Momentum Builds for CA High Speed Rail

CBS Looks at CA’s HSR Application via California High Speed Rail Blog

Now that the first round of applications to the federal government for the $8 billion in High Speed Rail which means it’s more than past time to make the case that California deserves more than its share of those funds.  California has two applications in to the the USDOT for two segments of the project that should eventually connect San Francisco to San Diego.

The first is local and would connect Los Angeles to Anaheim.  The cost for completing that segment is $3 billion.  The second corridor would connect San
Francisco to San Jose at somewhere between $4 billion and $5 billion.  The L.A. to Anaheim line could be completed by as early as 2018.

The case has already been made that California is ahead of the game when it comes to planning for High Speed Rail.  In addition to having a route ready to go, last November voters approved a $9.9 billion bond for the project that will cover nearly one quarter of the $40 billion project.

In fact, California is so far ahead of other states, that The Business Insider, a publication that until recently had been questioning the potential success of sending money towards High Speed Rail, suggested that instead of helping every deserving project around the country the federal government should send all of the money to California.  They propose that California’s High Speed Rail project could be the "interstate system" of this "great recession."

If we built the train system proposed for California, we would get
real, measurable, results. If the train is a flop, at least we’ll know
for sure. If it’s a raging success, then we can choose the next part of
the country in which to build a better train system.

However, if we give a $76 million to North Carolina, and $28 million to Pennsylvania, what will really learn?

We’ve seen a lot of controversy created against the concept of High Speed Rail by east-coast columnists who can’t think outside of the box.  Yesterday, DC Streetsblog’s Ryan Avant took apart a Washington Post columnist who used the bizarre argument that America didn’t have the density to support High Speed Rail as they do in Europe.  While Avant blew that argument out of the water nationally, the California High Speed Rail Blog took it a step further and looked at the density of the counties that would be served by High Speed Rail when it comes to California.

San Francisco County – 9,999
San Mateo County- 1,575
Santa Clara County- 1,303
Merced County- 109.2
Fresno County- 143.1
Tulare County- 76.3
Kern County- 81.3
Los Angeles County 2,344.1
Orange County- 3,607.5

average: 2,138 persons per square mile over nine counties served by HSR.

This is just for the San Francisco to Irvine section, but I think we can safely lay density to rest as an argument.

  • mattlos


    Today was not the final deadline for all ARRA applications. Today was the deadline for Track 1 (project level) applications.

    October 2nd is the deadline for Track 2 applications, which is where the bulk of HSR requests will come in.

  • DJB

    Perhaps we would be better off spending our scarce resources trying to green air travel, since HSR can only draw people from planes in certain medium-distance corridors and dealing with airlines’ emissions seems to be an indispensable part of addressing climate change whether HSR is built or not.

    I have to say, I voted against CA’s HSR bond, largely because it seems unlikely to me that we are serious about paying the money back (either through tax increases or spending cuts). I think if people want something, they should generally pay as they go, or at least identify a politically realistic way of paying for it.

    Running an economy on fossil fuels is unsustainable, but so is perpetually going into debt with no plan to pay the money back.

  • Bloix

    I don’t understand. Anaheim is 30 miles from LA. We’re going to spending 9 years and $3 billion to build a 200 mph train to go 30 miles? What do we expect to learn from that?

  • Karen

    That guy has some bad math.

    The true avg density is the total population/total square miles. The way he calc’d it SF’s very high density skews it the overall density very much higher. I used the numbers from the gov’t estimates for 2008 here

    The numbers should be
    Total population:18,540,977
    Total area in sq. miles 27493.11
    Total density per sq mile: 674.39
    Total density per sq km: 260.38

  • Bloix is right; shit, build a Danish style bike superhighway between the two for 1/1000th of the cost and use the rest of the cash to pay off the state’s debt.

  • mattlos

    “I don’t understand. Anaheim is 30 miles from LA. We’re going to spending 9 years and $3 billion to build a 200 mph train to go 30 miles? What do we expect to learn from that?”

    another FYI…

    As per page 12 of the LA to Anahiem AA, top speeds for that particular corridor will be 125 mph.

    125 mphis slightly better than the top speed of the current metrlink locos, which could travel at 110 mph on a sealed corridor if they were not restiricted by the FRA.

  • Matt

    What I don’t understand is how we can spend over $1B on 10 miles of one freeway lane on the 405 – that is one lane in one direction, not in both directions, and no one bats an eye.

    However, when it is proposed to spend a few billion on electric rail, which the rest of the industrialized world uses and will help reduce our economically destructive habit of using huge amounts of foreign oil from hostile governments, then it doesn’t make sense to people. What am I missing?

