What California Can Learn From German HSR

Nov 9th, 2015 | Posted by

Joe Mathews has been busy riding the rails in Germany and has some very useful and insightful conclusions to share with Californians as the Golden State continues planning and building its own high speed rail system. Mainly, he emphasizes, the stations need to be built as hubs not just for travel, but as nodes that connect people to nearby destinations:

The value of high-speed rail does not lie in the cost or speed of trains, but rather in the ability of such projects to anchor deep connections—between transportation hubs, between cultural attractions, between cities, between job sites. And German high-speed rail, while far from perfect, excels at creating fast and efficient connections.

The secret is in German stations, which serve not only as hubs for various types of transportation, but also as vital public spaces that connect a variety of institutions and provide space for people to gather, shop, and be entertained. (The Leipzig Main Station even has a pet store and a supermarket). Many stations are built as bridges—over railroad tracks, highways, or other barriers—so they literally connect different parts of cities.

If California high-speed rail can reproduce the German style and create a system that deeply binds the state together—and that’s a big if—then even a $100 billion project might be a bargain. But if high-speed rail can’t connect different modes of transportation, if it can’t create stations that are destinations in themselves, then the worst predictions of high-speed rail critics—that this is an epic waste of time and money—could well prove true.

Mathews’ whole article is worth reading. He connects it to new research from an FTA planner based in San Francisco, Eric Eidlin, who has a new report out comparing California HSR to that in France and Germany. Eidlin’s conclusion is the same as Mathews’ – that the ideal stations “are center city stations where connections are “as simple, short, seamless, intuitive, and pleasant as possible.”

Thankfully that’s what California has been intending to do, whether it’s the Transbay Terminal in San Francisco, Union Station in Los Angeles, or the Central Valley stations. On the other hand, there’s the example of ARTIC, which shows what happens when one gets the station location and design wrong.

Facts, Not Fears, Should Drive HSR Analysis

Nov 5th, 2015 | Posted by

Ralph Vartabedian’s latest, biased attack on high speed rail has generated yet another round of baseless political and media attacks on the project.

One of Vartabedian’s claims was that the California High Speed Rail Authority was hiding a 2013 draft analysis that suggested it was possible that costs could rise. That suggestion isn’t news to anybody. Of course costs can rise. Vartabedian asked for the report. The CHSRA, correctly, said that they were not under any legal obligation to release a draft report.

That’s exactly what Vartabedian was hoping they would say, as it allowed him to make the CHSRA look like mustache-twirling villains who are deceiving the public. They aren’t, but Republican legislators seized on the news to call on Speaker Toni Atkins to subpoena the report.

With that, the CHSRA released the draft report, and Vartabedian immediately misrepresented its contents as conclusions rather than estimates. (Though he didn’t share it with the public.) He also implied that the Authority was being dishonest in not using the higher numbers in their 2014 business plan – when in fact, the higher numbers are estimates that could be right or could be wrong. It would not be factual to use the higher estimate, especially when there is plenty of evidence to suggest it’s inaccurate – including the fact that the actual contracts have come in below estimates.

But it’s long been clear that measly little things like facts aren’t going to get in the way of people who are determined to stop the high speed rail project. Unfortunately, even some HSR supporters are being taken in by Vartabedian’s spin.

The Los Angeles Times ran an editorial titled “Red flags for high speed rail”. Here’s what they have to say:

Did the California High-Speed Rail Authority downplay potential cost increases for the state’s controversial bullet train? In a draft PowerPoint presentation dated October 2013, the agency’s project management consultant estimated that the cost of the first phase of the line, from Burbank to Merced, could grow to about $36 billion. Yet the authority ended up putting a lower cost estimate in its official business plan released four months later, The Times recently reported.

No, they did not downplay potential cost increases. They’re the same agency that put out the $90 billion estimate just a few years ago! If anything they’ve been extremely transparent in their cost estimates, even when they don’t have to be.

True, the presentation was labeled a draft. And authority officials said they used “scores of analyses and assessments” to develop the updated cost estimates. Still, it’s worrisome that the staff was given a detailed report on increasing costs from the project management contractor, and yet that information is missing from the 2014 business plan the authority presented to lawmakers and the public. The agency says it chose the more optimistic estimates because it’s confident that it can keep the costs down, an ability we won’t be able to measure until the project is well underway.

