Monday, April 18, 2011

What politicians say they want, and what they really want, when it comes to high-speed rail

This morning at 10:30, Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, State Senator Joe Simitian and  Rich Gordon made an announcement about high-speed rail on the Bay Area Peninsula. The statement is reproduced, below.

Here's the good news. They did not announce additional funding for the CHSRA from the returned Florida ARRA Stimulus funds.  We have yet to hear about that one way or the other.  I hope I'm wrong, but I expect about $800 million more to come from the Florida funds to this useless project in the Central Valley.

Eshoo was overheard to say that regardless of whatever the rail authority does, she will continue to work to bring federal HSR funding into California.  The three elected officials are all Democrats.  Eshoo's statement is a fundamental Democratic Party principle.  Bring federal funding into California. Once that position is cast in stone, it doesn't matter what else is said about HSR.  The Rail Authority will continue to do what it damn pleases. Their next business plan, whenever they complete it, will be yet another iteration of the nonsense they have been spewing from the beginning.  They have no incentive to "do it right." 

That means, all this talk at this so-important gathering this morning was merely political appeasement for the discontent of the voters.  Practically speaking it's meaningless.  Their "basic parameters"as they put it, are wishful nonsense.  Like the CHSRA Board itself, these politicians are not railroad engineers or designers; they can't mandate one option over others without a realistic engineering context.

We've said this dozens of times.  This project cannot be done right.  The federal funding the Democrats insist upon will cost California dearly; many billions more than the awards of these federal awards are worth. They will cost the taxpayers forever if the train ever gets completed.  It's a very bad bargain.  So long as Eshoo, Simitian and Gordon insist on HSR being "done right," they will continue to bring this terrible project upon the state along with it's horrendous debt burden. They know it's a terrible project.  They could say NO. But, "follow the money!" is the overriding demand.

The three electeds dramatically "call upon the HSR Authority. . . for a blended system."  Nothing new about that.  It's what's been in the works from the beginning. Given Caltrain's current situation, you have to wonder what that actually means.

They don't want an elevated viaduct.  While that's good, do they understand why a viaduct was been proposed in the first place?  Do they not understand what the alternatives will involve?  For example, grade separations.

For trains to go 125 mph, the projected speed of the HSR on the Caltrain corridor, all grade crossings must be separated. Without elevated viaducts, it means lowering the cross-streets beneath the at-grade tracks and that will cost far more than the continuous elevated viaduct beneath which all grade crossings can be left untouched. Between Atherton and Palo Alto alone there are ten such grade crossings, each having to dip down 20 feet beneath the tracks. Given the costs, wanting HSR on the Caltrain corridor equals an elevated viaduct.

Apparently, during this morning's presentation, the officials indicated that they wanted only the current two tracks on the corridor.  That makes no sense whatsoever.  HSR, Caltrain and Union Pacific on the same two tracks, not grade separated? While theoretically possible, that's practically unrealistic and most unlikely. 

These discussion points are internally contradictory. Embedded within them is the fantasy that Caltrain commuter service will be upgraded (electrified, EMUs), while at the same time running a daily HSR service on those same two tracks.   It should be clear that real high-speed rail requires its own set of dedicated tracks that are unsuitable for any other use due to their far greater technical precision.  That's why -- if HSR is to be deployed on this corridor at all, it must be expanded to four tracks for both passenger services. Then, it's either a full bore tunnel or an elevated viaduct.  Remember, the train can't go up and down like a roller-coaster, regardless of what each town wants. 

Calling for a "blended" system on two tracks is like seeking to mix oil and water.  At the same time, demanding rail designs, alignments and routes without a consideration of all the consequences, no matter how ardently proposed, will be ignored by the CHSRA and Roelof Van Ark. The Rail Authority will continue to pursue it's path of "value engineering," a euphemism for "on the cheap." 

These advocacy statements, while sounding beneficial to Peninsula residents and businesses,  have no mandatory or obligatory force.  The Rail Authority is free to ignore them.   It's all political show-business.

Eshoo, Simitian, Gordon Statement on High-Speed Rail

Since the passage of Proposition 1A in 2008, each of us has expressed our support for “high-speed rail done right,”  by which we mean a genuinely statewide system that makes prudent use of limited public funds and which is responsive to legitimate concerns about the impact of high-speed rail on our cities, towns,  neighborhoods and homes.

To date, however, the California High Speed Rail Authority has failed to develop and describe such a system for the Peninsula and South Bay.  For that reason, we have taken it upon ourselves today to set forth some basic parameters for what “high-speed rail done right” looks like in our region.

We start with the premise that for the Authority to succeed in its statewide mission it must be sensitive and responsive to local concerns about local impacts. Moreover, it is undeniable that funding will be severely limited at both the state and national levels for the foreseeable future.

Much of the projected cost for the San Jose to San Francisco leg of the project is driven by the fact that the Authority has, to date, proposed what is essentially a second rail system for the Peninsula and South Bay, unnecessarily duplicating existing usable infrastructure. Even if such a duplicative system could be constructed without adverse impact along the CalTrain corridor, and we do not believe it can, the cost of such duplication simply cannot be justified.

If we can barely find the funds to do high speed rail right, we most certainly cannot find the funds to do high speed rail wrong.

Accordingly, we call upon the High-Speed Rail Authority and our local CalTrain Joint Powers Board to develop plans for a blended system that integrates high-speed rail with a 21st Century CalTrain.

To that end:

• We explicitly reject the notion of high-speed rail running from San Jose to San Francisco on an elevated structure or “viaduct”; and we call on the High-Speed Rail Authority to eliminate further consideration of an aerial option;

• We fully expect that high-speed rail running from San Jose to San Francisco can and should remain within the existing CalTrain right of way; and,

• Third and finally, consistent with a project of this more limited scope, the Authority should abandon its preparation of an EIR (Environmental Impact Report) for a phased project of larger dimensions over a 25 year timeframe. Continuing to plan for a project of this scope in the face of limited funding and growing community resistance is a fool’s errand; and is particularly ill-advised when predicated on ridership projections that are less than credible.

Within the existing right-of-way, at or below grade, a single blended system could allow high-speed rail arriving in San Jose to continue north in a seamless fashion as part of a 21st Century CalTrain (using some combination of electrification, positive train control, new rolling stock and/or other appropriate upgrades) while maintaining the currently projected speeds and travel time for high-speed rail.

The net result of such a system would be a substantially upgraded commuter service for Peninsula and South Bay residents capable of accommodating high-speed rail from San Jose to San Francisco.

All of this is possible, but only if the High-Speed Rail Authority takes this opportunity to rethink its direction.

Over the course of the past 18 months the Authority has come under considerable criticism from the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, the Bureau of State Audits, the California Office of the Inspector General, the Authority’s own Peer Review Group and the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. The Authority would do well to take these critiques to heart, and to make them the basis for a renewed and improved effort.

Frankly, a great many of our constituents are convinced that the High-Speed Rail Authority has already wandered so far afield that it is too late for a successful course correction. We hope the Authority can prove otherwise.

An essential first step is a rethinking of the Authority’s plans for the Peninsula and South Bay. A commitment to a project which eschews an aerial viaduct, stays within the existing right-of-way, sets aside any notion of a phased project expansion at a later date, and incorporates the necessary upgrades for CalTrain - which would produce a truly blended system along the CalTrain corridor - is the essential next step.