State Still Wants its Bullet Train

Despite years of mudslinging and attacks, people still just want a modern train system in California

Despite all the mudslinging (and the legitimate problems with construction) turns out the people still want their TGV, Shinkansen, etc... Image: CAHSRA

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The Los Angeles Times attacks California’s High-speed Rail project incessantly. The train builders have had problems acquiring land and are now caught in a game of political chess with President Trump. Costs have risen. Misinformation abounds amidst legitimate criticisms.

And yet, despite having huge resources on their side, opponents of the train have failed again to get enough signatures to get a measure on the ballot to de-fund the project. “The measure, endorsed by former San Diego City Council Member Carl DeMaio, did not get the nearly 585,000 signatures needed by the May 28th deadline,” reported KUSI news in San Diego.

You’d think, in a state with 40 million people, this would be a pretty low bar to clear if the project is really as reviled as some newspapers would have us believe.

Workers in Fresno continue prepping rebar for a concrete pour. This is part of a trench that will one day carry HSR. Photo: CAHSRA's twitter
Workers in Fresno continue prepping rebar for a concrete pour. This is part of a trench that will one day carry HSR. Photo: CAHSRA’s twitter

Streetsblog readers will recall it was late last year that DeMaio’s proposition, which “Terminates funding for state’s high-speed rail project”  was cleared by the Secretary of State to begin collecting signatures. DeMaio and his allies had until May 28 to gather signatures from eight percent of the total votes cast for Governor in the November 2014 general election (thus, the 585,000 figure) in order to qualify it for the ballot.

Apparently, despite all the smearing, it’s not possible to convince significant numbers of people in California that continuing to widen highways and add airport capacity is still the way to go, given how badly it’s failed over the years. Moreover, air fares to Europe and Asia are now in reach of most people–and plenty of them have experienced first hand how easy it is to get from A to B in other countries, thanks to High-speed Rail.

Meanwhile, as reported by the Associated Press, the State of California is now suing the Trump Administration to get it to deliver on $1 billion in allotted funds. The money’s being withheld with the blessing of California’s own Republican congressional delegation. The funds aren’t needed for another two years, however, so, in the meantime, the project continues.

  • hackajar

    This has more to do with organization of effort, which he has a history of failing to do, and a record high signature requirement. #justsaying

  • crazyvag

    For those nay-sayers, what’s the alternative plan to reduce CO2 emissions? Is it a combination of waiting for people to buy more Teslas or waiting for battery powered propeller planes to show up?

  • Ben Phelps

    BUILD IT.

  • Guy Ross

    Unless you charge batteries with nuclear (not being considered), moving from petroleum to electric does nothing to reduce CO2 – actually creates more.

    Cars are the problem; not how the are powered.

  • Steve Brown

    “Moreover, air fares to Europe and Asia are now in reach of most people.”

    You can’t be serious.

  • Flatlander

    Maybe in coal country, but this is California. We’re 15% large hydro, 34% natural gas, and 29% renewable (includes small hydro).

    I don’t disagree that cars are the problem for other reasons, but energy generation is something that can be addressed.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    SF to Barcelona non-stop for < $300 on Iberia. Bon Voyage.

  • crazyvag

    We’re already way ahead many other states in making electricity without CO2. Airplanes have decades to go and judging by huge backlog that Airbus and Being have, that industry isn’t getting much cleaner.

  • Guy Ross

    34 % natgas is 100% co2. Add to that the inefficiencies of production and transmission and you’ve got a net gain with e-cars. This is not even close to being disputable.

  • Guy Ross

    Again: net gain for at least the time until you and I die. It’s cars.

  • Flatlander

    You are not as well-informed on this issue as you think…

  • SeaMoney

    There’s nothing wrong with High Speed Rail itself. The problem is poor project management.
    California has no one to blame but itself for its infrastructure woes.

  • mbcls

    why can’t the government mandate that any business that open 10+ hours a day must offer 4 days 10 hours work week. this will cut down 20% traffics.

  • Ethan

    Was this the ballot proposition that would have prevented all the stuff already built from even getting used for anything? All the concrete viaduct would just be empty. There’s a difference between voters choosing to get nothing from the billions spent, vs Governor Newsom’s plan to at least finish connecting the built stuff to Merced so ACE and Amtrak can use it.

