Friday, March 9, 2012 / 12:56 pm

California’s High Speed Railway: The Pros and Cons (A Golden Oldie)

Should California have a bullet train? We've got a ton of factors to consider.

by Tony Chavira

Japanese bullet trains
Japanese bullet trains

Old stories with new relevance: our Golden Oldies. Today’s was originally published on September 16, 2009, and in light of recent interest in the California high speed rail system (including this story in yesterday’s L.A. Times), we thought it a fitting one to start with.

PRO: There is political will to build it. The votes from both AB 3034 and Proposition 1A confirmed that people in California really do want this rail. I wrote an article a while back that basically asked for people to consider voting “no” on 1A based on several factors, but none of them rejected the basic premise that a high speed rail would be an amazing addition to our infrastructure. Imagine how awesome it would be to jump on a train and zoom up and down the California coast with reckless abandon. Or even know that you could take the train right into San Diego or San Francisco without having to deal with city traffic!

CON: California is broke. Really broke. In fact, so broke that we’re selling property, our schools, and even our shelters for homeless men and battered women. What will happen to these existing social services has yet to be revealed. Bad as those are for the state, what’s more dangerous is that California has already cut $3.4 billion from existing transit services and upgrades throughout the state. With that in mind, it seems counterintuitive to place a ton of money into the development of high speed rail that a relatively small portion of California will use daily, instead of placing money in local transit lines that a relatively large portion of California will use daily.

PRO: The federal government, state government, local government, and new private investment may be able to cover the costs of construction. The California High Speed Rail Authority’s (CHSRA) website states that the estimated cost for completion will be $45 billion, and state and local funding will provide about $9 billion, with the same amount matched by the Federal government. The rest will come slowly from public/private partnerships; for example, a rule could be created that a developer will be allowed to build a community by a transit stop only if they also build the transit stop. It may be tricky to broker each and every deal, but eventually it’ll be covered to the full cost.

CON: A public relations company is required to manage the CHSRA’s business plan. Not a railway company. Not a state agency. Not even a financial firm. A public relations company. Does the CHSRA think that people need to be further convinced, or were they so sure they’d run into problems that only a PR firm and not a financial firm (who would also have the right to flexibly negotiate with all possible pros and cons in mind) had the expertise to manage. The firm chosen: Mercury Public Affairs.

PRO: The rail line will take you from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 2.5 hours. In fact, the proposed speed of the rail line will be 220 mph, which is comparable to (if not faster than) trains that run on Shinkansen, Japan’s high speed rail system. From L.A. to Irvine in 30 minutes, or from L.A. to San Diego in an hour. And you won’t have to deal with bottlenecked traffic once you get into city limits.

CON: Compatibility issues like you’ve never seen before. There isn’t yet a strong, comprehensive environmental impact report, and that is definitely not a good sign for something that would likely completely reshape the landscape around it. What’s worse is that there is only a promised intent to devise a zero-emission system, while the state of California is fighting tooth-and-nail to determine and then diminish the level of CO2 and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (which is why we all voted to uphold AB 32). Will the processes of construction, shipping and manufacturing also be green? I doubt it, unless there are mandates for those processes, and right now those don’t exist.

More to the point on compatibility issues, though, what works in one place won’t even work a mile down the line. What happens when this super-rail arrives in L.A.? Los Angeles isn’t planned to manage any kind of real transportation infrastructure, so you’re still gonna need your car there, San Francisco people. Zoning ordinances are jumbled, right-of-way issues will have to be determined on the fly in some cases, and though there are lots of incentives to create transit-oriented developments, the city’s record for the actual promotion of their development is a bit flimsy.

PRO: It’ll likely help support the development of a transportation infrastructure. I mean, we’re already so lacking in terms of transit infrastructure here in Los Angeles (as my past articles in the “Trip the Light Rail” series have shown) that anything that could spur interest in the development of light rail lines would be an important step in the right direction. The governor’s already signed legislation to develop the Infill Infrastructure Grant Program (Infill), which has benefited from and feeds right into Proposition 1A to build the high speed rail, a good step toward building the base for new local rail lines.

