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Posts from the High Speed Rail Category

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Mayor’s Transpo Chief: “Let’s Be San Francisco and Take Down the Freeway”

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The 280 freeway looking from Potrero Hill, where it divides the neighborhood from Mission Bay. Photo: Michael Patrick/Flickr

The idea of removing the northern section of Highway 280 near Mission Bay is gaining more traction as planners look for ideal ways to usher in high-speed rail and transit-oriented development in downtown San Francisco.

At a SPUR forum yesterday, Mayor Ed Lee’s transportation policy director, Gillian Gillett, sketched out a proposal to follow in the footsteps of the removals of the Embarcadero Freeway and a section of the Central Freeway, which revitalized the neighborhoods the roads used to divide. As Adina Levin at Green Caltrain reported, Gillett argued that replacing the elevated portion of I-280 with a street-level boulevard, from its current terminus at 4th and King Streets south to 16th Street, would improve the livability of the area, open up land to develop new neighborhoods, provide funding through real estate revenue, and open up engineering solutions to facilitate the extension of Caltrain and CA High-Speed Rail to the planned Transbay Transit Center.

If the freeway is left to stand, its pillars would present an engineering obstacle to running the train tracks undergound, meaning the only other feasible way to allow rail tracks to safely and expediently cross 16th Street would be to dip 16th underneath the tracks. And that would make the intersection — a gateway to Mission Bay — even more hostile for people walking and biking than it already is.

As past cases have shown, creating a surface street where that part of I-280 now stands and integrating it into the neighborhood would actually reduce overall car traffic. In a moment that would make the city’s mid-20th Century freeway protesters proud, Gillett told the crowd, “Let’s be San Francisco and take down the freeway.”

Walk SF Executive Director Elizabeth Stampe called the proposal “an exciting opportunity to re-orient our city around sustainable public transportation and create a more walkable city.”

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A Victory for CA High-Speed Rail, But Still a Long Fight Ahead

This map shows the phases of California High Speed Rail project, which would be the first such system in the US. Photo: California High Speed Rail Authority

As you probably know, California High Speed Rail won a major victory last Friday when state lawmakers approved the first round of spending. Construction in California’s Central Valley could start as soon as early next year.

But the $68 billion project — which California voters have backed with $9 billion in bonds — is a long way from a done deal, says Yonah Freemark at the Transport Politic. There will likely be many more battles in what has already been a dramatic push to build the United States’ first true high-speed rail system:

Even if the initial construction segment is put under construction as planned — that may be difficult considering the regulatory approvals and barrage of lawsuits standing in its way — there are enormous obstacles to actually implementing the planned connection between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the most significant example of which is the lack of adequate fiscal resources. The California High-Speed Rail Authority’s 2012 business plan expects that it will cost $31 billion to connect Bakersfield to the San Fernando Valley, meaning that about $18 billion in funding is still necessary even for this first step, taking into account the roughly $8 billion released last week and the additional $5 billion for fast trains included in the 2008 referendum. For a one-seat ride between San Francisco and L.A., $51 billion will be necessary; for 2h40 service between the cities, $68 billion is required (this is in year-of-expenditure dollars; this is equivalent to $53 billion in today’s money).

While that figure might be acceptable from the perspective of overall public investment in infrastructure, where will that money be found? The U.S. transportation reauthorization bill passed last week provides no additional funding for high-speed rail. Republicans have demonstrated against intercity rail and rejected several projects despite federal support. In his campaign platform, Mitt Romney cites “privatizing Amtrak” as a top way to save the government money. The outcome of the 2012 elections will determine whether California will be able to move ahead as expected, or whether it will have to put off plans by two years or more.

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Battle Lines Drawn in High-Speed Rail Vote

Later this week, the plan to build a High Speed Rail line connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco faces a crucial vote in the California legislature.  Governor Jerry Brown asked lawmakers to release $2.7 billion of the $6 billion in bonds passed by California voters in 2008 for High Speed Rail.  Combined with $3.3 billion in federal funds, the allocation would build 130 miles of High Speed Rail in the Central Valley.

Currently there are three competing visions for High Speed Rail in the Golden State.  For simplicity’s sake, we’ll refer to the three as: The Governor’s Plan, Plan B, and No Rail.  The Governor’s Plan refers only to his request to spend $6 billion in the Central Valley, not the entire route.  To help you keep track of who is saying what over the next several days, Streetsblog presents your High Speed Rail scorecard.

