A Surprise In The Upcoming Business Plan?
Yesterday Ed Goldman of the Sacramento Business Journal wrote about his meeting with CHSRA Board Chairman Dan Richard – and he includes an interesting hint about the revised Business Plan that Governor Jerry Brown wants to see:
I ask him if the new-and-improved business plan that Gov. Jerry Brown wants on his desk any minute now will have any surprises in it. “Yes, there’s a very big surprise,” Richard says, calmly removing his classes and rubbing his eyes. And that is…? “I think it will surprise everyone that we’ve actually listened to our critics for a change,” he says with a fraction of a smile. About what, specifically? “We simply can’t ignore urban areas when we build this thing,” he says.
Cryptic, no doubt, but potentially significant. What exactly is Richard saying here? Critics of the project may hope he’s saying that the money will be moved from the Central Valley Initial Construction Segment to the ends of the route, investing only in upgrades to existing rail service that could at some future time be used by high speed trains.
That is what Senator Alan Lowenthal has been gunning for since at least 2009, and it would mean essentially abandoning the high speed rail project. While upgrading urban rail is a very good idea, high speed rail’s promise is connecting Los Angeles to San Francisco via the Central Valley, providing a new form of transportation that can give travelers an alternative to flying and driving that they don’t have. It’s a choice that, as we’ve seen around the world, will likely prove very popular with Californians, create jobs, and provide a significant economic boost by saving money on oil.
If building better urban rail in SF and LA is the key to getting intercity high speed rail, well, wouldn’t that have happened by now? Metrolink has been around for 20 years. The Pacific Surfliner (originally the San Diegans) have been operating since the late 1970s. The passenger rail service now known as Caltrain has been in operation for nearly 150 years. Those are all very valuable, successful services that can and should be improved. But they haven’t helped produce statewide high speed rail.
That’s because the problem is the gap between SF and LA. The main gap lies between Bakersfield and Palmdale through the Tehachapi Pass. But even if that were closed, a lot of new track still has to be laid in the Central Valley and through the Pacheco Pass to connect the Bay Area metropolis to the SoCal metropolis.
In short, the key to California high speed rail is track in the Central Valley. Starting there makes sense because once that gap starts to get filled in, then you get the political momentum to connect that track to the Bay Area and to SoCal.
If you do it the other way around, however, and build better tracks in SF and LA, you do nothing to address the gap problem. Instead you’re deferring it to an uncertain future. Worse, by caving to the “omg you can’t build in the middle of nowhere” bullshit, you’re actually making it harder to eventually close the gap because the precedent has been set that building outside the urban areas isn’t a good idea.
There are other practical problems too. Could high speed service within the Bay Area or SoCal generate a profit? Neither the Surfliners, Metrolink not Caltrain do so. Nor should they have to, as the purpose of passenger rail is to connect people rather than make money. But Prop 1A forbids a state operating subsidy and more significantly, one of the political arguments against the Central Valley section is that it won’t attract enough riders to be successful. Never mind the fact the CHSRA has no intention to just operate a Central Valley-only system; the Initial Operating Segment would connect either to the Bay Area or SoCal.
But an urban-only rail system would have an even more difficult time generating ridership to be profitable. That’s because the universe of choice riders is likely much smaller. Around the world, in places like Spain, many of HSR’s riders switched from planes. And in California, spending less than 3 hours on a train from SF to LA would be a far more attractive option than spending 6 hours in a car, unable to use one’s digital devices.
Within urban areas, however, the choices are different. Nobody flies between SF and San José. A bullet train connecting those two points could save you 30 minutes over driving (perhaps more at rush hour) but that’s not as great a savings over driving between SF and LA. Perhaps there would still be enough riders to pay the operating costs of urban HSR, and I’m willing to be convinced if there are ridership projections indicating that’s the case. But based on what I can see, it doesn’t look promising.
In short, moving the money to the urban areas looks to be more risky than the current plan.
Now it’s not at all clear that’s what Dan Richard was intending to say. The federal government hasn’t signaled a willingness to move its share of the funding away from the Central Valley. And Richard may have been indicating a desire to fund upgrades to rail in the urban areas, perhaps with the $950 million in Prop 1A earmarked for rail systems that connect to HSR. That’s a good idea.
Prop 1A requires a federal or private match for any of the $9 billion that is directed to HSR, but perhaps the CHSRA has found a way to spend some of that money in the urban areas while also proceeding as planned in the Central Valley. I would be quite strongly supportive of this too.
But as of right now, it doesn’t seem like moving the money out of the Central Valley entirely makes any sense. I hope that’s not what Dan Richard has in mind. We will find out soon enough.