Making HSR Work Doesn’t Require Remaking the Route
It’s no surprise that longtime critics and opponents of the California high speed rail project have seized upon recent setbacks to try and reshape the project in their preferred image. Even though they’ve lost every other political battle, and even though the court case had nothing to do with the route chosen, there remain those who will never support anything other than the perfect project – where “perfect” is defined as “the exact thing I want.” And they will continue to seek every chance they can find to push that agenda.
One of these longtime critics is Stuart Flashman, who was given space in the Los Angeles Times today to explain why the HSR route should be changed. He wants to bypass millions of riders in the Central Valley and in San José in pursuit of his own personal white whale: the Altamont Pass alignment. As usual, his proposals are flawed and unnecessary. But since they appeared in the LA Times, they also need a response.
The authority says it will move forward using federal funds. But as one of the attorneys who successfully challenged the project, I can tell you that, on its present track, the future looks bleak. A series of shortsighted political decisions has left the state’s high-speed rail system with an unworkable plan that’s doomed to failure. There may still be time, however, to get it on the right track.
Flashman is simply wrong here. The future isn’t bleak for the project, especially if Sacramento is willing to pursue the sadly necessary work of funding it without the federal government. And what Flashman calls “shortsighted political decisions” are actually voter-approved common sense route choices designed to connect the state and maximize ridership rather than unnecessarily speed by whole metropolitan regions.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority was formed in 1996 after an extensive feasibility analysis by its predecessor, the California Intercity High-Speed Rail Commission. In 1999, the authority selected the Pacheco Pass and a Highway 99 alignment to connect Los Angeles and San Francisco.
That purely political decision overrode years of analysis by the earlier commission and its consultants, who had identified Interstate 5 and the Altamont Pass as the least expensive and highest-ridership route. How did the switch happen? Power brokers in the Legislature and Silicon Valley and mayors of Central Valley and Antelope Valley cities pushed their narrow self-interests, and the authority’s board of directors succumbed to that political pressure.
We went over this issue extensively in 2008, when the final decision was made (not in 1999). Altamont and Pacheco both had pros and cons. It’s far from certain that one is obviously better than the other. The Altamont cost estimates are outdated and would have risen as the costs for the rest of the project did after 2008. And the idea that 8 million Californians – the combined population of Silicon Valley, the San Joaquin Valley, and the Antelope Valley – are a “narrow self-interest” is a completely ridiculous claim that reveals Flashman’s own coastal biases rather than any intelligent analysis of California’s overall transportation needs. Building a bullet train system that bypasses 8 million people would be a huge mistake and it is entirely right that the current design of the HSR project serves those riders.
There are not 8 million people living on the Altamont corridor. There’s not even half that number. Flashman’s preference for Altamont has always been hard to understand given that it sacrifices so many potential riders. Keep in mind that those studies Flashman cites were done nearly 20 years ago, so their utility is of limited value.
The resulting route, however, is longer, slower and much more expensive than it should be, making it unprofitable. On top of that, the state bond measure funding it, Proposition 1A, prohibits the system from receiving operating subsidies. The combination has resulted in a project that private rail operators, such as those in Europe and Japan, have shunned.
It’s only a couple of minutes slower, not a whole lot more expensive (and over the long-term could well be cheaper given that it serves more people). Most importantly, Flashman’s claim that the adopted route would be “unprofitable” is a claim that flies in the face of the evidence. Since 2008 every independent review of the project’s ridership projections has found them to be credible. The evidence was so overwhelming that most HSR critics left Flashman behind and began using other arguments to attack the project.
As to private rail operators, they have not been formally asked to submit operations proposals, so it’s simply too early to say they have “shunned” the project. In reality, any hesitancy on those operators’ part stems from the political uncertainties that critics like Flashman and opponents in the Tea Party have injected into the process.
With no private capital available, the authority nevertheless embarked on plans to build a $31-billion segment from Merced to the San Fernando Valley. It insists that private investment will follow once that first segment is built and is shown to be profitable. However, the current funding shortfall — the authority has only $6 billion available — violates the voter-approved bond measure’s requirements.
Now the court has required the authority to rewrite its funding plan to show there’s enough money to complete the segment. With no other funding sources in sight, the authority is stuck in a box, even if its members won’t admit it.
There’s a lot of false claims here too. The Authority is right to believe that private investment will follow once the first segment is built, and notice Flashman hasn’t actually disagreed with that point. He instead moves to the court decision, which he thinks validates his idea to completely remake the route.
