Management & Operations

Will California's High-Speed Rail System Ever Gain Traction?

Posted on August 13, 2007 by Leslie Davis

How to get Californians out of their cars and onto public transportation has eluded transit agencies for decades. But officials at the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) believe they just may have the answer — a statewide high-speed rail system that would carry nearly 69,000 commuters every weekday, or about 25 million commuters per year, by 2030.

“It will be cheaper to take the train than drive,” says Mehdi Morshed, CHSRA’s executive director. “It will be more economical, safer and a more convenient and comfortable way to go.”

The full system, which will run from San Diego to the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento, will serve 30 stations and is projected to attract about 100 million passengers per year by 2030. In May, CHSRA selected its first segment for construction — a route from Anaheim and Los Angeles through the state’s Central Valley and into the Bay Area. At speeds up to 220 mph, the trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco will take about 2.5 hours, will be cheaper than flying and cost only slightly more than paying for gas.

The segment, which will carry an estimated 30 million annual passengers, was selected as the first phase because it will transport the most passengers of any of the proposed segments and will garner the most revenue, according to Morshed.

“It was a logical Phase 1,” Morshed says. “The other routes are not as profitable, and aren’t long enough for high-speed rail.”

Airplane-to-train alternative
With the first phase, the CHSRA also hopes to capture commuters on the busiest airline route in the U.S. — the Los Angeles to San Francisco route. “There will be a large shift by people from the airplane to the train,” Morshed says. “The market [on that route] will more than double in the next 20 years, and airports won’t have the capacity. Every day is going to be Thanksgiving — or worse.”

Without the excess capacity needed to serve short-haul routes, airlines eventually could phase out some of the shorter runs in favor of putting more lucrative, long-haul routes at their terminals. Since the high-speed rail may actually be beneficial to the airlines in the long term, Morshed says there has been no negative feedback from most of the airline companies.

“The airports are supportive and encouraging since they recognize the system is their salvation,” Morshed says. It is estimated that trips diverted from air will account for more than half of the system’s revenue.

Rod Diridon, a member of the CHSRA’s board and executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute, believes it is about time for high-speed rail to come to the states. “Every industrialized country either has or is building high-speed rail systems. We are stumbling along and continue to rely on very inefficient and heavily polluting automobiles and short-hop airlines.”

Waiting for funding
Though the CHSRA has the high-speed system mapped out, it is missing one crucial element needed to get the project started — funding. The CHSRA requested about $103 million for fiscal year 2007-08, including $66 million for design and environmental studies and $37 million for rights-of-way. But Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger only proposed $1.2 million, despite the fact that state Assembly and Senate subcommittees authorized about $55 million and $45 million, respectively.

Before deciding whether to commit more of the state’s budget to the project, Schwarzenegger requested a more comprehensive financing plan from the CHSRA. In June, the agency was working on a draft financing plan that was based equally on state, federal and private-sector funding. “In order to put together the financial plan, we need more engineering and environmental work, but to do that, we need money,” Morshed says.

To get the first phase started, more than $60 million is needed for design and environmental studies, according to Morshed. A $9.9 billion bond measure on the November 2008 ballot would help pay for the first phase, but only the Los Angeles to San Francisco segment, not Anaheim. A local assemblyman introduced legislation that would permit the funds to be used on the Anaheim to Los Angeles segment as well. The bond measure includes about $2 billion to upgrade feeder and distribution lines leading to the high-speed rail system. Rail bond ballot measures have already been delayed twice, in 2004 and 2006.

Schwarzenegger has said that he believes California would benefit greatly from a high-speed rail system that connects communities throughout the state, but wants to ensure the project is financially feasible and that other entities are committed to the project before allocating state money to it. “Federal financial support for the project is a critical component of the overall plan to demonstrate feasibility and attract financial participation from the private sector,” he said in a letter to U.S. Rep. Jim Costa (D-Fresno). “Also, in order for the [CHSRA] to attract private capital for the project, California law must fully enable public-private partnership financing for infrastructure such as this rail line.”

The governor indicated in the letter that California taxpayers have borne 100% of the project costs to date, even though their ultimate participation should not be more than 33% of the total project costs. “Before asking our citizens to spend more on consultants, right-of-way purchases and other pre-development costs, or to approve a large bond, we must be able to identify a clear path that demonstrates the financial feasibility of the project and a commitment by other parties to participate.”

“If the government prevails, we won’t get any funding,” Morshed says. “If there’s no money, everything shuts down.” The California high-speed rail project is one of the world’s largest public works projects, with estimated costs of more than $30 billion.

Once completed, it will bring in an estimated annual revenue of more than $700 million, returning a benefit of at least two dollars for every public dollar invested. That money, according to Morshed, would be put back into the system, and would be leveraged to obtain private funding.

