Two Public HSR Meetings This Week

Sep 21st, 2015 | Posted by

The California High Speed Rail Authority is hosting a couple of meetings this week to discuss various segments of the HSR route.

First up is a meeting in Shafter on Wednesday, September 23, from 4-7 pm in the Shafter Veterans Hall. The topic there will be the proposed route in and around the city of Shafter.

On Thursday, CHSRA staff will be in Morgan Hill to update residents on planning for the San José to Merced segment. That meeting will take place at the Morgan Hill Community and Cultural Center on Monterey Road, also from 4-7 pm.

China Announces It Will Help Build LA-Vegas HSR

Sep 17th, 2015 | Posted by

Well this is certainly big news – if not entirely unexpected. China has announced plans to help build the XpressWest high speed rail project that will, eventually, link Los Angeles to Las Vegas via Palmdale and Victorville:

XpressWest agreed this month to form a joint venture with China Railway International USA Co. to build and operate the railway, Shu Guozeng, deputy head of the government’s Office of the Central Leading Group for Financial and Economic Affairs, said at a news conference Thursday, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency. Shu claimed the project could begin construction as early as September 2016….

China Railway International was established this summer by a Chinese consortium led by national railway operator China Railway, the financial publication Caixin reported. Bloomberg News cited a statement from Shu saying the Las Vegas project would “be supported by $100 million in initial capital,” though from which entities was unclear.

And here’s the press release that has a few more details, including that China Railway International has been incorporated in Nevada:

BEIJING and LAS VEGAS, Sept. 17, 2015 /PRNewswire/ — China Railway International USA CO., LTD. and XpressWest have agreed to form a joint venture that will accelerate launch of the XpressWest rail project connecting Las Vegas, Nevada to Los Angeles, California (the “Southwest Rail Network”). The Project will develop, finance, build and operate the Southwest Rail Network, with stations in Las Vegas, Nevada, Victorville, California, and Palmdale, California, and service throughout Los Angeles. The decision to form a joint venture is the culmination of years of work and builds upon the significant accomplishments of XpressWest.

Supported by $100 million in initial capital, this new high-speed rail line (approximately 370 km(s) in length) will create new technology, manufacturing, and construction jobs throughout the interstate corridor and will connect Southern Nevada and Southern California to drive new economic development and grow tourism – a vital part of the region’s economy. The Project will serve as a model of international cooperation and will firmly establish a United States-based high-speed rail industry that will result in significant job creation throughout the Southwest with construction planned to commence as early as September 2016. The Project will immediately undertake all necessary regulatory and commercial activities to advance the reality of regional high-speed rail in the United States. Implementation will begin within the next 100 days.

About the Companies:

XpressWest is a private interstate high-speed passenger railroad company led by the Marnell Companies and dedicated since 2007 to developing a high-speed passenger rail line connecting Las Vegas to Los Angeles. Authorized by the United States federal government to build and operate the Southwest Rail Network, XpressWest has completed its required federal permitting work, obtained approvals from the Surface Transportation Board, and completed significant development work for the route, including completing the federal environmental review process. Investment-grade ridership studies, a prerequisite for obtaining project financing, demonstrate the Southern Nevada-Southern California corridor is a robust market for future rail passengers.

China Railway International U.S.A. CO., LTD. is a newly-formed Nevada limited liability company owned by a consortium of the world’s premier experts in designing, building, financing and operating high-speed passenger rail projects, including: China Railway Corporation, China Railway Engineering Corporation, CSR Corporation Limited, China Construction America, Inc., and China Railway Signal Communications Corporation.

So this looks pretty serious to me. China has been working hard to invest in and help build HSR projects around the world, including a plan in Indonesia that fell apart earlier this month.

Nevada has been gearing up for HSR, with the state legislature having created its own Nevada High Speed Rail Authority earlier this year, to which Governor Brian Sandoval appointed 5 members just last week.

XpressWest already has its federal approvals in hand. All they needed was funding to start construction, and with this announcement, they might just have it.

While the details are still sparse, my assumption is that the Chinese-backed venture would build the Victorville-Vegas leg first, and then begin design and engineering work on the simple Palmdale-Victorville section, which should be little trouble to build over a flat, empty desert stretch of about 50 miles.

The bigger question this raises is whether Chinese involvement in the XpressWest project will lead to them having a role in California’s HSR route from SF to LA. If they get rolling with XpressWest and things go well in the next few years, I’d have to say their chances will improve significantly. And as we saw in Indonesia, that may spur Japan to step up its own desire to be involved.

A Closer Look at the New Bakersfield Alternative

Sep 15th, 2015 | Posted by

The California High Speed Rail Authority recently settled a lawsuit brought by Bakersfield against the project. One element of the settlement involved the CHSRA agreeing to study a new alternative through Bakersfield – the F Street alignment.

As part of this work, the CHSRA published the following video simulation of the F Street alignment. This video was released last month, but has been getting attention in recent days thanks to Drunk Engineer’s post damning it as a “concrete nightmare.” Here’s the video:

One of the main criticisms that Drunk Engineer and others, including Eric Jaffe at CityLab, have made of this proposal is the rendering of the area near the station:

And here’s Jaffe’s take on it:

But the station site shown in the video (spotted by Systemic Failure), while admittedly not a final plan, raises questions about how officials envision the Bakersfield stop. That’s not one level of market-priced garage parking embedded in a multi-story retail and residential complex—it looks more like the unpriced surface parking found at big box superstores. Not pictured: any semblance of transit connections, bike storage, or pedestrian access.