Image via High Speed Rail Authority

The Governor’s Plan:

The Plan: The Governor’s Plan would create a high speed rail network connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco.  The plan would also pay for the electrification of existing Caltrain and Metrolink rail so these tracks could be used for high speed rail, but would also speed up local service for thousands of commuters.  The new long-term plan would spend $68 billion, create over 500 miles of High Speed Rail and 100,000 “job years.”  The first leg of the plan, or the Governor’s Plan as we’re calling it, begins with 130 miles in the Central Valley.

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Transbay Transit Center to Fill Downtown With People, Not Cars

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The new Transbay Transit Center is expected to transform San Francisco’s downtown core by focusing new development around a massive regional transit hub in eastern SoMa. Scheduled to open in 2017, it will link 11 transit systems and eventually CA High-Speed Rail. Some have called it the “Grand Central of the West.”

Renderings via TransbayCenter.org

The SF Planning Commission last week approved an influx of high-density office and housing redevelopment, including the West Coast’s tallest skyscraper, in the neighborhood surrounding the new station at First and Mission Streets, known as the Transbay Center District. To ensure that new workers and residents come by transit, foot, and bike instead of clogging the streets with cars, the plan would make sweeping streetscape improvements and limit the amount of car parking in the area.

“This is going to be one of the best examples of transit-oriented development in the world,” said Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of the SF Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR). “We’re going to be putting in $4 billion in transit infrastructure and then putting our tallest buildings right on top of it. It’s going to be studied and emulated all over the world if we get this right.”

The hub, which replaces the old Transbay Terminal, would connect to transit systems in all nine Bay Area counties, including Muni, BART, AC Transit, SamTrans, and Golden Gate Transit. Caltrain would operate on an electrified system connecting directly to the station, thanks to a recently-approved plan to extend tracks from the 4th and King station. Caltrain would share those tracks with high-speed rail trains.

Streets within the plan area — bounded by Market Street to the north, Steuart to the east, Folsom to the south, and just short of Third to the west — would be transformed with improvements for walking, bicycling, and surface transit.

Major streets — Mission, Howard, New Montgomery, Second, First, and Fremont Streets — would get wider sidewalks, road diets, transit lanes, and boarding islands. The planning department is also looking at creating a transit-only plaza on Mission between First and Fremont.

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Will Obama’s Transportation Jobs Plan Avoid Funding Sprawl?

USDOT has made public the breakdown of President Obama’s $50 billion plan to create jobs through transportation infrastructure investment. The administration says: “It will put people to work upgrading 150,000 miles of road, laying/maintaining 4,000 miles of train tracks, restoring 150 miles of runways, and putting in place a next-generation air-traffic control system that will reduce travel time and delays.”

Obama announcing the American Jobs Act. Photo: SHRM

Specifically, they lay out the numbers:

  • $27 billion for rebuilding roads and bridges
  • $9 billion for repairing bus and rail transit systems
  • $5 billion for projects selected through a competitive grant program
  • $4 billion for construction of the high-speed rail network
  • $2 billion to improve airport facilities
  • $1 billion for a NextGen air traffic control system

It’s encouraging to see the words “upgrading” and “rebuilding” when it comes to roads, indicating that the administration might be adhering to a fix-it-first approach to transportation spending. But, as we mentioned last week, the bridge Obama highlighted recently as a prime target for jobs-bill money isn’t actually in need of repair — transportation officials just want to widen it to allow more traffic to go through faster.

Certainly, the administration has shown a desire to attack the maintenance backlog in the country, but that doesn’t guarantee that highway expansions and sprawl projects won’t get a slice of the “rebuilding” pie.

That said, it’s good to see the plan includes $5 billion for projects funded through a competitive grant program (think TIGER). And it also hits a somewhat more equitable balance between rail/transit and roads than Congressional transportation bills generally do.

The president’s plan also includes an infrastructure bank, funded with $10 billion seed money. The administration says projects will be evaluated on the basis of how badly they’re needed and how much they would help the economy.

