Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

A Think Piece from Orphan Road: The California Prcedent

It looks like NYT has a major piece in infrastructure and it has provoked some serious thinking. Some of that can be found on Orphan Road, an excellent Seattle blog. Since California is in a commanding position to get a major slice of the first federal money for HSR, are there risks?

Let’s see.

  • California is currently sending out IOUs instead of checks
  • everything is ultimately decided by popular initiative (Yes, I know. Just hang on.)
  • no tax sentiment is deeply rooted in local culture
  • geographic distances
  • NIMBY and other wacko environmentalist opposition

OK, you get the picture.

UPDATE: California HSR project may bypass San Francisco. This AP story highlights the latest objections and another possible reason to avoid spending federal dollars in the ever-changing political quicksands of of the Golden State.

There are numerous “up” sides of the discussion as well.

  • extreme highway congestion
  • wel educated populace
  • large population base essential for sufficient passenger volume
  • vibrant transit systems at LA and in the Bay area
  • vibrant business communities in destination cities

I think Chicago-St. Louis is the best first choice, but that has some risk/reward considerations as well. Anyway, for your holiday weekend, here is the conversation starter. I await your analysis.

Filed under: Passenger Rail Transportatio Policy, United States High Speed Rail

7 Responses

  1. rafael says:

    I have no problem with Chicago-St. Louis or Cinncinati-Columbus-Cleveland getting HSR funds early on, provided the requisite environmental impact statements are completed and the state(s) have significant skin in the game. At the federal level, we’re currently looking at $9.5b from PRIIA and ARRA combined plus another $5 over five years in the regular budget. That sounds like a lot but it really isn’t. It makes no sense to spread this initial funding too thin. In particular, Florida and Texas aborted their previous attempts at HSR and should therefore be asked to commit to state-level investments in the form of dedicated bonds or tax hikes before any federal money goes their way,

    It’s true that emerging HSR at 110mph can be built at very reasonable cost per mile, but it will always struggle – and probably fail – to turn an operating profit. That means individual states seeking HSR at that entry-level speed must first make the political decision to subsidize the service, quite possibly in perpetuity. Amtrak’s Acela Express is profitable even though it’s limited to even lower speeds in many sections, but that’s because it serves the most densely populated region in the nation and therefore manages to attract significant ridership anyhow.

    By contrast, express HSR systems do turn an operating profit all over the world, enough to cross-subsidize slower connecting/commuter services. That’s why so many countries are building express HSR lines! However, those lines are not profitable enough to recoup the high capital cost of building the starter line. In terms of US politics, individual states don’t care as much about that because the federal government typically picks up the lion’s share of the debt service.

    California in particular has both the population and tourism to justify the massive investment in express HSR. It has also done its homework in terms of completing the program level EIS, which is subject not just to federal NEPA but also the state’s much stricter CEQA law. Moreover, voters have approved $9.95 billion in state GO bonds for the starter line and capital improvements to feeder services.

    While it’s true that California is currently in a deep fiscal hole, it is also not yet in the construction phase for the SF-SJ-Fresno-Bakersfield-LA-Anaheim starter line. None of the prop 1A(2008) approved last November have actually been appropriated and sold yet. The sums required to keep project-level planning efforts on track are comparatively small. Ergo, HSR is not the reason for the state’s current predicament.

    It will take a few years for the state’s economy to recover from its asset bubble bursting and, voters will need to amend the state constitution to avoid future gridlock on how to balance the budget. Winston Churchill once said that Americans can be relied on to do the right thing, after exhausting all other possibilities. Fingers crossed that will also hold true of the California electorate.

  2. Chris Robbins says:

    I am the biggest HSR and passenger rail junkie I know of, and I am not sure that the whole CAHSR corridor should be funded at this time. HSR from San Diego to Los Angeles and from Chicago to St Louis should get the bulk of the stimulus and HSR funding currently appropriated, and they should get true 220mph HSR. The next priority then should be expanding the Northeast Corridor west to Pittsburgh and Buffalo, north to Portland, ME, and south to Richmond, VA. From there incremental expansion can be made until the country is interconnected by HSR. There has to be some kind of sane, central planning for a vision this huge.

  3. political_incorrectness says:

    I’d have a 4-5 corridor agenda with federal funds for HSR

    NEC w/ extension to Richmond or further
    California
    Midwest
    Texas T-bone
    Florida

    These are in the highest priority of needing HSR and serve quite a few people. What I wish we could do is throw out the feasibility study and 2nd EIS to get the show on the road and save some money too. What also needs to be done is create a transportation program on upgrading main freight/ pax lines to service high speed cargo and passenger trains. The PNW could use that and Upstate NY along with many other areas of the country. However, we need precedent which is where the 220 mph HSR comes in and that will have people saying we should fund it.

  4. Cal says:

    Under no senario will San Francisco be left off this system. IT would be the same as stopping Aclea in Baltimore and having passengers change to MARC trains to finish the trip to DC. More drama news from the media. The Nimbys as usual have gotten far more coverage than they deserve..Prop1 passed in the 65-68 perenct range in SanMateo and SantaClara counties. HSR is coming up Caltrain to SF. As far as spending money..CAHSR has 9Billion that will be spent on the system..money for transportation works come from the gas tax

  5. Spokker says:

    Prop 1A (2008) passed in all but one precinct in Menlo Park, CA. Surprise, that precinct is where one of the most prominent anti-HSR NIMBYs lives. I guess he was only able to influence his neighbors.

  6. HockeyFan says:

    I agree with Chris Robbins. Plus an electrified NEC extension north to Albany NY.

  7. Nathanael Nerode says:

    Chicago-St. Louis has been repeatedly mismanaged. UP have not been very helpful really. And Missouri’s treatment of St. Louis —- sigh.

    If I had a choice, I’d put the money into Chicago-Minneapolis (via Milwaukee and Madison), or Chicago East (Chicago-Ft. Wayne, IN mostly, which helps Chicago-Detroit too). I mean, I’d really *like* the money to go to NYC-Albany-Buffalo, but NYS is such a mess it’s not a reasonable proposal yet.

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