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07 July 2007

High speed rail: The other white meat

With the Warm Springs and San Jose BART extensions running into major funding-related delays, you may be surprised to know there's an alternative virtually nipping at its heels. It's not increased Amtrak service or Caltrain running into the East Bay. It's the state's high speed rail initiative. CAHSR is being pitched as an alternative to personal intra-state air and freeway travel, particularly trips between the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Proponents claim that a trip from SF to LA would be around 2:30, the length of a well-pitched A's game. Best of all, the 1-2 hour prep time needed to arrive at the airport and check in would be reduced to about 15 minutes. The cost? $40 billion, same as the value of all of the infrastructure bills passed last November. The first $10 billion is supposed to be covered by a bond measure that's slated for referendum in 2008. That appears to be the biggest problem in getting HSR on the ballot, as Governor Schwarzenegger appears heavily reluctant to put his weight behind the proposal unless, as he puts it, there is venture capital or other private means to help out with funding. And it definitely won't be built in a day, as construction could start in 2009 at the earliest with service actually beginning in 2020. That's right, 2020.

The project has gone through numerous levels of planning over the past decade, and pretty soon it'll be time to find out if it'll happen. Environmental impact reports have largely been completed, leaving a few major issues other than the funding to sort out. Chief among those is the route the line will take between the Central Valley and the Bay Area. One has the line running through Pacheco Pass, whereas the other runs near I-580 through Altamont Pass. Naturally, both have their local advocates. The Pacheco Pass option has new CAHSR board member Rod Diridon (former county supe and transit magnate) and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group behind it. Altamont Pass has Stuart Cohen and the Transportation and Land Use Coalition on its side. Either option would have large unavoidable expenses: Pacheco would require extensive tunneling and is not environmentally friendly, Altamont requires a bay crossing (either near the Dumbarton Bridge or via a new Transbay Tube). As it stands, the South/East Bay layout looks like this (station locations labeled in blue, Cisco Field is the red "X"):

The light green line represents the East Bay section that runs down to San Jose. The nice thing about the East Bay section is that even though it runs on a separate line from BART, it's set up to link directly to BART. All three Oakland stations, Union City, and Warm Springs would have multimodal operations. There would also be a fast, direct link between Pleasanton/Livermore/Tracy and the South Bay and Livermore-to-SF would finally be real instead of those residents waiting for a BART extension to materialize. However, the service wouldn't run nearly as frequently as BART, so HSR shouldn't be considered a complete replacement for BART. There's potential for other regional rail services to run on the HSR tracks. For instance, ACE Rail could be transformed into such a service and it could serve more stations along the line, while express trains bypass the ACE stations. Another option is a modified version of the Caltrain Metro East concept.

BART and HSR have other differences as well. BART utilizes a wide gauge, electric third rail system similar to the Washington Metro and Atlanta MARTA, and its top speed is 80 mph. HSR would use overhead electric wires on regular gauge rails, similar to high speed trains used in Europe. The closest US-based relative to HSR would be Amtrak's Boston-to-DC Acela Express service, which uses similar trains but shares tracks with freight trains. Top speed for HSR is projected to be 225 mph, though that speed would only be approached in the Central Valley (Bay Area speeds would be less than 120 mph due to noise concerns and the higher number of stations in close proximity to one another). Both BART and HSR would run on dedicated guideways, free from congestion and the potential for accidents with passenger cars.

The real issue among supporters of HSR is the lack of consensus among them. At some point the Bay Area-Central Valley route will be established, which will resolve a good deal of the infighting. Beyond that, there's a philosophical issue: How should HSR be positioned? While the original vision was for a cheap, environmentally friendly alternative to 737's in the air and SUV's on I-5, others have latched onto the concept of HSR acting as a good commuter train option. Consider a commuter train that makes the trip from Tracy to San Francisco in less than an hour. Or a San Jose to Warm Springs trip in 8-12 minutes (!). It sounds too good to be true, but if you want proof check out the performance of the same technology in Europe - or better yet try it yourself if you ever go there - and you'll see it's possible.

