California! No Bonds For You!

What CalRail promised us

What CalRail promised us

It’s going to be very hard to move to the next phase of pre-construction work on the California High Speed Rail project if there is no money to pay for more pre-construction work. It’s not so much that I expect that the funds will be paid by anything other than public bonds (unless private industry gets involved, which so far it hasn’t been). Nor am I doubtful that ultimately, the issuance of those bonds will be found “necessary and desirable” and they will go forward.

No, what really bugs me is that after having spent two-thirds of a billion dollars on pre-construction consultants (notwithstanding that not one inch of track has yet been laid eighteen years after the legislature originally created it), the California High-Speed Rail Authority couldn’t put together a report explaining to the public why those bonds, and the project they will be used for, are “necessary and desirable.” These are not difficult concepts, nor are they new to those acquainted with public construction projects in this state (or many others).

I say again, I want this project to be a success. This is the bedrock infrastructure program for the twenty-first century in this state. We need to get it right.

What CalRail really does

What CalRail really does

The Legislature created the California High Speed Rail Authority in 1996. Its original plan called for SF-LA service by 2020, with total construction costs of $25 billion. In the intervening time, virtually the only work on the project has been done by white-collar workers, mostly in a large handful of office buildings — lawyers, accountants, bond brokers, engineers, architects, cartographers, and bureaucrats of various sorts. Today, the target date is nine years later, the original advertised average speed of 220 miles per hour has been cut in half, and the anticipated price tag has risen to $68 billion. And they can’t even get the white-collar stuff right.

At what point does it become apparent that things have gone horribly, horribly awry, and that something dramatically new has to happen to change its progress? Today, there are eight billion missing reasons to think that this point has been passed. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers’ Association may be cheering, but I’m not. I’d rather see the money be spent right, on a project that’s going to work. It’s our future at stake, and it’s being expensively pissed away.

The Governor and the Legislature need to take action:

  • They need to give CalRail substantial waivers and variances from compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act, and similar waivers and variances from the Federal government must be actively solicited, so that additional hundreds of millions of dollars need not be spent on EIRs.
  • The Governor needs to seek, and the Legislature needs to grant, authority to make more rapid changes in both the executive board and administrative leadership of the Authority. Does the recent failure in court, by itself, mean that heads need to roll? Not on its own — but there’s been plenty of other indicia that the fish is indeed rotting.
  • The Authority needs to seriously contemplate dramatic re-routes of the Central Valley segments of its route along the western side of the valley along I-5, with spur lines going to serve these cities, rather than the existing eastern route following Highways 47 and 99, running through every urban center in the Central Valley, because the land along I-5 is cheaper and less-developed, and the resulting route will involve fewer stops and higher transit speeds.
  • A special court should be created to determine the condemnation value of property along the final right-of-way, to streamline the condemnations when they actually happen.
  • And elevation of rail lines through the urban areas should be proposed by engineers to allow dedicated, high-speed track to serve those primary draws of economic support for the eventual system, so as to allow for the promised high-speed service and enhanced safety of isolating the high-speed trains from the heavier, slower counterparts on the ground, rather than having that track shared with existing, slow-speed commuter and freight lines. Expensive? Sure, but it’s not as though the rest of the project is cheap. Do it right or don’t do it at all.

I’ve accepted that public transit on this scale will always require a public subsidy. The point is to provide infrastructure, after all. And perhaps CalRail will never be completely self-supporting with ticket fares, as would have been ideal. But it should at least work right, and do so within our lifetimes. And it would be nice if construction did not wind up costing so much that the state will be required to put the project into receivership.

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46 thoughts on “California! No Bonds For You!

  1. Building large-scale infrastructure is hard. Doing it on a state level, where budgets have to be balanced annually and local politics carries much more weight, is even harder. And doing so in California — with its very strong environmental laws — is proving to be just impossible. The feds just have to take the lead, and work in conjunction with the state legislature on funding and environmental compliance. This is not something that should ever be done by initiative.

    (And, frankly, federal pressure to achieve the federal goal is the only way to beat back the power of the cities along the route that all want a stop.)

    Federal waivers, Burt? You’d have to get a pocket bill through Congress that provided exemptions to a whole raft of statutes: NEPA, of course, but also the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, and a bunch more that I can’t think of right now. The only question is whether the bill would be more hated by the enviros (for creating a precedent of granting enviro waivers to big transportation projects) or the conservatives (for establishing a fund for a California rail project outside the usual transportation bill cycle).

    (I look forward to your next post on California. Given the one on LA water and this one, I think your next target should be the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan.)

