Central Valley HSR Segment Completion Delayed to 2022

May 19th, 2016 | Posted by

In what should come as no surprise for reasons that I’ll explain in a moment, the completion of construction on the Central Valley portion of the California High Speed Rail project has been delayed by four years to 2022:

The first segment of California’s first-in-the-nation bullet-train project, currently scheduled for completion in 2018, will not be done until the end of 2022, according to a contract revision the Obama administration quietly approved this morning….

State and federal officials downplayed the shift in the timetable, saying it partly reflected more ambitious plans for the Central Valley work, and in any case merely ratified construction realities on the ground. Jeff Morales, CEO of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, said his agency is accelerating its pace after a painfully slow start, with a half dozen construction crews now building overpasses, relocating utilities, and demolishing structures from north of Fresno down to the Bakersfield area.

And what might be causing these delays? It’s a deliberate act of political and timeline sabotage by project opponents who have spent the last 8 years (my god, has it been that long already?) trying to kill a project voters approved:

Federal Railroad Administration officials assigned much of the blame for the lags to the project’s vociferous critics, who have tied it up with a tangle of lawsuits, administrative challenges, and other red tape. They complained that the opponents, especially Central Valley farmers and other not-in-my-back-yard landowners, have gotten far more traction against the railway than they would have against a highway, reflecting a cultural and political bias in favor of traditional asphalt infrastructure. But while they described today’s agreement as a routine bureaucratic clarification, they said they expect an explosive reaction from opponents looking to score political points in Sacramento and Washington.

“We’re just doing due diligence, but everything about California high-speed rail gets magnified and overblown,” said FRA head Sarah Feinberg.

The FRA is absolutely right about this. A highway project would have sailed right through without public opposition and delay. But HSR opponents have used every possible opportunity to delay the project in hopes it will die.

Their greatest success appears to be delaying the process of acquiring right of way, which has set back construction work by several years. Opponents have gone up and down the Valley encouraging property owners to drag this out as long as possible in hopes that HSR will be abandoned. It won’t be, but the result has been further delays that project opponents are gleefully seizing upon to try and prove that somehow the project should be abandoned.

One such opponent is Orange County resident Kevin Drum, who blogs at Mother Jones. Why a progressive publication promotes someone who opposes clean energy infrastructure is beyond me, but here he is, trashing the delay and the project:

By the way, for those of you wondering what “Central Valley” means, it means Bakersfield to Fresno. Exciting, no? The official reason for building this leg first is blah blah blah. The real reason for building it first is to get something—anything—done. Once you’ve got some track laid, it’s really hard to kill the project because, hey, you don’t want all that money to have been wasted, do you?

So for this guy, reducing CO2 emissions and other air pollution in the Central Valley, as well as promoting economic growth in a part of the state with unemployment still above 10%, is just “blah blah blah”? Ridiculous. And short-sighted.

While the delay is annoying, California can look at the El Niño that flopped as a reminder that climate change is here and its impacts on the state are already serious. HSR should have been built 35 years ago, but better late than never.

CHSRA Details Funding for Gateway Cities

May 17th, 2016 | Posted by

The California High Speed Rail Authority’s 2016 Business Plan includes funding to make early investments in projects between Los Angeles and Anaheim. The Whittier Daily News took a look at what that actually would mean for the Gateway Cities:

The authority could provide up to $500,000 for the cities, including La Mirada, Norwalk and Santa Fe Springs, to fund economic and environmental studies on the possible impacts from the 30-mile line that will run from Anaheim to Los Angeles….

Michelle Boehm, the Southern California regional director for the rail authority, last week told the La Mirada City Council that her agency will pay for a proposed underpass at Marquardt and Rosecrans avenues. And she said the agency is open to paying for sound walls along the railroad.

Boehm also said the authority will consider building a Norwalk-Santa Fe Springs stop for the route, in addition to a Fullerton stop. Previously, the plan was for only one of those stations.

Boehm also spoke favorably of a proposed extension of the Green Line to Norwalk, which would provide a direct connection to LAX from the LA-Anaheim HSR segment.

This isn’t the sum total of what they would spend between LA and Anaheim in the next few years, but it does indicate that those communities will be seeing tangible benefits even as the Initial Operating Segment gets built further to the north.