  • Ethan

    If necessary change the law about general purpose lanes becoming Express Lanes. A GP can legally become an HOV lane. An HOV can legally become an Express Lane. Changing a GP to an HOV for only a day, then making it an Express has never been tried or tested in court, but give it a try, or just change the law.

    Then uncap the fee to use Express Lanes. Set the minimum fee HIGH. So high that a bus full of passengers pays a little per person, but solo drivers are highly discouraged. Make it borderline expensive for even 3-person carpooling. Then put the third lane down I-5. 300 miles for $3 billion. Convert a GP lane in the Altamont Pass and Grapevine to Express’. In those lanes, order Caltrans to target a minimum of 60 mph, not 45 mph like it does now.

    Meanwhile whether or not you believe this, I’m confident by 2030 (when HSR might just start running somewhere in state) autonomous vans, shuttles, and buses will be good enough for freeway operation. They don’t have to master all of San Francisco. They just have to be good enough for freeways, and getting to and from freeways to transit centers and park-and-rides. If they can also get good enough for suburban Silicon Valley and other well-striped suburban roads, so much the better. Going driverless saves money and makes possible more frequent service and more direct routes with fewer stops.

  • Guy Ross

    Please inform! (Really)

  • Guy Ross

    Because people with 3 day weekend don’t hibernate for that time. Yes, there are many ways to chip around the edges to reduce a few miles driven and make those mile more efficient. ‘ELECTRICITY!!’ only makes co2 worse – but yes, addresses urban pollution values to a degree.

  • Aubrey

    Most people have a thousand dollars of disposable income.

  • Aubrey

    If they want it, they should pay for it.

  • Robert Matthews

    How about, ‘Who cares?’

  • WALT1ORO

    There really are battery powered aircraft now … only they are slow and if you have a week or two you could fly across the country … sort of like the early barnstorming days of the early 1900’s … who knows what may come?
    Trans ocean with these planes well that may be later or you learn to swim … a long distance swim. But, the 300 + MPH trains are real now and while the California trains are not yet ready they are a first major step forward with the rest of the 22 other countries who offer faster service than any Amtrak train including the North East Corridor Acela trains.

  • Boo

    we are paying for it. last I checked CA has a high number of young people with well paying jobs and fewer retirees than other states. We’re paying taxes and this is an investment that will stimulate the economy. If you really have an issue with government spending, look at defense: https://www.ranker.com/list/biggest-military-wastes-of-money/mike-rothschild

  • Thanks, Roger. This is really important news I was unaware of:
    “The measure, endorsed by former San Diego City Council Member Carl DeMaio, did not get the nearly 585,000 signatures needed by the May 28th deadline,” reported KUSI news in San Diego.”
    Planetizen posted last October:
    “Proposed California Ballot Measure From Gas Tax Opposition Goes After High-Speed Rail: A follow-up initiative to Proposition 6 would put the brakes on high-speed rail in California and funnel gas tax funds to roads.”
    https://www.planetizen.com/news/2018/10/100971-proposed-california-ballot-measure-gas-tax-opposition-goes-after-high-speed-rail

  • Aubrey

    They haven’t funded the train and are instead standing around hoping someone else will.

  • Boo

    yeah I think we can both agree if everyone can stop dicking around it can be funded and built. No one seems to mind that we spend billions to create highways everywhere or for garbage war planes but for some reason a train has everyone in a tizzy.

    This is a bargain if you consider that a sizable amount of air traffic in CA airports is coming from people flying between north and south. This train will save billions that would be spent on airport expansions not to mention it will be a boon to isolated central valley cities, giving them access to higher paying jobs in urban CA.

  • crazyvag

    Well, since you can’t simulate a jet process with electricity, you’ll have lots of slow electric propeller planes flying around. At such rate, why not just take an electric train?

  • crazyvag

    If you’re old, sure. Maybe just stop voting on things that will happen after you die.

    If you have kids or are under 40, perhaps you should care of retake high school science?

  • jcwconsult

    If this extremely expensive boondoggle is ever built, the level of permanent subsidies to fund the build and the ongoing costs will be absolutely eye watering.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Claude

    I make about $20,000 a year in San Diego County. I’m very poor.
    By saving up and buying discount tickets for the off season I’ve been to Japan twice. And I’m planning a third trip.
    On those trips I’ve seen the difference for myself between air travel, local trains and HSR. Guess which one I like best.