CON: It won’t be completed until 2018 at the earliest, and we shouldn’t wait that long to start developing transit-oriented developments. We’ll see no return on the money spent to get it working until it opens, and although it’s cheap to build things now because of the recession, the cost of materials and labor will increase dramatically by then, which should make it increasingly more difficult to predict just how far you can make $45 billion go.

PRO: It will help to further stimulate the growth of transit-oriented developments, and in turn smart growth. As of right now, communities across California (those in Los Angeles and Orange counties in particular) have been pretty slow to pick up on the whole “smart growth” thing simply because our communities weren’t designed with the utilization of rail in mind. As use of the high speed rail is further promoted, you’ll begin to see the organic growth of businesses around the stops along the way: it’s just too lucrative an opportunity for local businesses to pass up. The centralization of those goods and services will help to advocate for more of these developments along the existing transit lines in Los Angeles, as well as the promotion of walkability and (one hopes) more vibrant street scenes, once local businessmen and developers realize that we don’t have to use cars to get everywhere. The signing of the Transit-Oriented Development Program after Proposition 1A is proof-positive that we’re on the right track.

CON: So much money will be flying around that the contracts for construction will likely be given to campaign contributors and maybe not even bid publicly. The aforementioned Mercury Public Affairs are already part of this problem. The Los Angeles Times, in a subhead to the title, states that “Ethical questions are being raised” regarding their bid acceptance, so let’s answer that question for them: “Yes, the Governor’s former campaign manager’s PR firm was given preference.” It happens all the time; why should this time be any different?

PRO: The train service will be more frequent, ultimately more timely, and just better overall. A key focus of the plan to develop a high speed rail is to increase the quality of mobility throughout the areas it services. To this end, the Berkeley Simulation Software Rail Traffic Controller has been developed to give an accurate estimate of how quickly and efficiently the train can move, automatically adjusting for things like terrain. Similar modeling software has been used for engineering feats like seismic resistance and airplane speed modeling, and they’ve, generally speaking, been pretty representative of how things will actually work in the real world. Also, the CHSRA estimates that the number of intercity drivers will be reduced by 70 million annually. That is a huge chunk of traffic, a significant reduction in carbon dioxide output, and a reason to reduce construction on new roads and airport gates and runways.

CON: The high speed railway can’t solve all of our problems. It’s really just meant to be another option. We can’t go around acting like no one will ever drive or take a plane up and down the California coast just because there’s a high speed train. That would be sort of stupid on the part of planners, who will be forced to figure out how other forms of traffic will accommodate the high speed railway as it’s being built. Although the railway will eliminate the need to develop new highways, airports and runways, we cannot yet model how its development will affect the development and upkeep of local roadways. For example, it may be easy to cross a large field with your car, but once the high speed railway is installed the nearest crossing might be a quarter of a mile away.

PRO: Options are good. The most important argument here for the development of the high speed rail is that it takes money away from the highway and airport development projects that it seeks to replace. Our options, in this case, would be to either develop more roads and airports (which will just spew more crap into the air) or finally shut up and do something about both our travel and our environmental problems. And really, those aren’t options, since we’d have to find the public-private money to develop those other, oil/gasoline guzzling modes of travel as well. We might as well think a little further into the future.

CON: Community opposition will absolutely turn up the heat once the development hits urban centers. This is already starting, but as soon as the public gets its hands on engineering documents or environmental reports, and as soon as the track schedule is announced, you’re going to see people left and right fearing for their property and the consistency of their way of life. We already know that most people wouldn’t want to live next to an airport, but imagine just how many people will have high speed trains flying by their homes and through their neighborhoods. The construction of the underground Red Line was tough, but laying new tracks throughout Los Angeles and Orange counties will be overwhelmingly daunting. In cases like this, just remember Murphy’s Law.