  • John Thacker

    What am I missing?

    Well, for one thing, it wouldn’t save that much energy. (See page 14 of chapter 2.) A car on average uses 5,517 Btu per vehicle mile. The average load factor for all vehicle travel is estimated at around 1.6 persons/vehicle, for an energy intensity of 3,514 Btu per passenger mile. Another source here.

    Intercity rail uses 2,516 Btu per passenger mile; the numbers are similar for other rail modes.

    However, intercity car travel has higher load factors, whereas city driving, and especially commuting, are worse. That’s why the CA High Speed Rail Commission itself used a number of 2.4 passengers per car on intercity driving on Interstates.

    If you use 2.4 passengers per vehicle, then cars actually look more energy efficient than rail, at 2299 Btus/passenger mile. This is probably not exactly accurate, though, as people are probably somewhat more likely to use their SUVs and vans in long distance travel too, though I certainly see enough SUVs and vans driven by commuters.

    If the President’s proposed dramatic improvements in MPG occur, then cars would definitely look more efficient than rail.

    Of course, you can get fuel from things other than oil– but the other HSR(ish) proposals around the country (not California) use diesel, so that doesn’t help compared to electric powered HSR that might use nuclear or coal or hydroelectric power.

    Another reason is that road construction at the federal level is paid out of gas taxes. At the state level it’s mostly gas taxes. Localities use other sources, but people get a lot less upset about being taxes for a local road, on average, than on spending for some road or rail all the way across the country.

    Would the rest of the country complain if California used its own money for rail, or if it shifted its own highway money to rail?

  • Mark

    We had the Atomic Bomb built and used it against the Japanese, but we can’t build a friggin high speed train for the people of California because nobody has the balls to push this project thorough. I got to get the hell out of this Country: too many idiots!

  • Within the group of rail supporters are two different subgroups.

    First there are the incrementalists who support this idea of upgrading our current lines to 110, maybe even 125 MPH. Small steps. Getting LOSSAN down to two hours between LA and San Diego, for example.

    Second, there is the group that supports this idea of 220 MPH bullet trains, dedicated HSR track and all that jazz. They are envious of Asia’s and Europe’s bullet trains and can’t see why we can’t do the same.

    Personally, I would be fine with either outcome. Perhaps we should do both. I don’t know.

    My main sticking point with the incrementalists, especially the ones who point to TGV’s setup of shared trackage, is that over there the lightweight bullet trains are sharing track with other lightweight electric trains. If we did shared trackage here, the FRA would mandate that the high speed train be weighted down like Acela was if they were to share track with current Metrolink, Amtrak and freight trains.

    Another point I want to make is that a similar debate happened before Japan’s bullet trains became a reality. There were two groups, the one that wanted standard gauge high speed trains and the other that wanted to upgrade narrow gauge tracks to higher speeds. They didn’t see the need for a dedicated track. It was too expensive. Over there the Shinkansen boosters were called dreamers.

    But it happened, and it worked. Now maybe America isn’t Japan, but then bullet trains worked in Spain, whose demographics are more like California’s than Japan’s.

    But I find myself being pulled over to the incrementalist side sometimes. A two hour San Diego to LA Surfliner sounds mighty tempting. I just don’t know who to believe anymore. :)

  • DJB

    For the record, I also oppose the widening of the 405. I’d rather see that money spent on the intra-regional transit system or pedestrian and bike improvements.

    Calling people who disagree with you “idiots” is not only a tactic that is guaranteed to fail in convincing skeptics (since nobody agrees with people who attack them, for psychological reasons), it also misses an opportunity to engage in meaningful discussion about legitimate concerns.

    In a negotiation we should always remember to separate the people from the problem (negotiators are people first and must be respected for anything productive to happen). I understand that there are many intelligent people who advocate for HSR, but there are also many intelligent people who are concerned about it or against it.

    When you vote for an HSR bond you are voting for two things: the HSR and the strategy of paying for it with borrowed money. I think a critique of the method of bond financing (especially in the context of CA’s dysfunctional political system) has been missing from the debate. Also, if Samuelson’s arguments against HSR aren’t convincing here, why don’t we engage with arguments against HSR that appeal to our values more (part of what I’ve been trying to do)?

