2010: The Year in California HSR

Jan 1st, 2011 | Posted by

The California high speed rail project had a turbulent year in 2010, but it undoubtedly finished on a high note, winning more federal funding and consolidating public support by selecting the first route that will be constructed. As we begin 2011, and prepare to swear in a governor who first brought the idea of HSR to California 30 years ago, the project is in a very strong position to weather the challenges that remain.

First, let’s take a look back at 2010, and then we’ll take a look ahead to 2011 tomorrow.

A year ago, I posted a projection of the main issues, stories, and events in California HSR in 2010. Let’s see how that turned out:

Return of the HSR supporters. If 2009 was the year the status quo struck back, 2010 will be the year high speed rail supporters take their activism to a new level. Californians For High Speed Rail will relaunch early in the new year, providing a statewide organizing hub for project supporters. On the Peninsula, labor unions and business groups came together late this year to form the Alliance for Sustainable Transit and Jobs, in order to help mobilize the considerable yet so far overlooked support for HSR in San Mateo County. At the state level, three groups that are usually at each other’s throats – the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Labor Federation, and the Sierra Club of California – have joined forces to support HSR.

Overall I’d say this was true, even if we didn’t quite hear from the groups we expected. CA4HSR, which I chair, made what I think is a powerful impact on HSR this year. We did a great deal of behind-the-scenes work in Sacramento to support the project, began organizing Peninsula HSR supporters to push back against critics as well as launch a “Peninsula Reset” effort to address ongoing issues along that project segment, and lobbied federal officials to continue supporting the project. You can read more in the CA4HSR December Newsletter.

The Alliance for Transit and Jobs did not have as much of a presence as I’d have expected, but the California Labor Fed did do quite a lot, including holding a statewide HSR tour in October. Generally, they were focused on the gubernatorial election, which turned out very well for the HSR project (more on that later).

But it was other important HSR supporters who made an impact in 2010. In particular, HSR backers in the Central Valley played a big role in helping bring federal dollars to the region to begin the HSR project there. Supporters in Merced, Fresno, and Kern Counties are working hard to outdo each other in efforts to bring the maintenance facility to their region. And supporters in Kings and Tulare Counties saw their hard work rewarded by receiving a station at Hanford/Visalia.

There’s no doubt that strong support from California members of Congress helped that happen – especially Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Congressman Jim Costa, and Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein. But their work was enabled by the strong public support we’ve seen on the ground in California.

Federal funding brings HSR to life. Prop 1A’s passage made the state, the nation, and even the world take notice that true HSR was finally coming to the United States, and that California’s long-planned project really was going to happen. But when the FRA announces its HSR stimulus funding awards in January, it will bring California HSR to life, showing state and local officials that yes, HSR will be built in California and yes, the federal government is committed to making it happen.

My own prediction is that California will get around $3.4 billion, to construct segments from Merced to Bakersfield and LA to Anaheim. I would be pleased but surprised if SF-San José was included.

I was certainly right about the overall concept, though the details were a bit different. California wound up with $3.5 billion in federal HSR funding – $2.2 billion in stimulus funds, $715 million in FY 2010 HSR funds, and $624 million in stimulus funds foolishly given up by Wisconsin and Ohio. So I was pretty much right about that, as well as very close in the projection of where the funds would go – a segment from Fresno to Bakersfield was picked, with tracks being built toward but not to Merced. All money is going to the Valley, so none will go to LA-Anaheim or SF-SJ, and I’m fine with that. It enables a nearly-complete buildout in the Valley and provides a crucial first step in building the HSR project, which will fuel more public support and demand to extend the system to the coastal metropolises.

Project design decisions are made, and the real battles begin. Despite the intensity of some of the battles over HSR fought in 2009, those were moderated by the fact that all possibilities were still technically on the table. The Peninsula could still dream of a long tunnel serving every city in San Mateo County. In 2010, however, decisions will start being made about how exactly HSR will be built, and that’s when the truly contentious battles will begin. No matter route or grade separation method is chosen, someone will be upset, and some of them will take that anger to the courts to try and slow or stop the project, others will try and undermine the project in public.

This is still an ongoing process. The draft EIR for the SF-SJ segment was postponed (it was originally due in December 2010), though we did receive some more clarification about some parts of the design – San José will get an aerial structure south of Diridon Station, and the CHSRA did narrow the options for the Peninsula corridor. More decisions will be made on the SF-SJ corridor in the first half of 2011, and although things have been quiet there of late, expect the arguments to heat back up soon.

The role of private investors will be a major issue. It only came up towards the end of the year in the new business plan, but Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s constant push to maximize private involvement in infrastructure will become a prominent issue in 2010 as it relates to high speed rail.

This didn’t really happen in 2010, but I suspect it will come up in 2011. The CHSRA Peer Review Report indicated that the question of the basic business model for HSR was perhaps the key outstanding issue that, when resolved, will help solve questions about the business plan and other matters. Expect this to be a greater topic of conversation in 2011.