  • Guy Ross

    Well, this is a disappointment. I went looking for myself after you politely called me an idiot. Still cant find any evidence that my claims are in any way under-informed. Oh well….

  • Guy Ross

    Wait until you find out about the interstate highway system. It’ll blow your mind, pops.

  • jcwconsult

    The difference will be the ridership numbers versus the numbers of Interstate users. Interstates are about 2.5% of the total road mileage in the USA but carry something like 25% of the total traffic. And, as many people know, if the federal and some state governments had kept the fuel taxes indexed to inflation plus used all the money on the roads, they would be self supporting today.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Guy Ross

    Do we need to discuss ‘lane miles’ again, Jim.

    There is so little substance, knowledge and honesty to your argumentation that I only check in once in a while with you to confirm.

    Done.

  • Neil_Baker

    Well, at least we’ll have high speed rail between Fresno and Madera.

  • shortfilms

    Japan, China, England, France, well, most of Europe. So why not the U.S.?
    Yes, it might need subsidies, but we subsidize all sorts of transportation options. This isn’t going to solve all problems of mobility, but is a smart addition to the mix.

  • shortfilms

    Bless your heart.

  • Claude

    I notice that your signature is
    “James C. Walker, National Motorists Association”.
    I might, from this, believe that you could have a bias.
    Interstates are and have always been government built, government mandated and government funded, from the very beginning. They penetrate every corner of the nation. Naturally, they carry the bulk of the transportation.
    Trains are rare and difficult to use. The Sunset Limited only runs once a day, three days a week between LA and New Orleans. If the schedule doesn’t work for you, you can’t use the train regardless of whether you want to.
    In Japan and Europe trains are running every hour to every 5 minutes to all corners, making rains easy and convenient. If we supported trains on the high traffic corridors to the same extent that we support highways they would be a lot more popular.
    Saying that people aren’t currently using an asset that the government has suppressed to the point that it’s unusable is not an argument against treating it the same as the government’s favored system.
    And representing a highway motorist association doesn’t make you an impartial observer.

  • jcwconsult

    Europe and Japan are much smaller in geographical areas, and neither had high private car ownership until after WWII. The societies developed very differently for many reasons.

    Fuel taxes at the start of the Interstate system were adequate to support it – and those taxes are the fairest user fees with a cost of only about 1% of revenues to collect. They fell way behind as rates were not properly indexed to inflation and too much of the total revenues were diverted to non-road uses.

    I do have a bias for road use because it is practical and works.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Claude

    Fuel taxes are dedicated to construction and repair. Operation has always come from other budgets where the costs don’t get credited directly to the highways. But the money can still cover the intended purpose if the taxes are doubled, which the Republicans won’t allow and the Democrats won’t push for.

    But as one philosopher once said (and I wish I remembered who) just because snow falls form the sky, it doesn’t follow that snow plows do as well. Cleanup, traffic enforcement and emergency response all have to be paid for.
    Speaking of societies, California is very much a rail culture. Despite the massive 100 year Federal push to get everyone into a car, we still have three of the busiest and most productive rail corridors in the Amtrak system; the LOSSAN Surfliner, the Capitol Corridor and, most pertinent to the current question, the San Joaquin. I scoff at the ACE because it runs westbound in the morning and eastbound in the evening. It should run both directions. I think with only minor adjustments to the schedule they can do it with the current trainsets, increasing revenue 50% with only marginal increase in costs.
    So people are ready to ride the train, if there’s enough traffic density to support it.
    Fortunately, the San Joaquin Valley floor has a slightly higher population density than France, except instead of spread out in little hamlets all across the area they’re concentrated in a dense ribbon along the Hwy99 corridor. It’s almost like it was laid out for the convenience of High Speed Rail service.
    The other cultural difference you didn’t mention was that in Europe and Japan there was never a single government favored transportation alternative or a dedicated anti-rail government policy. With equal treatment for all types of transportation the people were free to choose how to travel.
    And not everyone there, or here, considers being stuck in a heavy traffic jam either practical or workable. Californians wanted a choice, so they voted to make it happen.

  • jcwconsult

    You make some good points, Claude. But it was NOT “a 100 year federal push to get everyone into a car”, that is a false conspiracy theory. It was the idea which became fact, started by Henry Ford, that cars should be affordable to average working people – and people took to the idea like ducks to water. The freedom of travel when and where they wanted to go, free of schedules of trains, buses, trams, etc. became a valuable asset to millions of people, and it remains so today.