No Hype, Just HSR Construction Proceeding Well in Fresno

May 12th, 2016 | Posted by

Enough about overhyped transportation gizmos – let’s take a look at something real, and realistic, something that is actually being built right now. The California High Speed Rail Authority produced this great video overview of HSR construction in the Fresno area, where things are coming along quickly:

That pergola structure, where the HSR tracks cross over the UP tracks, looks particularly interesting. Glad to see all that steel in the ground and concrete soaring high.

More Hype for the Hyperloop

May 11th, 2016 | Posted by

The Hyperloop is back in the news in a big way. A company calling itself Hyperloop One built a “test track” in the desert outside of Las Vegas and successfully tested a device on a track:

Gizmodo has more details on this stunt:

Using the linear-electric motor that will eventually accelerate a hyperloop pod, engineers orchestrated what they call a “propulsion open-air test,” or POAT. The test vehicle (nicknamed a “sled”) goes from 0 to 60 mph in about one second, generating a force of about 2.5Gs. Hypothetically, the same motor could enable a more aerodynamically designed vehicle to reach speeds of 700 mph in a very low-pressure tube.

2.5Gs? That brings to mind Alon Levy’s excellent deep dive into the physics of the Hyperloop, in which he called it a “barf ride” as the speeds will put intense pressure on passengers. But, because it’s the Hyperloop and because Elon Musk’s name is affiliated with the concept, the media overlooks such small details to instead breathlessly report on it.

But facts are facts. David Levinson attempted to offer some on CNBC today. Here’s what he was planning to say, though as anyone who’s done a TV hit knows, what the producers pitch and what you actually get asked tend to be different:

This is what I intended to say. These were the producer’s preliminary questions (in blockquote) and my preliminary answers (in bullets).

Let’s start with the assumption that the Hyperloop works as advertised. What are the potential benefits of a technology like this? Are there any transportation infrastructure projects – for example, Japan’s high-speed rail system – that are analogous to this type of transportation, or have we never really seen anything like this before?

• I think the best analogy is with the development of the railroads in the first place back in 1825. Hyperloop requires both new tube technology (the track) as well as new vehicles. One question is whether it is a series of isolated runs (like elevators), or a comprehensive network (like roads, rail, or air transportation).

Let’s talk challenges. What would have to happen for a private company to be able to run a tube from, for example, Los Angeles to San Francisco? How difficult would it be to add a hyperloop to America’s existing transportation infrastructure?

• They would need to acquire right-of-way. If it is tunneled this might be easier than at grade or elevated. There are already trains and highways between major US cities, so borrowing right-of-way from highway or rail agencies is probably a good place to start. One of the issues will be curvature though, at high speeds, hyperloops likely will need, or at least want, more gentle curves than automobiles or trains require, and so need land beyond existing rights-of-way. Tunneling is more expensive than elevated or at grade, so this adds costs.

Do you personally see this technology being implemented over the next 20-25 years or not?

• Major technologies like trains and highways and aviation took decades to reach maturity, nearly a century in the case of rails. While there might be some selected niche lines built over the coming decades, it will not be an important element of the US transport system for decades if ever.

Levinson’s responses make a ton of sense. Addressing the G force issues means less curves and as straight a route as possible. That requires buying up right of way, and as the California HSR project has discovered, this is no easy task. Building a short test track in the empty desert is nothing compared to buying up land in the Bay Area or in the Central Valley – especially if you don’t have government eminent domain power backing you up.

I think he’s right that this will play out like maglev. There might be some “niche lines” built in the next 20-30 years. The idea that, as the Hyperloop One people claim, people will be riding a Hyperloop in 2021 is just delusional. Unless they’re talking about a short test track that’s basically a Disneyland ride in the Nevada desert.

Still, this is the Hyperloop, where reality and facts don’t seem to matter. Already we’re seeing fanciful representations of the system emerge, as LA Times reporter Laura J. Nelson shows in the tweet below:

And the replies to the tweet are great too. (She’s not actually saying this is a good or feasible idea, she’s passing it along with an “I can’t even” shrug.)

What this shows is that if you’re a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, you can propose any kind of crazy idea and get the media to not just take you seriously, but to fawn all over you. But if you’re a government, or a transit advocate, or just someone who’s been on a bullet train and thought “we should have that in California,” well, prepare for that same media to mock you and credulously write articles repeating the spin of every NIMBY and anti-HSR ideologue who sends you an email.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-Hyperloop. But it is often used – including by Elon Musk – as a way to attack HSR. And that’s wrong. HSR will be up and running decades before the Hyperloop is connecting California’s regions.