Some have said over the last couple of weeks that the I-bank concept is in trouble after the GOP pounced on the Solyndra loan story, in which a solar company filed for bankruptcy soon after receiving half a billion dollars in government-backed loans. Experts say the infrastructure bank proposal would vet projects well and protect taxpayers from risk.

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Senate Saves a Sliver For High-Speed Rail

President Obama had sought $8 billion for high-speed rail in 2012. The House-passed budget had exactly zero. The Senate bill approved by the Transportation subcommittee Tuesday followed suit. But the full Appropriations Committee yesterday put $100 million back into next year’s budget for the president’s signature transportation initiative.

Senator Dick Durbin, co-chair of the High-Speed Rail Caucus, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid ride a high-speed train in China. Photo from Reid's Flickr photostream

That’s still starvation wages for the program, but it’s at least a placeholder that keeps it limping along. The move was spearheaded by four Democratic senators — Dick Durbin of Illinois, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Dianne Feinstein of California and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana — who introduced the successful amendment to reallocate some funds earmarked for highway and transit projects to high-speed rail.

“I offered this amendment because we can’t turn our backs on a project that will invest in the future and put Californians back to work,” Feinstein said in a statement.

“Every dollar we spend on rail produces $3 in economic output,” added Senator Durbin, a founding member of the Bi-Cameral High-Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail Caucus. “Congress has maintained a commitment to high speed and intercity rail for over a decade. This amendment will continue that commitment.”

Highway funding in the Senate bill stays at FY2011 levels, but the chamber added another $358 million for the New Starts program for transit capital investments, previously funded at $8.3 billion. The House budget would reduce New Starts to $5.3 billion.

TIGER got a little bump too, with the Senate raising the allocation from $527 million to $550 million. Of that, $120 million is reserved for rural communities. The third round of TIGER grant applications is currently underway.

The Senate-passed budget keeps $90 million for the tri-agency Partnership for Sustainable Communities (down from $100 million in 2011), a victory for livability advocates and anyone who prefers federal collaboration and efficiency over stovepipes and silos.

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Senate Strips High-Speed Rail Funding

The Senate’s transportation budget proposal is still under wraps, but we’re getting some clues about what’s in it.

The president's "vision" for high-speed rail is getting cloudy. Image: White House

This morning, a subcommittee marked up the transportation and HUD appropriations bill, and the full committee will consider it tomorrow afternoon. Only after that will the draft bill be released.

During this morning’s subcommittee markup, though, a few senators divulged a few key points. For example, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) said he was ” discouraged by the elimination of high-speed rail grants” in the budget. “It’s a casualty of the cuts mandated in the debt-limit deal,” he said.

Despite his strong push last winter for high-speed rail service that would reach 80 percent of the U.S. population in 25 years, President Obama has been willing to sacrifice high-speed rail funding in tense budget fights with Republicans. The Senate seems to be following suit.

However, funding for Amtrak is untouched in the Senate budget bill, foreshadowing a pitched battle once the Senate and House have to reconcile their two budget bills. The House made devastating cuts to Amtrak in its version.

And Senator Mark Pryor (D-AR) emphasized that TIGER grants are “an important part of the transportation equation” and indicated that they were still in the bill. Through other channels, we hear that TIGER is being funded at $550 million, which is slightly higher than the $527 million allocation it has now. The House 2012 budget proposal would have eliminated the program completely.

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Report: Get Out of the Highway-Obsessed Eisenhower Era

Building America's Future's words, not ours! Source: BAF, via USDOT.

Building America’s Future, led by former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, has added their voice to the chorus calling for greater investment in U.S. infrastructure, lest the country fall behind its global competitors. In a new report, Falling Apart and Falling Behind, BAF recommends more focus on mass transit, a switch away from formula funding without performance requirements, and more emphasis on metropolitan areas.

A couple weeks ago, we took some heat from some of you, dear readers, about our coverage of a somewhat similar report from the American Society of Civil Engineers. Indeed, that report called for more infrastructure spending, but without specific recommendations on how to build a bettertransportation system. Charles Marohn at Strong Towns wrote a scathing critique of the report, questioning the urgent need to “spend trillions to save seconds” of commute time – especially the assertion that the U.S. should spend $2.2 trillion in order to save $1.0 trillion. Marohn went on to say:

At Strong Towns, we want our infrastructure maintained. In fact, it’s the common denominator of a Strong Town. But the reason why we can’t maintain our infrastructure is not because we lack the money or are afraid to spend it. It is because the systems we have built and the decisions we’ve made on what is a good investment are based on the kind of ridiculous math you see reflected in this ASCE report. We spend a billion here and a billion there and we get nothing but a couple minutes shaved off of our commutes, which just means we can build more roads and live further away from where we work. (Or, as we call that here in America: growth.)