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    • Ooh. I know next to nothing about the Delta Plan other than that there is one. Something about shrimp in the California Aqueduct and that’s why my neighborhood can’t get as much water as it wants. (Oh, that and there not being enough water to go around.)

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      • Believe me, up here in the wilds of NorCal, its all the talk fit for bumper stickers… (I live relatively close to the delta, and see a lot of the activism materials for those opposed to the project, but nothing in support of it, which I think would be further south, as the Fresno area tends toward the “Food grows where water flows” slogans.)

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  2. This is the bedrock infrastructure program for the twenty-first century in this state. We need to get it right.

    Respectfully, I disagree. Yes, California needs rail in the 21st century. But before it gets too concerned about replacing auto/plane service between the southern and northern metro areas, it needs to be concerned about replacing the automobile within those metro areas. I’ll even provide indicators that can be used in the future to tell when it’s time for high-speed rail. When someone who has tickets to the Lakers game, and no matter where they live in the LA basin they can make the largest part of the trip to and from the game on passenger rail conveniently, then it’s time. When someone in the San Francisco – San Jose – Sacramento triangle doesn’t have to think twice about using rail to get to a Niners game, it’s time. When California is putting 20 million butts a day into seats on light rail every day, it’s time.

    Pick any benefit that HSR would provide, other than HSR simply for the sake of having HSR, and a dollar spent on light rail instead will produce considerably more of said benefit.

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    • What you describe is the mission of light urban rail. HSR has a different mission than this. While these are not either/or sorts of objectives, transportation within a metro area is a different proposition than transportation between metro areas. Comparing California to New York, CalRail is intended to be more closely analogous to the Acela than the #4 subway line.

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    • That is being planned for, and discussions are underway to address that. Connectivity with high-speed rail is part of the entire plan. That includes buses, taxis, rental cars, bike shares, shuttles, light rail, passenger rail spurs, etc etc. It’s part of a larger plan. High-speed rail isn’t an isolated entity. And if you see that as an insurmountable issue, then how do you get to airports??? We seem to do just fine accessing them. Why are train stations so much different?

      America used to be the land of innovation. Now other nations are eating our lunch. We built our economy on the car, and it’s taking us off the cliff. Go to Europe. Great rail. Go to China. Great rail. Japan, the same. Even Morocco, Mexico, and other developing nations are planning for high-speed rail. But we just can’t keep up. We are so tied to our cars that we can’t see beyond building more heavily-subsidized highways.

      We may have killed California high-speed rail, but I believe our children will regret our short-sightedness. They’re the ones who will have to deal with highway gridlock.

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      • Yes indeed we had that, for example look at all the bus and car services to LAX (they have existed for 40+years), or to what was then Hollywood Burbank/ Bob Hope today. But you have a chicken and egg problem here, unless you fund the buses with public money they wont start until there is enough of a market and so on. But of course then which travel time do you use in the metric door to door or station to station. Door to Door could add 1 hour on each end of travel time, such as I used in 1970 in LA, a taxi to the bus station (2 miles) and the bus from Pasadena to Lax. If you then add 1/2 hour (min wait time for the train to leave compared to 2 hours for a plane) It becomes a question when the drive versus transit curve crosses, in particular if you need a rental car at your destination, so do you build large rental lots at the train station, or move the station to the airports, where a lot of the local infrastructure already exists. (Sort of like in Amsterdam or other places in Europe, or even Gatwick, all be it trains don’t go to far away places without going to downtown London, but the base infrastructure is there right now. so you build the rail terminals at airports, and shaft the folks in the downtown real estate groups cutting their profits. In La it might be Bob Hope (Hollywood Burbank), and in the bay area as much San Jose as well as SFO.

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    • Better rail transit would provide another transportation option to people. The more people using rail to travel means fewer cars on the road leading to less congestion and traffic jams. It’s also better for the environment than cars and less polluting.

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      • Automobiles are not sustainable as a single mode of transportation- nothing is. There has to be multiple modes of getting around, of moving people and goods.

        Planes, as you mention, are efficient but generally speaking, its more expensive to pick something up and fly it through the air, than putting it in a box on rails. This is why freight trains have been wildly successful, while air freight is limited to very expensive items.

        We need an additional means of moving between cities, and the interstate isn’t efficient enough. Or more precisely, single passengers in individual cars isn’t efficient enough. Buses probably are the best competitor to trains, and always have been.

        Like Burt, I want the HSR to succeed, but so far the performance by all parties hasn’t left me with a lot ot optimism.

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      • Buses, cars and puddle jumpers seem to have it pretty well covered to me. If I was California I would concentrate on paying down the debt and stocking up public service promises.

        I guess I think in terms of trade offs. The tradeoffs are not just between alternative types of transportation ( all of which are more efficient than hi speed rail but less cool).

