Kopp and Morshed Raise Questions About New Business Plan
Two of the key architects of the California high speed rail project, Quentin Kopp and Mehdi Morshed, are raising some questions about the California High Speed Rail Authority’s new approach to the project. From KQED:
But Kopp and Morshed sound decidedly less enthusiastic these days. They still believe high-speed rail is necessary for the state. They stand by the decision to build the initial leg of the system in the Central Valley — a route critics have derided as the “rail to nowhere.” They say it’s a critical piece of the line, and a good place to test the technology.
But they say the plan they envisioned – and that voters approved in 2008 – is not what’s being described by the High Speed Rail Authority today. They’re critical of the so-called “blended approach” that would force high-speed rail trains to share tracks with existing commuter services, like Caltrain, and, at least initially, require customers to make several transfers along the SF-LA route.
These are good questions to raise. KQED spoke with both Kopp and Morshed about these concerns:
What’s your objection to the “blended plan,” which integrates high-speed rail into existing services, like Metrolink and Caltrain?
Kopp: Real high-speed rail, you get on in one place, you get off in another. Making people transfer from one train to another in my opinion is a sure recipe for discouraging ridership. That’s why I fought to have BART into SFO, not a mile and a half away, and that’s proved to be the most successful part of the entire BART system.
You have to be running, as we’ve always predicated, ten trains per hour, in the peak hours of the morning and afternoon to generate the revenue you need so you can function without a government subsidy. It’s certainly not the project which I had in mind and others had in mind. It’s a different kind of system.
There’s even a legal question as to whether this so-called blended system — in other words, starting off with trains from San Francisco to San Jose at a top speed of 125 mph, or probably less than that if you’re using the same tracks Caltrain uses — whether that can be legally done under the provisions of Prop 1A, which was passed by voters in 2008.
I agree with Kopp here conceptually. Forced transfers aren’t ideal, and the blended system on the Peninsula is at best a short-term stopgap as we wait for generational change to occur.
But I’m not sure that the Authority is necessarily abandoning the kind of project that Kopp is talking about. The project was always going to be built in phases. And if revenue service from, say, San José to LA can be inaugurated more quickly then it generates the money and the demand that will be needed to expand the Peninsula rail corridor.
And I don’t agree that the blended system violates Prop 1A. But I am sure someone will litigate that.
According to the plan, the initial route from Fresno to Bakersfield is going to generate positive cash flows, and also attract $11 billion in private investment, which will help get the rest of the system built. Is that realistic?
Morshed: Fresno to Bakersfield is the key connecting piece that you have to build in order to build the rest of it. You don’t have any choice about it. But you have to recognize that there aren’t that many people going between Bakersfield and Merced. That piece was never going to make any money. It just isn’t logical. Who’s going to ride it? And private investors aren’t going to invest in anything that’s not making money.
Kopp: No way. No way. It was clear that that first leg was not for revenue service. It’s for testing trains, obviously. For revenue, you’ve got to [expand the system] to LA or to San Francisco. I am skeptical about private investment until the very end of the completion of the entire first phase, from SF to Anaheim.
I don’t believe that’s what the plan actually says. Fresno to Bakersfield is indeed an Initial Construction Segment for testing trains, essentially. The Initial Operating Segment, for revenue service, would be an extension of the ICS either west to San José or south to the San Fernando Valley.
So, what do you think is going to happen? Should the project be shelved?
Kopp: Absolutely not. Human beings are creative. They’ll come up with some other sources.
You have to take a long historical view. I-5 wasn’t built all at once. But, of course, the interstate highway system had a specific source of money, namely the federal gasoline tax. High-speed rail has got to get, if it can, a specific source of funding: federal or state. I don’t know how much regional sources can contribute. It’s gonna be a long haul. A much longer haul than I originally thought.
Morshed: I believe the same as I did three years ago or ten years ago, that given the growth of the state and our population, and the realities of our transportation needs, California has to build a high-speed network sooner or later.
I’m convinced it’s going to be built. But in which way, I don’t know. And with how many ups and downs, I don’t know. I intentionally haven’t tried to look at the details and second-guess people. Maybe they know something I didn’t know. I hope they do.
Again, these are good points. And Kopp is absolutely right that what’s needed above all else is a dedicated, federal source of funding.
After reading this, I think the main issue is not with the Business Plan itself. Phasing was always going to happen, and a blended system on the Peninsula is workable as a short-term solution. The issue is whether these interim solutions become the sum total of high speed rail itself. I read Kopp and Morshed as being concerned the core concept of HSR – true bullet train service from San Francisco to Los Angeles – is at risk of being abandoned for short-term expediency.
While I do not believe that is happening right now, they are absolutely right to raise that concern. It would be a disaster if high speed rail gets neutered forever due to conditions in 2011 that are temporary.
(Almost missed this from last Friday; thanks to Reality Check for the link.)