Ralph Vartabedian at the LA Times, one of HSR opponents favorite conduits to push their messaging into the press, writes:
California bullet train faces tough vote in SenateNow, this supposed "freedom to spend" seems to be nonsense: when Wisconsin, Florida, and Ohio tried to shift their HSR funds out of HSR projects, and the grants were rescinded, California applied for and was granted additional funds. The new grant was for work in the Central Valley, and part of the process was an amendment of the original grant.
But the plan has met growing skepticism among some legislators who say it would put the bulk of the initial funding in a low-ridership area that would have little independent value until the full system is completed. An alternative is being crafted to change the geographic distribution of the funds.
In the backrooms of the Capitol, a Plan B is being created that would shift significant funding out of the Central Valley. For months, critics have questioned why the project is starting there. The answer has been that the Federal Railroad Administration wants it to start there and the U.S. Transportation Department has threatened to rescind the federal money if the state tries to upset the apple cart.
But a close examination of the grant agreements is leading state lawmakers to believe they are free to spend funding granted under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 anywhere within four segments of the project, including one between San Francisco and San Jose and another between Los Angeles and Anaheim. The only segment that would be built in the Central Valley would run from Madera to Fresno, accounting for roughly 26 miles of roadbed.
Unilaterally "revising" the grant agreement back does not seem to be how Federal grants work, and so the attempt to do so would appear to be a back-handed effort to prevent the HSR project from breaking ground, while laying the basis for claiming it was the Federal government at fault for "taking the money back".
All of which makes it interesting where Alan Lowenthal fits in this. Alan Lowenthal is at present an influential State Senator, about to be termed out, and he is now running for Congress from the newly drawn California 47th. He has been a long critic of directing state funds to the benefit of the under-served San Joaquin Valley instead of its normal destination in the Los Angeles Basin, and part of the revised (and in my view much improved) Business Plan can be seen as a compromise, with ground being broken on the Express HSR corridor between SF and LA, but with early investments in the SF and LA "bookends" in preparation for the coming shared use of urban rail corridors at the two ends of the corridor.
The first question is whether the compromise is "good enough" for Senator Lowenthal. And the second question is whether de-railing the HSR project between San Francisco and Los Angeles might fail to endear him with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. So will he accept the compromise implicit in the Revised Business Plan, or will he continue his obstructionism, support a supposed Plan B, and risk being responsible for the funds going to another state?
The Plan, for the moment at least
What is the current plan?
First, appropriate $2.7b in funding for the Initial Construction Segment, and build it. This will provide high speed track from Madera, north of Fresno, to just northwest of Bakersfield. When construction is completed, the existing San Joaquin Amtrak-California service begins using the service, which allows it to save nearly an hour on its trip. It could well also allow the frequency to be upgraded from six hours to seven hours. This would be completed in 2017 and operational in 2018.
Second, gain some combination of Federal funding, California State Cap and Trade Funding, and private investment to combine with additional 2008 Prop1a bonds to complete the Initial Operating Service, from Merced to the San Fernando Valley, with a terminus either in Sylmar or in Burbank by the airport. This would be completed in 2021 and operational in 2022.
Third, leverage some additional combination of Federal Funding, Cap & Trade Funding, private investment and Prop1a bonds (if any remain), and revenue bonds, to complete the corridor from Madera to San Jose, allowing the establishment of an LA Basin to Bay Area service. This would be completed in 2026 and operational in 2027.
Fourth, complete work on the "bookends" to allow the HSR to run from SF Transbay Terminal to LA Union Station. This would be operational in 2029 and completed in 2030.
The argument over the Central Valley corridor is this: suppose there are no more Federal Funds forthcoming for HSR. Then California will have built the San Joaquin Valley a 220mph corridor for a 110mph train. OMG, a TRAIN TO NOWHERE!!! ... well, it was a train to nowhere when it was only the transit through Fresno that was funded, since it ran between Madera and Corcoran.
This is a very narrowly framed objection. The only risk to address is the risk that there is no Federal Funds forthcoming. The risk that our petroleum dependent intercity transport system relying almost entirely on plane and car will face an unexpected crisis, that is ignored.
And of course the only response to the risk of no Federal Funds that we are permitted to contemplate is to just sit and wait. This, of course, makes more sense if our vulnerability to disruptions of our oil supply is studiously ignored.
However, the main threat to HSR funding to date has been Republican intransigence in pursuit of denying President Obama policy victories before his re-election campaign, and we know that they will either win or lose that particular game later this year. So while there is no particular reason to expect HSR funding at extremely high levels, the fact that Virginia, North Carolina, Michigan, Illinois, Oregon and Washington State all have HSR work in progress, and Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvanian Maryland and Delaware all have a stake in ongoing improvements on the Northeast Corridor, all makes it likely that their Congressional Delegations will wish to strike a deal with the California delegation to get some level of HSR funding stream going.