Well put. And we’re glad to see that today’s contribution to the infrastructure debate goes deeper than the ASCE report in recommending concrete ways to build smarter, not just more.

Building America’s Future urges more spending, but says that to do it right, funding priorities should adhere to national strategies. And they’re not shy about spelling out what those are: more economic growth and mobility, less congestion and pollution. “Largely run on gasoline, our transportation system is environmentally, politically, and economically unsustainable,” they write.

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Mica and Rail Supporters Meet Halfway

Members of the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association on Capitol Hill with Rep. John Mica (center) on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of USHSR.

At a meeting with members of the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association Tuesday, House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica softened his stance somewhat on his plan to privatize the Northeast Corridor.

He acknowledged that the proposal is “controversial” and said that was why he framed it in a separate bill, apart from the rest of the reauthorization. He said he’s “heard the concerns” about the plan. A member of his staff said that the original plan was being portrayed as transferring Amtrak’s assets away from it, while leaving Amtrak holding the bag on the debt. “Which, when you put it that way, does sound sort of unfair,” the staffer said, indicating that issues like those are being worked out.

Andy Kunz, president and CEO of the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association, said he was glad to see Mica striking a more cooperative tone. “His initial bill and his initial hearing was a little bit ‘This is it; take it or leave it’,” Kunz said. “Now he’s recognizing there needs to be a bit more cooperative action.”

The committee isn’t easing up on everything, though. The staffer also stated that the committee was giving inter-city and passenger rail “a temporary rest” while it focuses exclusively on high-speed rail. “It does not serve the two programs well to be ‘smooshed,’ or put together and consolidated the way they have been and then have most of the projects that receive funding not be high-speed rail in any way, shape, or form.”

In response to the Congressional Research Service’s conclusion that the rail privatization scheme could run into constitutional problems, Mica’s staffer was dismissive, saying CRS merely warned that some courts could find it to be a violation, and they should be careful. (Sounds like a finding of unconstitutionality to me.)

As he often does, Mica spoke of his high-speed rail plans as a way to rescue high-speed rail from the Obama administration’s mismanagement and bungling. He often jokes about the “gift that keeps on giving”: the original $8 billion allocated for high-speed rail, some of which has been returned by gun-shy states and re-allocated.

Mica asserted that the involvement of the private sector is “non-negotiable” – which Amtrak itself would agree with, as it’s already seeking private sector partners. Mica gave Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman credit for being on board. “Boardman sees that you cannot [upgrade the NEC to high speeds] – at least in his lifetime – under the current proposal,” Mica said. He also said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is “willing to negotiate.” But he cast blame on Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), who he said are willing to give “none of the pie” to private investors.

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Onion: Al-Qaeda Would Reduce U.S. Infrastructure to Rubble But It’s Too Late

You can always count on The Onion to call attention to the sorry state we’re in. Today’s story: “Al-Qaeda Claims U.S. Mass Transportation Infrastructure Must Drastically Improve Before Any Terrorist Attacks.”

Photo: The Onion

According to The Onion, al- Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has demanded that the U.S. make significant repairs and upgrades to its roads, bridges, and railways before al-Qaeda would even consider destroying them with terrorist attacks.

Reading from a prepared statement, al-Zawahiri blasted the U.S. government for its lack of foresight and admonished its leaders for failing to provide Americans with efficient and reliable modes of public transport to reduce traffic congestion, lower carbon emissions, improve air quality, and supply suitable targets for terrorists.

“The al-Qaeda network is fully prepared to continue the jihad against the American infidels by launching deadly attacks, but your outdated and rusting transportation infrastructure needs to be completely overhauled for those strikes even to be noticed,” al-Zawahiri said. “We want to turn your bridges into rubble, but if we claimed credit for making them collapse, nobody would ever believe us.”

They even got in a dig about the nation’s paralysis around building high-speed rail.
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