SPUR Talk: High-Speed Rail on its Way to Northern California

Bridging the Fresno River. This is just one of several locations where work is under way on the California High-Speed Rail project. Photo: CaHSR Authority
Bridging the Fresno River. This is just one of several locations where work is under way on the California High-Speed Rail project. Photo: CaHSR Authority

High-Speed Rail construction is well underway in the Central Valley, said Ben Tripousis, Northern California Regional Director for the California High Speed Rail Authority, during a forum at the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association’s (SPUR) Mission Street center. “The High-Speed Rail question has shifted from ‘if’ to ‘when,'” he told the packed house at today’s lunchtime presentation.

He showed videos and photographs of the ongoing construction included in this video from the California High-Speed Rail Authority:

This fully funded phase contains “119 miles with…seven active sites with more to come in the Fall,” he explained. He also showed a video about a printing business and a boxing gym in Fresno that were successfully relocated to make way for the tracks. He said now that earth is being moved and concrete poured, some of the opposition is fading, but it will never go away altogether. “There’s no shortage of horror stories how projects like this ‘railroad’ people,” he said. “We continue to work very hard to include local communities.”

Streetsblog readers will recall that under the new HSR business plan, released earlier this year, the Authority is now doing environmental work and preparing for construction to link the Central Valley to San Francisco via Gilroy and the Caltrain corridor. Bridging the gap from Bakersfield to Los Angeles and Anaheim will come in a later phase. This decision was made after the Authority determined that an initial operating segment could get running faster, and serve more people, by focusing on the northern end of the alignment first.

That means “fully electrifying the Caltrain commuter service.” Electrifying Caltrain will permit HSR to share tracks to downtown San Francisco. He explained how Caltrain will eventually run at 110 mph, thanks to HSR-funded upgrades.

As to timeline, Tripousis said the preliminary preferred alternative for the alignment for Northern California should be finished this Fall. That means construction of the northern section will begin “near the end of 2017.” In the meantime, he said the Authority is working with local economic groups, transit agencies, and cities along the corridor to facilitate development around the stations. For example, San Jose Diridon Station will eventually have BART service, VTA light rail, Caltrain, HSR and buses, so he wants to make sure they can maximize height and density around the station.

Meanwhile, the train’s ultimate Bay Area destination, the Transbay Transit Center, was in the news today. The County Transportation Authority decided to hold up the next round of funding to the tune of “$6.8 million, citing concerns about the sinking [Millennium] tower and cost overruns,” as reported by the San Francisco Examiner.

“The Downtown Rail Extension will have tremendous benefits for San Francisco, connecting commuters and eventually High Speed Rail travelers to the downtown Transbay Terminal location with the most jobs and transit connections,” said Adina Levin, Director of Friends of Caltrain, in a separate email to Streetsblog. “San Francisco should figure out how to handle the financial and legal issues with the Millennium tower in a way that does not delay this project that is so valuable for the city, region, and state.”

Ben Tripousis of the California High Speed Rail Authority and Egon Terplan of SPUR. Photo: Streetsblog
Ben Tripousis of the California High Speed Rail Authority and Egon Terplan of SPUR. Photo: Streetsblog

But Tripousis said that Transbay is only one component of the HSR project. “Eventually we will go to the Transbay Transit Center, but in the interim we’ll have a stop at 4th and King,” he said.

Additionally, he stressed that the project is as much about an overall statewide rail modernization project. He showed a slide listing the projects contributions to local transit agencies in Northern and Southern California, including $61 mllion for the extension of the Central Subway and $713 million for the electrification of Caltrain service. There were also contributions to Southern California transit projects.

A map of the possible alignments to link up San Francisco with the Central Valley via the Caltrain corridor and a new alignment across the Pacheco Pass Image: CaHSRA

But, by his accounting, the project has travel consequences even beyond California. “My long-term goal is to make it so you can book a trip from Fresno to Frankfurt,” he said. This would emulate European systems that permit riders to book through-tickets on HSR trains directly to connecting flights. For example, it’s possible to ride a train directly from a small city in France to the Paris airport to connect with an international flight. He hopes to see the same kind of service in California. “You would leave Fresno on an HSR, get to SFO,” and transfer to an international flight as seamlessly as one transfers from “puddle jumpers” to international flights now, but without the extra runway space and air pollution.

California, he added, has the advantage of being able to grab the best of cutting edge, off-the-shelf technology for HSR. “Japan just celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Shinkansen [bullet train],” he said. “The rest of the world has determined how to do it.”

“We are fully under construction in the Central Valley…from Madera to North Bakersfield. You can see the light at end of tunnel and it is, in fact, an oncoming train,” he added, drawing chuckles from the audience.

Governor Brown on a recent visit with California High-Speed Rail construction workers. Photo: CaHSRA
Governor Brown on a recent visit with California High-Speed Rail construction workers. Photo: CaHSRA

For more events like these, visit SPUR’s events page.


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