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Deal Reached on CA’s Cap-and-Trade Spending Plan

Earlier this evening, the bicameral Budget Conference Committee  approved a compromise between state legislators and Governor Brown on how to spend $850 million in revenues from the state’s cap-and-trade system for the next fiscal year.

The new plan largely stuck to the Governor’s original proposal for the first year of the expenditure plan, but it adds set-asides for transit and affordable housing, two important parts of the Senate’s proposal. The compromise also incorporates an allocation method for funding in future years.

Despite Republican opposition, California High Speed Rail will still receive one-quarter of the funds generated by the state’s Cap and Trade Program.

The compromise proposal sets aside $250 million for high-speed rail, which is what the Governor proposed, but future year allocations for the bullet train would be 25 percent rather than the 33 percent he requested. The Senate’s proposal called for 15 percent allocated to high speed rail.

The agreement would split the $50 million Brown proposed for intercity rail, giving half to transit capital and construction costs and dividing the other half between transit operations and intercity rail. Future revenue streams would give 5 percent to each of the three categories, giving transit a solid, predictable source of funding for at least the next five years.

Brown’s original proposal had no set aside for local transit, but the Senate, under the leadership of Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), had countered the governor’s plan by calling for $200 million for transit operating and capital expenses.

Steinberg’s plan called for 20 percent of cap-and-trade funds to be spent on affordable housing near transit and sustainable communities planning. This would have amounted to about $170 million the first year. The current agreement would give this category of projects — which could include bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure and planning — about $130 million in the first year, with future allocations at 20 percent.

“This plan is good for California,” said committee co-chair Mark Leno (D- San Francisco). “With this proposal we will continue to not only lead the state but also the nation on this important issue of greenhouse gas emission reduction, when time is running out.”

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CA High-Speed Rail Authority Certifies EIR for Fresno-to-Bakersfield Segment

Click on the image to go to a higher resolution pdf. Image via California High Speed Rail

Click on the image to go to a higher resolution pdf. Image via California High Speed Rail

The California High Speed Rail Authority (CAHSRA) Board voted unanimously today to certify the Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR) for the project segment between Fresno and Bakersfield in the Central Valley. This section of CAHSR can now move to the “final design” stage that precedes construction.

This is the second segment of the project to have its individual FEIR approved; the segment between Modesto and Fresno was certified in May of 2012.

The two-day board hearing in Fresno featured some contentious and emotional comments from the public, both in support and in opposition to the project.

Local farmers who would be directly affected by construction or operations of the system worried that they would not be fairly compensated for loss of their land. Several board members expressed sympathy for those individuals, but then went on to talk about the “greater good” presented by high-speed rail.

Board member Tom Richards pointed out that the project would mean the loss of “less than 1/10 of 1 percent” of agricultural land in the valley. In contrast, said Chair Dan Richard, the state estimates that “over 33,000 acres will be lost to future development within the counties of King and Tulare.”

High-speed rail “will be a tremendous boon for the Valley,” said Richard, “and the benefits tremendously outweigh the costs.”

Several Fresno State University students spoke in support of high-speed rail through the valley, including one student who said her original plan had been to earn a degree and move away. Now, “because of high-speed rail, I plan to stay,” she said. Her testimony and that of another student who called high-speed rail the “next logical progression for transportation in California” were highlighted by board members in their closing remarks.

Some speakers raised concerns about valley fever, a sometimes serious illness contracted by inhaling spores that normally live in the soil in the Central Valley, but can become airborne when construction or farming activities disturb the soil. Richards proposed an amendment to the EIR that would incorporate several construction design safety features to protect workers.

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Updated Report Shows CAHSR’s GHG Reductions Less Costly Than Thought

UCLA’s Lewis Center revised some of the estimates in its recent report comparing the costs of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions using California high-speed rail to those of bike, pedestrian, and local transit projects. The report’s authors found that high-speed rail is not as expensive as an emission reduction as they first thought.

Lewis_yellow_box_REVISED_copyThe update makes several adjustments to the analysis, which compared CAHSR to Los Angeles Metro’s Gold Line light rail and the Orange Line bus rapid transit route, which also has a bikeway that runs parallel to it. Originally, the report found high-speed rail to be a much less cost-effective way to reduce GHGs than any of the three urban transit options. While the new cost-benefit analysis for high-speed rail looks much better, it’s still not quite on par with local transit investments.

