.

Sen. Florez and Steva lay out the case for federal HSR spending:

A $4 billion federal investment would buy new, high-performance locomotives and passenger cars built in the U.S., better signals, track and grade-crossing upgrades and removal of rail bottlenecks — all resulting in faster and more convenient travel. In California, it will create hundreds of thousands of quality jobs in fields that have experienced losses over the last decade, including the technology, construction and engineering sectors....

Americans are turning to passenger rail in record numbers. Rail travel ridership increased each of the last six years, while vehicle miles traveled for cars and trucks has fallen over the last two years for the first time since the oil crisis of the 1970s.

It's a strong argument for HSR spending, especially since putting $4 billion in this year's bill will set a precedent to maintain that level of funding in future budget cycles. Whereas a $1.2 billion amount, as the Senate seems to prefer, would make it more difficult to expand HSR funding, especially in future years when there is likely to be increased pressure to slash federal spending.

It's not the usual way of operating for Democrats, but they would be wise to push as many good things through now, and set a precedent that will be more difficult to undo should they lose control of Congress or the White House in the next decade. Let's hope Senator Feinstein comes through with $4 billion for HSR.


Anonymous said...


Really !! Your headline --

"Will Dianne Feinstein Vote for High Speed Rail?"

Come on --- she is your biggest backer --- what kind of come on is that?

Rafael said...

@ anon @ 4:41pm -

I'll warrant that the headline is a tease, but this blog does not receive financial backing from anyone.

What's at stake here is the sum to be reserved for HSR capital projects nationwide in the regular federal budget in each of the next five years. The House version now calls for $4 billion, the Senate version for $1.2 billion. President Obama had originally asked for $1 billion.

Multiply by 5 years, so what we're really talking about is $20 billion vs. $6 billion. Sen. Feinstein serves on the conference committee that must now hammer out a compromise on this and other aspects of the two versions. Will the President tip the scales in favor of HSR over roads at the last moment, as he did on the ARRA bill?

These funds would be on top of the $1.5 billion already allocated for HSR in H.R.2095(110th) a.k.a. PRIIA and the $8 billion in H.R.1(11th) a.k.a. ARRA a.k.a. the stimulus bill.

Only the stimulus bill permits a federal share of up to 100%, at the discretion of applicants. Surprise, surprise, USDOT received requests totaling $57 billion, seven times the available sum. For example, Florida cheekily wants federal taxpayers to foot the entire $2.5 billion bill for the Tampa-Orlando Airport HSR project. California is asking for even more, $4.7 billion, but it would match that dollar for dollar via the sale of prop 1A(2008) state bonds.

PRIIA and - presumably - the budget line item limit the federal share to 80%. Competition for these funds may be less intense since many states will struggle to close the gap.

Florida, California and DesertXpress are the only candidates that have environmental reviews for big-ticket express HSR systems in an advanced stage, though Amtrak has drafted a $10.2 billion plan to upgrade rather than merely maintain the NEC.

Note that DesertXpress has said it would seek federal loan guarantees rather than outright grants.

Anonymous said...

I have no doubt that Feinstein will back everything and anything HSR - the more the better. She's proving that by sending the most condescending of copy and paste form letters back to her democratic supporters who are writing to express their concerns about California's high speed rail Authority, the Authorities poorly conceived plans and their slimy processeses - and her response? She suggests we write with our concerns to CHSRA. (She even provides an address.)

She's going reap exactly what she's sewing here - which is 1) political backlash in the form of turning democrats into republicans real fast, and b) a political/fiscal scandal that will make Palin's 'bridge to nowhere' look like a brilliant political move. She's made it clear that she doesn't give a rats hairy behind about her California constituents on this. She's way above that now.

Anonymous said...

anonymous @ 7:02 is on target

I used to be a yellow dawg democrat but the party is not interested in my demographic any more. The other party caters to plutocrats, libertarian-libertines, militarists and holy rollers. Not my crowd either.

So I'll just throw my vote away on minuscule parties, And of course I'll be voting against the water bond to get even for Palmdale.

Observer said...

And California's probably the only project who's environemental review just got officially shot down in court yesterday.

But in heck, why should legitimate environmental review hold up the force-feeding of billions into a darn respectably bloated boondoggle? Sure, send us a few billion - we have not a freakin clue how much this thing will cost or where we'll put it, nor what kind of raping of the environment will ensure, but just send it on down, and the sooner the better. ITS URGENT.

Unknown said...

Your Anons are so dramatic! HSR is not the end of America as we know it. Things are gonna be ok Anons, they're gonna be ok.

Anon 7:02 - what did you expect her to write you? A detailed play by play of how she was going to approach asking for HSR funding, and her motives behind it? When constituents write letters that need a response they hand it to some intern, dont take it personal. Senator Feinstein is not in on every planning decision, she's just trying to support getting stimulus money for California. She doing what all good senators do.

Anon 8:24 - You seem be against everyone and everything. Im for being fiscally responsible, but why not take advantage of the stimulus money while there is still time? Its gonna be spent on something, why not transportation alternatives for California.