PRO: The high speed rail itself should be good for the environment, as long as the vision and plan remain zero-carbon. Aside from promoting more sustainable development, the CHSRA’s current plan seeks to make the rail completely sustainable. It will provide its own off-the-grid power, and won’t damage the environment, via state-of-the-art engineering practices. What’s more, the cost of fuel is the primary deterrent for those who would otherwise travel up and down the California coast more. Plane tickets seem outrageous because the cost of jet fuel is outrageous. So keeping the rail line environmentally efficient also keeps the cost per ticket low.

CON: The development of high-speed rail is going to take a very very brutal environmental toll. It doesn’t yet have a completed environmental impact report, so we don’t know the full extent of its impact on each community. But we do know that each community will have its own issues, each city will have its own laws, and each right-of-way ruling will have its own requirements. For example, reported that a judge has already ruled for an alternate route that will ultimately increase the bill by billions. There are people for and against shifting the route to accommodate other areas, and every change adds to the environmental toll the creation of this line will take.

PRO: Transit ridership numbers (comparative to car and plane ridership) has been steadily increasing beyond the capabilities of existing services. Partially because of the economy and partially because of the consistent increase in gas prices, both San Francisco and Los Angeles have seen significant increases in casual train ridership. This seems to make sense in San Francisco, where the trains service most of the city. In Los Angeles, it comes as a pleasant surprise, which advocates for the construction of the high-speed railway (especially if the CHSRA can use it to promote more transit-oriented development through our city).

CON: A big part of the budget will go to purchasing the property to lay the new rail lines. Some things are obvious, like buying land for stations and stops. Others are less obvious, like the need for expansion of the right-of-way by buying property one lot at a time. The hardest part is that, until the environmental impact report is finished and the final route is determined, the CHSRA won’t be able to determine how much money we’re going to need to put this rail line together. But it’s better to err on the side of “more expensive” than “less expensive.” I’d hate if the line could only be built from Sacramento to Bakersfield because the money ran out too soon.

PRO: The original plan seeks to share the Union Pacific right-of-way. The CHSRA won’t have to purchase as much land or work out the details of zoning right-of-ways for new train development. Without this element as a part of the plan, the CHSRA would have had to budget a ton of money into the development of space.

CON: Union Pacific didn’t know that, and now they’re in court trying to figure out the details. A little late, no?

PRO: High speed rail will bring a huge surge of money into the California economy. The official estimates are these: almost 160,000 construction-related jobs; ultimately, 450,000 permanent jobs to maintain the rail and railway; and more than $1 billion annual revenue surplus. Yes, surplus. And this doesn’t even include energy savings!

CON: There are serious practical implications for the implementation of something so visionary, but the most serious is that the budget will not be there for the grandiosity of its full vision. I won’t be surprised of only 15% to 20% of the money promised goes into the hard costs of construction. The rest will go to soft costs, like buying land, moving people, paying fees, managing policies, setting up meetings, et cetera. More importantly, the “cost” of this project doesn’t include a reimbursable for the time that city planners and professional officials will put into making sure that the construction of the rail line doesn’t screw up their communities. It might pay for the rails and own the land, but is the CHSRA’s budget going to accommodate a group of residents nearby who complain about the noise? Will it have a contingency for local contractors, who will undoubtedly try to weasel money out of the government without doing any real work? Will it have the budget to sue them afterward? Will it reimburse planners who will have to change up zoning ordinances to accommodate for the new rail? Will it have money ready for a lawsuit on the first day of testing, just in case someone stupid decides to play on the track and gets hit by a 220 mph train? These things will matter, and will eat away at the budget without getting anything built. Ask any contractor who’s ever worked on any government project: this stuff’s unavoidable and you can’t predict what’s going to happen.

PRO: But c’mon, government’s always going to be full of stupid amounts of bureaucracy and corruption. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t at least try! We’re still getting the thing built … isn’t that’s what matters?

China Railways high speed train
China Railways high speed train
Tony Chavira is the President of FourStory, a nonprofit organization that promotes fairness and social justice through strong writing and storytelling. He is also the Program Developer at RACAIA Architecture, writes and posts comics at Minefield Wonderland, and teaches Business Report Writing at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.


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