Track to the future: 20 Questions on California high-speed rail

It could transform Sacramento and the Central Valley. But will the recession, and politics, put the brakes on California’s bullet train? All aboard as our writer answers 20 questions on the hope for high-speed rail in 2020.

When voters approved construction of high-speed rail in 2008, they were making a big down payment on the future of California’s transportation system, economy and environment.

Now that it’s time to start building high-speed rail, the effort is bogging down in doubt and blame. No one is quite sure how much it will cost, or where the money will come from. The California High-Speed Rail Authority—the agency in charge of getting the bullet train built—is accused by some of mismanaging the whole project.

“High-Speed Rail: Dead and Loving It”—that’s how one columnist at the libertarian publication Reason magazine gleefully put it recently.

Adding fuel to the skeptics’ fire was last month’s report from the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, questioning everything from the project’s cost estimates to the very existence of the HSRA’s governing board. The LAO said it would be a “big gamble” to start construction.

Because of the economy, and because of the GOP takeover of Congress, the political climate is turning against high-speed rail just as it was beginning to gain speed in the United States. But stopping high-speed rail in its tracks could cost us more than going forward. Highways aren’t cheap, neither is oil.

As for Sacramento’s connection, right now, we’re more preoccupied with figuring out how to build a half-billion-dollar NBA arena than to plan for high-speed rail—though the latter will probably have a greater impact on the region.

Even supporters of high-speed rail are looking for answers about the future of the ambitious project. So we hope this game of 20 Questions may help sort things out.

What is high-speed rail?

The largest infrastructure project in the nation. The system will cover about 800 miles of track and directly connect two dozen cities in California. The trains themselves would be powered by electricity and would reach top speeds of 220 miles per hour, at least on the straight and flat segments that will run through the Central Valley.

That means a trip from Sacramento to Los Angeles in about two hours and 17 minutes. Los Angeles to San Francisco would take you about two hours and 40 minutes. Part of the appeal, of course, is connecting cities that aren’t practical for air travel. A trip to Fresno is about three hours by car, but would only be an hour from Sacramento by high-speed rail.

Proposition 1A, approved by voters in 2008, authorized $10 billion in bonds to start building the system. The measure also specified that it would first connect San Francisco to Los Angeles, and that this segment, called Phase I, would be completed by 2020. Phase II cities, including Sacramento and San Diego, are expected to come online as funding allows, possibly in 2025, probably later.

California’s is also the last true high-speed-rail project that’s still kicking anywhere in the United States—since other proposed high-speed projects have been derailed by politics in Florida, Wisconsin and Ohio.

Will the trains levitate on magnetic fields?


What’s so great about high-speed rail, then?

The purpose of high-speed rail is of course to get places faster, cheaper and more conveniently. But it’s also about economic development, connecting the Central Valley to the rest of the state and trying to loosen the grip of the automobile on our transportation policy.

The HSRA estimates 450,000 permanent jobs will be created by the economic development that is spurred by the line.

And the authority says about 100,000 construction jobs will be created during every year that the project is under construction.

How about the environmental impact?

High-speed rail uses about one-third of the energy per person as air travel, and about one-fifth of the energy used per person by car travel.

And the trains will run on electricity generated by renewable and low-carbon sources, according to the HSRA.

Backers also believe that a new rail line will drive new kinds of land use and development, and new investment in public transportation, particularly in the car-crazy southern Central Valley.

Daniel Krause, an urban planner and executive director of the group Californians for High Speed Rail, calls the bullet train “a transformative piece of infrastructure for the Central Valley.”

How much will it cost to build?

Probably not the $43 billion that the HSRA has outlined in its most recent business plan.

The LAO says the project could cost as much as $67 billion—based on the fact that the Fresno-to-Bakersfield segment, which the agency first estimated at $2.8 billion, is now estimated to cost $4.5 billion. Assuming the cost of the whole project is similarly off 57 percent, you get $67 billion.

The Authority is due to come out with its latest business plan this October. And most everybody expects the cost estimate to go up. But high-speed-rail backers say the LAO’s prediction of $67 billion is wildly oversimplified. Much of the real cost depends on all the decisions that are made along the way.

“There are so many alternate alignments,” said Roelof van Ark, executive director of the HSRA. When construction actually begins, van Ark says estimates will be more refined.

Since no one has ever built a high-speed-rail system in California before, it’s perhaps not too surprising those estimates would change. But that uncertainty only tends to stoke criticism that costs are out of control.

So, where will the money come from?

Nine billion dollars of course will come from the bonds authorized by Prop. 1A in 2008 (the measure included another $1 billion for local transit systems). Under the HSRA’s current business plan, another $17 billion to $19 billion would come from the federal government. About $4 billion to $5 billion from local governments, and private investment would provide $10 billion to $12 billion.

