Friday, April 27, 2012

What HSR is in California and what it isn't

The bulk of this article is about rail developments in the Los Angeles region and this online publication, CITYWATCH, is based in that city.

However, Ken Alpern raises some interesting, state-wide, high-speed rail issues. So we've focused on that and edited out the local LA parts of the article. If you wish, you can read those by clicking on the URL.

Alpern sets the HSR project into the context of state politics and Governor Brown's agenda. In comparison to the vast economic debacle the state finds itself in, the rail project could be considered small stuff. 

By the way, we should keep in mind that Ken Alpern is a HSR advocate and he says so in the article. Presumably he wants it "done right" as do many other critical voices. He cites Diane Harkey as one of those, and about that I disagree.  I believe that Assemblywoman Harkey has spelled out her opposition to this project in no uncertain terms, seeking its termination. As expected, being a Republican, she watched as her project-terminating legislation was brought to a halt by the Assembly Democrats. 

Nonetheless, it's symptomatic of the mis-governance of the state and the willingness of the dominant Party to have ends justify means.  For the sake of the large potential revenue stream from the Transportation Department in Washington, some of the more influential Democrats are willing to scold the HSR bureaucracy, but at the same time encourage the project as it churns and evolves before our very eyes. After all, it was the Democrats, Eshoo, Simitian and Gordon, who promoted the "blended" plan, which was an effort to salvage HSR on the Caltrain corridor.

It is highly unlikely that Senators Simitian and Lowenthal will take the definitive step of cutting the HSR budget in June, when a final decision will be demanded. The Governor's insistence on the promotion of high-speed rail -- translation: he wants the federal dollars -- will not be confronted by legislative Democrats. 

It's important to note that California as an economically viable state has "peaked" and will not be the golden magnet it once was. Populations are declining. Businesses are leaving. California will never recoup its massive manufacturing base and it will be generations, if ever, before the state can return to a sound, even scaled down, economic footing. 

Contrary to the sales pitch the rail authority offers in justifying this self-serving project, a HSR system would be a major cost burden on the state, not only for its decades-long construction and inevitable cost overruns, but its future, permanent operation.

Look at it this way.  Any transit operation needs maximum occupancy to be financially viable. That's true for buses, trolleys, subways, cruise-ships and passenger rail.  It's also true for the air carriers who have reduced the number of flights in order to assure full planes. Half empty conveyances are guaranteed money losers. We can assume, for the sake of this discussion, that an empty train and a full train cost the same to operate.

And high demand will generate the best revenue stream from the farebox.  That's why projected ridership is such a critical number.

How will that play out for HSR in California?  Unless the trains are full, their operation will be a major drain on the state's economy, with fewer riders, thus less farebox revenues, and the need for more subsidies. Even full trains will need to be subsidized, but as the ridership number declines, so does that revenue stream, thereby increasing the burden on state tax payers to keep the train running.

What to do? Fewer riders, fewer daily trains.  But, if there are only one or two such trains operating each day, what's the point of building this system in the first place? The 500 mile infrastructure will cost well over $100 billion to build; perhaps $200 billion, maybe more. This is not meant to be any railroad, but a highly specialized, 220 mph railroad, with far greater construction costs per mile. And, it's the most expensive train to operate, as the Chinese discovered. Energy consumption is enormous.

Running merely a couple of daily trains would be a joke if it weren't such a tragic mistake. Tragic because we already know how this story will turn out, but the Governor and Democrats aren't paying any attention. They want the short, quick fix of a fistful of dollars.  It is highly likely that they already know, as we do, that there are no further funds downstream. So, get what you can now and spend it on something, anything, rather than lose it -- that's the current strategy of the Governor and the train bureaucracy.

All these discussions about the train -- its various probable routes and alignments, its costs, its expected speed and it's construction timetable, its trip duration, its ridership numbers, and all those issues that are based on the presupposition that the train will be completed and operating some day -- are academic and pointless.  A high-speed train running eventually from Sacramento to San Francisco to Los Angeles and on to San Diego -- the package that was sold to the voters -- will never be built.

That's not what this project is about, although that's what the rail authority fantasy videos picture for us. They are like comic-book covers, flashy dramatizations with highly exaggerated and extremely dynamic imagery.  A science-fiction dream.

