Will Initial Operating Segment Go to Southern California First?
The current high speed rail business plan involves building an “Initial Construction Segment” in the Central Valley, owing to lower land costs and the need to provide a link between the two largest metro regions of the state (which is the entire point of HSR, after all). But despite what the critics claim, there are no plans at all to actually operate passenger rail service in the Valley alone. That would be the “Initial Operating Segment” which, projections show, would be able to generate an operating surplus by attracting a significant amount of riders.
The Initial Operating Segment would connect to either the Bay Area or Southern California – it would be Bakersfield to San José or Merced to the San Fernando Valley (or thereabouts). And according to the Bakersfield Californian, the southern option looks increasingly likely:
No final decision has been made, but high-speed rail planners are increasingly focused on Southern California as the most financially promising place to build the project’s first operational segment.
In what could become a political win for the southern portion of the state, project officials say ridership and revenue projections clearly favor connecting the Los Angeles Basin’s larger population base to initial construction proposed in the Central Valley. Tracks to the Bay Area would follow at least several years later under that scenario.
Recent discussions with transit agencies in the north and south could soften the impact of any decision on where the system would operate first. Project officials say they are looking at connecting as soon as possible with L.A.’s Metrolink and the Bay Area’s Caltrain. Observers say these improvements could be made simultaneously.
But as the rail authority puts final touches on a revised business plan that could determine the project’s fate in the state Legislature this spring, Chairman Dan Richard confirmed that planners are giving “more attention” to starting service between Merced and the San Fernando Valley rather than between Bakersfield and San Jose.
Senator Alan Lowenthal seems to like it:
But State Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, co-chairman of the Select Committee on High-Speed Rail, said it’s more important to close the rail gap between Bakersfield and L.A. as a way of demonstrating the viability of bullet train service as an alternative to driving or flying. He said the rail authority should consider doing this even before linking Bakersfield and Fresno.
“The object was not to connect the Central Valley to the Central Valley but to connect the Central Valley to the urban areas,” he said.
At the same time, Lowenthal voiced support for the “blended” approach receiving greater attention lately. That option would cut costs by hooking up high-speed trains through the Central Valley with conventional commuter rail in the north and south. It could also spread out costs among different transit agencies.
Of course, my view has always been that Lowenthal is out to use the HSR money purely for local commuter rail and has been waging war on the intercity bullet train concept for years in order to try and direct that money toward solely local projects. That being said, the concept that the California High Speed Rail Authority is looking at would remain focused on the core purpose of connecting northern and southern California, as well as serving the population centers of the Central Valley.
Californians For High Speed Rail’s Daniel Krause put it well in comments I fully endorse:
This hybrid option has been advocated by the independent group Californians for High Speed Rail, which has taken no position on the northern versus southern options. Executive Director Daniel Krause said the group would like to see a blended system linking the Central Valley to Palmdale while at the same time tying into a commuter rail station in Gilroy that connects to San Francisco.
Such a compromise would curtail the northern and southern options described in the rail authority’s November business plan. Krause said construction could later continue either direction as more money becomes available.
“That would be ideal, where they kind of pursue north or south (initial operating segments) in a modified form,” he said.
I don’t really care which gets done first, as long as progress is made. One does wonder if folks like Paul Dyson and the Rail Passenger Association of California (RailPAC) would be less hostile to high speed rail if the Initial Operating Segment went southward to LA – their argument has been that the passenger rail gap between Bakersfield and Palmdale needs to be closed, and a southerly IOS would achieve that goal.
Ultimately, Daniel Krause’s point remains the strongest. The goal here is to connect to both northern and southern California. All passenger rail advocates ought to be working hard to support funding options that will get those connections built as quickly as possible. As the prices at the gas pump should be reminding us, we don’t exactly have a lot of time to spare.