    Note that the federal gas tax rate per gallon was set more than 25 years ago and there has been a teensie bit of inflation since. Only gutless legislators refuse to fix that, and index future rates to inflation & perhaps the average fleet fuel economy.

    Europeans and Japanese didn’t get private cars until after WWII because they couldn’t afford them – not per any government policies pro or con.

    I remain a skeptic about the bullet train ever being completed or ever being run without massive subsidies.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Claude

    You’re right, I think I misspoke. To be precise it was a more than 100 year war on trains, starting with the imposition of government controls under the ICC in 1887. This grew until the government regulated nearly every aspect of operation, including setting rates and schedules. Bus and air travel was also brought under government control in subsequent years, but never to the same level of regulation. This continued until Reagan deregulated air travel, although rail travel remained under the ICC (with slightly eased regulation) until it was dissolved in 1996 and most of the regulation transferred to the FRA.
    I count the preference for road travel to the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916. The federal government would pay 30-50% of the cost of paving mail routes through the states. After 1920 each state was required to have a highway department. No money was apportioned to the improvement of rail infrastructure, despite the heavy taxes levied on each mile of track.
    The next big push started in 1926 when Alfred P. Sloan, the CEO of GM, announced that the car had reached saturation; that everyone who wanted a car had one and that if General Motors was to remain in the business of manufacturing automobiles they would have to start manufacturing customers.
    So GM began a multi-pronged operation, starting with “planned obsolescence”, a term that Sloan hated. he preferred to call it “forced obsolescence”, although for the life of me I can’t see why that’s better.
    Instead of making changes when the technology improved, GM began changing the cars every year, just to make changes. Last years car was declared out of date and anyone wanting to stay ahead had to buy a new car every 3 to 5 years instead of when it wore out.
    GM was instrumental in the development of the highway lobby, to push for more paved roads for their cars. Involvement in government reached a peak in 1953, when Charles Wilson (Engine Charlie) became Eisenhower’s Secretary of Defense, pushing for greater national security by building the Interstate system. The state would pay 10% and the feds 90%. Still no funds for rail travel, as a result of which most of the route for the Cincinnati subway was donated to the program as the state’s share of the interstate system.
    GM also invested heavily in urban planning, pushing for an aggressive form of Euclidean zoning where each function was isolated from other land uses; commerce in one place, residential in another, government and industrial each in their own enclave. It became impractical to serve the needs of the people with transit and people came to need cars for their daily lives. The cities were designed to force the choice.
    Then there was the dismantling of the trolley systems, not only with National City Lines for which GM and four other companies were each fined $1,000 for conspiracy to monopolizes) but also direct lobbying in cities that owned their own streetcars, such as Detroit and Cleveland. A mysterious donor gave the mayor of Cleveland a new Cadillac when the last streetcar was replaced by buses.
    This was an excellent business investment, since passengers, faced with buses, bought cars. When Detroit replaced their brand new streetcars with buses, the roads became so congested that GM moved most of their operations out of the city.
    In Europe and Japan the roads and rails were given equal (which is to say inadequate) support so most people didn’t buy cars. Japan’s roads were only paved between major cities. There was never the overt hostility to rail travel as practiced in the US. As a result the trains work very well, as they do in a few American corridors such as the NEC and Lossan.

  • jcwconsult

    @Claude Again, you make many good points. But I think you discount the value of travel freedom to ordinary people – free of time and route schedules. Some may wish for early 20th century rail service – but the 8 mile run from Ann Arbor to Ypsilanti only ran every 90 minutes (and I assume not late at night). More and better roads are needed when more people choose to own and use cars to get that freedom. It is a huge factor of choice that most people have valued highly for 100+ years.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Claude

    It depends on what you mean by “choice”. Cars are too expensive so I travel by scooter. Frankly, urban freeways are too dangerous for my taste, so when I go downtown I take the trolley. Destinations are limited, but at least I have that choice.
    Considering the number of Californians using the existing trains, a lot of people would like to have the freedom to choose the train when it’s practical, but for the most part it isn’t because of the limited access most of us have.
    So we aren’t choosing to drive; that choice is being forced on us by a lack of alternatives. When the choice is presented, Californians go by rail far more than the Reason Foundation would admit. Rail is considered a desirable good, so it gets a lot more riders of choice than buses do.
    And for the most part, we aren’t even asking for the preferences automobiles have had. The libertarian right is insisting that only roads should be supported, but rail supporters are just asking to be treated on the same basis as car travel.
    We’re just asking for people to be allowed to choose for themselves rather than have government push only one choice on us.
    I’m not sure why that’s so frightening to these people.

