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Why California Needs High Speed Rail

There comes a time when negative criticism, NIMBYism, the Tea Party and American Politics have just gone too far. Here’s my two cents in favor of California High Speed Rail.

California High Speed Rail has been in the news recently. Despite the $10 billion approved by Measure 1A in 2008, commentators from all over the country have been deriding the project – most often for reasons under the blanket phrase of “boondoggle”. I would like to momentarily take my hat off as a sustainable transportation advocate and put back on the hat of a traditional transportation engineer. Even if you disagree with my means, it is for a worthy end.

California High Speed Rail is the single iconic project currently under design in the United States. Not since Lindon B. Johnson’s Urban Mass Transit Administration (now FTA) funded the newer wave of American Metro systems has there been such a great opportunity to change the way people get around in this country. Obama’s timid approach to infrastructure has frustrated centrists in both political parties, and what at one point looked like a serious commitment to fund new passenger rail development (in the form of $8 billion a year from the FRA), has become a political squabble over what constitutes an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars.

Let me make this clear:

1. The ridership projections for California High Speed Rail are highly inflated.

2. This does not matter.

Call it what you want, but transportation infrastructure is not designed to meet present need and never was designed with this in mind. Did Interstate 40 between Barstow and Arizona get build to fulfill the massive demand for travel between these two markets? Assuredly not. Rather, transportation infrastructure is designed to provide the maximum benefit over its lifetime. Think back – wouldn’t today’s Tea Party pundits lambast plans to build a grid of streets, arterials and freeways in Los Angeles? Absolutely. But was Figuroa Street really traveled by hundreds of thousands of motorists, transit riders, cyclist and pedestrians in 1920? No. It was a boondoggle. It was a bet that the future of Los Angeles and California will be better than the past – that money you invest today will bear fruit for decades to come. Instead of taking the easy way out, California has opted to take what past generations invested in the future, and build upon it. Reneging on this promise and laying California High Speed Rail to rest with ideas like BART to Marin County, SCRTD’s Rapid Transit System and even the original route of the Metro Red Line to Westwood.

A word about cost – CAHSR will be expensive. Probably 40-50 billion dollars. CAHSR will likely not turn a profit. The California High Speed Rail Authority will likely be folded into Caltrans to overcome its odd position in the State government. Still, nothing comes cheap. California’s other major, ground-breaking investment in the last fifty years was the three-tier higher education system. Although politics has muddled its effectiveness, California (debatably) has the two best public universities in the country, an economy bigger than Italy, Russia and Canada, and a dynamic electorate willing to invest in the future of our great state. Think of California High Speed Rail as not an endeavor for profit or loss. Last I checked, government exists in order to promote access to public goods that would be neither beneficial nor profitable for the private sector to provide. Transportation is a public good – High Speed Rail will improve mobility for everyone in the state, and may start breaking the intense reliance on automobiles that has overshadowed California since the 1950’s. Plus, even on measures of profitability, CAHSR will outstrip the pitiful performance of the Highway Trust Fund. Tea Partiers and even mainstream Republicans denounce any funding on transit, rail or non-motorized transportation as wasteful, yet continue to pour money into State Departments of Transportation – most of which are focused on moving cars, not people. With no raise in the gas tax in sight, highway spending will have to come down eventually, or risk finally exposing many of these politicians for the hypocrites they are. All forms of transportation are subsidized in this country. Our economy is based upon the promise of affordable transportation, and a culture focused on consumption rather than investment.  Although the politics are still shaky, California High Speed Rail is a brilliant project that will cement California as a forward looking state, willing to invest in our own future.

The future is now – what do you think?


California High Speed Rail through the Pacheco Pass

Part 2 of a series on the potential alignments of California High Speed Rail.

For the past six months, I’ve been working with AutoCad, Google Earth, and the California High Speed Rail Authority’s website with the goal of creating an up-to-date .kml file of the current proposed route for the CHSR, with specific attention to the alternative analysis.  Starting with today’s post, and continuing for the next couple months, I will be presenting the 2010 proposed alignments and analyzing the alternatives that the CHSRA will carry forward.  The purpose of these kml files is not to show the exact route but rather to help gain a general overview of the alignment alternatives and the types of structures necessary for each alternative.

There are only three places on the San Jose-Merced section where the CHSR horizontal alignment has been finalized: first, between San Jose and Morgan Hill; second, the climb out of Gilroy up to San Luis Rey Reservoir; and third, the brief flat section in the San Joaquin Valley from the California Aqueduct to the a few miles east of I-5.  Other than that, there are 32 possible horizontal alignments on the roughly 100-mile segment of the route between Diridon Station (situated above the current station) and a few miles west of Chowchilla.

The CHSRA settled on the SR-87/I-280 aerial approach to Diridon Station after eliminating seven alternatives.  This segment is going to have significant constructability issues due to business displacement and a gigantic aerial structure over both freeways.  The alignment avoids much of downtown San Jose at the expense of the Almaden neighborhood.

