Voices from Nowhere

Jul 28th, 2014 | Posted by

One of the worst calumnies flung at the California high speed rail project is that by starting in the Central Valley, the state is building a “train to nowhere.” Incoming State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De León echoed this sentiment when he told the LA Times that the only thing along the route were tumbleweeds, a remark that rankled the nearly two million not-tumbleweed human beings who live near HSR in the Central Valley.

To his immense credit, Sen. De León went to Fresno to apologize and I’m sure the matter is now closed. But there are plenty of other Californians who persist in dismissing the needs of millions of their fellow Golden Staters just because they don’t live near the coast.

The California high speed rail project will benefit the entire state, but perhaps nowhere as much as the Valley. Its impact there will be transformational, a historic opportunity to help reduce chronic poverty, joblessness, and pollution by connecting Valley cities to the thriving coastal metropolises. This blog has been a consistent cheerleader for the Central Valley and for HSR to serve it, and I’m bullish on the Valley’s future with HSR.

So too are some of James Fallows’s readers at The Atlantic, Central Valley residents who have weighed in on his ongoing California HSR series to explain why HSR belongs in their backyard:

The cost-benefit of this project is much greater for the SJV cities. They will be connected like never before to the state’s major metropolitan areas. Tedious drives with a roundtrip travel time of 6-8 hours will be reduced to 3 hours. Neglected city cores will be redeveloped, new businesses will move in, residents will have the opportunity to seek new job opportunities in S.F/L.A, and most importantly all of this will be the game changer the SJV needs to diversify it’s agriculture based economy.

The SJV, even during good times and in wet years, suffers from chronic high unemployment, usually double-digits. In order for California to succeed, this region of 4 million people also needs to succeed. HSR provides that opportunity through the new long-term jobs that will be sparked by HSR and the stations located in the city cores. The SJV usually gets neglected in Sacramento and here’s a perfect opportunity to get noticed.

Another reader points out that HSR will benefit the masses, not just the coastal elites who are perceived to be backing it:

People envision High Speed Rail as a pet project for liberal elites…but between Bakersfield and Modesto, it seems like the greatest demand would be from people who don’t take car ownership for granted, and definitely not one car for every adult member of a family. Is that what’s already driving Amtrak’s California routes to be some of the most heavily used in the country?

Of course, the most elite of the coastal liberals, like those living in Menlo Park, tend to oppose HSR out of pure selfishness. But there’s no doubt that HSR will be a huge boost to a region of the state that could use one.

That last reader comment alludes to something that should prove HSR will thrive in the Central Valley: ridership continues to rise on the San Joaquins, leading to calls for additional trains to expand service and relieve crowding.

Glad to see Fallows paying attention to the impact of HSR on the Central Valley, a place that deserves a better economy and a sustainable infrastructure, despite coastal NIMBY efforts to hold them down in poverty.

Appeals Court Upholds Pacheco Route EIR

Jul 24th, 2014 | Posted by

Anti-HSR activists lost another lawsuit today when the Third District Court of Appeals upheld the Pacheco Pass route EIR:

The Third District Court of Appeals in Sacramento heard an appeal from San Francisco Bay Area cities arguing that a planned path through Pacheco Pass hurts the environment.

The state argued the project was exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act because it is overseen by the federal Surface Transportation Board.

The court upheld the environmental review but also said the project must still abide by state environmental rules.

“Today’s court ruling reaffirms our successful compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act,” Lisa Marie Alley, a spokeswoman for the California High-Speed Rail Authority, said in a written statement.

This is good news, as the Pacheco route always made plenty of environmental sense. It’s not any better or worse than the Altamont route in that respect, especially when you consider that an Altamont alignment would also have impacts to neighbors and open space.

Typically, the NIMBYs and anti-HSR forces who brought the suit were quoted in the article pledging to continue to obstruct the project by any means possible. But hopefully this decision will be another sign that the HSR project is finally overcoming many of the obstacles placed in its path, and the nuisance suits filed by project opponents will begin to fade away.

One can always hope.

