US PIRG: How About High Speed Rail for Every Major City

HS.png(Image: U.S. PIRG)

Now that the Obama administration has
$8 billion in high-speed rail grants to more than two dozen
states, with $2.5 billion more coming soon, why not keep thinking big
when it comes to bullet-train expansion?

That’s the ethos of a new
released today by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group
(PIRG) calling for a New Deal-like public works juggernaut that would
eventually connect all major cities located within 100 and 500 miles of
each other. For a look at how such a system would remake the American
rail map, check out the image above.

"The first step in building the network is to set a national goal
with an ambitious time frame, just like we did for the Interstate
Highway System or getting to the moon," U.S. PIRG senior analyst Phineas
Baxandall wrote in a blog
unveiling the report. "We can link all our major cities
by 2050, if we set our minds to it."

Given the political wrangling over the deficit that continues to
paralyze Washington, however, it’s worth asking how an ambitious rail
program would be funded. The U.S. PIRG answers that question in several
ways: First, the group calls for a dedicated revenue stream for
inter-city passenger rail in the next long-term transportation bill,
with local investments matched by the federal government in the same
80:20 ratio that highway plans receive.

"By financing transportation projects equitably," the report’s
authors write, "states will be able to make rational transportation
decisions based on the needs of their residents, rather than on the
chances of securing a lucrative federal match."

Secondly, the U.S. PIRG aims to put government support for Amtrak
— often derided by
conservatives for its reliance on federal subsidies that also benefit
road projects — in perspective. When evaluated as a share of U.S. GDP,
government investment of passenger rail looks stunningly low compared
with other industrialized nations. The imbalance is visible in the chart


From the U.S. PIRG report:

To begin to dig out of that hole, the federal government
should invest steadily increasing levels of funding in passenger rail.
We probably cannot hope to match the $300 billion China will be
investing in its high-speed rail system between now and 2020, but we
should endeavor to match the level of investment provided by other
industrialized nations, as a share of GDP, in their rail networks.

The group does not address the lingering debate over whether all
planned U.S. inter-city rail projects can truly be called "high-speed"
given that many
would achieve
maximum speeds little better than 110 miles per hour.
Still, its vision of finishing the job begun by the White House this
year is likely to fire up rail advocates and give helpful new tools to
local planners.

  • This is cool in a way, but I’d still rather have medium speed trains all over the inside of this region, than high-speed trains with airline-like schedules to whisk me off to Sacramento or something, much less to Anaheim, where I’ll be stranded in a giant suburb with bad bus service.

    It’s interesting that there is “no money” for Expo grade separation, or to keep fares down and service levels up on buses, which would primarily benefit low-income transit riders and people of color going to work and running errands, but plenty of money for this, which will primarily benefit middle to high income business travelers and people taking discretionary trips. That or hyper-long-distance commuters that I don’t have much sympathy for.

    High-speed rail would be a public good. But we have to learn to crawl before we can walk. The transit that operates within regions is more important, and frankly, in need of a lot of work.

  • “but plenty of money for this”

    There isn’t plenty of money for this. Every dollar of funding will be a struggle and a give and take with the opposition.

    Transit riders in Los Angeles County are going to benefit from an extremely transit-heavy sales tax measure. Highways only get 20% from Measure R and transit gets around 60%. The rest is going to local streets and administration.

    The issue isn’t that there’s no money for Expo grade separations, it’s that you can’t spend Measure R money all in one place. It has to be spread around the county for it to be politically popular. Since grade seps for Expo aren’t a justifiable priority, the money will be spent elsewhere expanding transit in the region.

  • Well, we passed that $10 billion HSR bond, and here’s $2.25 billion coming from the feds. I think that’s a significant amount of money. Money that we should at least consider alternative uses for.

    You’re right about Measure R. It’s all about politics. Every part of the county wants something ASAP, to the long-term detriment of the transit system IMHO.

    In a country with better priorities, there’d by plenty of money for both HSR and intra-regional transit. But we like our low tax rates and #1 in the world military budget etc.

  • ds

    The bond isn’t real money until California fixes its perpetual budget mess. Who will buy a bond from a state that can’t pay its existing bills?

    And the entire point of the Expo line was for it to be the cheapest east-west rail line that you could possibly build in Los Angeles, because it could make use of an existing rail right of way and run mostly at street level.

    The plans for it were drawn before Measure R, and it looked like there was next to zero funds available for new rail construction.

    If you were going to build a grade separated line, you certainly would not be running it through Rancho Park and other low density suburbs.

