I’ve been meaning to write in detail about the Republican attack on Caltrain electrification. But today the Trump Administration dropped the bomb: they’re delaying the grant decision, perhaps for a year:
The Federal Transit Administration delayed a decision Friday on whether to approve a $650 million federal grant for electrification of a San Francisco Bay Area train system that would also help California’s high-speed rail project.
Congressional Republicans had pushed the administration to reject the application from Caltrain. In a letter sent Friday, the same day a decision was due, the agency said it was deferring a ruling so the project could be considered as part of President Donald Trump’s budget. No timeline was given in the letter, and spokeswoman Angela Gates said the project would be reviewed along with the president’s other fiscal 2018 budget considerations.
While it’s possible this means Trump wants to take credit for it, or turn it into a public private partnership that can enrich his allies, it’s also likely that this is just a fuck you to California – siding with the Republicans who want to smash rail everywhere they see it.
This is a bad sign for federal rail funding more broadly, at least in California. It will encourage more interventions by Congressional Republicans to block federal grants.
Most importantly, it shows the urgent need for California to find its own sources of rail money. The federal government is now completely unreliable. If California is serious about climate change, infrastructure, and resisting Trump, they will find a way to replace the billions in lost federal funding for projects all over the state – including HSR.
The San Francisco Chronicle has an excellent article examining the massive construction work on high speed rail that is taking place in the Fresno area right now. The article shows a great contrast between the hard-working men and women building HSR and a better Central Valley – and the haters who still, after nine years, bitterly refuse to accept reality.
The columns of the superstructure stand nearly 80 feet tall, while the bridge deck is emerging as a sleek, aerial concourse. The span angles only slightly to accommodate the wide turns that can be expected with long and speedy trains. Each day, the giant viaduct grows as cranes hoist steel and concrete. All materials are American-made, officials say.
Two similar spans are under construction nearby. About 12 miles to the north, a nearly mile-long viaduct is rising over the San Joaquin River, while about 25 miles to the north, in Madera County, a bridge is materializing across the Fresno River.
What do HSR opponents want – to just let this infrastructure sit there unused in the hot summer sun? That would be absurd.
Go read the whole article and enjoy the photos of California’s high speed rail project. Putting steel in the ground makes a big difference. It shows the whole state this project is real, it’s alive, and it’s going to survive whatever efforts are made by HSR deniers in California or in Congress to kill it.
Alon Levy has a great article at the Voice of San Diego exploring how to speed up the popular passenger rail service between Los Angeles and San Diego well before the California high speed rail project gets to that segment – which is likely many years away. His answer: take advantage of new FRA rules and electrify:
The way to achieve trip times lower than two hours on legacy track is to combine new federal regulations and strategic investments intended to take advantage of the new rules. In late 2016, the Federal Railroad Administration released new regulations for passenger rail safety, which allow lightly modified European trains to run on U.S. tracks. Previously, unique U.S. rules required trains to be heavier. This follows a regulatory change from 2010 that allows trains to run faster on curves, subject to safety testing. The existing diesel locomotives are too heavy to take advantage of this change, but lighter electric passenger trains face no such obstacle.
This means that the region needs to invest in electrifying the corridor from San Diego to Los Angeles, and potentially as far north as San Luis Obispo. Between San Diego and Los Angeles, the likely cost – based on the California high-speed rail electrification cost – is about $800 million.
Levy points out that electric engines not only allow for faster service on legacy tracks, but that their superior power allows for cheaper ways to get around slow parts of the route:
All of the above improvements work together. New regulations allow the corridor to use more powerful trains. This encourages electrification, in order to immediately buy the best standard-speed trains available, and run faster on curves. Electrification, in turn, encourages a cheaper Miramar Hill realignment than the proposed tunnel.
I think this is a brilliant idea. At a cost of less than $1 billion, it’s affordable and can add desperately needed capacity to the crowded and busy LA-SD corridor. I don’t know how this would affect Metrolink operations, especially their Inland Empire-OC line (which under this proposal would be half electric and half not), but there are probably ways to deal with that.
California will need to step up and take a greater role in funding transportation infrastructure now that Trump is in the White House, and this LA-SD plan is a good and affordable place to start.
Damien Newton has an excellent article debunking Ralph Vartabedian’s appallingly misleading attack on the high speed rail project:
The Times’ critique isn’t a fair one, using partial truths to create doubt. While it is factually true to state that the report is “confidential,” Vartabedian uses the term without providing any context, leaving readers to imagine why the report’s findings would be withheld from the public….
Vartabedian clearly has an ax to grind with the Authority. Roger Rudick, now editor of Streetsblog SF, wrote a scathing takedown of his coverage in 2014. Perhaps that explains the many pieces of good news left out of his article, news that is outlined in the Authority’s response. Or maybe it explains why much of the background for Vartabedian’s article is from anonymous sources, without any context for who is providing the information and why anonymity was granted.
Newton’s article includes point by point refutations of Vartabedian’s claims, emphasizing that the FRA routinely offers “frank” analysis via confidential reports designed to ensure that problems get solved and projects get built quickly and effectively, rather than slog it out in the media.
Of course, that slog continues, as the California High Speed Rail Authority’s Dan Richard and Jeff Morales fire back in the LA Times:
The story ignores the fact that the original federal grant was only for basic construction, not all the stations, electrification and other features obviously necessary for operation. Calling those additions — which are funded by state dollars — a “cost overrun” seriously misleads readers, particularly when full project costs were announced by our board last month and submitted to the state Department of Finance and California Legislature. That plan was clear that capital costs for the $7.8 billion program have actually decreased.
The CHSRA is full of great people doing excellent work in a difficult environment, one that just got even more challenging with the inauguration of Donald Trump. It’s not right for Vartabedian to continue making misleading attacks on them and the project like this.