And meanwhile, each barrel of oil we drill and burn is a barrel of oil that is gone. We are going over a mile under the ocean to get at oil, breaking non-porous rock underground to get at oil, injecting water to push oil toward the surface, burning tar sands underground to get at oil, anxiously waiting for the Arctic Ice Cap to recede to get at oil ... we are, clearly, starting the process of scraping the bottom of a lot of oil barrels to get at oil. As we pump and burn more and more of the world's cheaper oil and go after more and more expensive oil, we know that petroleum production will slow over the next two decades, with less petroleum produced in the 2010's than were produced last decade, and less petroleum produced in the 2020's than we will be producing this decade.
And that is the optimistic scenario of slowing production and progressively rising prices in waves, with each breathing spell of "cheap oil" being at a higher level than the one before. Pessimistic scenarios including severe production disruptions from hot war at the Straits of Hormuz to civil wars and uprisings taking out major production areas in Africa, Arabia, South America, or Asia.
Why Start in the Central Valley
The initial question to face is straightforward: is the goal to "build rail transport" of some sort, or is the goal to build higher speed, intercity rail transport.
If the goal is to "build rail transport", then the obvious way to proceed is to plunder the $9b in Prop1a bonds to build subsidized commuter rail systems in the LA Basin and the Bay Area. This has been the consistent advice of the California Legislative Analyst Office: given uncertainty whether there will be Federal Funding to complete the thing, spend money now on commuter rail that is supposed to provide the best immediate benefit.
Now the corridors are still to be labeled HSR corridors, since they will be 110mph to 125mph urban express rail corridors. However, that "best immediate benefit" does not include making a substantial contribution toward providing intercity rail between LA and SF. It is the use of that infrastructure for commuter rail that is the "best immediate benefit".
If the goal is to provide intercity rail between SF and LA, then there is a strong case to be made for spending as little as possible on "the bookends" up front, and devoting all of the funding at hand to one of the three critical segments of the corridor for intercity rail:
- Getting from the San Joaquin Valley into the LA Basin
- Getting from the San Joaquin Valley into the Bay Area
- Getting through the San Joaquin Valley with an Express HSR corridor connecting those first two
Given a HSR corridor between SF and LA, its perfectly possible to get into SF and into LA on the existing corridors. That might require, for instance, coupling diesel locomotives to haul the HSR train from Burbank to LA Union Station and from San Jose to 4th and King, San Francisco. That has been done elsewhere in the world to complete a HSR route before electrification has been completed on a conventional rail segment.
Now, it would be preferable to make the transit at 110mph-125mph, but if there is a trip between SF and LA in under 4 hours, that will generate operating surpluses that are themselves able to fund the upgrades of the bookends.
If the goal is to connected SF and LA, the corridor should start somewhere between the two.
Now, the decent into the LA Basin is not only controversial in terms of alignment, but it is difficult terrain, will cost in the $10b's, and there is no reason for thinking the final design can be completed in time to break ground to meet ARRA requirements, nor any reason to expect the segment to be completed in time. Any partial corridor would be stranded, unavailable for use by any system until the rest of the descent into the LA Basin is completed.
The traverse from the San Joaquin Valley to the Bay Area is less difficult, but still beyond the reach of the ARRA funding, and beyond the time frame for completion before 2017.
On the preferred alignment, the descent into the LA Basin will take place from Palmdale, so there are two remaining sections between the Bay Area and the LA Basin. One runs through Fresno, from just south of the start of the traverse to the Bay Area, to just northwest of Bakersfield. The other runs from Bakersfield to Palmdale. Of the two, the run through the Fresno is the section where the trains will be running at 220mph, and so the area where test track to certify the HSR will be required in any event. And the run through Fresno already has an existing state corridor service, the San Joaquin, that is one of the top five intercity corridor services in the nation.
So, if your goal is to make progress on connecting LA to SF, and what is available to get started is in the $1b's, but not in the $10b's, the Central Valley is the place to start.
The Great Compromise
But more people live in the LA Basin and in the Bay Area, and "it makes more sense to build it here" feels truthy, even if it is untrue.
So the Great Compromise was to abandon approach that had been taken under Gov. Schwarzenegger and Authority CEO Judge Kopp, of building dedicated HSR-only track through the Caltrain Corridor between SJ and SF, and along the "LOSSAN" corridor through LA Union Station between Burbank and Anaheim, and switch to the approach used in countries with successful HSR systems of running the HSR train into major urban areas on shared Express rail corridors.
That was used to justify "early investment" into the LA Metrolink and SF/SJ Caltrain corridor, to begin after ground is broken in the Central Valley.
And it seems likely that this seeming fantasy that the State of California can unilaterally reverse the amended Grant Agreement with the Federal Dept. of Transportation is intended to disrupt that Compromise by pretending that the Federal Funds can be used to up the ante.
So this is the choice facing long-time critic of starting in the Central Valley, senior and influential California State Senator, but running in a newly formed district with roughly 40% of its electorate in conservative Orange County to become a freshmen Democratic Congressman. Does he want to bird in the hand, or will he be lured into chasing the two birds in the bush ... where no only is there no guarantee of catching them, there is ample reason to believe that they are a mirage.