Anon 8:59 - The court ruling was a minor hiccup in the big picture. Its not gonna derail the project, imho.

Rafael said...

O/T -

heads up from the San Mateo Daily:

Parsons Brinkerhoff VP Hal Kassoff will explain CSS [Context Sensitive Solutions] tomorrow [Nov. 6] during the Peninsula Cities Consortium meeting at 8:45 a.m. The meeting is open to the public and will take place in the Council Chambers at Burlingame City Hall, 501 Primrose Road.


The idea is to develop the vertical alignment alternatives for the entire SF peninsula corridor in a single process in which all 17 cities and the general public participate.

Evidently, there is a lot of disagreement between cities on the preferred option and a knowledge gap on what is technically feasible in railroad construction.

In particular, it seems a lot of local officials don't yet fully understand the technical - never mind economic - implications of demanding tunnels in suburbia: creek crossings, changes in water table, ventilation (esp. for UPRR/Amtrak diesel locomotives), fire risk/escape routes, tunnel boom, required width at grade level during construction, logistics of spoil and tunnel lining segments during construction etc.

Some local politicians are already discounting the massive advantages that full grade separation and/or the availability of a nearby HSR station will bring to their communities, preferring instead to focus narrowly on revenue from local land deals. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Rafael said...

O/T -

airlines are beginning to offer WiFi on board, trying to gauge demand and future price points.

We've discussed the need for WiFi on board before, but so far CHSRA hasn't grasped just how significant providing it will be for the system's modal share.

If passengers can work in business class on a train, it becomes (almost) completely irrelevant if the trip takes 2h40m or 3h even. Employers and employees will both prefer this even to WiFi-equipped flights, because you spend a greater fraction of the downtown-to-downtown trip actually sitting down in a comfy chair with a large work area.

However, that extra 20 minutes is hugely significant for the lateral alignment of the tracks, noise immissions in built-up areas and the associated resistance to/mitigation measures needed for getting the line built in the first place.

CHSRA and Parsons Brinkerhoff please take note: the assumption of 20th century economists that time spent in transit is wasted no longer applies. WiFi on board is a disruptive technology, you need to embrace it early and aggressively. Otherwise, you risk ending up with an overpriced infrastructure that your highest-margin customers will eschew.

Leisure travel = public service.
Business travel = profit.

Unknown said...

If passengers can work in business class on a train, it becomes (almost) completely irrelevant if the trip takes 2h40m or 3h even. Employers and employees will both prefer this even to WiFi-equipped flights, because you spend a greater fraction of the downtown-to-downtown trip actually sitting down in a comfy chair with a large work area.

Working is important on the return trip, but as someone who used to commute by plane between LA and SF, being able to get 2.5 hours of uninterrupted sleep on monday morning on the way to work, versus only about 35-40 minutes of uninterrupted sleep in between cab rides, standing in line at security and running to and from the gates, that's just as big a deal.

Hopefully they have "quiet cars" with no cell phones allowed.

Rafael said...

@ AndyDuncan -

SNCF actually offers a quiet class (iDzen) on its iDTGV services. Staff actually checks periodically and asks anyone making too much noise to switch to a seat in the iDzap class.

I see no reason why California HSR couldn't offer something similar in economy alongside business class on the same train.

Unknown said...

@Rafael: Perfect.

Unknown said...

@Rafael: and apparently I should start packing glowsticks and ecstasy for the "night" train. wtf?

Rafael said...

@ AndyDuncan -

well, at least they have a night train...

Only the cafe car is turned into a (lame) disco. Everyone else gets to sleep in their seat. College students will put up with the discomfort, since the tickets are dirt cheap.

missiondweller said...

Of coarse she will support HSR but it does raise a good question. How do we keep the momentum going when Republicans recapture the House and/or presidency?

I'm a republican and a HSR supporter. I don't see it as a partisan issue, just good public policy. I see it as benefiting both the urban and rural areas that it will serve.

Long term the best way, I think, to keep momentum is to ensure CAHSR is a success both in function and financially. As the first American true HSR, it will likely determine by its success or failure whether more money is spent on more HSR or not.

Alon Levy said...

Mission Dweller: if you want HSR to survive in a Republican administration, push for more business-oriented Republicans who support better rail service, like John Mica, rather than for people who hate trains, like John McCain.

Anonymous said...

Neo-cons are going nowhere Fox news propaganda or not..the only reason they won anything this week is the usual lack of voter turnout execpt for the "old" Mccain type people that dont work any more and always vote ..HSR is the one thing that there is some dual party support..outside of the Reason/Cato
oil mouthpieces and the standard backward types

Alon Levy said...

Anon, if you want to get into the politics, the reason the GOP won was that the Democrats ran bad candidates. Deeds never connected to the NoVa suburbs, whereas McDonnell ran on carefully tailored local issues like transportation and housing Guantanamo detainees in local jails. In New Jersey, Corzine was corrupt and, even when he seemed to gain from Christie's all-negative campaign, screwed it up by making fun of Christie's weight.