Monday, March 19, 2012

Short-circuiting High-Speed Rail on the Caltrain Corridor

Palo Alto, home of Stanford University, is also a hot-bed of high-speed rail opposition.  At the same time, Palo Alto's Caltrain station is one of the busiest on the entire Caltrain corridor, after San Francisco and San Jose.  You can immediately see the dilemma in the article below.  

While this editorial from the Palo Alto Daily concludes, if I read it right, that the state legislature should not approve the desired funding of $2.7 billion for the next year budget of the rail authority, at the same time the article also argues that electrification for Caltrain is essential and that the only source of such funding is high-speed rail which seeks to use the Caltrain corridor in the future for its route to get to San Francisco.

Yes, it's complicated.  But, we're talking about a project that will cost way north of the currently suggested $117 billion price.

And the issue is confounded by the fact that there is no source in sight for that much money.  So, what to do?  First, the idea was to put what seed-money had been provided by the federal stimulus funds, around $3.5 billion, along with another $3 billion from HSR state bonds, to start construction in the Central Valley. Since that was the deal, the FRA now insists on this plan, which the rail authority is seeking to modify.

The problem with the Central Valley plan is that it would mean laying track in the low population farm country of California, and not connecting the tracks to the two major population centers, which was the intended purpose of this train.  And they certainly don't have the funds for building the whole thing.  

Therefore, the Central Valley plan was ridiculed as the "The Train to Nowhere." Furthermore, those tracks in the Central Valley are not intended to have electrification, signalling or rolling stock, and therefore aren't even high-speed rail suitable. That way, the rail authority can build 130 miles of track.  

But, now the project becomes "The Useless Tracks to Nowhere." The rail authority came under ever greater pressure particularly with the emerging fear that this is all this project would have to show for their extravagance when the funds ran out. 

However, with increased local demand from various transportation agencies, the rail authority recovered with a plan that acknowledges the hopelessness of future funding with a politically acceptable alternative solution. Put more of the limited funds into the two population centers (Bay Area and LA Basin) as well as into the Central Valley.  Spread it around. Put something visible where the voters live and work and make it look like a high-speed rail first step.  

One of the first hints of this new avenue of development came from the Governor who dismissed the rail authority's own cost forecast of $98 billion to $117 billion, by claiming it would cost nowhere that much. (How does he know that?) 

His solution to the high costs was to use existing rail corridors for the train wherever possible, which means the new buzz-phrase concocted by Eshoo, Simitian and Gordon, three state politicians. That piece of jargon is "Blended System," meaning that HSR could share existing rail in the population regions since the trains run slower there anyhow.  Lots of money saved! Brilliant!

What this alternative scenario has done is encourage Caltrain, the Peninsula commuter rail, and all the local politicians to welcome this new effort since funds will become available to electrify the diesel rail system for Caltrain.  

Furthermore, we can drop any conversation about HSR for the moment, since it would be years off, except of course that electrification is the first step toward the "blended plan" which will bring HSR on the same Caltrain tracks now used by the commuter train. And once there, when future funding appears, HSR will return to it's intention of four elevated tracks, also desired by Caltrain.

Let's put this in perspective.  We've already made the point over a thousand times on this blog, that high-speed rail is a terrible idea for California, and therefore certainly for the Caltrain corridor on the Peninsula.  It's a political pork project pure and simple.

At the same time, Caltrain has been suffering large annual short-falls on its operating budget since ticket sales account for around 50% of the operating costs. Their unsubstantiated claim has been that if they were to obtain electrified rolling stock, they would attract more passengers, or be able to carry the increase in demand.  I read that to say that although they now lose money on each rider, they will make it up in increased ridership.  That comes from an old joke, but in this case it's no joke. I might also point out that even with their clunky diesel heavy-rail rolling stock, they operate at around a 50% occupancy daily average. 

We've also been making the case here that Caltrain has outrageously excessive salaries and is a great example of mismanaged and unaccountable bureaucracy. They are, even with current technologies, willfully grossly inefficient and badly structured.  

Before helping them out of their perpetual "fiscal emergencies" and providing capital development outlays, such as for electrification, they need to get their management house in order.  Furthermore, given the undesirability of high-speed rail, we want them to "divorce" themselves from high-speed rail's ambitions to join Caltrain on the corridor. 

