High-Speed Rail Advocate – March 2012 Issue

 

Message from Executive Director

The California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) Final Business Plan is due to be released in mid-March. The Governor and his board appointee Dan Richard are very busy restructuring the project to reduce costs as well as involving the major urban areas (the “bookends”) of the state much earlier than envisioned in the Draft Business Plan. Though we don’t know the full details yet, Californians For High Speed Rail (CA4HSR) is encouraged by recent reports that the Governor and Mr. Richard are working out deals in both the Los Angeles Area and the Bay Area to accelerate improvements to Caltrain and Metrolink corridors that lay the groundwork for high-speed rail (HSR), mostly likely by leveraging additional Proposition 1A bond funds along with various forms of local matching funds.

The basic premise of their efforts is to scale down the design in the urban areas while speeding up construction to significantly reduce cost. Additionally, by getting urban projects started now, more stakeholders will have skin in the game, building political support. Taken together, the project is much more likely to survive the current political and financial challenges we currently face. While we would have preferred a full-build out of HSR infrastructure in these urban corridors to happen as part of this project, we see the wisdom of the Brown/Richard approach and are fully backing it (though we will be monitoring the details so it is done intelligently to facilitate future capacity expansions projects as they become necessary). Please read our joint letter with our allies at the National Association of Railroad Passengers and the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, supporting the governor and urging more investment in the urban areas in the near-term.

This is what leadership looks like, and we hope that skeptical state legislators take their cue from Brown and Richard and lead California in the future by committing themselves to finding solutions to the challenges of the project rather exhibiting what we have seen far too much of – negativism, a lack of vision, and fear. We are not Wisconsin, Ohio or Florida. This is California and we expect our leaders to be bold and to reject short-term thinking that lacks any hope for a positive future.

In the months leading up to approval of the budget at the end of June, CA4HSR will be urging lawmakers (including many democrats) to resist a Tea-Party-Koch Brothers “declinist” agenda and approve the budget with full funding for HSR.  As a first step, we have expanded our partnership with rail advocacy organization around the country and set up a California-focused version of our Stand Up For Trains website. This tool will be extremely valuable in the coming months to getting these fence-sitters on board with HSR.

On another note, it has always struck me as strange that many California environmental leaders have yet to fully embrace HSR, though hopefully progress can be made to get more of their buy-in with the release of the Final Business Plan. From an environmental standpoint, it is a no-brainer – it will clean up the air because it is electrically powered with a commitment to run the system 100% on renewable energy, it will consume much less space than highway and freeway expansions will, and it a catalyst for transforming land-use patterns away from sprawl to city-center, dense development, thereby saving farmland and reducing auto-dependence. And of course, given that the transportation sector is the largest factor in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in California, it is an essential piece of achieving the necessary reductions of GHG to meet the requirements of AB 32 and SB 375. And it is on this last point that we need to heed the warning of the International Energy Agency (IEA). The IEA recently released some scary projections and are proclaiming that “delaying action is a false economy.” At this point, dithering is disaster. We must take some risks and rapidly and radically alter our infrastructure and do it with urgency if we are to mitigate the worst of what the IEA is predicting. Please take a momentum and read this article about the IEA alarming conclusions.

Quote of the month: ”The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.” – Bertrand Russell

Yes folks, we need to not buy into the relentless campaign of FUD (Fear, Doubt, Uncertainty) of opponents and believe in ourselves that HSR makes total sense, and that we must not delay, regardless of the short-term risks. The long-term risks of not moving forward are far greater.

Daniel Krause,

Executive Director, Californians For High Speed Rail

Feature Article: What Will Happen to High Speed Rail in California if We Don’t Proceed in 2012?

By Daniel Krause

Killing the HSR project by deciding not to move forward this year will not only necessitate construction of pollution-increasing highway and airport expansions, it will dramatically alter how HSR will be built in the future in California. Since HSR will have to happen regardless if we move forward now or not, due to population growth and environmental realities, I thought it might be useful to consider how a delay in developing a HSR system will change the nature of HSR permanently in California. It should be noted that the scenario I believe likely will be a greatly inferior one to the current proposal that prioritizes access to Central Valley cities. Rather than serving as a tremendous economic catalyst for our mid-sized Central Valley cities of Fresno and Bakersfield, as well as the growing Tulare County cities, these urban areas will continue to be isolated from the large economic engines located in Sacramento, the Bay Area, and the Los Angeles region by building HSR later. Additionally, environmental consequences will become much more severe by waiting to build HSR in terms of air pollution, global warming, sprawl/loss of farmland, and human health.