HSR becomes an issue in the gubernatorial race. California will finally get to wave goodbye to the Worst Governor Ever, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and elect his replacement….In any case, I fully expect HSR to become an issue in the gubernatorial race, even if it’s not in the top 5.

This didn’t really happen, for reasons I described here. Whitman understood that the kind of anti-HSR rhetoric spewed by Scott Walker in Wisconsin or John Kasich in Ohio wouldn’t fly in California – even though she opposed the project herself, she did not want to alienate the public by speaking out about it. Jerry Brown did make HSR part of his pitch to voters, but as part of an overall case for green jobs and sustainable infrastructure. If Californians didn’t want HSR, Whitman would have either made a bigger deal of her opposition to the project. Brown’s victory marks another sign of strong and deep public support for the project.

The state legislature becomes more active on HSR. Whether this is a good thing remains to be seen, given how few legislators understand or care about HSR, and given that term limits have destroyed long-term thinking in the Capitol. But my guess is that the combination of the defenders of the status quo as well as HSR advocates will be putting enough pressure on legislators to ensure that the legislature takes a much closer look at the project.

We certainly saw this begin in 2010, but some of the key decisions – such as reforming the Authority – have been put off to 2011. There’s no doubt that outgoing Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s veto of budget oversight language regarding the Authority has angered key state legislators, making them even more determined to change the way the Authority operates.

Still, the Legislature is not going to fall in line behind Senator Alan Lowenthal and lead a full-scale attack on the project itself. Support in the Capitol for HSR is broad and deep – and bipartisan. With Republican legislative leaders supporting HSR and with an incoming governor who 30 years ago led the first effort to bring HSR to California, it is simply inconceivable that the legislature would do anything to stop or undermine the project.

There were several other trends that made themselves clear in 2010:

Uninformed Studies Attack HSR. The HSR project faced a series of misleading and basically uninformed studies – all of which came from some branch of government – that chose to make unfair attacks on the HSR project based in their ignorance, rather than try to honestly assess the faults and successes of the project and the Authority. These flawed studies included reports from the Legislative Analyst’s Office, the State Auditor, and the Berkeley Institute of Transportation Studies. These deeply flawed reports nevertheless got a lot of coverage from a media trained to believe government is inherently flawed, while other HSR studies that were more supportive of the project, like the CALPIRG study, were ignored. Toward the end of the year, the CHSRA Peer Review report was released, providing a very good and sensible overview of what the Authority does well and where it can improve. Unsurprisingly, it too was largely ignored by the media. Hopefully in 2011 we’ll see more studies that show the benefits of HSR. I’d like to see the media give those more attention, but I know better than that – this blog exists to correct those failures; we have to disseminate those facts ourselves.

Roelof van Ark Makes His Mark. The selection of Roelof van Ark as the CHSRA CEO has been a big turning point in the HSR project. Van Ark has begun to put his stamp on the project, emphasizing the need to build track from the initial Central Valley segment outward to SF and LA. He has begun to meet with local government officials to address concerns about Authority communications, and is insisting on cost efficiency in project design, much to the annoyance of some on the Peninsula who believe that their gold-plated infrastructure should be paid for with someone else’s money. Van Ark will surely play a central role in the HSR project in 2011 and the years to come, providing a stable and steady presence for a project that certainly needs it.

A Tougher Federal Funding Environment. It was a good thing that California won the $3.5 billion in federal funding it did in 2010, because it might be a while before we get more money from Congress. Obama and the Democratic Congress failed spectacularly to approve a new Transportation Bill with long-term HSR funding, as they were afraid of raising gas taxes and couldn’t agree on an alternative. Democrats lost control of the House anyway, so they should have just done it, but instead we have no source of long-term HSR funding. The incoming House Republican leadership is bent on destroying government and making massive, reckless spending cuts, including to HSR funding.

Rep. John Mica, a Florida Republican, has been supportive of some HSR projects, including ours here in California. He seems interested in finding ways to continue supporting the California and Florida HSR efforts – but it’s not at all clear whether that support is shared by the incoming Speaker, John Boehner. And other leading Republicans, including those from California’s Central Valley, are opposed to HSR even though it is popular in their districts and brings desperately needed jobs. Sadly, most Congressional Republicans are more interested in promoting their anti-government ideology, favoring the rich at the expense of projects to help create jobs for everyone else, and determined to protect their oil company donors from competition from sustainable mass transportation.

California’s HSR project has enough money to get started. Finding more money over the next 2 years is going to be a key challenge.

China – or Japan – To the Rescue? One possible source of funding might be from overseas. China has shown interest in funding California HSR, and later in 2010 Japan stepped up to offer funding of its own. As we’ll talk about in tomorrow’s post, international HSR funding is going to become much more important in 2011 as federal HSR funding stalls for what we hope will be a temporary delay.

What about you – what did you see as the most important stories and developments in California HSR in 2010?

  1. Robert Cruickshank
    Jan 1st, 2011 at 13:23

    I have no idea why the archives for 2008-2010 aren’t showing up any longer. Anyone got any ideas?

