As part of my continuing intermittent series of posts publicly worrying about California lighting its money on fire with a high speed rail construction project, I offer another post publicly worrying about California lighting its money on fire with a high speed rail construction project. And again I want to impress the viewer with the nuance that I want to have high speed rail here — I’m just convinced that the state is botching the job.
Today, I note that the California High Speed Rail Authority has had a change in leadership. Its new chief executive is the former head of the California Department of Transportation, ubiquitously known in the state as “Caltrans.” Now, I actually have a pretty high opinion of Caltrans, since I’ve taken the time to consider the massive, massive job that it has been charged with. They aren’t perfect and construction on the roads is a massive headache when you encounter it, but all things considered they’re as on top of the job as seems reasonably possible.
So the change in day-to-day leadership is a good thing. But the appointed directors overseeing the project seem content to continue the previous iteration of the plans to phase in the high speed rail project in the San Joaquin Valley rather than in either the San Francisco peninsula or the Los Angeles basin. The reason?
Not only can the train run full-speed in the valley – which it plainly cannot do in Anaheim or Atherton on the San Francisco Peninsula – but it has a right-of-way problem that makes building in the valley urgent. In the Bay Area and Southern California, the authority plans to share long-established rights of way with Caltrain and Metrolink. But in the valley, the fastest-growing part of the state, Richard said, the authority is finding new apartment buildings popping up on its intended alignment before it can make an offer for the land.
In other words, the route through the San Joaquin Valley has been mapped out, and is known. But the land hasn’t been bought yet and local governments, apparently believing that there simply never will be high-speed rail there, are authorizing the development of that land. I also find the mention of apartment buildings as opposed to simply “development” sort of weird and I wonder if this is not in reference to a single development project somewhere that Cal Rail finds particularly troublesome.
Note: I no longer expect newspaper reporters to actually investigate the content of things their sources tell them like this. I mean, why should a reporter bother to see if something like this is true or understand the significance of remarks in a press release? Why should a journalist discern the reality behind sanitized public remarks? What is this, the Seventies? And I’ve not sufficient time this morning before going to my real job to investigate this myself, so I’m just going to leave that thought where it is. Now to be fair, the Orange County Register’s reporter does have a history of investigating government corruption with some skill — but does not seem in this article to have looked in to the question of even-at-face-value problems described by the Cal Rail folks at their recent dog and pony show.
After all, the real focus of my critique is on the high-level design and implementation decisions made by Cal Rail. The Bakersfield-Fresno segment cannot generate sufficient ridership on its own for that portion of the line to possibly be economically viable. Yes, these are bigger cities than most people think, but all the same I remain unconvinced that there is or ever will be enough traffic between them for this lone segment to generate even an operating profit, much less pay back all the bond money used to create the line. There will not be until and unless the lines reach at least one anchor city: one of a) Los Angeles, b) Anaheim, c) San Jose, d) San Francisco, or e) Sacramento.
Contrary to the vision of possibility articulated in Cal Rail’s press release and parroted by the reporters, high speeds can be achieved in urban areas. If the track to be used is dedicated and the right of way physically removed from surface traffic. This can be accomplished in any number of ways. The track can be elevated. Why ever not? Light rail tracks are elevated now. I just saw the Metrolink in Los Angeles’ Chinatown and damn if the whole thing wasn’t up on big concrete stilts. We get earthquakes in California, but somehow these things are engineered to be safe enough to survive them. (This is not an ironic or sarcastic remark — I have no doubt that they are earthquake safe up to 8.0 or better.)
More importantly, somehow the money was found to elevate these tracks. With the rich supply of money made available by the voters four years ago, the rich supply of Federal matching funds made available from Washington, and the prospect of endless money to come from a spineless Sacramento, there is no reason I can think of that dedicated high speed rail tracks through the urban centers necessary for the economic viability of Cal Rail could not be elevated. Alternatively, tunneling is an option albeit an apparently more expensive one — but trenching might not be quite so costly as tunneling. Trenching worked reasonably well for the Alameda Corridor Project, linking the Los Angeles/Long Beach harbors to the cargo rail yards in east Los Angeles.
Here’s the basic problem with travel by train in California: it’s so slow and so expensive it can’t compete with cars, much less airplanes. A real example will illustrate this. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, my parents rented a house on the beach in Encinitas. Mrs. Likko and I drove down to spend the holiday weekend with them. It took us over four hours of drive time, some of it in frustrating traffic stops, and two-thirds of a tank of gas each way. Total cost: let’s call it about $100 in gas and wear and tear on the car. Total commute time: eight hours. That’s what rail transit was competing with. Now, rail service was available. Going by rail would have been somewhat less stressful than the drive, but at $100 per person per leg of the trip (involving switching trains twice, once in Los Angeles and again in Anaheim), the total dollar cost would have been four times what the drive was, and the trip would have taken six hours each way: we’d have spent half again as much time in transit, in exchange for the privilege of spending more money to get there slower.