Here’s the thing: the costs did not actually increase. The Times editorial will mention much later that the actual contracts are coming in below estimates, but that information should be mentioned higher up – because it undermines the entire premise of the editorial. The higher cost estimate was in a draft report. More work was done and in 2014 the Authority believed the estimates would be lower. Subsequent events have proved them to be right. That isn’t a red flag. That’s a green flag.

This page has long supported the train project because of its potential to provide an environmentally friendly way to handle the increasing travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco, to integrate Central Valley communities more tightly into those two cities and their economies, and to maintain the state’s position as a technology leader. With the rail line now under construction in the San Joaquin Valley, however, lawmakers should be asking hard questions to make sure the project can live up to that potential without breaking the bank.

Here’s the problem: the LA Times is basically saying here that we can’t stop climate change, clean up the air, and boost the state’s economy if the cost estimates are too high. Penny wise, pound foolish. The only risk of breaking the bank is if HSR isn’t built. A hotter, drier state will cost far more than building HSR will, even under the highest cost estimates.

Lawmakers have spent the last 7 years asking hard questions. The Authority has answered all of them. The facts are on the Authority’s side here. But that will never be enough for people who have been trained to see cost increases as somehow a terrible, awful sign that government is creating a disaster.

Is the rail authority being frank and transparent with the public about the costs of the project? Can the project attract private investors to fill the gap between the government’s contributions and the total bill? Yes, the first construction contracts have come in under budget — that’s good news. Now, can those contracts stay within budget? These are fair and important questions, especially when the public has already seen the price of the rail line double since 2008 and the scope of the project scaled back.

The Authority has been frank and transparent about the costs. And private investors will materialize, but closer to the construction of the Initial Operating Segment. The contracts have come in under budget. If the LA Times is concerned about whether those contracts are staying on budget, then maybe they should spend their time looking into that issue, rather than dredging up a draft report from two years ago with estimates that have not materialized.

CHSRA Fires Back at Ridiculous Vartabedian Article

Oct 29th, 2015 | Posted by

The most recent anti-HSR screed from Ralph Vartabedian has generated a lot of attention, mainly for its speculative claim that cost overruns and project delays are a certainty. Vartabedian reached that conclusion after talking to a bunch of HSR critics and wrote a typically one-sided article. As it turns out, he omitted some important facts.

California High Speed Rail Authority CEO Jeff Morales pointed out some of those omissions in a recent letter to the editor:

A recent report on the California high-speed rail gave readers a dramatic but false impression of where our program stands in terms of costs and technical hurdles. In truth, we are making steady progress. Work is underway on the over 100-mile rail segment in the Central Valley, with over $2 billion in construction contracts executed. Drive along Highway 99 and you will see crews.

Although the article had extensive speculation about potential future cost growth, it omitted that the first construction contracts have come in hundreds of millions of dollars below estimates. The article also makes it seem as though no one has thought about the challenge of tunneling through mountain ranges. On the contrary, we have brought in some of the world’s leading tunneling experts and they’re confident of our ability to construct the needed tunnels.

Any infrastructure investment of this size will face risks associated with cost and schedules. To that end, we’ve employed the most advanced risk management strategies available. This approach has resulted in lower costs and faster timelines.

There will be bumps along the way, for sure, and we will be forthright about the difficulties, but the article stands in stark contrast to the progress we’re making.

I bolded that section in the blockquote because it’s of central importance to this story. Vartabedian goes to great lengths to suggest that the Authority isn’t doing anything to address the possibility of cost overruns. The fact that the construction contracts so far have come in below estimates is important – it’s hard evidence, rather than a reporter’s speculation, and it powerfully undermines Vartabedian’s case.

The fact is that most of the increase in cost estimates has already happened. The project was said to cost $33 billion in 2008, which many felt was a low estimate and that turns out to have been the case. Changes to accounting, as well as more detailed engineering, sent the cost estimate to $68 billion. It’s possible that the final bill will be below that estimate, though we’ll have to see what happens once these first construction contracts are complete.

Californians absolutely should closely scrutinize the HSR project to ensure it is being built properly, and within the projected budget and timeline. Unfortunately, Vartabedian didn’t do that. By cherrypicking his evidence to highlight critics and worst-case scenarios, omitting evidence that suggests the project is actually coming in on or under its current budget, he created a distorted and misleading perception of doubt and crisis.