The new comparison of costs among high-speed rail, light rail, bus rapid transit, and the bikeway is shown in the table below. As discussed in our previous story on this report, the authors consider anything less than the current price of a metric tonne of emissions under the cap-and-trade system (about $11) a cost-effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The lower the cost, the greater the cost-effectiveness.

The UCLA authors’ new cost/benefit estimates.

The new estimate for CAHSR is -$335 per metric tonne, compared to the previous $361. Those estimates are the full public cost plus user savings (in the case of high-speed rail, that’s the price of a ticket compared to the cost of driving or flying). However, the bus rapid transit, light-rail, and bikeway are still more cost-effective at -$676, $1,233, and $3,569, respectively.

Here’s why the numbers changed:
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Senate Committee Grills CA High-Speed Rail Authority on Its Funding Plan

The California High Speed Rail construction and phasing plan. Source: CAHSRA’s 2013 Report on the Contribution of the High-Speed Rail Program to Reducing California GHG Emissions Levels

Doubts about the High Speed Rail Authority’s ability to fund its estimated $68 billion program dominated last week’s Senate Transportation and Housing Committee hearing (see the background report in this PDF). Committee Chair Senator Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord) said he was “somewhat skeptical” about the Authority’s 2014 Draft Business Plan and questioned CAHSRA CEO Jeff Morales on the authority’s reliance on uncertain funding sources.

“You couldn’t get a [small business loan] based on what we’re assuming here,” DeSaulnier told Morales, referring to the high cost estimates and funding prospects in the Business Plan.

DeSaulnier asked all the questions at the informational hearing, since he was the only Committee member who showed up for it. However, he came well prepared, so instead of  yet another presentation on how cap-and-trade works, there was a pointed exchange about the funding capabilities of high speed rail.

DeSaulnier warned Morales that the Authority may have a hard time getting the necessary votes in the state legislature to pass the governor’s cap-and-trade expenditure plan, which proposes giving $250 million to high-speed rail from the proceeds of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions law, A.B. 32.

“If the legislature does not approve the governor’s allocation of cap-and-trade funds, what do you foresee would be the impact on the high-speed rail program?” DeSaulnier asked Morales.

Morales responded, “The governor’s proposal allows us to move forward with certainty. If we can accelerate the program, it saves money.”

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Report: In Cutting Emissions, CAHSR Expensive Compared to Local Upgrades

Streetfilms featured Los Angeles’ Orange Line BRT and bike path in 2009. A new UCLA report says infrastructure projects like the Orange Line are a better way to invest cap-and-trade funds than CA High-Speed Rail.

UCLA’s Lewis Center published a report yesterday finding that California’s High-Speed Rail project is a relatively expensive way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in the near-term, compared to upgrading local transit and bicycle infrastructure.

Comparing CAHSR to Los Angeles Metro’s Gold Line light-rail and Orange Line bus rapid transit route and bikeway, the report finds high-speed rail to be the least cost-efficient investment the state could make.

The high-speed rail project costs more per metric tonne of GHG emissions than the current cost of allowances under cap-and-trade, the report says. If the savings costs to users are included in the calculations, then the light-rail, busway, and bikeway projects cost far less than the cap-and-trade auction price, which makes them more cost-effective ways to meet the emission reduction goals set out in California’s Global Warming Solutions Act, A.B. 32.

“There are a lot of projects that can reduce GHG emissions,” said Juan Matute, one of the report’s authors. “And differentiating between them will become more important in the future. One way is to look at the cost-effectiveness of the reductions.”

Governor Jerry Brown’s proposed cap-and-trade expenditure plan includes $250 million for high-speed rail to be spent in the next year alone, but very little for other transit or bicycle and pedestrian projects. High-speed rail isn’t scheduled to be online until 2029, so the savings it yields won’t help meet the state’s 2020 emission reductions goals. Meanwhile, the funds could be used for more local investments such as transit services or bicycle and pedestrian connections that would reduce GHG emissions more quickly.

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Why CA High-Speed Rail Isn’t as Doomed as Media Reports Say It Is

TGV High Speed Rail in France. Photo: TGV

TGV High Speed Rail in France. Photo: TGV

Last week, the media reported, once again, that the California High-Speed Rail project is in its death throes.