In this year’s State of the Union address, President Barack Obama set an ambitious goal for high-speed rail in America. “Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail, which could allow you to go places in half the time it takes to travel by car,” the president said. “For some trips, it will be faster than flying—without the pat-down.”

Can we really count on more federal money?

So far, the Obama administration has backed that vision up with about $10 billion in high-speed-rail money—about $3.5 billion of which has come to California. Most of that is American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds, a.k.a. stimulus money.

Thanks in part to successful Republican efforts that killed high-speed-rail projects in Florida and Ohio and Wisconsin, California got a little more than was first expected.

Obama had asked Congress for more high-speed-rail money, to the tune of $53 billion over the next six years.

But that’s not likely to happen with the budget deficit and the current Congress. If anything, high-speed rail is likely to become just another polarized election issue in the next year and a half—like health care and climate change.

And that, in turn, has raised doubts about the $18-or-so billion that the Authority said the feds need to kick in.

California’s high-speed-rail project would connect San Francisco to Los Angeles by the year 2020. Sacramento and San Diego would be connected as the money becomes available. The plan is to start construction in the Central Valley, because that’s where it’s possible to run trains at speeds over 200 miles per hour.

“I don’t believe that money is coming. So what’s plan B?” asked California state Sen. Alan Lowenthal. The Long Beach lawmaker is one of the loudest critics of the Authority and the project.

Van Ark says, however, that he is confident that the federal money will be there in the future. “Presently, we have a rather delicate political challenge in Washington,” he conceded. But he said he thinks Congress, in the long run, will embrace high-speed rail. “I think we will be able to count on federal money. Our country is growing, and it’s going to continue to grow its infrastructure. Are we going to do that with just freeways and airports?”

The Authority has been derided for not having a realistic business plan, and for not being able to show how they will attract private investment. In fact, California State Treasurer Bill Lockyer has warned that the lack of a realistic business plan also raises doubts about the state’s ability to sell those bonds.

But van Ark insists that the private investment will follow California’s construction of the system’s first segment—its high-speed backbone. He says that’s how successful systems in Germany, France and Spain all began.

“We first have to prove that we’re serious about building the system. When you start getting closer to the metropolitan areas, that’s when you start to line up the private investment,” argued van Ark.

Great, but what has actually been done so far?

So far, the HSRA has completed a high-level environmental review and identified the general route for the high-speed-rail system.

The Authority currently has 21 employees and a nine-member board, appointed by the governor and Legislature. Most of the actual design, engineering and environmental review is being carried out by outside consultants.

And is the High-Speed Rail Authority doing an awesome job?

Depending on who you ask, the Authority is either doing the best it can with a small staff working on a tight deadline, or is arrogant and incompetent, led by political appointees who lack the expertise needed to pull it off.

“Whenever they’ve run into problems, they’ve just said, ‘We’re doing God’s work here. To hell with you guys,’” said Gary Patton, an environmental lawyer working with residents on the San Francisco peninsula (especially Atherton, Menlo Park and Palo Alto), who are opposed to the route that’s been proposed through their communities.

Right now, Patton is bringing a lawsuit on behalf of a group called Community Coalition on High Speed Rail, alleging that the Authority did not adequately study alternatives to the Pacheco Pass route they’ve chosen between the Central Valley and the S.F. peninsula. The Citizens Coalition and others think a different route, through the Altamont Pass, would generate more riders, have fewer impacts on neighborhoods and would be less damaging to environmentally sensitive areas.

Some dismiss those lawsuits as mere NIMBYism. But the pattern may be repeating itself in the Central Valley, where farmers and conservative political groups have been agitating against the project.

Even strong backers of high-speed rail think the High-Speed Rail Authority has fumbled its public-outreach duties and needs to be reformed.

“I think in certain cases, the Authority has been too imperious,” said Sacramento Assemblyman Roger Dickinson. He says that many supporters of the project, like himself, now think that “It’s a political necessity to restructure the High-Speed Rail Authority.” More on that below.

When will they actually start building the thing?

Construction is supposed to start by September 2012. If the project stays reasonably on schedule, engineers would start testing the trains between 2015 and 2017. Backers say that once the first segment is built—it’s estimated it will take about five years to construct the 140-mile “spine” from Bakersfield to Chowchilla—then investors will begin lining up to help build out the rest of the system.

The plan is to ultimately turn the operation over to a private company, which will be able to turn a profit off of running the system. The line is supposed to be open to the public in 2020. The question is how much of the system will be complete by then.

Will people ride it?

Airplane flights from Sacramento to Los Angeles take about an hour in the air. At the right price, backers figure a two-and-a-half hour train trip will be more comfortable than flying and pretty competitive. And if fuel prices continue to go up over the long term, a reasonable assumption, fares for the electric-powered trains will look more attractive as time goes on.

