Bay Area Won’t Likely Get First High Speed Rail Segment

Image: CAHSRA
Image: CAHSRA

The California High-Speed Rail Authority (CAHSRA) Board of Directors won’t make a decision on where to start building California’s first high-speed rail segment until December, but nearly everyone can see the writing on the wall.

Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) Adminstrator Joe Szabo wrote [pdf] CAHSRA CEO Roelof van Ark on Wednesday to inform him that all of the $2.9 billion in federal money given to California’s project, including the $715 million awarded last week, must fund either of the two Central Valley segments between Fresno and Bakersfield.

The FRA’s letter comes in the middle of the comment period to formalize the segment selection criteria, with the federal government all but deciding the first segment ahead of a formal process. And despite the letter, van Ark said the CAHSRA was committed to objective criteria.

“The selection criteria should be neutral of the four segments,” said van Ark at the CAHSRA Board meeting in Sacramento yesterday. “The first step of the process, to select and build the first segment, is really that, it’s a first step. Building a high-speed rail line means means connecting metropolitan areas. We have to make a selection that will logically lead us to our final goal. The final goal remains building the complete system.”

van Ark suggested his board consider four general criteria for segment selection, with subsections :

  1. Provide expansion of the alignment to ensure an appropriate operational high-speed system
  2. Minimize construction risk
  3. Minimize schedule risk
  4. Build the most useful high-speed rail infrastructure for the least cost.

Despite these criteria, van Ark noted the obvious, that the state could lose the federal money if it doesn’t meet FRA requirements. “At this stage, going by the FRA letter, it would be the selection as together: the Merced-Fresno or the Merced-Bakersfield segment should be built first.”

While project supporters like Californians for High-Speed Rail say they support all segments equally and say the CAHSRA must start somewhere, Jose Luis Moscovich, executive director of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA), feared the FRA letter meant the Bay Area had lost out and the decision could hurt the overall project in the eyes of the public.

“I’m the biggest high-speed rail supporter you’re going to find anywhere and I believe it will be built and it has to be built,” Moscovich told Streetsblog. “The reality is that we have about $13 billion to build something that’s going to cost well over $40 billion and we have no clear idea where the rest of the money is going to come from.”

Moscovich was concerned about the significance of segment selection and the overall success of the project if the Central Valley sections were first. “Where the initial amount of money gets spent really matters. I’m not sure that by putting the majority of the money in the Central Valley we are going to be able to demonstrate the value of high-speed rail for California,” he said.

“It’s not just about creating jobs, it’s about building the system in a way that makes sense,” he continued. “To me, the way that made sense to build the system was to build a demonstration segment between San Francisco and San Jose and another one between LA and Anaheim and have better service in the Central Valley, acknowledging that you can’t build the whole system with one fifth of the money.”

Moscovitch noted that the Bay Area will be negatively impacted on many fronts if the first segment is in the Central Valley. Infrastructure improvements like electrification of Caltrain and improvement to commuter rail will be delayed and jobs will not materialize. Given that less than a quarter of the total funds necessary to build the project have been identified, controversy around the project hasn’t dissipated and new Republican leadership in Washington has vowed to spend less not more, Moscovitch argued there is a risk the Bay Area segment won’t be built.

“Up until recently, the Authority was embarked in a process that I think was less than ideal, less than responsive to the concerns of the communities along the right-of-way that has probably generated much self-inflicted pain,” said Moscovich. “Now the Authority¬† is working very well with us and others to try to correct those problems, but it’s going to take some time to do that. In the meantime, there’s going to be a need to spend money that has already been allocated to the Authority for this starter segment and it may be that because of the fact that controversy still exists in parts of the Bay Area right-of- way.”

Further, Moscovich said no high-speed rail system in the world has been built without a massive federal government outlay and the private sector cannot be expected to invest the remaining $30 billion or more needed to complete the project if the controversy persists.

CAHSRA officials have until the December board meeting to pick the segment, but board members at the meeting seemed resigned to choosing between two segments.

According to van Ark, that stance wasn’t a bad thing and he argued the public shouldn’t consider it a competition between segments, but a commitment to a complete system.

“We must remember that this is a high-speed rail system. This not talking, as I know some people are talking, about a segment, a commuter rail line,” he said. “This is the beginning of a high-speed rail system that connects southern California to northern California. It is all part of building a high-speed rail system by 2020.”

  • Great picture. It looks like the future to me.

  • Doesn’t it make the most sense to start with segments that could begin generating revenue as soon as possible? Sounds like another case of federal transportation money forcing states to make bad decisions.

  • Steve, are you implying that people in the valley dont ride trains? I suggest you look up the San Joaquin ridership numbers, the #5 amtrak line in the country. We need it more than anybody needs LA-Anaheim.

  • Sean H

    It makes sense to get some shovels dirty and remind everyone this is actually being built. If we waited for the urban area messes, it would be in planning stages for years before someone picked up a hard hat.

    I’m really getting sick and tired of the peninsula asking for further study upon further study. At some point the cities have to acknowledge that this system is being built on existing ROW, which has been there for at least 100 years.