The latest batch of articles are based on a Nov. 25 decision by Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny, in which he ordered the CAHSR Authority to revise a 2011 funding plan before it issues state bonds under Prop. 1A, the 2008 measure that got California’s HSR project going. The ruling also green-lighted work on the Central Valley portion of the project.

So what does the ruling mean? Rod Diridon, executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute and Chair Emeritus of the CAHSRA Board, says it’s unlikely to delay the project, since the authority should be able to rely on federal funds for some time before state funds become necessary.

“All you have to do is front-load the federal money. Spend the $3.4 billion from the Feds,” explained Diridon, referring to stimulus spending that’s available from Washington. “Then you spend the state part later.”

The lawsuits against CAHSR keep coming from plaintiffs like John Tos and Aaron Fukuda, who own land in the Central Valley where the tracks are planned. When the CAHSRA tried an omnibus lawsuit, in which it basically sued itself as a defense against the many different legal actions that could be lined up to stop the bonds, Judge Kenny didn’t go for it. “All the judge said is the Authority can’t have blanket validation of the bonds,” said Diridon.

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Will Technology Save Us From Another Train Crash Like Spain’s?

Stills from a video. Image: Time

The Spanish train crash in Santiago de Compostela that killed 79 people last week has sparked questions about whether high-speed rail is safe. In fact, it’s among the safest ways to travel, and technology that already exists can make the type of human error that led to tragedy in Spain nearly a non-issue. Future high-speed rail in California will be equipped with that technology.

The driver of the Spanish high-speed rail train that crashed, 52-year-old Francisco José Garzón Amo, took a turn at more than twice the legal speed — 190 kilometers an hour (118 mph) instead of 80 (50 mph). He should have applied the brakes two-and-a-half miles before the curve but, he says, he experienced a “lapse of concentration” and thought it was a different curve. The train derailed and slammed into a concrete retaining wall.

Now that the train’s black box has been uncovered, we know more about why his concentration was compromised. Garzón was on the phone with RENFE, the train company, getting instructions for the train’s final stop in Ferrol, a small city in the northwestern corner of Spain. It appears from the black box tape that he may have also been rustling maps “or some other similar paper document.”

Train conductors in Spain are allowed to use the phone while on the job and are in fact equipped with a work phone, though a Renfe spokeswoman said Wednesday a driver shouldn’t answer the phone unless it’s safe to do so.

Garzón was “provisionally” charged Sunday night with “79 counts of manslaughter and numerous offences of bodily harm, all of them committed through professional recklessness.” Sixty-six people remain in the hospital, with 15 of them listed in “critical condition,” according to a EuroWeeklyNews story from this morning. The already horrific death toll could easily rise.

The train was traveling the Madrid-Ferrol line, which combines high-speed and conventional track. According to journalist Lisa Abend, writing in Time, “railways officials took pains to point out both that the crash was a result of human error and that it occurred” on the conventional track, not the special AVE high-speed rail track. Those parts of the track are monitored constantly for speed and a traffic management system can override the driver if it detects a problem, similar to the positive train control technology that Congress has mandated on all U.S. tracks and trains by the end of 2015.

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A Straighter Extension of Caltrain/HSR Into Downtown SF: Is It Worth It?

A simulation of a curve in the planned downtown extension alignment, as rendered in a video from the TJPA.

By 2029, San Francisco’s Transbay Transit Center — which has been called the “Grand Central of the West” — will allow people to hop on an electrified Caltrain to San Jose and high-speed rail down to Southern California from the same platform. That’s the vision, at least, of planners working on the extension of Caltrain from the current terminus at 4th and King Streets to the massive transit hub under construction in SF’s downtown core.

But some advocates and planners say the planned rail alignment for the downtown extension of Caltrain and California High-Speed Rail, which will share tracks along the Peninsula, needs to be revisited because it includes too many sharp turns, which they say could slow the trains down and create a bottleneck. Planners at the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, however, say any increase in speeds would be minimal, and that embarking on a planning process for a different alignment could delay construction by at least a decade. Currently, the extension is expected to be built some time before high-speed rail is completed in 2029.

“Are we sure a new alignment will be better? Definitely not, we just think it’s worth asking the question again at this stage,” said Gabriel Metcalf, the executive director of SPUR, who was appointed to the TJPA Board by Mayor Ed Lee. “From my perspective, the DTX (downtown extension) is now the highest priority transportation project in San Francisco, and it should be the focus of a lot of attention until it is underway. We think that at this stage it’s a good idea to take some time to explore alternative alignments and ways of phasing the project.”