  • Alek F

    I am very excited about the project moving forward!
    I’m glad it’s finally happening in the U.S.,
    the country that has been obsessed with driving and cars!
    I am even more glad that finally (FINALLY!) people are switching away from their pathetic “car-only” mentality, onto other, better alternatives!
    Rail travel has been neglected for too long in the U.S.,
    and hopefully – now, with the new vision of High-Speed Rail, hopefully the U.S. will start catching-up to the rest of the world!
    Rail travel will not only boost our economy and provide better mobility options,
    but they will tremendously improve our social life and our health (yup, cars are notorious for ruining both our health and social lives. As a sad example – Los Angeles, the city that was meant to be “car capital of the world” has become the Ugliest capital of the world, with no architecture or decent pedestrian environment – for that same reason, because LA was re-built for cars! What a shame!).
    So, I salute the High-Speed Rail Authority!
    (and – a message to those NIMBY’s and other opposing groups, including so-called environmentalists – please, stay out of the way!)
    The High-Speed Rail WILL be built!
    For the benefit of all!

  • David Galvan

    @mattlos, you said:
    “125 mphis slightly better than the top speed of the current metrlink locos, which could travel at 110 mph on a sealed corridor if they were not restiricted by the FRA.”

    It is irrelevant what metrolink trains COULD do if they weren’t restricted by the FRA. They are, and are appropriately limited in speeds given they share track with freight trains and have at-grade crossings with streets/walkways. The HSR would be dedicated for high speed passenger trains only, and would be completely grade separated, and thus would not be restricted to lower speeds. Also, the metrolink trains are diesel fueled trains. The HSR will be electric powered. So there are both speed and environmental benefits to using HSR in this corridor.

    It sounds like you support the idea of high speed rail, but don’t support the bond system of paying for it. I pose the following question: what system of payment would you support that could provide billions of $ in capital in a short (5-10 year) time frame? Even the stimulus package is essentially a form of bond payment, as it is dumping a bunch of money into infrastructure and capital, with no clear plans as to how it will be payed back.

    Two things about this: 1.) we shouldn’t forget that infrastructure has value in and of itself. We shouldn’t expect every project we spend money on to “pay for itself” in terms of the monetary revenue it brings to the state, but in terms of the benefits it brings to the society. While the HSR systems in Europe and Asia bring in enough revenue to cover their operating costs so they are not running at a loss, from what I’ve read none (or at least few) of them have brought in enough revenue (yet) to cover the initial capital investment to construct the rail lines and build the associated infrastructure. Yet this does not mean they should not have been built. The same is true of many large scale infrastructure projects.

    2.) The bond system has worked well for large-scale infrastructure projects in the past, especially in periods of poor economy because they also help to boost the economy. The Golden Gate Bridge was built using a bond measure during the great depression. Tolls allowed it to pay off the initial investment cost of the bonds, plus interest, by the early 1970’s, and now the tolls provide for maintenance of the bridge and revenue for the local region. The system is a good way to get a bunch of money up front to build the infrastructure, and then pay it off over a period of decades. The coronado bridge in San Diego is another example, it was built in 1969, funded by a bond measure, and required a toll until just a few years ago, at which point the toll was discontinued because it had finally paid for itself.

    HSR is not an innovation about which we need to be cautious or timid, nor is the method of paying for it. Both the technology and the funding mechanism suggested for CA HSR are tried and true. HSR has been proven to be competitive and successful in Japan, France, Germany and Spain, and (in the case of Japan, has been operating for 45 years). The bond funding mechanism has been used many times in the past as well, even in the United States and during hard economic times as a form of bond-based, deficit spending. The benefits to having operating regional HSR are significant, both economically (business trips become cheaper/faster between No Cal and So Cal using HSR) and environmentally (just making the trains electric results in higher energy efficiency and lower carbon emissions, even if the electricity is provided by non-renewable resources, and the trains can continue to operate during a shift toward more renewable electric power generation). This system will encourage inter-regional use of public transit, and local improvement of intra-regional public transit. I see no reason not to do this. All the libertarian arguments against it fall flat when you look at the success that these systems have met in every country in which they have been implemented.

  • DJB

    My concern about bonds is largely rooted in the special experience of California politics. Since statewide tax increases require politically difficult supermajority support, and Democrats dominate the legislature, making spending cuts difficult, one has to wonder where the money to repay the bonds will come from.

    I actually have a similar concern with regard to the ARRA (“stimulus package”). Theoretically, it can be a good idea to borrow during a recession to stimulate the economy and then pay off the debt when times are better. As a practical matter, even the federal government has shown a disturbing reluctance to balance budgets, even across the business cycle, especially under G.W. Bush and Reagan.

    Perhaps a statewide sales tax could get the job done for HSR. This system won’t be built overnight, probably not even in 5-10 years, so we do have some time to let revenue come in, opening the system in segments.