  • jcwconsult

    I understand your view, Claude, and you do have some company.

    That said, most people can afford cars at least by the time they get into their mid-20s. The freedom of routes & times for travel that are far more diverse than any type of transit can ever provide is very important to them. It is why the overwhelming percentage of people choose to drive – the majority of the time.

    Rail has its place in high volume dense corridors – as seen on the eastern seaboard. I just doubt that the route from SF to LA & places in between will ever produce the ridership to pay even a tiny fraction of the massive costs of that train.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Claude

    The fact that most people can afford to buy a car doesn’t mean we should arrange things to force them to drive everywhere. Even people who enjoy their car (except maybe the two hours a day spent staring at somebody’s taillights in the traffic jam) have trips where they would prefer the train. Even for the transit dependent LA Blue Line passengers, a quarter of them own a car but prefer the train to traffic.
    In more prosperous areas, the car ownership of rail commuters is over 50%. Those are people choosing for themselves, because they have a car and can make the choice.
    I agree, rail is best in areas with high traffic density, like the Eastern seaboard, the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest corridor between San Francisco and San Diego.
    The high speed project is right in the middle of that last corridor, initially operating parallel to the San Joaquin train, one of Amtrak’s most productive corridor services.
    The initial section will cut travel times between Bakersfield and the Bay area by 45 minutes. Faster service attracts more people. This is a universal observation. And it’s in the middle of a population that is already inclined to consider rail travel.
    I realize that emotionally you are inclined to doubt that a usable number of people will take the train, much as the Reason Foundation knew for a fact, when the LA Metro line opened in 2012, that it would never have the 12,000 daily riders that were projected by 2020. It passed 12,000 by 2013. It reached 61,000 in May of 2017.
    https://laist.com/2017/07/10/expo_line_hits_ridership_goal_13_years_ahead_of_projections.php
    Still waiting on the retraction from Reason Foundation. Not actually expecting one.
    It’s a population that already rides trains. The current section offers a significant improvement in travel times and should produce a minimum of 25% increase in ridership. And the project now has a permanent funding source, so the extension to San Jose is increasingly likely. At that point it is expected to return a slight operating profit.
    But as the saying goes, we’ll see when we get there.

  • jcwconsult

    Bakersfield to the Bay area by train may well be 45 minutes faster. Please add the time to get to the train station in Bakersfield and the time to get from the train station in the Bay area to the final destination (possibly including renting a car). For most people, the ONLY time factor that counts is the door-to-door time which is often much longer by transit than by driving.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Claude

    People aren’t mechanical calculating machines who only care about total time. The experience is also important. And that 45 minutes is enough difference to attract a lot of people who are tired of sitting in traffic jams.
    Most people don’t actually consider driving to be a thrilling and liberating experience. The car doesn’t represent freedom. The car represents transportation and driving is a chore that needs to be done. That’s why half the people on a light rail train are car owners who choose to ride instead, even though it takes longer outside of “rush” hour.
    Mind you, peak traffic times are a whole new world. I came from Vegas once, got ten miles past the California border and hit stop-and-go traffic all the way to Barstow, where I bailed out and took Rte 66 until the 15 cleared out. In the San Joaquin valley there are commuters who report leaving two hours early in the morning and then sleeping in their car at their destination to make sure they won’t be late because of stopped traffic.
    Even if time is the only calculation, the train is the logical choice at those times because you don’t see stop-and-go train congestion.

  • jcwconsult

    For those that the train works, take it. For those that want to go places the train does not go – or to destinations where the ongoing transit solutions are not practical – they will drive.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Claude

    Thank you, I think you’ve summed up my position pretty well with that statement. Let the people decide for themselves how to travel.
    But I would add; Stop using government policy to decide for people how they are allowed to travel. Where people are trying to access trains, make sure the trains are convenient and usable enough to meet the needs of travelers.
    I would compare most of America’s trains to third world railroads, but that comparison would be an insult to the third world.
    Treat rail, roads and air as personal choices and use the same rules and considerations for all three modes of travel. People are smart enough to figure out how to get around without Mama Government telling us how we are allowed to ride.

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