        The larger view of tradeoffs is that every dollar spent on this boondoggle is one less to be spent on education, aid to the poor, medical care for those in need or public service pensions, which are not going to be paid otherwise.

        Perhaps if we names each train we could make this point clearer. We could call one train “Your Pension”. We could call another “your kids education”. Another could be “your kidney dialysis”

        Then every time a train goes by we could point to it and say “look, Harry, there goes Your Pension.”

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      • Is the Interstate Highway system an example of how government does great things that the private sector could never do, or a wasteful giveaway to the oil and automobile industries (but not to the unions!)? Or does it depend on the rhetorical context?

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      • Is the Interstate Highway system an example of how government does great things that the private sector could never do,

        Arguably, yes.

        Also: when you say “could never do”, do you mean “it’s logically impossible that” or “it’s totally within the realm of practice that”? Logical possibilities aren’t that relevant when it comes to real world practices, motivations and outcomes (tho they obviously are relevant to theoretical claims).

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      • Boondoggle definition:

        “noun
        1.
        work or activity that is wasteful or pointless but gives the appearance of having value.”

        I have never argued that the interstate highway system is a boondoggle. Seems like the kind of thing governments should provide. Spending tens of billions of dollars we don’t have on a new form of transportation that is slower and or more expensive than existing ones does earn the term.

        So far the only good argument I have seen is that it is the coolest way imaginable to get to Bakersfield. Yep, boondoggle.

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      • In hindsight, yes the Interstate is a wonderful thing, both efficient and appropriate.

        But when it was planned it was lambasted as a boondoggle-“another ascent into the stratosphere of New Deal jitterbug economics,”
        http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/publications/publicroads/96summer/p96su10.cfm

        And it wasn’t inevitable- here is an article from 1947 urging the creation of a nationwide network of….high speed ultrawide rails.
        http://blog.modernmechanix.com/grow-up-railroads/

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      • Roger,
        Interstate Highways are absolutely a boondoggle. Drive 79 and you’ll understand. It’s a beautiful road, but really, did we need it for national security?
        Interstate Highways are a true handout to the trucking industry, nowadays, and don’t serve their original intended purpose…

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    • Then you’re asking the wrong people. Try driving from San Francisco to LA and beyond. Heck, try driving from Palo Alto to San Jose or Santa Barbara to LA. If you’re lucky, you may get there the same day you start your trip. Highways are not sustainable. Widen them? To what point? Eight lanes? Ten? Twelve?? Whose property will you be taking? And didn’t we widen highways before? Did it solve anything?

      Try taking a plane from Merced to Silicon Valley. Or from Bakersfield to San Diego. Just try. You have to go to Dallas or Phoenix or Seattle first. There are a whole lot of people living in the Central Valley who are Californians and who want decent transportation. Yet we collect their taxes and can’t include them in the state’s transportation infrastructure. Don’t they deserve connections to the rest of the state? The division in California isn’t north vs south. It’s coastal vs inland. And inland people are being sorely ignored.

      I could give you many other reasons for needing a good rail system in California. But try chewing on those reasons for starters.

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      • I grew up in California and spend about a fifth of my time there now in retirement, so I am aware if how much better the roads and freeways are compared to my main residence now in Illinois. The best term to describe it is incomparably better.

        Inner city traffic is of course crowded due to population growth, but driving between cities is fast, cheap and convenient. I do it routinely. For longer trips, from San Diego to San Jose, I am usually amazed at how cheap the flights are, though they did go up for some reason last summer. Still faster and probably cheaper than a train, I suspect.

        The small planes pretty much fly every hour to the little cities in the valley. If demand was there for more direct flights, I see no reason why the airlines wouldn’t rise up to deliver it.

        So, the question is why are Californians spending tens of billions of dollars on trains to the valley? I am still as confused as when I first asked.

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        • IMO, it’s a combination of two things. First, HSR is cool, and Californians want their state to be a place where cool, innovative things are created and used. A form of ego, I suppose. Second, we see effective regional rail elsewhere in the world competing with air travel and catalyzing economic development. Especially for the Central Valley cities, CalRail is seen as a powerful way to make those places grow and prosper. ‘Course, these are guesses; it’s hard to correctly gauge the collective public intent of a polity as large and diverse as California.

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      • Yeah, I buy this argument. High speed rail is cool. The Egyptians built big pyramids and monuments. In comparison, at least high speed rail provides transportation. Not cost effective transportation, but at least cool transportation.

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      • Inner city traffic is of course crowded due to population growth, but driving between cities is fast, cheap and convenient.

        Did you read what Rosie wrote? “Palo Alto to San Jose” is “between cities”, and is neither fast nor convenient. (During working hours, anyway. I’m sure it’s fine at 3 AM.)