Brian Stokle, who writes the blog Urban Life Signs, wrote a post in March about “uncrooking San Francisco’s crookedest tunnel” in which he laid out the conceptual differences between a few different alignment options. Some alignments could alleviate engineering obstacles, while causing other complications to arise. One of them would allow riders to transfer to the Central Subway station under construction at Moscone Center. Altogether, there’s no clear winner.

“Whatever tunnel and stations get built, we should be considering what we’re asking for and what’s most important,” Stokle wrote. “Simply stating this is a tunnel to get to the Transbay Center is missing the point. We’re creating a valuable piece of infrastructure that should work for at least a century into the future and work for not just Caltrain, HSR, and downtown, but benefit the entire region, including other transit operators, residents and commuters.”

But changing the alignment could set the DTX back by decades, according to Scott Boule, the TJPA’s community outreach manager.

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SPUR Urges City to Reap the Benefits of Removing Highway 280

“If the freeway were removed, Mission Creek Park would become an asset to the entire area. The lower drawing shows a future view of Seventh Street to Mission Creek and beyond.” Image: SPUR

Taking down the northern spur of highway 280 is the cover story in the latest issue of the Urbanist, the SF Planning and Urban Research Association’s member magazine. SPUR makes the case that if San Francisco is to reap the full benefits of moving Caltrain and high-speed rail underground and re-developing the Caltrain yard at 4th and King Streets, taking down the freeway is a can’t-miss opportunity:

Currently, the stub end of Interstate 280 creates a barrier between the developing Mission Bay neighborhood and Potrero Hill. At the same time, the Caltrain railyard — 19 acres stretching from Fourth Street to Seventh Street between King and Townsend — forms a barrier between Mission Bay and SOMA. The obstruction will only get worse if current plans for high-speed rail proceed, forcing 16th Street and Mission Bay Boulevard into depressed trenches beneath the tracks and the elevated freeway.

Check out the rest of SPUR’s analysis here.

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City Hall Pushes Caltrain to Move the 4th/King Railyard

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The various public agencies shaping the plan to bring high-speed rail into downtown San Francisco disagree on what should be done with the Caltrain railyard at the 4th and King Street station. Officials from San Francisco’s Planning Department and Mayor’s Office say it’s time for the railyard — along with the northern spur of the 280 freeway – to be opened up for development, reconnecting the South of Market District and Mission Bay while making it more feasible to build a more direct HSR alignment to connect to the Transbay Transit Center.

Caltrain, however, is not on board. The agency has its sights set on electrifying the rail line by 2019, including the 4th and King Station, and it is wary of possibly delaying the project by setting out to relocate the yard. “There is an urgency for Caltrain to get electrification in place with expediency,” Caltrain spokesperson Jayme Ackemann told the SF Chronicle in January. “With electrification we significantly reduce our operating costs.”

There’s no dispute that Caltrain needs to reap the benefits of electrification, particularly since it will be necessary to share tracks with CAHSR, which is providing the funds to make it happen. But SF officials warn that moving ahead with $250 million in spending to electrify the railyard when a re-think of the site is in order will be a huge waste. With the land value of the 19-acre SoMa site estimated to be upwards of $225 million, opening it up for development could pay for a significant chunk of high-speed rail infrastructure in San Francisco.

“The opportunity is to both knit the neighborhoods back together by redeveloping the yards, while at the same time producing value that could we could use to fund transportation improvements,” said Gillian Gillett, Mayor Ed Lee’s transportation policy director.

“We totally support electrification, and we want to make sure it happens as quickly as possible, but we don’t want to allow it to happen in such a way that it precludes future benefits for the city,” Planning Director John Rahaim told the Board of Supervisors Land Use and Economic Development Committee earlier this week.

The idea of developing the Caltrain yard, which sits between 4th and 7th Streets, has been well-studied. The Planning Department published a study in December exploring some of the possibilities, including building an underground train station. In 2007, the SF Planning and Urban Research Association published its own study of a similar scope called A New Transit First Neighborhood. In a blog post last month, SPUR’s Tomiquia Moss and Sarah Karlinsky noted that “putting the right type of development here could knit together the surrounding neighborhoods [and] capitalize on the extensive transit access.”

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