Minimal and Insignificant Improvements to the State Rail System for the Next 20+ Years

If we drop HSR now, after almost $1 billion in planning and a huge federal commitment of funds and time, our federal partners will have little inclination to work with California to improve intercity rail for at least 10-15 years. And why would the federal government want to work with California after being burned? In fact, in addition to the unspent federal HSR money California will have to return, the FRA will likely ask for a several hundred of millions in refunds of money we have already spent on planning as well as other costs associated with cancellation of the project. These refunds would have to come out of the state’s depleted general fund. This situation will leave us not only missing out on all the short- and long-term jobs and a further deterioration of our general fund, it will also cause the federal government to avoid funding California project for several years in the future as our governance system will be perceived as too risky to invest in.

After a decade or so, the federal government might be willing to fund small projects again, such as incremental improvements to Amtrak’s San Joaquin line. Such improvements will only come online within a 15- to 20-year timeframe and will only lead to minor time savings and to insignificant ridership increases (when compared to increases in transportation demand in the Central Valley). The 45-minute decrease in operating times that the Initial Construction Segment of the current HSR project will provide for the San Joaquin trains will not be achievable with these incremental sets of improvements. Additionally, we will be stuck with a bus connection to Los Angeles. This path is very underwhelming and will simply contribute to an ever-increasing congestion fiasco. Furthermore, the closing of the gap between Bakersfield and the Los Angeles Basin will simply not be affordable without a HSR project to leverage large amounts of funding. Ironically, the rail advocacy organization RailPAC criticizes the HSR project because it does not start by closing this gap, when the HSR project is the only feasible way to close the gap.

HSR Will Eventually Be Built, but Will Likely Go Down I-5, Continuing the Isolation of Central Valley Cities

Even if we cancel HSR today, it will become clear to the next generation that HSR is an absolute necessity and pressure created by massive congestion will compel the state to finally proceed. However, I don’t see HSR gaining the political strength to proceed for at least 20 years, potentially upward of 30 years. Remember, it has taken us 30 years to get the point we are today after the last effort to build HSR in California between Los Angeles and San Diego was cancelled in the early 1980s. If the massive effort and political capital already expended in today’s effort to build HSR fails, the result will be gun-shy politicians for decades to come who will be unwilling to touch a new HSR project. Rather, the aforementioned San Joaquin upgrades along with commuter upgrades will likely be all the state political system will be capable of.

When the time finally arrives to start another effort to build HSR, the conception of how we configure the system will need to be greatly altered due to the terrible land-use trends that exist in the Central Valley in terms of land consumption for sprawl. Over the next 20+ years, notwithstanding the temporary slowdown in development due to current economic situation, sprawl will continue to encourage larger and larger urbanized areas near the ROW required to bring HSR to city centers. Due to this, land costs will explode and impacts on residential neighborhoods and businesses will greatly increase, making HSR a much more costly and politically difficult proposition. Additionally, the memory of a failed effort to bring HSR to city centers in the Central Valley will make it politically difficult to attempt to construct HSR to the cities.

This is why the likely scenario is that a rebooted-HSR project will likely go end up going down the Interstate 5 corridor, which is already being promoted by various organizations and individuals. To be clear, while I see this is the likely scenario if we punt now, I think it is a tragic scenario for the environment and for tying the rapidly growing population centers of the Central Valley to the economic engines of the state. I have always held that the I-5 corridor is an absurd alignment because it bypasses population centers of the Central Valley. It is essentially people-free. Downtowns will continue to languish, sprawl pattern of land-use will continue, and ridership will plummet on the HSR system. It will also hurt businesses that could greatly benefit by relocating to the Central Valley in search of cheaper land costs, rents, etc.

However, for all the reasons mention above, we will likely have to accept this vastly inferior HSR system if we hold off building HSR. HSR will happen but there are massive costs to system efficiency and economic development by taking a risk-adverse stance now and hedging on moving forward. There are also the environmental costs of waiting 25 to 30 years to build the project. While we dither today, we will still have dramatically increase plans to widen freeways and expand airports. There is simply no way to avoid this reality. Pollution will continue to increase, asthma rates will continue to soar, and many additional deaths from automobile accidents will occur because we let fear get the better of us today. The world rewards boldness, and if we lack courage now, our children’s or grandchildren’s generation will end up with a necessary but less effective and transformative HSR system in California.

Central Valley Report

Hybrid Alignment Advocate by CA4HSR Adopted

In December, the CHSRA adopted the “hybrid” alignment between Merced and Fresno. This is great news, as this formally endorses the basic concepts contained in a proposal put forth by CA4HSR back in June of 2010.