    I think there’s a legitimate case to be made that now that we have Measure R we should cancel Expo phase 2 and use the money to extend the Purple line 3 miles west (or possibly farther, with a federal match). But it would make absolutely no sense to grade separate the current Expo alignment.

  • But it would make absolutely no sense to grade separate the current Expo alignment.

    Actually, there really isn’t an argument for building this alignment at-grade.

    You’re entire argument, if it resembles anything as has been presented by other at-grade opponents, rest on quite a few faulty assumptions:

    1) That at-grade crossings across the city’s most congested streets don’t drastically worsen traffic.
    2) That drastically worsening traffic is good thing that has no significant externalities.
    3) That travel time is much less relevant towards inducing choice riders.
    4) That the public, of which 88% are Angelinos who drive to work, are okay with transportation dollars being spent to worsen their commutes.
    5) That the woefully overestimated costs of grade separation and underestimated costs of this alignment at-grade are valid.

    Now there are some people who really don’t care about the vehicular traffic impacts of at-grade crossings. Most of them consider the millions of Angelinos who drive every day the equivalent of Hitler. But those folk are in the minority, and they know as much because they always sell these projects to the voters as “traffic relief” or the new PR term “traffic alternative.”

    As I’ve said in numerous places, there’s no argument FOR Expo at-grade that isn’t an argument against Expo being built at all. And there’s no argument FOR Expo that isn’t an argument for a grade separated Expo.

  • Make that:

    You’re entire argument, if it resembles anything as has been presented by other grade separation opponents, rest on quite a few faulty assumptions:

  • But regarding HSR in California. I’m against it. It is a waste of money (money those should go towards improving our urban rail systems which serve a far greater societal utility and multiples more people) and we can clearly see the feds aren’t going to pony up the dough necessary to actually get anything off the ground.

    $2.5 billion for a project that’s going to cost $80 billion??? That’s like giving a man with a broken leg a band-aid.

  • ds

    You missed my point entirely.

    I didn’t weigh in on whether Expo should be built. Personally I believe Metro should focus its construction budget on extending the Purple line before it goes on to other projects, because it’s the region’s most expensive project and should be built sooner than later.

    Building a grade separated line in the Expo corridor would be gross waste of taxpayer funds because most of the proposed alignment is low density. Building a subway through Rancho Park before Century City gets a subway would be almost criminal.

  • You should be monitoring some of the discussions on how to get High Speed Rail into Union Station. Metrolink is having a heart attack over HSR over their diesel trains, not to mention operational issues for years while they put columns between the tracks. Blowing up Piper Tech or the jail to put in a huge elevated structure over Vignes Street, and a 35 mph S curve to avoid impacts to a historic temple in Little Tokyo, is the other option. Norwalk, Santa Fe Springs, and La Mirada are nonplussed about having 200 mph trains zooming 10 feet away from single family residences. The proposed LA River viaduct would cast a huge shadow over the river. Caltrans has declared that high speed rail shall not run parallel to any of their right of way. AND the state is going to put another water bond, and other infrastructure bonds on the table. I think water is more important than HSR, and I wish I had voted no on the measure in hindsight (it was a close battle).

  • Joseph E

    La Mirada and Santa Fe Springs can relax. First of all, there are very few houses next to the alignment in those towns (Anaheim is the main problem), more importantly, the trains will never go faster than 125 mph in that area, and slower near curves. The metrolink and amtrak trains already run at 80 or 90 mph in that section, so we are talking about an incremental, 40% increase in speed. Due to better aerodynamics and grade separations for the streets (Hi Damien!), there will be less noise (no horns!), less traffic and lower risks of pedestrian accidents and suicides (due to good fences and cameras).

    HSR will not be seen as a system for the rich when oil production starts to decline in a few years. Already, the cheapest buses between SF and LA are $40. Electric rail will be much cheaper in the future. Sure, the 220 mph express will not be cheaper than a bus, but the local trains can always run at slower speeds and offer lower prices.

    The poorest Californians may not travel within the state as much as those of us who are grad students or professionals, but everyone certainly travels. Many of my wife’s poor latino students would disappear for weeks or a month to visit family in Arizona or Mexico or elsewhere. The next generation will want to visit family, travel and do business throughout the state, no matter their income level. Right now driving a gasoline-powered car or taking a diesel bus is a somewhat affordable option. When oil runs low and natural gas prices rise, our investment in HSR will look even better.

  • Joseph E

    Damien, the 42 billion cost for HSR (not 80 billion!) includes trains, engineering, right-of-way, construction and so on. Much of the cost will be spent within the Bay Area and the LA regions; the segments in the Central Valley will be much cheaper. Since you support grade-separations for rail, why don’t you support spend 10 billion or so to grade-separate and electrify Metrolink and Caltrain?