The alignment will then descend to run at-grade next to the Caltrain tracks.  The Caltrain tracks, owned by the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, will need to be shifted east to accommodate the two CHSR tracks.  After the PCJPB ownership ends near Pullman Way in San Jose, the tracks ascend to an aerial structure, staying outside the right of way of the Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR), a national freight railroad that has been understandably reluctant to share their right-of-way with the CHSRA.  The alignment will continue adjacent to the UPRR tracks until Morgan Hill.

At this point, two horizontal alternatives diverge: one takes the tracks along US 101, the other along the east side of the UPRR right-of-way.  These two sections will connect with one of two alternatives in Gilroy: an alternative that runs through and has a station in downtown Gilroy (with an option for a trench), and an alternative that runs east of Gilroy with a station east of the outlet stores on Leavesley Road.  The East of UPRR alignment will require a relocation of the Monterey Highway.  The CHSRA prefers the UPRR alternatives because they follow existing transportation corridors and provides the quickest time between Morgan Hill and Gilroy (8.75 minutes).  The trench option, demanded by the City of Gilroy to reduce visual impacts of an aerial structure, would create a 5-mile, 185-foot wide trench, but would require use of the Union Pacific right-of-way.

The east of Gilroy alternatives are not preferred, but are carried forward because of reduced residential displacements and to placate the City of Gilroy.  Unfortunately, the East Gilroy alternatives would place a station on Leavesley Road.  A station here would not only create a visual impact in this now-agricultural area, but also reduce connectivity with Caltrain and a future commuter rail line to Monterey.

East of Gilroy, the construction team will face “steep terrain, narrow valleys, and engineering challenges.”  In this Pacheco Pass section (chosen over Altamont for a more direct route to the Bay from Los Angeles), bridges in excess of 300’ in height as well as intrusion into the San Luis Reservoir, the San Joaquin National Cemetary, Pacheco State Park, or Mt. Hamilton Nature Conservancy were deemed unallowable.  Using Quantm, a computer model to identify effective alignments, the Authority picked one alignment and a deviation near the San Luis Rey Reservoir (“Close to 152” Alternative).  Both alignments include 8 tunnels, with the longest tunnel being 22,700 feet (4.3 miles) long.

The San Joaquin Valley subsection has been reduced to two alternatives along Avenue 21 and 24 and Henry Miller Avenue.  Avenue 24 has more severe impacts in Chowchilla where the route calls for a wye connecting the Los Angeles and Sacramento branches, but has eight less grade separations and effects 81 less acres of farmland when compared with the Avenue 21 alignment.

The San Jose to Merced section will face significant challenges in working with the Union Pacific Railroad and the cities along the US-101 corridor between Gilroy and San Jose.  The Pacheco Pass section will present some of the most difficult engineering challenges along the entire alignment.

Here is the .kmz file for Google Earth.

CAHSR’s Preliminary Alignment on the Peninsula

Narrow Right-of-Way in San Mateo

For the past six months, I’ve been working with AutoCad, Google Earth, and the California High Speed Rail Authority’s website with the goal of creating an up-to-date .kml file of the current proposed route for the CHSR, with specific attention to the alternative analysis. Starting with today’s post, and continuing for the next couple months, I will be presenting the 2010 proposed alignments and analyzing the alternatives that the CHSRA will carry forward. The purpose of these kml files is not to show the exact route but rather to help gain a general overview of the alignment alternatives and the types of structures necessary for each alternative.

As a native San Franciscan, I thought it would be best to start with San Francisco and head south during this review of the California High Speed Rail alignments. This section has been a major talking point as a part of the entire California High Speed Rail debate. Due to prohibitive costs,the High Speed Rail Authority has been reluctant to bury a significant portion of the alignment,much to the dismay of local communities who fear not only lowered property values, but also the prospect of their communities being “divided in two” by the high speed rail right of way.

Along with the Los Angeles to Anaheim section, this section of the alignment is unique in that,at this point in the design process, there is only one horizontal alignment under consideration;that is, there is only one right-of-way path. In this section, alignment alternatives along I-280 and US-101 were ruled out due to design challenges. An I-280 alignment would have been too curvaceous to allow for the Prop 1A guaranteed 2 hours and 40 minutes between LA and SF and the US-101 path would be too expensive due to the multiple overpasses already in place on the freeway. Instead, the CHSRA chose to pursue the current Caltrain right-of-way as the preferred horizontal alignment.

That is to say, the Caltrain alignment is not without its design challenges. The right-of-way in some parts of the peninsula is only 50’ wide, much narrower than the 91’ expected to be necessary for even the narrowest of high speed rail structures. Downtown San Mateo and Redwood City, in particular, present difficult engineering challenges due to their narrow right-of-ways. As of September 2010, the HSR Authority settled on three designs. Design A includes more aerial structures and is likely to meet the most opposition from Peninsula cities. Design B places many of the aerial structures below grade in trenches or tunnels. Design B1, labeled B1 because it is a variation on Design B, places even more track below grade.

On the corridor, HSR will be sharing the right-of-way and the four tracks with an electrified Caltrain, meaning that the HSR will be restricted to 90mph on the Peninsula. The Authority is also choosing between a possible “Mid-Peninsula Station” in Redwood City, Palo Alto, or Mountain View. Either one or none of these stations will be selected.