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      • Yeah, I used to work in Menlo Park, so I am familiar with rush hour traffic there. If local residents want to extend the Bart or make more bus routes or bike lanes or more car pool lanes or whatever on their own dime they should feel free to do so. My guess is buses will be incomparably more efficient but buses are not sexy and cool and Walmart shoppers take them, so that is probably out.

        My comment was aimed at transportation between metro areas, though I use that term loosely with these various stops in the Valley.

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      • Actually if you look a Europe a lot of the high speed rail goes around the alps, although they are now digging very expensive tunnels 10s of km long for rail. (not cheap). But the UK has no geographic barriers like the Grapevine/Techapi pass), neither does the french TGV network which avoids the alps and runs down the Rhone Valley, In Germany most of the Traffic is again north of the Alps. So a large piece of the cost of the Ca project will be digging the tunnels to parallel the stretch from Bakersfield to Mohave, where the land rises 3500 feet, or going around the Soledad tunnel which is a 7000 foot tunnel betweem the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys (under the I5-ca 14 interchange). (this tunnel was dug in 1876).

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      • Roger,
        people love trains because it means that they get places more efficiently than cars.
        That is to say, you spend a premium waiting for any public transportation. If public transportation is going to compete in people’s eyes, it should be at least as efficient timewise as cars.

        That said, limited access highways are also pretty fun.

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    • Because bus tickets from LA to SF can cost over $20, sometimes approaching $70 (but sometimes as low as $1). With Megabus only running 5 buses a day on that route, there’s simply no way to generate enough revenue to make graft and kickbacks worthwhile.

      But with HSR, it’s like buying 3 billion bus tickets at once! Assuming the number of riders stays comparable, that’s enough tickets to give the current riders (surely several hundred a day) free daily tickets for the next 30,000 years.

      Anyway, what California really needs is a way to link LA and SF by water, greatly lowering the cost of transporting heavy manufactured goods and commodities between them. A series of inland canals might do the trick, much as was built in England during the Industrial Revolution.

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      • Anyway, what California really needs is a way to link LA and SF by water, greatly lowering the cost of transporting heavy manufactured goods and commodities between them. A series of inland canals might do the trick, much as was built in England during the Industrial Revolution.

        What are the arguments for a canal system? I’m interested, seriously. The arguments against that come to mind quickly include: (1) Both cities have large seaports and a relatively straight coastline in between; they are already connected by water. (2) Presumably most of the canal system (in terms of miles) would be located in the San Joaquin Valley. Getting from LA as far as Bakersfield (elevation 400 ft at the south end of the valley) requires getting over one or more mountain ranges. What’s the smallest elevation change involved (up and down)? 6,000 feet? The successful canal systems around the world deal in a few hundred feet of change, at most. (3) Much of the British “canal” system was actually engineered stretches of existing rivers. Much of the route of an LA-to-SF canal will be through arid or semi-arid surroundings, and water is already scarce in California. Where will the water for hundreds of miles of canal route come from? (4) The canals largely went out of business for freight purposes once rail technology reached the point where railroads could carry bigger loads, carry them faster, and had cheaper construction costs. There’s already a very large amount of north-south rail freight traffic in the San Joaquin Valley, so the canals would have to be cheaper than modern rail.

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      • Back in the good old days they used high speed mules. It wasn’t quite carbon footprint neutral, but it was much better than the internal combustion engine, which may be the most destructive invention of all time. When sea levels rise twenty feet and we are all sick from malaria, we will wish we had stuck with the mules.

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  3. You fell for it, man. Why would you dig a canal between two cities which are already linked by an ocean?

    Yep, walked into that one. OTOH, Britain did it multiple times. The Caledonian Canal that crosses Scotland continues to operate today. France built the Canal des Deux Mers to connect the Atlantic and Mediterranean. A portion of the Deux Mers canal is still open for navigation, and is also used to distribute irrigation water. Multiple mountain reservoirs were built to provide water to operate the Deux Mers.

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  4. “They need to give CalRail substantial waivers and variances from compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act, and similar waivers and variances from the Federal government must be actively solicited, so that additional hundreds of millions of dollars need not be spent on EIRs.”

    Sure, cause Laws are just a suggestion when a cool project is desired. Sorry, you shouln’t get to skip compliance for enviro law just because it might be be beneficial for commerce, the enviroment, ease traffic or any other damn reason. These state passed these laws for the express purpose of having those impact reports. If private industry and everyone else has to comply, the gov’t does too. Boo hoo. If those enviro reports cost too much or take too much time, maybe THEY should be re-evaluated for everyone’s benefit.

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