    Robert Cruickshank Reply:


  2. John Burrows
    Jan 1st, 2011 at 15:17

    We should give thanks to the governors of Ohio and Wisconsin for coming to the aid of California at a crucial moment. Before they said “no” we were taking a lot of flak for spending $4.3 billion on 54 miles if track going from “nowhere to nowhere”. Thanks to their efforts we are now spending $5.5 billion for up to 120 miles of track linking Fresno to a point close to the Bakersfield city limits.

    This one event which almost overnight doubled the amount of track to be built on the initial segment could end up being a milestone in the development of HSR in California—It also ended the Charlie Manson comments.

  3. RubberToe
    Jan 1st, 2011 at 17:03

    Let me be the first to say it: “We start laying track NEXT year! Come on 2012…

    James Fujita Reply:

    as much as I would love to see this project get built as quickly as possible, I do wonder if we will be able to lay track in 2012. there’s a lot of prelim work still left to be done. and phase 1.0 includes the Fresno viaduct. lots of engineering, design work, paperwork (of course), ground moving…. laying track will be one of the last steps taken.

    still… a Fresno groundbreaking/ political photo op SOON would be nice :)

    Nathanael Reply:

    I’d be happy if we started grading and earthmoving. :-) Laying track itself is actually a quick process.

  4. Howard
    Jan 1st, 2011 at 20:19

    The California High Speed Rail project started construction in 2010 with the Transbay Terminal train box.

    Joey Reply:

    There’s no digging yet. They’re still tearing down the old building.

  5. Neil Shea
    Jan 1st, 2011 at 22:33

    Interesting comment on ‘Peak Travel’
    If we can reclaim the usefulness of the time lost to travel, and transcend the physical space limitations of cars-and-roads, the inflection points may be different. But most of the other 7 countries in this study already have better transportation alternatives than the US. In any case, automobile usage may likely be peaking.

  6. YesonHSR
    Jan 1st, 2011 at 22:51

    The two most important things are actually on the same level … number one the choice of the initial segment, the Valley is a true spine of a high-speed rail and nothing will stand out like this part. Los Angelesb to Anaheim or San Francisco to San Jose to do nothing more than some glamorized commuter line. On the same level is the election of Gov. Brown and his commitment to high-speed rail nothing would’ve been worse had Whitman won the election… SO we have a lot to look forward to this year the first bids on the project and finally groundbreaking.

  7. Spokker
    Jan 2nd, 2011 at 08:49

    USAToday has an awful, sensationalistic article on mass transit and security: http://travel.usatoday.com/news/2010-12-27-railsecurity27_CV_N.htm

    The good news that screening all passengers doesn’t seem feasible. The bad news is that it appears they are going to do “something,” and that something is probably going to be annoying still.

    Robert Cruickshank Reply:

    The best news is that the TSA doesn’t seem interested in wasting its time with mass transit:

    Having a secure network ultimately is the responsibility of the TSA, which is in the Department of Homeland Security. While the agency has imposed stringent screening of air passengers at the nation’s 450 commercial airports, it says it has no similar plans for rail passengers.

    The TSA has largely left rail security to local governments, which USA TODAY finds often don’t have the capability and money to make systems secure.

    Which is fine by me; the whole notion of “making systems secure” is based on the false premise that the US faces an inherent threat from terrorism that can never ever be ended. Solving the Israel/Palestine problem, ending the war in Afghanistan, and stopping imperialistic policies that produce blowback would eliminate the terrorist threat at a far, far cheaper cost.

    Still, I do worry about TSA-style bullshit at HSR stations. We will need to organize to fight that over the next 9 years.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Measured in political capital, the cost of obviating the need for Lockheed, Blackwater, and a fleet of twelve carrier groups is much higher than the cost of harassing travelers.

    Andre Peretti Reply:

    Car ownership distribution within a given country tells more than national statistics.
    In France, car ownership is inversely proportional to availability of local transit. Figures can vary from 380 to 700 cars per 1000 inhabitants. The extremes are Paris (lowest car ownership) and Corsica (highest). Corsica has the lowest average income while Paris has the highest, which proves car ownership doesn’t reflect wealth but lack of choice (at least in France).
    For low-income families, having more than one car can be a drain on their budget. That’s money they won’t spend on healthier food, or books or music. Thus, lack of public transport indirectly causes a loss in quality of life. So much for car=freedom.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    What’s the car ownership rate in Alpes-Maritimes? On the one hand, it’s a rich department, especially if you include Monaco. On the other hand, it looks very car-oriented to me, at least by European standards: plenty of parking everywhere, good regional roads in addition to the A8, very bad TGV access (mostly the fault of inland NIMBYs, but still), etc.

    Andre Peretti Reply:

    Car ownership in Alpes-Maritimes is about 600/1000. Transit is good for beach-going tourists, but not very convenient for commuters. Many people, especially women, avoid riding buses. So, yes, it is definitely car oriented.

Comments are closed.