Bay Area Report

Attorney General’s Decision Regarding the “Blended” Solution Pending

While negotiations regarding the “blended” HSR-Caltrain system on the Peninsula are proceeding, the California Attorney General’s Office still hasn’t given its opinion on whether the CHSRA has the legal right to pursue the “blended” system as the final-build in the San Francisco to San Jose project-level EIR/EIS. To be clear, regardless of the Attorney General’s determination, it will still be possible to implement the “blended” system as the first set of improvements for the coming decades. State Senator Joe Simitian and others on the Peninsula are demanding that in addition to building the “blended” system as the first set of improvements, that the “blended” system also be considered the “full-build out” scenario on the Peninsula in the project-level EIR/EIS. It appears the CHSRA has in concept agreed to work towards meeting both demands for a blended system design and the removal of a corridor-long 4-track system from the project-level EIR/EIS. The holdup to finalizing an agreement essentially boils down to how the Attorney General interprets the speed and capacity requirements for the Peninsula contained in Proposition 1A, and whether the “blended” system can meet these requirements. It is unclear why the Attorney General’s determination has yet to be issued, as it has been pending for many months now.

CA4HSR’s reading of Proposition 1A is that the blended system can in fact meet the requirements for speed and capacity. Furthermore, CA4HSR sees no reason why the “blended” system could not move forward as the solution for the next 20+ years, with further incremental improvements taking place after that if they become necessary (for example, maybe there would be money found in the Bay Area to pay for trenches in key locations). Regardless of the Attorney General’s final determination, we urge all parties to continue to pursue the blended system for the foreseeable future regardless of what is ultimately required to be included in the final project-level EIR/EIS. The Peninsula needs the improvements (and funding) the blended system will provide as much as the state needs HSR.

Fast Forward Proposal Pitched by San Francisco County Transportation Authority

The San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) recently pitched a new proposal to speed up construction of a “blended” HSR-Caltrain system between Transbay Transit Center and San Jose. Essentially their proposal mirrors much of what Caltrain and others have envisioned for “blended” system, including a mid-line passing track and electrification. The proposal differentiates itself by pushing harder to accelerate construction of the entire “blended” proposal, including the downtown extension (DTX) of Caltrain to the Transbay Transit Center, to begin within the next three years.

CA4HSR is encouraged that the SFCTA is taking a strong interest in moving construction forward on the DTX tunnel, mid-line passing tracks, and electrification. However, currently the proposal lacks a feasible funding strategy. It is unclear whether the SFCTA’s approach relies on taking money out of the Central Valley or if they have other funding sources in mind. The Governor and Dan Richard have made it clear that the $6 billion currently designated for the Central Valley is locked in and that any money going to the “bookends” will need to be additional money. Furthermore, any additional funds generated for the bookends are likely to be several billion dollars short of completing the DTX tunnel and the mid-line passing tracks.

The proposal also relies on utilizing cleared environmental documents for both electrification and the DTX project. However, at the same time the SFCTA is calling for a redesign and possible realignment of the DTX project, which would require a revised EIR. Furthermore, Caltrain understands that they need to update their EIR for electrification to ensure the project is designed with HSR in mind, which CA4HSR adamantly supports.

Overall, the Fast Forward Proposal is useful in building momentum to accelerate major improvements in the San Francisco-San Jose corridor. However, much more thought needs to be given on how to realistically implement the Fast Forward Proposal.

Despite Movement Toward a “Blended” Caltrain-HSR System, Palo Alto Votes Unanimously to Support Terminating HSR Project

The City of Palo Alto has now formally opposed the HSR project even though there is now a solid understanding that most of the Peninsula will not have elevated track. It is ironic that just as significant progress is made toward their goals, they harden their position against the project.

Confusion Regarding the Revised Program Level EIR/EIS Leads to Misunderstanding Regarding Commitment to the Blended System

Unfortunately, there is some confusion about the recently released Revised Program EIR/EIS. Many on the Peninsula are upset that the Revised EIR/EIS still shows a four-track build out. However, until the Attorney General’s determination regarding the legality of the blended system is rendered, the Authority is legally obligated to maintain plans for the higher capacity, full built-out in the environmental document. Some are claiming the Authority is being two-faced, and that this shows the “blended” is a fraud. In reality, the Authority is sticking to the law while they negotiate a “blended” system. Furthermore, the project-level EIR/EIS can incorporate the “blended” system as the full-build out if they get the blessing of the Attorney General.

Los Angeles Area Report

Grapevine Alignment Abandoned

In January, CHSRA officials voted to drop consideration of a Grapevine alignment, based on a conceptual study they released. The CHSRA concluded that sticking with the Palmdale alignment provided better connectivity and provided more flexibility for crossing the mountains with the least environmental impacts. Further, the cost savings of the Grapevine alignment – between $1 billion to $1.5 billion – were determined not worth it due to reduced connectivity and environmental concerns. CA4HSR is relieved at this decision. While CA4HSR had maintained an open mind, especially if savings were determined to be very significant, we were very concerned about losing good connections to Antelope Valley and Las Vegas, as well as losing a significant amount of support for the HSR project in Los Angeles County.