Meanwhile, the traffic that does exist for commercial activity between the central valley cities or social and commuting purposes consists to a very large extent of traffic from one suburban point to another suburban point. Having just been in downtown Fresno recently, and traveling to Bakersfield often enough as I do, I can attest that the areas in the immediate downtown zones have some nice tall buildings and governmental complexes, sure. But most of the economic activity is going on in areas that are not within walkable distances from the downtown areas were Cal Rail stations are like to be placed.
Here’s a reality check. If my office is in Bakersfield, I have maybe a one in four chance that I’m within walking distance of the downtown rail lines near the civic center. If I’m going to an office in Fresno, I have maybe a one in four chance that it’s going to be within walking distance of Fresno’s civic center. More likely I’m officed somewhere on Bakersfield’s east side on or near California Avenue, and more likely I’m going to another office in somewhere like Clovis. So that means cabs or rental cars or some other kind of local commuting. Problems I can solve with non-trivial but low effort, true. But still logistical problems that I must solve, and an addition to my actual commuting time. If, in theory, the segment of my trip from Bakersfield to Fresno takes one hour (as opposed to two hours in my car) then I’m going to add at least half an hour getting from my location in Bakersfield to the rail line, and half an hour getting from the end of the line in Fresno to my location there. Now I’m back up to two hours of real commuting time, and have spent more money than I would have spent otherwise.
Now, Cal Rail says “Once operating, projections estimate 4,500 boardings daily in Fresno and 5,100 in Bakersfield, with travel time between Fresno and Bakersfield estimated at 37 minutes.” That’s great. But that’s once the whole line is up and operating, from Anaheim to San Francisco, and high speed transit is implemented at all points where it is hoped for. It’s 114 miles of track — 37 minutes from point A to point B is an average speed of 220 miles per hour. That isn’t going to be possible even taking Cal Rail’s optimistic public statements until the next decade (Register’s emphasis eliminated, my emphases added):
The authority hopes to begin construction on the Bakersfield-to-Fresno segment in summer 2013. By the end of the decade it plans to connect that segment to Palmdale and to start high-speed service.
Asked about the existing Metrolink service from Sylmar to Palmdale, which a questioner said was very slow, Richard appeared elated at the characterization. He suggested slow Metrolink service would encourage the public to demand completion of high-speed rail from Palmdale into the Los Angeles Basin.
“We will hit a tipping point for high-speed rail when people see they can do part of their trip at very high speed,” Richard said. “So I’ll be happy that it’s slow, for a while.”
So for several years, it won’t be 37 minutes from Bakersfield to Fresno, it’ll be longer. And that is the level of service Cal Rail intends to use to introduce itself to the public. It’s not even close to competitive with auto travel. Rail travel wasn’t even an option for my Thanksgiving commute. Even if Cal Rail were somehow conjured by magic into full operating existence today, it would still not solve the commuting problem for the Bakersfield commuter looking to do business in Fresno. In both cases, choosing a private car to the train is a no-brainer from a time perspective alone. Add to that the cost. Some people don’t have cars to have that be an option? I understand that, but if they can’t afford a car, chances are they can’t afford a train ticket, either.
The right-of-way issue in the San Joaquin Valley ought to be solved by tracking the route of either Interstate Highway 5 or the California Aqueduct along the western side of the Valley, and running spur lines into the medium-sized cities on the Valley’s eastern side. Those spur lines need not run at the ultra-high speeds, and running spur lines can reduce the number of interim stops, shortening travel time. One stop could send a spur to both Bakersfield and Fresno, another stop could service Merced and Stockton. Two stops instead of four means faster commuting times on the all-important line between Los Angeles and San Francisco: tapping into the downtown-to-downtown markets is the key to economic viability.
Now, Cal Rail insists on the eastern rather than the western route. And maybe it’s too late to change that now. So, why isn’t Cal Rail buying these rights of way right now? Why haven’t they been given the power to condemn these rights of way right now? How can it be the case that local governments have the power to zone and approve development on route that they know or ought to know are along the proposed Cal Rail route? Wait — Cal Rail has this power, but apparently has declined to use it. Why is this? It isn’t for lack of available money to pay for these rights — billions and billions of dollars have been raised in bond sales and put into Cal Rail’s coffers. Why isn’t that money being used to reserve and clear out the route right now? How can it be that one land developer (or perhaps a handful of them) building a few apartment houses is holding a ten-digit public works project for ransom?
The fundamental conceptual problems of Cal Rail have not been and will apparently never be addressed. Cal Rail seems doomed to be prohibitively expensive to build, not economically viable to operate, and not competitive with cars on either a cost or time basis for its users. California’s taxpayers are being done a great disservice. Again.