At least we know that his previous efforts to attack the HSR project have failed to derail it. I assume the same will be the case this time too.

ARTIC Is A Ghost Town, Proving Critics Were Correct

Oct 27th, 2015 | Posted by

Earlier this year, HBO’s True Detective shot a climactic scene for its second season at the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center – aka ARTIC, the city’s new Metrolink/Amtrak station. The scene showed a modern train station bustling with people, a perfect place for a tense conversation, or as it happened, a shootout.

But that appears to be the busiest ARTIC has ever been. Nearly a year after it opened amidst widespread criticism that it would be underused and a boondoggle for Anaheim taxpayers, many riders are bypassing the blimp hangar-style terminal and heading straight to the platform, as the Voice of OC reports:

A number of travelers told a Voice of OC reporter that the long walk through the shell – across ARTIC’s “great hall” up to the second level, onto a catwalk and back down two flights of stairs — is a journey not worth taking.

One ARTIC employee estimated that 95 percent of ARTIC’s daily commuters never set foot in the shell. The employee, who did not want her name published for fear of reprisals, said daily riders demanded the right to park their cars in a lot behind the building designated for overnight parking just so they could skip the shell and go straight to the train platform.

During his visit to ARTIC, the Voice of OC reporter watched dozens of commuters do just that. They stepped off their trains and walked straight to the back parking lot. And even some of the commuters who parked in the front lot chose to walk around the building rather than through it.

Voice of OC also published this helpful illustration of the configuration at ARTIC:

This is purely anecdotal, but when I took the Pacific Surfliner to and from Santa Ana earlier this month, I noticed a few people walking from that south lot directly to the platforms. It’s hard to tell from the tracks how many people were in ARTIC, but I didn’t see anyone on the catwalk, and overall there were fewer riders boarding there than at Fullerton or Santa Ana. Granted, that was also a weekend when service terminated at Irvine with a bus bridge to points south due to track work, so maybe what I saw was unusually low usage.

Train riders criticized the layout of the station, suggesting that it was built in a way that makes people less inclined to want to spend time inside the blimp hangar:

And the majority of the people interviewed complained that the center didn’t seem designed with them in mind. They said milling inside the building might be risky because if your train comes even a fast sprint won’t get you to the platform in time.

Kevn Cook, an MBA student at Cal State Fullerton who was taking a train from Anaheim to Irvine, said he parked in the front lot and made the journey through the shell in the morning. But on his return trip in the afternoon, he realized he could get to his car faster by walking around the shell.

“It’s quickest to walk this way,” Cook said. “It’s not like there’s any reason you have to go in there. There’s nothing to do… to basically walk up and then back down… it’s kind of like, why bother?”

A woman named Rose — who didn’t give her full name — said she takes the bus daily to ARTIC and then hops on a train for the ride home.

The problem for bus riders, Rose said, is the bus pick-up area is too far from the train platform, making it easy to miss your bus.

“They didn’t even think it through. It’s really stupid,” she said.

A man who was sitting next to her then chimed, “it’s dysfunctional!”

And according to a bicycle advocate, it’s not just busses and trains that are inconvenient at ARTIC.

Brenda Miller, founder of the non-motorized transportation group PEDal, said ARTIC is a “beautiful” building, but its bicycle racks over by the Santa Ana river are in a “creepy” location. She said a more modern bicycle friendly facility, like those in Europe, have their bicycle garages inside the center.

“It’s kind of a creepy environment out there,” Miller said. “For a cutting edge facility, it’s horribly disappointing.”

So not only is the station poorly laid out, not only is the “intermodal” part of the station poorly designed (as reflected by the above comments about buses and bikes), it’s also likely to cost Anaheim taxpayers:

If a large number of commuters continue to actively avoid the shell and the city can’t realize any significant revenue from leases, advertising and naming rights, the $4 million annual operating cost would likely come out of the city’s general fund, which is meant for core services like police and fire protection.

Currently, hoteliers covering ARTIC’s operating costs by offering revenue from a special 2 percent room tax. But that’s not expected to last forever.

This has the makings of a disaster. And it must be acknowledged, by me specifically, that there were critics who said this is exactly what would happen.