Turkey Looks to Expand HSR Network

Jul 23rd, 2014 | Posted by

As California HSR finally moves toward construction, Turkey is moving ahead with plans to expand its own existing HSR network, including the all-important Ankara to Istanbul line set to open on Thursday:

The Ankara-Istanbul highspeed rail line, the next stage of the high-speed train project, part of the government’s plan for a major overhaul of the country’s crumbling railroad infrastructure, will be launched on July 25, bringing the length of high-speed train railways to 1,420 kilometers. High-speed train services are expected to cover more cities by 2023 according to the government’s plans….

Turkey now aims to reach the goal of 25,000 kilometers of rail lines with 3,500 kilometers high-speed train railways and 8,500 kilometers regular railways by 2023, the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the Republic of Turkey. High-speed rail projects are also underway with a tender being launched for a high-speed train line between Sivas and the eastern province of Erzincan. Construction continues on high-speed rail lines that will connect Konya province to Gaziantep in the southeast through Mersin, Adana and Osmaniye in the south.

All in all, 17 provinces where almost half of Turkey’s 76 million residents live will be connected by high-speed trains. Turkey will also acquire seven sets of high-speed trains that can travel 300 kilometers per hour and 106 sets of highspeed trains. The first 20 sets of 106 high-speed trains will be obtained from foreign companies while the remainder will be jointly manufactured in Turkey by foreign and Turkish companies.

It seems that Americans have, for the moment, given up on any hope of catching up with the rest of the world when it comes to 21st century technology. We’re living through reactionary times, where the dominant political and media mindset is one of standing in the way of progress in order to preserve a failed status quo.

California is the exception so far, having to step up where a Tea Party Congress refuses to do so. The rest of the country will catch up, and thankfully California’s political leaders remain rightly supportive of the HSR project.

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As Expected, Private Investors Showing Interest in CA HSR

Jul 21st, 2014 | Posted by

A common criticism leveled against the California high speed rail project is that private investors haven’t committed anything to the project. That’s always been a flawed argument. This blog has repeatedly made the point that private investment will show up once the state government has shown it is committed to delivering its own funding to the project, without which no private investor is going to be interested in it.

That’s exactly what is happening right now. With the recent budget vote to deliver hundreds of millions of dollars a year in cap-and-trade funds to the California HSR project, private investors are now stepping up just as we always said they would:

Inking a deal that will send the project hundreds of millions of dollars a year in fees collected from polluters is the signal the private sector was waiting for, according to formal letters of interest the state received last month. With only a fraction of the project’s funding in hand, the state needs private investment for about one-third of the final price tag to have any hope of completing the rail line.

“The new funding gives us confidence that as political leanings and priorities change, it won’t be easy for the government to back out of its end of the deal,” said Stephen Polechronis, senior vice president of Los Angeles-based AECOM, one of the world’s largest engineering and construction firms. “We feel we have a partner now.”…

But it’s significant that Vinci Concessions, a French company that is considered a world leader in developing highly technical high-speed rail projects, is one of the nine companies that eagerly wrote to California about the bullet train last month. Several other firms that wrote letters are based in Spain, also home to a state-of-the-art system….

“Developing the first high-speed rail corridor in the United States is an extremely exciting proposition,” said Sidney Florey, Vinci Concessions’ director of North American business development, whose company is now building a bullet train between Tours and Bordeaux in France. “If California makes the right offer, anybody in this industry would be interested.”

This isn’t the first time that the private sector has shown interest. The Authority has been receiving letters and proposals from the private sector for years now, ongoing proof that the private side was always interested in getting involved. But the cap-and-trade vote has produced a different and much greater level of interest that has grabbed the media’s attention.

Let’s hope this is the first sign of a turnaround in the media’s narrative about the project. With cap-and-trade funding and now meaningful steps toward private funding, the HSR project is on more solid ground than it has been since the Tea Party takeover of the House in 2010.

Note: apologies for the lack of posts in recent days, as I was in Detroit for the Netroots Nation conference. And yes, I rode the People Mover in a complete loop. It was…somewhat useful. Bring on Woodward Avenue light rail!