  • patrick

    I’ve always thought it makes sense to start in the central valley, they will need long flat stretches in order to test the cars, there is the most need for jobs there, and it will be by far the cheapest portion to build, on a per mile basis.

  • If you could get HSR service the length of the San Joaquin route with all the connections it makes at Sacramento and Oakland, you could indeed get great ridership. Even if you could just get Bakersfield and Freso connected you’d get some ridership.

    But the options on the table are either Merced-Fresno or the Merced-Bakersfield. That’s it. I highly doubt either of those segments will be able to generate enough revenue to even operate profitably while we are waiting for the rest of the system to be funded, and they certainly are going to generate far less revenue than investing that money on segments in California’s population centers would.

  • Bonnie

    We voted/approved from LA TO SFO. Connect us please. Central rides trains but to WHERE.
    Seems like the revenue is north and south.

  • patrick

    Reminder: central valley has to be built for the complete system to function. It will also be by far the cheapest portion to build. It is absolutely required to test the high speed rail train-sets.

    If the LA or SF were focused on first, this money would not be anywhere near enough to create a full HSR segment, just some minor upgrades to portions of the area. While the available money will probably be sufficient to complete an entire segment in the central valley, and provide the facilities to test the trains that will be chosen for use.

    It also provides a solid block of support for future funding from a republican dominated area, as the line is mostly useless without connecting to at least one urban center, plus the portion of the central valley that doesn’t get the construction (also many republicans) will in all likelihood fight for federal funding for their segment, meaning there will be two blocks of republicans working along with all the CA democrats to get funding for the project.

  • Central valley will be the cheapest to build per mile, but I would argue that you should be looking at the revenue side, not the cost side.

    The system will cost the about same to build no matter what order you build it in: 100% of it has to be built eventually. But the amount of revenue it generates is not the same under different build scenarios. You will generate very little revenue until you connect at least one end of the system to a population/jobs center. Peninsula rail improvements not only generate revenue, but potentially save one of our current rail systems from insolvency.

    Building the first segment to be “mostly useless” and counting on the Republicans to come around to complete it if private funding falls short opens you up for the much more dangerous possibility that they will simply continue forward trying to kill the project while the urban bases that helped get this project started are disillusioned. I think we’re far more likely to see attack ads about a $13 billion “Train to Nowhere” out of the Republicans than any newfound love for HSR.

  • How ironic. That photo in the article appears to depict an Altamont alignment, which was rejected by the CHSRA Board.

    If CHSRA had stuck with Altamont, it is highly likely that Livermore-Merced would have been the first segment built (instead of lawsuits and nimby revolt).

  • Mick

    Charles

    This “future” is nearly 50 years old. Japan had theirs in the early 1960’s. France had trains capable of 200mph around the same time.

    More generally, I think this is a great project but I am sceptical about building the initial stretch from the middle of nowhere to another middle of nowhere.

    And I don’t see how HSR can come up the Peninsula and into SF without getting rid of CalTrain. They can’t co-exist on the same right of way. So does the plan envisage 4-tracks all the way?

    I fear this might end up as a high-speed rail for the central valley but never for the coasts. I say – Do the hard parts first, or we might never do them at all.

  • patrick

    @SteveS, I think revenue for Caltrain would be hurt during the several years of construction, and since it’s not enough money to fully upgrade the line any revenue gains would be modest at best. I agree some republicans will continue to oppose it, but if built in the CV, there will certainly be less opposition than otherwise. Train selection should be started sooner, rather than later, so building in the CV is far from useless.

    @Drunk Engineer, there are as many NIMBYs in Livermore as there are in the Peninsula, but I don’t even think it’s worth arguing over, that ship has sailed. Altamont clearly had some advantages, but since there is the Altamont overlay, those advantages can still be achieved for the most part.

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    Don’t be down on the Central Valley. There’s tons of people out there who would love to stop schlepping up and down CA-99 all the time. I know it’s hard to believe, but both Merced and Fresno have recognizable downtowns.

  • Steve, the initial line could be used by Amtrak immediately, taking trains from 79mph (max) to 110mph, and possibly 125 if the locomotives can handle it. That was the plan in the mid 90s anyway.

    So what would happen is the line could be put into revenue service immediately with existing trains (and ridership), AND you could start testing out the new train sets. The valley is the only place the new trains will reach their full speed AND is home to the planned maintenance facility.

    Im sure those who ride from LA north will appreciate cutting off some time between Bakersfield and Fresno.

    Meanwhile, if Fresno-Bakersfield is first, I would hope the 2nd phase would be Bakersfield-LA, thus filling in the major missing link, and also allowing for the 2nd fastest segment. While the bay area is busy suing everyone, valley riders can enjoy rapid rides to LA, and the economies of Fresno, Bakersfield, Palmdale and Burbank will appreciate it. And again, before the new trainsets are ready, Amtrak could eliminate their thruway bus between Union Station and Bakersfield

  • peninsula nimbys can cram it with walnuts. they will cost California jobs and progress. they need to STFU!