When ARTIC opened last December, Gustavo Arellano of the OC Weekly slammed the project as a wasteful boondoggle that would hurt Anaheim badly:

Critics have trashed the station’s rosy projections–10,000 passengers per day upon opening–as unrealistic. They’ve also noted that Orange County is already well-served by other, smaller stations, including a charming one in Anaheim just 1,000 feet away from ARTIC that shut down last week, made redundant by its bigger sister. But as with 19th-century boosters willing to have their town invaded by robber barons if that meant a railroad went through it, Anaheim doesn’t care about reality. They’re hitching ARTIC to two other projects already proving headaches to taxpayers that might never get built: California’s high-speed railroad and a streetcar that would connect the station to the city’s resort area….

But no one cared about this tangled web on opening day, even if reality is already rearing its inconvenient head. ARTIC has yet to fill up with tenants, and Anaheim hasn’t secured naming rights–essential to not incurring an immediate deficit, a hole that taxpayers would have to fill. But then again, creating revenue for city coffers was never the priority for ARTIC fans, and a quote by just-voted-out councilwoman–and Pringle ally–Gail Eastman in the Orange County Register last month is telling.

“I’m expecting our staff to come up with a way to pay the bill,” Eastman told reporter Art Marroquin. “Our first priority was getting the building done and getting the concession leases signed.”

My response was to defend the concept of ARTIC and the planned streetcar connection that would link ARTIC to the Disneyland resort. I pointed out that it made sense, but that Anaheim built this too soon:

If Anaheim wants to build a destination station to link ARC to Amtrak California, Metrolink, and eventually high speed rail, that’s fine by me. Anaheim believes it can generate revenue from train riders waiting for their intercity trains by putting retailers at ARTIC, and that theory is sound.

The problem is that ARTIC opened far in advance of those key connecting services, specifically ARC and HSR. So ARTIC is going to spend a few years sitting there, like the Tustin blimp hangars on which it is modeled, feeling empty and underused. That won’t last. But it will give fodder to Pringle critics.

Nearly a year later, it’s clear that the situation is much worse, and that ARTIC has serious design flaws. Arellano and the other critics were absolutely right about the problems with this station and I have to conclude that Anaheim made a significant error opening this station so far in advance of HSR and connecting streetcar service.

ARTIC – at least in theory, leaving aside the flawed layout – works when it serves as a transportation hub for people connecting to or from the Disneyland resort to points beyond. Families, holiday travelers, people with a long trip ahead, people who will probably arrive at the station 30 to 60 minutes before their train departs. Los Angeles Union Station is a good example of this.

But since those connecting services don’t yet exist, ARTIC is pointless for the current services that use it. It’s a commuter rail station that also does some service for regional rail and for baseball games. Those riders don’t really have much use for the blimp hangar. A platform with some covered areas is fine. While I still believe that Anaheim can generate revenues from concessions and rents inside the blimp hangar, they are highly unlikely to do so before the ARC streetcar project and/or HSR reaches ARTIC. And that could be as much as a decade away.

I wonder what the cost would be to simply mothball the blimp hangar until those connecting services are built. Would that be a lower cost to the city than leaving it open but underused?

This is a bad situation for Anaheim. Anaheim leaders who pushed for ARTIC to be built this early have also done a disservice to passenger rail advocacy in Southern California generally speaking. The city was wrong to build and open this when they did, and the example of ARTIC will surely be used by rail critics to attack other, smarter, more useful projects. Those attacks won’t stick, but it also won’t help to have to deal with them.

ARTIC’s failure isn’t that Southern Californians don’t ride trains. They do, as anyone riding a packed Surfliner or seeing the huge crowds at LA Union Station knows. ARTIC’s failure is that it should have been built when the ARC and HSR were ready to deliver the passengers that would make use of the amenities inside the blimp hangar. Even a smaller building, like at Santa Ana or Fullerton or Santa Barbara, with a waiting area, ticketing, and a small concession stand would have made sense. One could have built a temporary structure while awaiting the ARC and HSR.

But that didn’t happen, thanks largely to the influence of Curt Pringle, and now Anaheim is stuck with a train station that is going to be underused for some time to come. It’s cold comfort to know that someday, once HSR and the streetcar arrive, ARTIC will see the riders that were planned. But for now, it seems the only way to get a lot of people inside ARTIC is to bring a TV crew.

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