Ironically, he is calling for the Authority to commit a massive violation of Prop 1A. Prop 1A spells out the route that the project will take, and it requires that the San Joaquin Valley cities and the Antelope Valley be served. So Flashman is being hypocritical there.
And there are other funding sources in sight, particularly cap-and-trade funds. As I showed recently, California can use as much as $13 billion from cap-and-trade funds for HSR. That money would go a very long way toward getting the initial operating segment up and running. Flashman pretends this source of funds for HSR doesn’t exist, even though it’s been discussed in public by Governor Jerry Brown and others as a possibility for over a year.
The authority could escape its box and achieve success if it made decisions like private high-speed rail companies do: minimizing construction costs and choosing the most direct route possible. Indeed, the developer of the French national railway, SNCF, made an unsolicited offer to build the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles section, without a revenue guarantee. The authority turned it down flat.
As the French proposal shows, a profitable high-speed rail system in California is possible, with private investment, but it will require that the authority drop its past political deals and focus on building a workable system. Doing so would also restore public confidence in the future of high-speed rail.
Flashman is totally wrong in his description of the supposed SNCF offer. This offer was debunked by CHSRA board president Dan Richard in the summer of 2012. SNCF in fact wanted a revenue guarantee, which is illegal under Prop 1A, but might be explained by the fact that S&P had recently downgraded SNCF’s debt. Sources had indicated to me in the summer of 2012 that the SNCF offer was not an actual offer but a concept offered by some of their US-based staff that did not reflect corporate policy or the thinking of their Paris HQ. The Authority was right to reject SNCF’s flawed proposal.
Flashman winds up his op-ed with a series of even more ridiculous and false claims:
A high-speed rail route using the I-5 corridor and the Altamont Pass makes sense. Much of the land is already owned by the state. Track along I-5 could be laid at ground level, avoiding the extra expense of viaducts, and the construction would have minimal impact on valuable Central Valley farmland.
An I-5 and Altamont route avoids cities and could therefore be run at maximum speeds. The shorter length means the door-to-door San Francisco-to-Los Angeles trip would be competitive with air travel times and prices.
In fact, the state would have to buy new ROW from farmers along the I-5 corridor, since existing ROW is not nearly wide enough to accommodate the bullet train tracks and safety infrastructure. It certainly can’t go in the freeway median, which has to remain there for safety concerns.
The Altamont route actually plows right through the heart of several cities, including Fremont, Pleasanton, Livermore, and Tracy. Viaducts would be needed there. And what Flashman doesn’t tell you is that you’d still need new viaducts along I-5 as well – it’s just that the new viaducts would be needed to replace the existing road bridges over the freeway.
Flashman is proposing to screw a different set of farmers (on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley) and a different set of residents (between Fremont and Tracy). He’s crazy if he thinks that won’t produce its own set of delays and lawsuits.
Central Valley cities need not, however, be abandoned. They could be served by an upgraded Amtrak, connected to the high-speed rail at both ends of the valley. The overall cost would be lower and performance far better than the current plan.
This is an unfounded assertion. Has he any actual evidence to show that connecting to Fresno and Bakersfield via Amtrak – slower, less reliable, and requiring a transfer – would somehow make “performance far better” than serving those cities with a station on the HSR mainline? It is hard to imagine how that would be the case.
California’s high-speed rail system is at a crossroads. There is still time to redesign the project so it attracts private capital. On its current course, however, not only will nothing useful be built, but the Federal Railroad Administration, which will have to justify its grants at an upcoming congressional hearing, may withdraw its funding rather than have its money wasted. California could lose jobs and its new rail system.
The project as designed can attract private capital just fine, but only once the political problem of Congress is solved by California simply going it alone, with cap-and-trade fees as a starting point.
What Flashman doesn’t tell you here is that completely redesigning the route would make it certain that the Authority will miss the September 2017 deadline to spend the $4 billion in federal stimulus funds it has received for the project. If we followed his course, California absolutely would lose jobs and its new rail system. Since Congress cannot actually take the federal stimulus funding back, and since neither the Senate nor the White House would allow it anyway, there’s even less reason to follow Flashman’s reckless and illogical path.
California high speed rail doesn’t need a route redesign. It needs a funding solution that cuts out a paralyzed federal government. That’d be true even if Flashman got his way on the route. For those who actually want to see HSR built, it’s time to focus on funding solutions that the California Legislature can adopt, rather than wasting more time rehashing old fights.