Such a scheme would go against the authority’s own original guidelines for station development, laid out in 2010, which emphasize limited parking facilities near high-speed rail hubs. The parking that does get built should be placed in garages, incorporated into mixed use developments, and available for shared use by nearby retailers and residents. And unless the spots are priced right, people will drive to the stations themselves.

But the CHSRA isn’t actually planning to leave the area near the station as a parking lot. There’s no valid reason to assume so. The rendering is just an offering to the people of Bakersfield to show them how the elevated tracks would look in the current built environment.

As the CHSRA says themselves, at the end of Jaffe’s post, they fully intend to promote TOD at all their stations, including Bakersfield:

Authority spokesperson Lisa Marie Alley tells CityLab “no decisions have been made” about parking at the eventual Bakersfield station, and that reducing car- and airplane-reliance will be one of the goals. The authority’s station area planning agreement with the city, announced yesterday, makes multimodal access to the site an explicit aim. “We will look at some of those issues of how much parking will be at a station, how many bike paths will be there, what’s electric vehicle access going to be like, and how are different modes and connectivity going to provide travelers with all types of choices,” says Alley.

We can go even further here. The entire model that the CHSRA has been using for the stations is that they are built out by the cities themselves, who then recover their costs from fees and taxes generated by nearby development. There’s no reason to believe that Bakersfield would just let the site sit vacant, surrounded by surface parking. Bakersfield has intended to build TOD near the original station location in downtown, and presumably would do the same at F Street – and the CHSRA will still push them to do so.

So Jaffe’s concerns seem misplaced. Drunk Engineer’s criticisms are broader in nature:

Trains would run on a humongous elevated viaduct through neighborhoods in the northern half of the city. Highway planners used to build nightmares like this in the bad old days of 1960’s urban renewal. This is the same thing, the only difference being that there are rails and wires on top instead of asphalt and cars…

There is no rationale for these aerial structures. Note that the original plan (in 2005) was to put the station on the periphery and keep tracks more at ground-level. That would have greatly reduced costs and neighborhood impacts. Since everyone will be be driving to the station anyway — as evidenced by the huge parking — a peripheral station location would not impact ridership.

Locating suburban HSR stations on the periphery is also typical European practice. Sadly, some so-called experts are too clueless to figure that out.

I have to disagree that “there is no rationale” for these above-grade viaducts. The rationale is that building these limits the impact to homes and businesses along the route. Bakersfield has long been concerned about the residential and commercial buildings that would have to be torn down for the hybrid alignment. So building a long viaduct through town on a new alignment would reduce the amount of demolition required.

These viaducts are also not unprecedented. BART has operated viaducts in the East Bay for nearly 45 years, like this one in Albany:

BART train from Alb H 7-13 1

There’s also precedent for urban HSR viaducts, like this one in Berlin:

Outbound ICE in Berlin

I get Drunk Engineer’s point that these concrete viaducts wouldn’t be needed if the CHSRA decided to build greenfield stations and bypass city centers. The Authority decided on downtown HSR stations long ago, and I believe it was the right call. HSR should act as a spur to more urban density and seed more multimodal transportation – exactly what Eric Jaffe was calling for in his article criticizing the rendering of a parking lot near the F Street station. In many cities in California, that’s going to require one of three things: a tunnel, a concrete viaduct, or taking a lot of houses and businesses. Given those options, I don’t begrudge the CHSRA proposing a viaduct.

What the CHSRA has done here is show Bakersfield just what this alignment would look like. The renderings are authentic to present conditions. By the time it’s built, the surrounding built environment may change, but the CHSRA can’t predict what those changes would be, and would be wrong to try.

As an exercise in showing Bakersfield what their options are, the simulation is welcome. And the F Street alignment is certainly worth giving close consideration. It’s better than putting the station on the edge of town.

Metro Hopes to Use 2024 Olympic Bid to Accelerate Rail Construction

Sep 12th, 2015 | Posted by

Los Angeles’ revived bid for the 2024 Olympic Games may be enough to bring some major benefits to transit riders in Southern California. Metro is using the bid to seek federal funding to dramatically accelerate the construction schedule for two of its major rail projects:

In letters sent Tuesday and obtained by The Times, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority formally asked to join a Federal Transit Administration pilot program that could accelerate construction on a subway to the Westside and a rail connection to Los Angeles International Airport.

With federal approval, Metro would follow an “extremely aggressive” schedule to finish the Purple Line subway extension and the LAX train station and people-mover by 2024, Metro Chief Executive Phillip Washington wrote.

Currently, the LAX rail connection is slated to be complete in 2028, and the Purple Line would reach UCLA and the Westwood VA campus in 2036. Metro’s plan would be to open the Purple Line by May 31, 2024, which doesn’t leave a whole lot of time in case something goes wrong – the Olympic Games would start just six weeks later. The Times article didn’t mention the projected opening date of the LAX connection, though the Crenshaw Line will open in 2019. A people-mover style line shouldn’t take all that long to build and presumably could be operating well in advance of the 2024 Olympics.

Metro would build all three phases of the Purple Line concurrently, rather than piece by piece. The current schedule is to get to Mid-Wilshire in 2024, Century City in 2025, and Westwood/UCLA/VA in 2036. So this proposal would accelerate the Purple Line by a whopping 12 years, which would be transformative for mass transit in LA – and help high speed rail become even more successful once it reaches Union Station around 2028.

As the article notes, recent Olympic Games in North America led to new rail lines, particularly in Salt Lake City and Vancouver. If even a bid for the 2024 Olympics gets the Purple Line to Westwood within ten years, that’d be amazing.