That's where it now stands. Caltrain claims electrification and new rolling stock will make them far more effective and efficient, thereby solving their annual revenue shortfall.  And, with high-speed rail, there is not only the prospect of electrification, but a future of four tracks and all cross-streets grade-separated.

All this is not a problem for some of us who, with Nancy Reagan, "Just say No." No to high-speed rail; no to electrification of Caltrain.  

However, for many others who seek Caltrain electrification and buy into the improvement-of-service logic, their attitude about high-speed rail's faults and virtues is ambiguous.  Which, unfortunately, plays directly into Caltrain's and the rail authority's hands.

Uploaded: Sunday, March 18, 2012, 10:43 AM

Editorial: Generous offer to electrify Caltrain, but at what cost?
High-Speed Rail Authority changes course to gain 'bookend' support

In its struggle to gain credibility in the wake of more than doubling the cost to build a high-speed-rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles, state rail authority officials Tuesday offered nearly $1 billion to help electrify Caltrain and a similar amount to a Los Angeles rail system.

It is an appealing offer. Caltrain desperately needs to electrify its aging fleet of diesel engines and upgrade its rolling stock and train control system to serve a growing number of riders. But if the state High-Speed Rail Authority's deal is accepted, Caltrain will effectively endorse blending its Peninsula corridor trains with high-speed trains on a mostly two-track system with passing lanes, which could end any talk of the four track sets in the original high-speed rail proposal which were roundly criticized on the Peninsula.

Under the blended plan, high-speed trains would reach speeds of over 200 miles per hour through the Central Valley and over Pacheco Pass to San Jose, where they would slow to just over 100 miles per hour to make the run on to San Francisco. Until recently, this plan -- originally advanced by state Sen. Joe Simitian, Rep. Anna Eshoo and Assemblyman Rich Gordon, all Peninsula Democrats -- was deemed unworthy by high-speed rail engineers. Then at a hearing held Tuesday in Mountain View, Dan Richard, the newly appointed chair of the high-speed rail authority and board member Jim Hartnett, embraced the idea, calling the Peninsula and Los Angeles segments "bookends" of the system, which will still include construction of a Central Valley segment that critics have called a "train from nowhere to nowhere."

No financial details were available when the new plan was rolled out, but Richard said that officials are rethinking the entire high-speed rail concept " that each station (segment) in front of us will have something that is useful -- like Caltrain electrification..." Whether the new approach, which would incorporate some parts of the existing system, will bring down the total price is not known. Last year estimates of the total cost jumped from about $40 billion to $98.5 billion. Rail officials had no answer Tuesday when asked whether there have been any changes in the project's overall cost estimate.

And that is the key question that we hope stays on the mind of every state legislator who ultimately will have to vote on whether to authorize sale of more that $2 billion in bonds to begin the "bookend" portions of the rail project. So far, the rail authority has yet to find any support from private industry to add to $10 billion in state bond funds and another $3.4 billion in a federal grant that must be used to build the Central Valley segment.

Palo Alto City Councilman Pat Burt, who chairs the Peninsula Cities Consortium (made up of Atherton, Menlo Park, Belmont, Burlingame and Brisbane) said he is concerned about the early investment which would be placed with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. He said the "devil will be in the details," and that he has already heard that the cities will not have a voice in any agreement (like financing Caltrain electrification) between the MTC and rail authority.

On the other hand, without help from the rail authority, it could be years before Caltrain ever finds the funds to electrify the rail line, which it desperately needs to accommodate more Peninsula passengers and increase speeds between San Jose and San Francisco.

Richard said the challenge for the authority is to show that construction of the Peninsula segment would provide lasting value even if the entire project does not get funded. A revised business plan "...will have a more rational basis for how the system develops..." he said.

It is no surprise that the thousands of jobs created if the project is built has great appeal to Peninsula and Los Angeles-area legislators. And by beginning work first on the "bookends" the rail authority has overcome a huge hurdle present in earlier plans, which would not have seen trains running for 10 years or so.

Nevertheless, the true test of whether the state wants and can afford high-speed rail must rest on its business plan. With the state and federal governments continuing to struggle to merely pay for day-to-day operations, the idea of adding to our debt load doesn't make sense.

The Peninsula and Caltrain could benefit from this new design, but in our view, that is not enough to justify its approval. Until the authority produces a viable business plan, we urge the legislature to sit tight.

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