2015: The HSR Year in Review
Compared to the last ten years or so, 2015 has been a relatively quiet year for California high speed rail. But that’s only relative, as a lot has taken place on a project that continues to make significant progress. Some highlights of 2015:
• HSR construction finally begins. Nearly a year ago the formal groundbreaking ceremony was held in Fresno. Last summer, the first visible piece of new infrastructure began with the Fresno River viaduct. And now construction updates are coming almost every day from the Fresno area, with construction further to the south to begin in the very near future. After all the arguments, fights, battles, and controversies, it was a relief to finally see steel in the ground.
• Full funding remains uncertain. While there was significant progress on HSR construction, there was hardly any on identifying new sources of funding. The big battles over how to use the cap-and-trade funds have been resolved, for now. It’s unclear what if anything will appear on the 2016 ballot that would affect HSR. And unless Democrats retake Congress in 2016, federal funding is unlikely for the near future as well. At the same time, Republican efforts in Sacramento and Washington, DC to defund HSR went nowhere. The private sector still hasn’t delivered any firm funding commitments, but then nobody expected they would do so at this early stage anyway. I’d love to see some real movement on this in 2016 but as of right now, I’m doubtful.
• China steps up to fund Vegas HSR. The September announcement that China intends to fund construction of the Xpress West high speed rail project from Victorville to Las Vegas was what Joe Biden would call a BFD. China is beginning a significant commitment to HSR infrastructure in North America with this deal, and it may well portend a future deal to help fund California HSR as well – especially since China seems particularly interested in extending service from Victorville to downtown LA via Palmdale. Japan is also interested in a similar deal for California HSR, and while I don’t expect any news on this front in 2016, I suspect that the coming year will see more behind the scenes discussions with both countries.
• The debate heats up over the Palmdale-Burbank route. Back in 2009 and 2010 most of the discussion about California HSR involved contentious arguments over where to put the tracks. Since Jerry Brown took office, most of those discussions have been defused or deferred. But one of them is still going hot and strong, and that’s the debate about where to build the tracks to connect Palmdale to Burbank. Santa Clarita leaders still don’t want the tracks coming through their city, and prefer a tunnel under the San Gabriel Mountains. Many residents in Pacoima, Sylmar, and San Fernando share that view. Residents of the areas where the southern portal of the tunnel would be, particularly in Sunland-Tujunga, are not so keen on a tunnel and would prefer the Highway 14 alignment remain in place. The California High Speed Rail Authority is dutifully studying both options, and cost will be an important factor. This issue will stay hot in 2016.
• HSR gets caught up in the water wars. Republicans, always seeking a new way to attack HSR, proposed stealing HSR funding and using it to build more dams. This idea was widely condemned as a false choice, especially given the fact that California’s water woes are caused in part by rising CO2 emissions, an issue HSR would help solve. As El Niño prepares to drench the Golden State in the new year, drought concerns are easing a bit, but four long dry years seems to have finally convinced Californians that the big droughts of the late 1970s and late 1980s were no fluke, and that it’s time to get serious about protecting California’s climate – including through green infrastructure like HSR.
• ARTIC’s first year is a flop. The Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center opened a year ago to great fanfare – and promptly fell on its face. Poor design led to low ridership, and several members of the Orange County Transportation Authority called for abandoning the connecting streetcar that would link ARTIC to the Disneyland resort. There is no doubt now that ARTIC’s critics were correct, that the station was built too soon, and that Anaheim should have waited until both HSR and the connecting streetcar were either approved and funded or under construction before building ARTIC.
• True Detective’s second year is also a flop. ARTIC was the star of the finale of HBO’s True Detective, whose second season embraced a Chinatown-style film noir story of HSR corruption. The season just wasn’t that good, though it had an interesting upside – it treated HSR as a normal part of California’s landscape rather than as some strange or fanciful or unusual thing. Although even if the show had treated HSR that way, nobody would have noticed, since those who did watch the series focused on the odd plot twists, strange dialogue, and failed character development.
What else should we remember about how HSR fared in 2015? Share your views in the comments.
As always, thanks to the readers and commenters who have continued to participate here at the site. It’s been nearly 8 years, and if you look at the year-by-year list of posts at the upper right, you’ll notice that posting has fallen off a bit since 2013. That tends to happen over time, nobody can sustain the nearly post-a-day pace of 2009 and 2010. But I do intend to keep this thing going as long as people are interested in reading it, and as long as I have time to update it. Thanks again.