The Authority estimates that if a train ticket costs 50 percent of airfare, the Authority figures the system will attract about 55 million passengers a year. That’s just for Phase I, the S.F.-to-L.A. line.

At a more realistic 77 percent of airfare, ridership would dip way down, topping out at about 40 million riders annually. But when Phase II of the California project is built, bringing Sacramento and San Diego on line, the Authority’s ridership estimates jump dramatically, to about 74 million riders.

Really? That many?

Yep. But of course, those ridership projections are disputed.

The UC Berkeley Institute of Transportation Studies last year blasted the estimates, saying that because of bad survey practices the numbers were untrustworthy.

“The forecast of ridership is unlikely to be very close to the ridership that would actually materialize if the system were built. As such, it is not possible to predict whether the proposed high-speed-rail system will experience healthy profits or severe revenue shortfalls,” the Berkeley report concluded.

Van Ark counters that the ridership models are just that, models intended to slow the environmental impacts of the project. Again, van Ark said more refined numbers, and revenue projections, would come in October.

What’s this I hear about building a “train to nowhere”?

The Central Valley is the only large section of the whole system where high-speed trains will truly be able to move at speeds greater than 200 miles per hour. Not coincidentally, that’s where the Authority wants to start building the system.

It’s where California told the feds it would break ground when the state applied for, and won, all that stimulus. In the Valley, it’s cheaper to buy land and right of way and easier to lay more track quickly. In short, it’s more “shovel-ready.”

This is also more or less how the federal highway system was built, starting in the rural middle of the country. But critics say that, unlike the highway system, funding for high-speed rail is uncertain. If the money runs out, the state could be stuck with some fancy track and no one to ride it. That’s the “train to nowhere” argument.

At the same time, lawmakers from the L.A. region and Bay Area have suggested that the money first be spent at either end of the system, improving the existing rail corridors there and incrementally working toward a high-speed-rail system.

Well, that would be pretty good for their districts, wouldn’t it?

That’s probably what Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani, a Democrat from Stockton, meant when she described efforts to thwart construction of the Central Valley segment first as a “great train robbery.”

Californians for High Speed Rail’s Krause likewise worries that the “train to nowhere” argument is really a grab at the high-speed-rail money that’s on the table now.

“They want to get their hands on the money so they can do ribbon-cutting in their districts. I understand that,” Krause said.

Once those billions are spent laying new track and making other improvements to Caltrain in the Bay Area, or Metrolink in Los Angeles, Krause said, “It would be so easy just to walk away at that point and call it a day. But if you do it in the right order, you get the whole system.”

Jeffrey Barker, deputy director of the HSRA, says that for the same amount of money that it will cost to build the entire 140-mile spine of the high-speed-rail system in the Central Valley, “you’d get 30 miles of something that’s not high-speed rail” in the Bay Area.

And while the Central Valley segment is derided as “nowhere” (to the chagrin of Valley residents and politicians), Krause says the impact to towns like Fresno and Bakersfield shouldn’t be underestimated. “At this point, the Central Valley doesn’t do a lot of public transit. High-speed rail is already getting them to think differently about their cities.”

A possible high-speed rail station in Sacramento’s downtown rail yards. High-speed rail could transform the downtown areas of several Central Valley towns.

Even before high-speed trains start rolling, the improvements made in the Central Valley will cut down on travel times for the Amtrak service that runs through the valley now. It’s also worth noting that some of the greatest growth in Amtrak ridership is happening on the San Joaquin line.

And last month, the U.S. Department of Transportation sent a letter to the Authority reaffirming its opinion that the Central Valley is the best place to start, and suggesting that changing the starting point could endanger the federal funds already approved for the project.

Assemblyman Dickinson says he thinks the question of where to start the system is settled.

“The project needs to show some tangible movement forward. Private capital is not going to come to the party until they are convinced it is real.”

When will high-speed rail come to Sacramento?

At best, 2025. Some Central Valley politicos have made polite inquiries about being moved up in the queue. Especially if planning for the S.F. peninsula leg continues to bog down in lawsuits and controversy. But Prop. 1A makes it pretty clear that Phase I of the project is supposed to be from San Francisco the L.A.-Anaheim area.

Where would Sacramento even put high-speed rail?

Some in Sacramento were disappointed that Sacramento was left out of Phase I of the project. But there’s a lot of groundwork to be done before it gets here.

For several years, the thinking has been that Sacramento’s high-speed-rail station would be part of Sacramento’s planned intermodal transportation facility. The state-of-the-art transportation hub—incorporating Amtrak, bus and light rail and eventually streetcar and high-speed rail—is penciled in for the city-owned property on the I Street side of the downtown rail yards.