We can see the realities already emerging as the fantasy vaporizes. We are waking up to 50 miles of Caltrain electrification, a hundred miles of track intended for Amtrak use in the Central Valley. Expenditures in the LA Basin on Metrolink, or perhaps the train route of the Los Angeles-San Diego coastal route. A little here, a little there. The point being to burn up the funds as managed by the myriad local and regional transportation bureaucracies.

Whatever. This is a fund expenditure project, not a high-speed rail project.  It is, as writers say it, a political express gravy train bringing pork to cities and congressional districts, appeasing electorates.

Business as usual.

Will Transportation Get on Track in 2012?
Ken Alpern

ALPERN AT LARGE - On so many levels, and in so many arenas, it seems that the year 2012 is one in which so many questions remain unanswered, so many crossroads are to be confronted, and so many directions remain questioned as the right ones to follow.  Transportation is as appropriate an example to bring up as any, but it is as metaphorical an example as it is a tangible one. 

For example, who will be our President at the end of the year?  Is an Israeli/Iranian/Western war inevitable?  Will Europe and the US fall into an economic rabbit hole?  Will the Affordable Healthcare Act be partially or entirely overturned by the Supreme Court?  What about the Court’s decision on Arizona’s SB1070 addressing the enforcement of illegal immigration laws?

California is no longer the land of unending growth which is an opportunity for better planning but which also means that our working paradigms have to shift.  Our Governor is a blast from the past, but his vision for the future might need reworking in an environment where the state Legislature is so opposed to pension and fiscal reform that Governor Brown will have a hard time making his case to raise taxes –even if such a tax hike is necessary to balance Sacramento’s budget.

Furthermore, Governor Brown’s once and future California High-Speed Rail (CAHSR) plan needs so much reworking that even liberal stalwarts like LA Times’ George Skelton is demanding an honest re-vote as a statement of voter rights and consumer protection.  

That an outside group of financial experts has concluded that the CAHSR project will require billions of annual taxpayer dollars for maintenance after it opens for service isn’t helping the credibility of the Governor and those promoting this as a cost-effective effort.  Of course, these “experts”—and so many of those opposing the CAHSR project—have their own credibility problems.
And while many Republicans have a knee-jerk anti-rail bias,  there’s some Republican (and even Democratic) politicians such as Orange County Assemblywoman Diana Harkey who want to ask the voters whether they'd like to convert the nearly $10 billion they approved for high-speed rail into money to upgrade regional train systems like Metrolink, Caltrain and Amtrak.
Count me in as one who agrees with Assemblywoman Harkey that voters haven’t given up on commuter rail, or long-distance passenger rail—they just want honest, critically-examined projects that do NOT appear to be a bait-and-switch.  And I doubt that I’m not the only proponent of the CAHSR project who’s seeing where this state and country are headed, and want to preserve the possibility of $10 billion being spent on current commuter rail successes and not lose the money altogether.
It should be remembered that the nation’s second-highest Amtrak passenger rail route (behind the #1 Acela Line in the Northeast U.S.) is the Los Angeles-San Diego (LOSSAN) Corridor.  Both the Metrolink (Southern California) and Caltrain (Northern California) networks are both successful in their own right, and connect with the LOSSAN Corridor and other Amtrak routes; they would be excellent investments if the CAHSR project is just too darned expensive for enough transit advocates to agree with.

Which means that not only the direction of the planning, bidding and construction of the CAHSR project is up in the air, the trust between Sacramento and its state voters is similarly up in the air.  Does Jerry Brown and the Legislature really want to lose any chance for raising voter/taxpayer rates to balance the budget by clinging to what might be a CAHSR albatross hanging around its neck?


Governor Brown and his Legislature allies are moving in a direction, on a train (high-speed or otherwise) that will take them in a rather uncertain and dangerous direction if they don’t grasp the reality of the heightened credibility and transparency demanded by our modern society. 

(Ken Alpern is a former Boardmember of the Mar Vista Community Council (MVCC), previously co-chaired its Planning and Outreach Committees, and currently is Vice Chair of its MVCC Transportation/Infrastructure Committee. He is co-chair of the CD11 Transportation Advisory Committee and chairs the nonprofit Transit Coalition, and can be reached at He also co-chairs the grassroots Friends of the Green Line at   The views expressed in this article are solely those of Mr. Alpern.) –cw

Vol 10 Issue 34
Pub: Apr 27, 2012

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