Regional Council of the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) Pursue MOU with the California High-Speed Rail Authority for Early HSR-Related Investments

SCAG and the CHSRA have agreed to pursue an MOU that will direct approximately $1 billion of Proposition 1A funds to improve rail corridors in southern California with the goal of creating their own version of a “blended” rail system with HSR. Negotiations on the final form of this MOU are still in progress. It is also not clear yet where the matching funds will come from to leverage Proposition 1A money. Stay tuned for more details on this, which will likely be contained in the Final Business Plan due for release in mid-March.

Federal/National Report: Spotlight on HSR Developments in Washington D.C. and Beyond

Surprise! There is New Federal Money Available for High Speed Rail in FY 2012

It turns out that buried in the TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) Discretionary Grant program, there is $100 million set aside in the for high-speed and intercity passenger rail projects. The TIGER program became law when the FY 2012 Appropriations Act was enacted. Admittedly the $100 million is paltry and it is likely some of this money will go to non-HSR intercity rail projects. However, it does show that even in the bleakest times for federal funding for HSR, there are efforts to keep things moving forward, however small, until we get a less radicalized Congress.  

State Capitol Report: Spotlight on HSR Developments in Sacramento and Beyond

Good News! – Restricted FY 2011-12 HSR Funds Released by Legislature, Focus Now Moves to 2012-13 Budget and Sale of HSR Bonds

As part of the deal to provide full funding for the CHSRA for FY 2011-12, State Senators Alan Lowenthal and Joe Simitian had inserted language that the release of approximately half this money be contingent upon the Legislature’s approval of the business plan. Given the initial positive reviews of the draft business plan by legislative leaders, the Legislature has quietly signed off on releasing these funds. This is great news for the project, as advocates can now focus on obtaining the much larger pot of money needed to begin construction of HSR during FY 2012-13. In addition to convincing the legislature to move forward with this funding, bond sales must be moved forward by State Treasurer Bill Lockler, who at times expressed skepticism towards the HSR project and has threatened to not sell the HSR bonds. Luckily, Governor Jerry Brown is aggressively pursuing the project which will help in getting this money approved. CA4HSR will be spending a great deal of energy in the coming months to ensure full funding moves forward to allow for right-of-way purchases and construction can move forward expeditiously this year.

Viewpoints

(Please note that the opinions and views expressed in our Viewpoints section are not the official policy of Californians For High Speed Rail but are included to provide our members and others interested in high-speed rail an opportunity to contribute constructive ideas to the overall dialogue).

The Hanford Alignment Compromise

By Paul Herman, CA4HSR Member

Since 2008 this pot has been boiling… and while the San Joaquin Valley is split in its support for high-speed rail, I believe a compromise can be made between the Kings County farmers and the California High-Speed Rail Authority. A new alignment that strides west of Hanford and takes less farmland than does current plans for a swinging alignment east of the city should be adopted. The western alignment would only add six miles for drivers headed west on Highway 198 from Visalia or Tulare to a relocated HSR station west of Hanford.

As you can see on the map, the new “Hanford West Bypass” parallel’s north and south roads, and while it is on an angle for about 10 miles until it reconnects with the BNSF, it does not carve curved alignments for many miles through prime agricultural land. Also, this alignment will return quicker from deviating away from the jagged BNSF ROW that goes straight through Hanford. This new alignment is more of the “value-engineering” that exiting CEO Roelof van Ark has brought to this project.

A transportation hub can be formed around a HSR station located on the west side of Hanford. Such a station, located adjacent to the San Joaquin Valley Railroad tracks, can possibly bring future passenger service for the ‘Central Cities’ of Hanford, Visalia, and Tulare. Facts important to this alignment shift include the minimizing of impacts on existing roads, and it impacts fewer acres of agricultural and natural resources (including wetlands). The alignment shift will also possibly affect less residential sound receptors on the undeveloped west side as well.

This is a fair and solid compromise that I believe will save money for the project, and the local economy as well.

Paul Herman can be reached at phfresno@gmail.com.

 

About The High-Speed Rail Advocate

The High-Speed Rail Advocate is the official e-newsletter of Californians For High Speed Rail (CA4HSR).

Contributors to this E-Newsletter: Daniel Krause and Paul Herman

Editor: Daniel Krause

About Californians For High Speed Rail

Californians For High Speed Rail (CA4HSR) is a grassroots, statewide coalition of HSR supporters advocating for the HSR project approved by California voters in November 2008. Founded in 2005, we exist to educate, inform, and organize Californians about ways they can help make high-speed rail a reality in the Golden State.

As a non-profit group united by our passion to bring high-speed rail to California, we rely on the help of like-minded volunteers to carry out our mission. We welcome article ideas, submissions and donations from our members and supporters. Contact Sharon Sim-Krause at sharon@ca4hsr.org or 415.658.5322 on ways you can make a difference.

Become a Member of CA4HSR today!

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