    Honestly, I’m torn on HSR, still trying to decide if I think it’s worth it or not. As far as business trips go, wouldn’t a scheme to incentivize telecommuting be better for the environment than HSR? I’m constantly amazed that long distance face-to-face business trips happen at all anymore. The internet and webcams seem to have made the practice virtually unnecessary. We should be happy about that since it could mean lower costs for businesses and less pollution, if only we would take better advantage of the new technology.

  • David Galvan

    Funding: Hey, put a sales tax increase on the ballot to pay for HSR and I’d vote for it, but I’ll bet you it wouldn’t pass. One of the taglines from prop 1A was “. . . without raising taxes!”. Admittedly disingenuous, but it probably resulted in more votes. (Of course, I didn’t think Measure R would pass, and it did, so you never know). Again, the bond measure method has worked again and again for generating the needed funds quickly which are then paid back over a period of decades. It works. I can’t think of a better way to get it done, aside from raising property taxes (severely limited due to Prop 13).

    As for the benefits of HSR:
    Telecommuting is already inherently incentivized: no travel costs. Yet people still travel for work. I don’t see a reasonable way to incentivize it further. The fact is that telepresence works ok for some things, like a single conference call, but not well for others, like major industry meetings which bring together people from all over the state/country/world. It really is a lot easier to communicate an idea when you are in the same room as someone. And anyway, advocating for telepresence is an argument against TRAVEL, not against building HSR. HSR is an additional mode of transit that would fill a niche for inter-city travel within a few hundred miles. People are going to travel no matter how much you don’t want them to. Shouldn’t we provide an array of options that travelers can use to suit their needs in the most efficient way possible?

    And traveling for the sake of business meetings is only one of many reasons people travel between NoCA and SoCA.

    In my mind, it all comes down to the following: The population of California is expected to increase by 30% by 2030. The people are coming, like it or not. We have no choice but to increase our infrastructure to accomodate the population increase. One option is to continue to spend lots of money expanding freeways (you can never make a freeway wide enough), adding runways and terminals to airports like LAX or SFO (difficult because there is already a lot of stuff surrounding these airports that the airports don’t own, and again the benefits are only temporary). This will be expensive, non-innovative, unfriendly to the environment, and keep us stuck in the same traffic on the roads and at the terminal that we are already experiencing now. Or, we can invest in an entirely new (to our region) mode of transportation that reduces travel time, is friendly to the environment, will last many decades (at least), and give residents a additional choices when it comes to travel.

    I really don’t understand why so many people are so worried about this. It’s not like we have no way of knowing whether it will be a good investment or not. It’s already been proven to be a good investment in 5 other developed nations for many decades.

  • Telecommuting is the worst form of transit. Worse than maglev.

  • DJB

    “In my mind, it all comes down to the following: The population of California is expected to increase by 30% by 2030. The people are coming, like it or not. We have no choice but to increase our infrastructure to accommodate the population increase.”

    I agree with this. I’m not so sure that it necessarily follows that the need is for capacity expansion for inter-regional travel. Don’t most trips, and most trips that are really (and I know this is a loaded word) “necessary”, happen within regions? Trips to work, to buy groceries, to visit friends, etc.? Shouldn’t we make sure quality transit options exist for these trips first? I wonder what the BRU has to say about all this . . .

    Anyway, I know we’re not going to settle this today (or, possibly, ever). So like Bill O’Reilly says, so he can appear reasonable, I’ll let you have the last word :)

  • limit

    There was just a confluence meeting just the other day about the HSR and highway crossings. The process is definitely starting.

    Also rail versus highway is a time old battle chestnut of freeway fighters. The relative cost between the two for new lines requiring new right of way are much closer then many think. …

  • Wad

    DJB wrote:

    Shouldn’t we make sure quality transit options exist for these trips first?

    There’s at least one good reason why high-speed rail and local transit improvements should be decoupled — no pun intended.

    Support for one should not be contingent upon the other. At least there has been a statewide consensus for a statewide project (HSR). With local transit, that cohesion might not be there.

    Think about the Central Valley. Those cities need to build up their bus systems, yet conservatives are stronger there and there’s also a stronger rural mindset. They’re likely not going to pass the taxes that you see in the coastal metropoles, at least not yet. Some may, if they have not had done so already.

    If they leave their bus systems at status quo levels, it won’t depress high-speed rail ridership that much. The San Joaquin today, running at 79 mph or less, and not running to the heart of a big-city central business district (you need buses to get to Los Angeles and San Francisco), is still one of Amtrak’s 10 busiest lines.


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