But with a recent proposal to put a Sacramento Kings arena on the site, will high-speed rail get lost in the shuffle?

Sparky Harris, senior planner with the city’s Department of Transportation, assures us that the city is keeping track of the intermodal and will leave room for rail. But he concedes the addition of a sports arena “does complicate things.”

“You’ve only got a finite amount of space to work with,” he said.

But he added that a major destination like an arena could draw regional travelers to games and concerts. He noted that a Kings fan in Fresno or Modesto could attend a game in Sacramento, spend some time downtown and make it home within an hour or 30 minutes on the bullet train.

Assemblyman Dickinson, a supporter of high-speed rail and a downtown arena, said the intermodal facility is “crucial.”

“We can’t afford to shunt it aside. And it needs to have the ability to accommodate high-speed rail. That’s got to be in the mix,” he added.

The HSRA says it is budgeting for very basic stations for all the cities with stops. For anything fancier, it’s likely the extra money will have to be raised by the locals.

For example, San Francisco has already been awarded $400 million in federal stimulus to build their high-speed-rail station at a newly redeveloped Transbay Terminal. Harris said he hopes that Sacramento will be able to attract state and federal funds for a first-rate station. “It is the state capital. And it’s the end of the line. You’d think they’d want to do something memorable.”

Will there be bullet trains in my backyard?

Maybe, but then again, you’ve probably already got trains in your backyard.

One route that was considered would have brought the train along the main railroad line right through Midtown. But that alignment seems to have been abandoned, said Harris, because there was no easy way for the train to make the wide turn needed into the downtown rail yards.

The more likely route would be to follow the Union Pacific lines entering the city through south Sacramento, running more or less parallel to Power Inn Road, past Sacramento State and, as Dickinson puts it, “threading the needle” through East Sacramento and along the American River levy into downtown.

It looks like high-speed trains in Sacramento County will parallel existing train tracks. “And they should be quieter than existing freight-train crossings,” Harris explained.

They’ll also be “grade separated,” meaning they have to travel in trenches or along aerial structures and away from existing streets and sidewalks.

So far in Sacramento, there’s not been the sort of collective freakout that’s happened on the peninsula, or even the sort of agitating that’s been happening in the farming areas further down the Valley. Still, it’s early yet for the Sacramento leg of the project.

So, should the High-Speed Rail Authority be fired?

Assemblywoman Galgiani, the lead author of the bond legislation that became Prop. 1A, has introduced legislation that would create a Department of High Speed Trains, and provide more support—and oversight—for the project. But her legislation would keep the current board as an advisory body to the department.

State Sen. Lowenthal has introduced legislation that would eliminate the High Speed Rail Authority board and replace it with a new one. Under his bill, each member would be required to have particular expertise. There would be one engineer with experience building large infrastructure projects, one economist, one expert in ecosystems and so on.

Since the state Senate would confirm all of the appointments, some high-speed-rail supporters worry the new board will be stacked with “experts” who are opponents of high-speed rail and would strangle the project.

What happens if we don’t build high-speed rail?

“To me, this is the core question that California should be asking,” said Emily Rusch, with the California Public Interest Research Group. “Forty-two billion dollars sounds incredibly expensive. But highways aren’t cheap. Airports aren’t cheap.”

In environmental-review documents for the project, the Authority has estimated that, without high-speed rail, the state would have to spend $80 billion on other kinds of infrastructure—including 3,000 miles of highway lanes and 92 airport gates.

Doing nothing to upgrade California’s infrastructure is probably not a politically palatable option. And most policymakers seem to agree that the state needs to significantly cut carbon-dioxide emissions out of its transportation system.

Still, a significant number of people are ideologically opposed to high-speed rail. Among them are the folks who see spooky similarity between the HSRA logo and the Obama campaign logo.

“There certainly is a set of people who think high-speed rail is just a boondoggle. It doesn’t matter what the details are, they just don’t think it’s worth money,” Dickinson said.

So will it hit deadline? Get done by 2020?

“This thing is about to crash and burn,” Patton said. “It’s regrettable. It would be terrific, if done right. But this thing has never been done right.”

Dickinson counters that there are always the inevitable growing pains that go along with any major public-infrastructure project.

“You will always have opposition. There’s always a set of people who say it’s a waste of money, or that you’re doing it the wrong way,” Dickinson said. “But when it’s done, it becomes transformative. That’s when people say, ‘This was a good idea.’”

Van Ark says it’s unlikely that there will be enough money, or enough time, to build the entire system by 2020. But building Phase I, connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles with a 2-hour-and-40-minute train trip, is still doable, he says.

If so, then California is still the last best chance for high-speed rail in America.

“Our best chance is now. You have to have the guts to start construction,” van Ark said.