    While HSR will not be an urban system per se, the right-of-way and grade separations will be shared with regional rail almost everywhere, and those rail corridors should be just the way you like them: grade separated and fast.

    Why not lobby for, say, $80 so we can add on short HSR lines to Long Beach, West LA, the East Bay, Ventura and Santa Barbara, along the 405, and along the other Metrolink routes? 110 mph regional trains with stops every 2 miles (which Metrolink could do with electrification), complemented by 125 mph HSR with stations every 5 or 10 miles, would really get California moving, and be faster than driving any time of the day.

    If you think we should spend tens of billions to build fully grade-separated rail lines all over LA county, why not find a few billion more build rail all over the urban areas of the state?

  • Joseph,

    Again my primary thesis is if the feds aren’t going to pony up the money necessary to get the thing off the ground then it shouldn’t be built. I believe the term is “sh*% or get off the pot.” $2.5B ain’t even a fart.

    This like most of Obama’s proposal is too small to actually make an impact, but nonetheless allows Hopey Changey to campaign on the issue as a vigorous supporter. If he were serious he would have had the feds make a 80-20 commitment.

    My major objection is the financing. If it was financed by money currently destine for airport renovations/upgrades, I’d be fine with it. But it’s not. The only way even a starter line will be built is through state bonds that have to be paid back through the general fund. I’m sorry, but you’ll never find me supporting a $40B, $50B or $60B bond for CA HSR. Heck that all but certainly shuts the door on any other infrastructure upgrade in the state including urban rail?

    Projects of this magnitude, which is a lot closer to $80B than $42B (check the comparative European and Asian costs) cannot be primarily state-financed. We can’t afford to throw money down the drain for something of such low utility.

    And no I’ll never cower from saying I’d rather see half of that money spent creating an urban rail system that would serve millions of riders daily commutes vs. a inter-city rail system that would serve most of the people a handful of times per year.

    If you said to LA County voters: we can spend $20 billion building 120 miles of mostly grade separated urban rail that will directly serve more than half of the region’s major employment, entertainment and educational centers and come within 2 miles of 50-70% of the regions residents, or we can build a HSR from Ontario to San Diego, do you really think anyone would pick the HSR?

    CA HSR has all the bad elements of the worst of public works projects:
    -Overhyped and unsubstantiated cost and fare projections
    -Drastically understated environmental impacts and overstated environmental benefits
    -The false promise of creating a local manufacturing industry boom
    -Wasted time and money on numerous studies
    -Too little appropriated dollars to ever get it off the ground – let alone make it successful
    -A construction timetable so long that the actual technology chosen is likely to be out-of-date by the time it’s actually up and running
    -A strategy that intends to overshadow all of the above with a Madison Ave public relations campaign.

    Incidentally, I do agree, that the only good aspect of the $10 billion bond is that it will pay for grade separations to current commuter/freight rail routes. I’d be plenty happy seeing all of the Prop 1A spent in that manner.

  • ds:

    We can argue about what we can’t control (the order in which projects are built) or attempt to manipulate that we can control (how what is being built is built). I chose the latter, especially since they’re really all different pieces of a much larger puzzle.

    Should Expo Phase 2 be scrapped and the $1.9B appropriated to it go towards a Wilshire subway extension from Western to Westwood?* It’s a very appealing argument. But you seem to be arguing that because that is not an option we should instead build Phase 2, a project that will be around for the next 100 years, inadequately. That my friend is a far bigger waste of taxpayer resources.

    * = If matched with the current $1-1.5 billion appropriated to get the project from Western to Fairfax/La Cienega, economies of scale likely reduces the cost of the subway extension by at least a billion likely more.

  • ds

    Expo phase 2 is appropriated 1.5 billion, not 1.9.

    I don’t know if you’d get that big of a savings, but you would definitely save a lot of money by building the whole damn Wilshire subway at once instead up splitting it up into segments. With Measure R we actually have the money for the first time, so why not do it?

    The only question is whether the FTA would throw a wrench in the process. Would they be willing to give a funding grant all the way to Westwood or farther, or would they insist on building it in segments so they wouldn’t have to commit so much funding to one city at once.

  • ds

    As for HSR, the $2.5 billion appropriated was just a one-off grant, out of 8 billion included in the stimulus bill. The fact that California got 30% of the funding that was available is actually a good sign.

    Presumably the transportation reauthorization bill that will come up this year will include a permanent source of funds for high speed rail, similar to what is currently available for highway and mass transit projects.



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