“The key issue is to get as much as we can. Nowhere in the world has high-speed rail been built without spending taxpayer money,” says Diridon, who is also chair of APTA’s High-Speed and Intercity Rail Committee. “We need taxpayer money to build the starter line. We have to knuckle down, approve the bond and build as much of the starter line as we can.”

Once the system is built, it has the distinct advantage of making money, Diridon claims. “The capital cost is significant, but the annual net revenue is remarkable.” All the revenue made on the system will go back into the system, whether to pay off bonds or to construct extensions.

How the system works
The 700-mile high-speed rail system would be powered by electricity, tapping into the state’s existing electricity grid. “It’s a relatively small amount, and not noticed much by the grid,” Morshed says. “It would be like building a few more homes.”

Alignments for the system will mostly run parallel to existing railroad tracks. Morshed says any concerns about the impact on agricultural land are unfounded. “The environmental document actually saves agricultural land because it encourages development close to stations,” he says.

Since portions of the system will capitalize on transportation improvements already planned and underway in selected cities, transit agencies have been cooperative with plans for the high-speed system. For example, the Orange County Transportation Authority is investing $500 million to $1 billion to improve its rail corridor, the same improvement the high-speed system would need to make.

The CHSRA has worked closely with cities and counties for such things as construction procedure, parking and development potential at stations. Because the system would carry different commuters than most transit agencies, it is viewed as a complementary service that may eventually help boost transit ridership if it brings people to local stations.

Transit agencies also gave their input on the selection of stations, agreeing to actually construct them since land use around the stations will increase dramatically once the high-speed system is in place. “It will create transit-oriented development on top of and around the train stations so they don’t sprawl into the farmlands,” Diridon says.

Once it gets funding, it will take about 10 years for Phase 1 of the high-speed rail system to become operational. Stations will be about 50 miles apart in rural areas and 15 miles apart in metropolitan areas. The high-speed trains will be commissioned and tested in the Central Valley because they need at least 100 miles of straight, high-speed track to be properly tested. By 2020, an expected 86 weekday trains will be operating in each direction.

California’s system would be the first high-speed rail line in the U.S., similar to those in France, Japan, Germany and Spain. The system would use steel wheel/steel rail technology proven successful in many other countries. The system would also use international rolling stock, control systems, special structural design techniques and project delivery techniques that will need the approval of state and federal regulators.

The benefit to California
By 2020, intercity travel and long-distance commuting in California is forecast to nearly double from current levels. The high-speed rail system would cost half as much to build over the long-term than other transportation options, and save up to 5 million barrels of oil per year and reduce pollutant emissions. According to the CHSRA’s business plan, the trains would also bring economic benefits worth twice the cost of construction and directly result in creating 450,000 new permanent jobs in the state. “This will revolutionize the state in terms of economic viability,” Diridon says.

California’s population is estimated to double between now and the 2040s, from the low 30 millions to more than 60 million. “To handle the additional population that we’ll have, we’ll need eight more freeway lanes and two more airports,” Diridon says. “That is 2.5 times more expensive to build than high-speed rail.”

The high-speed system can handle the transportation requirements of 60 million to 80 million people just by adding more trains, Diridon says.

Diridon is also a proponent of high-speed rail’s positive environmental impact. The system will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 12.5 billion pounds per year, and save more than 5 million barrels of oil per year. Since it is electrically powered, the system also does not create pollution or noise.

Only about 7% of the previously existing auto trips will be diverted once the high-speed rail is operational. Though that number may sound low, says Morshed, in comparison, fewer than 1% now use a form of transportation other than the automobile. Cars will still continue to serve the majority of shorter trips.

Though the system will serve several major airports, it will not serve the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), the state’s busiest airport. This is because the system runs within or alongside existing transportation corridors, and there is currently no other system serving LAX. Constructing a line to the airport is virtually impossible, according to Morshed, because there is no open corridor, nor is there any desire on the part of local communities to create one.

Developing public support
Public support for the system has been strong. Morshed says the public will be constantly informed of developments on the system, so that those who may be affected by the line have a chance to participate in the process. They’ll be kept apprised of the alignment, the stations and the potential environmental impacts. So far, he says, the project has received tremendous community support throughout the state. “It seems to be universally loved, but it’s still trying to stay alive,” he says.

Officials at the CHSRA are counting on word-of-mouth to attract system ridership. “People will come as information becomes available and they find out it’s the best deal in town,” Morshed says.

“We get a bad rap because we are attached to our cars, but it’s because we don’t have a choice. When we do have a choice, we use it,” Morshed says. “Once it’s there, people will use it. They always do.”

Leslie Davis is a freelance writer and the former executive editor of METRO Magazine.

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