Still, isn't the Central Valley Segment a Big Risk
Now there's nothing I can do about the fact that Ralph Vartabedian gets to use the LA Times to spread the talking point that the CV is useless unless everything goes according to plan ... but no matter how persuasive it is as a talking point, it remains nonsense.
At present, there are four ways one could get a higher speed intercity rail system down from the San Joaquin Valley into the LA Basin.
- The shortest is to head up the Tejon Pass and down. This requires a couple of long tunnels, and is difficult engineering, but saves five to ten minutes over the next fastest approach.
- The second is to go over the Tehachapi Pass to Palmdale and then descend into the LA basin from the Antelope Valley to the San Fernando Valley. The Tehachapi Pass itself is easier than the Tejon Pass, but the more work that is done on finalizing the descent into the San Fernando Valley, the more problems are encountered, so some question whether the alignment should be switched to the Tejon Pass
- Outside the frame of the CHSRA system, but feasible, is to connect to the existing Antelope Valley Metrolink corridor from Lancast/Palmdale. This would be under substantial capacity and speed constraints, so would be more in line with a 4hr-5hr SF/LA train than a 3hr SF/LA train, but is an available option if California wants to provide one-seat service before the Express HSR corridor is completed
- Using the existing alignments into the LA Basin goes even further east, descending via San Bernadino or Riverside, because the orientation of the existing freight rail traffic from both the Central Valley and the LA Basin is toward transcontinental alignments running east.
There are four ways for a higher speed intercity rail system to traverse from the San Joaquin Valley to the Bay Area that lies to its west:
- In the CHSRA framework, swing west from north of Fresno to run toward San Jose via Gilroy
- Also in the CHSRA framework, swing west from around Merced toward Livermore and then run toward the Southeast Bay,
- and from there around the south end of the Bay to San Jose
- or via a South Bay Tunnel or South Bay Bridge to Redwood City
- Outside of the CHSRA framework, given the lack of a Transbay Tunnel and blunder in not including a rail corridor on the Bay Bridge, swing west around Merced toward Livermore and then run toward Oakland, or
- also outside of the CHSRA framework, swing west around Stockton toward the northeast Bay and then come down into Oakland from the northeast
So between the selected and the alternate CHSRA alignments North and South, there are four CHSRA variant alignments. There are "long way around" but substantially cheaper versions suitable for 110mph Rapid Rail corridors on either side, to bridge the gap if the more expensive Express HSR connections have to be postponed for a while. And there are mixes and matches of Express HSR on one side and Rapid Rail on the other.
But you know what? All of them can use the Initial Construction Segment.
That is, the initial Construction Segment can of course be used entirely within the selected alignment. But it can also be used with either alternative alignment within the CHSRA framework. And it can also be used entirely outside the CHSRA framework, either temporarily, while the Express HSR corridors are being completed, or permanently.
It can be used, as is being planned before the first HSR service is operational, for 110mph diesel service. It can be used for 125mph diesel service, if the San Joaquin locomotives are upgraded (the new NextGen bi-level passenger cars are specified to be compatible with 125mph). It can be used with 125mph electric service, since it is, of course, designed to be electrified ~ which eliminates the majority of the typical cost of electrifying the corridor, which is the civil engineering to provide additional clearances above the corridor. It can be used with 150mph electric service, as on the NEC. And, of course, it can be used with the planned 220mph electric service.
So, if you want to push California closer to higher speed intercity passenger rail between SF and LA ~ if that is the goal ~ then the Initial Construction Segment helps get California there. It helps get California there whether California gets there along the direction contained in the CHSRA Business Plan, whether California postpones one or both of the expensive parts of the Express HSR corridor in favor or quicker incremental upgrades, or whether it shuts down the CHSRA and starts over almost from scratch.
But it only moves California in that direction if California takes the Federal funding presently on offer and breaks ground. If the California State Senate plays the game of plundering the Prop1a funds in pursuit of commuter rail upgrades, it seems very likely that the US Dept. of Transportation will simply shift the funds elsewhere, likely to a combination of Illinois and to one or more swing states.
Getting there will require 21 of 25 California Democratic State Senators. The Republicans will of course vote "No" en bloc. As an outspoken critic of the CHSRA over the past four years, and an outspoken critic of putting the objective of Intercity Rail between SF and LA first with a Central Valley Corridor, Senator Lowenthal is a critical vote among those 25. If he accepts the compromise built into the Revised 2012 Business Plan, and votes "Yes", it would be a big step toward breaking ground.
And if he votes no, it could well be a big step toward shutting down the progress toward an Express HSR system in California, and sending those funds out of state. Which is a result that could make it harder for him to generate enthusiastic support in the Fall, and might lead to a chilly reception in DC if he goes on to win in the General Election.
Midnight Oil ~ Truganini