You are free to view this map but please know that it is not affiliated in any way with the California High Speed Rail Authority, and Sam only used publicly available information to compile it. If you’d like to share it, please attribute it to Sam Levy or Wilshire/Vermont. He spent a lot of time getting this thing together. -Karl


Sorry about the ads. WordPress won’t host a .kmz file.

High Speed Rail Drama: A Victory for California

California has done it again. In the re-appropriation of Federal high speed rail funds, California received an additional $624 million in funding for it’s high speed rail program. Crucially, this announcement means that the first segment of the CAHSR program, a line from Fresno to Corcoran, will be extended to Bakersfield. This extension will largely silence many critics who were already calling this segment a “line to nowhere.” Fresno and Bakersfield have a total combined MSA population of 1.7 million, and a segment from perhaps Merced to Bakersfield could be considered the minimal operating segment and actually run revenue service. At the very least, Amtrak California’s San Joaquins line could use the line to massively reduce travel time in the corridor.

The political ramifications of building the initial segment of CAHSR in the Central Valley are actually quite positive. By building a greenfield (entirely new right of way) line in the Central Valley rather than focusing funding on improving commuter rail services in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas, the California High Speed Rail Authority is essentially guaranteeing the future completion of the system – political desire will come from both the LA and San Francisco areas, forcing the eventual connection of this Central Valley segment with San Francisco and Los Angeles. Equally important is ensuring the continued support of the state and federal governments in completing spur lines to Sacramento and San Diego, and even potentially connecting to the planned Desert Xpress privately-funded HSR line between Victorville and Las Vegas. Far in the future, a high speed line from Sacramento to Eugene, Oregon could be feasible and connect all the way up to Vancouver, BC.

I am strongly confident that the approach the CAHSRA has taken to building high speed rail in California will be successful. In my past occupation, I was able to meet many of the people behind the Authority, and I can tell you that they mean business. The Transbay Transit Center in San Francisco, the eventual northern terminus of the initial line, is already under construction and will be a shining example of what high speed rail stations can do for economic development and urban renewal in California and indeed the entire US. Furthermore, I am convinced that once California’s initial HSR segment from San Francisco to Los Angeles opens, and likely turns a profit, politicians in Sacramento and Washington will become convinced that high speed rail, in the right markets, is a wise infrastructure investment. Many people thought the Interstate Highway System was destined to be a failure before it was built. The vastly improved mobility of freeways pales in comparison to the benefits of high speed rail. Just look at Paris and London – two cities on approximately the same scale as Los Angeles – San Jose – San Francisco. The air market between these two cities died off quickly with the opening of the high speed rail line and subsequent openings of further high speed segments on the Britsh side have made the service even more popular.

I cannot stress how important high speed rail is for the future of California. Wisconsin and Ohio’s loss is our gain here in California, and as soon as the EIR/EIS is complete, CAHSR could begin construction within 12 months. That means two years from now, or even slightly earlier, the shovels could be hitting the dirt in Fresno and Bakersfield. I know I’ll be there to ride on the first train, and will be a regular user of CAHSR when the Los Angeles – San Francisco segment is complete. I hope that day arrives sooner rather than later. I’m tired of the TSA microwaving my body so I can get on a highly polluting aircraft for the short one hour flight home. I rest my case.

The (Potential) Paradox of California High Speed Rail

At $45 billion dollars, the California High Speed Rail project will be the state’s biggest project in its history.  With a promise of connecting Los Angeles to San Francisco in two hours and forty minutes as well as up to 22 other stations in the state, the project promises to take a significant portion of the market from intrastate air travel between Southern California and the Bay Area.  The California High Speed Rail Authority boasts of 450,000 new permanent jobs, reduced congestion, and cleaner Californian air.

More importantly, however, the project makes the prospect of statewide commuting much more realistic.  The 142-mile trip from Bakersfield to Los Angeles becomes a trip of 54 minutes, several minutes less than the 48-mile Baby Bullet trip from San Jose to San Francisco on today’s Caltrain corridor.  From Fresno in the middle of the Central Valley, it will take a mere 51 minutes to get to Silicon Valley and only a few minutes more to reach Sacramento.

While the project’s potential substantially increases California’s connectivity, there is a danger of creating an even greater exurbia.  The Antelope Valley cities of Lancaster and Palmdale, sitting on the edge of Metrolink’s current network, will no longer demarcate the boundary of commuter sanity.  In other words, the High Speed Rail project will push the limits of how far away we are willing to commute.  While the train promises to be a cleaner commute, should it be a commute we should be making?

For every dollar spent on making intercity commuting more accessible, California should invest in making intra-city commuting easier.  Simply put, more trips, be it by train or by car, are still more trips.  Bakersfield should focus on adding jobs and transit-oriented development in Bakersfield rather than making it easier to get out of Bakersfield.  The authority promises to promote transit and pedestrian development at infill stations, but there still remains a risk of turning the entire Central Valley into heavy-commuting, Palmdale-esque suburban midlands.

By the way, this post was written by Sam Levy, a Civil Engineering colleague of mine from USC. Many thanks to him for the article. -Karl