The commuter-versus-intercity debate is interesting because it actually pits certain environmental factions against each other. On one hand, the commuter option isn't getting emphasized because having a fast commuter train - especially one far faster than driving - could lead to increased sprawl as even more workers flee for the exurbs for more affordable and now more accessible housing. That has the land use folks worried. On the other hand, posing HSR as mostly a long distance replacement means you might not win over commuters who could potentially be off the freeways if the plan wasn't realized.

The great thing about the possibility of HSR is that it could significantly benefit the A's after they head down to Fremont, and they'd have little to do with HSR's development. Fresno-based fans could get to the ballpark in just over an hour. A few minutes less if they're coming from Sacramento. I could conceivably leave work at 3 on Friday and head down to Anaheim to catch the first of a three game A's-Angels set, since the Anaheim HSR station would be very close to Angel Stadium. That is, if the Angels are staying in Anaheim after 2015.

Whatever your feelings are on high speed rail, the people in power need to get off their asses to get this on the ballot in 2008. It's already been delayed twice, and delaying it further in hopes of getting a certain type of political climate will only raise the costs of the project and waste large amounts of preparatory work that have already been completed. The governor can't pussyfoot around. And the private industry groups like SVLG and its member should get their wallets ready if they're really behind the plan. Then we can know for certain if high speed rail is for real, or as the kids say, pipe.

Notes: HSR supporters have been pressing the media in recent weeks. Former State Senator Quentin Kopp wrote an opinion piece for Friday's Chronicle. Kopp is CAHSR's board chair. If you're looking for a point of comparison, the San Jose/Warm Springs BART extensions will cost an estimated $5.5 billion to go 21 miles. For more information on CAHSR, check out SF Cityscape's HSR forum.

16 comments:

Anthony dominguez said...

Anyone read this mornings Merc article (Mike Swift) regarding AT&T Park and the "boomtown" its created at Mission Bay/SF? Talk about a punch in the gut to this longtime baseball to San Jose supporter...the Merc celebrating the sole reason downtown San Jose will never have a Major League ballpark. There's even a quote from Lew Wolff regarding if Cisco Field was being built in DSJ. You know what Mr. Swift, Cisco Field ISN'T being built in DSJ, so why mention it at all?!! Instead, DSJ ticket to greatness will be built 11 miles to the north in an empty suburban field. The whole thing now stinks if you ask me! (just needed to vent RM).

Regarding High Speed Rail, I think Arnold believes that CA voters will have "Bond fatigue" come the 08 elections; thus leaving the HSR bond measure of the ballot. I really think he should let CA voters decide if they want yet another bond for transportation. While HSR as a whole would not be ready until 2020, we could have "semi" high-speed rail in the Bay Area a lot sooner in the form of a totally upgraded Caltrain line from SF to Gilroy. Much of the current Caltrain line is slated for HSR also, with both Caltrain and HSR sharing infrastructure such as electrical lines and power stations. Pass a bond in 08, and SF, the peninsula, and South Bay have high-speed trains by 2012-14.

As for Pacheco Pass vs. Altamont...all I ask is that HSR serves San Jose/Diridon Station! (or does SF's transbay terminal have T-Rights to SJ also?)

Anonymous said...

ML,

How are you going to get to Anaheim from work to catch the first of a three game A's-Angels set? There's no Route from Bay Area to Anaheim. Only route is Sacramento to La.

Would there be HSR station near Cisco Field?

Marine Layer said...

Anon - In May the CAHSR approved a truncation of the route, eliminating Sacramento, the Inland Empire, and San Diego from the initial route. It's SF-Fresno-LA-Anaheim. If the Altamont route is used, the Warm Springs station is pretty much a given.

Tony - I knew you'd pick up on Wolff's comment. He clearly says "if we were doing a ballpark in San Jose and we had land around it." There isn't more than around 40 acres near Diridon including the ballpark and there are major height restrictions. Combine that with all of the other obstacles getting it done and well, you know why it wasn't going to happen.

As for the HSR ballot measure, many of the feed route infrastructure improvements in CA depend on nearly $1 billion within the measure. Electrification can largely get done via other means. Grade separation, OTOH, has no chance without HSR going through. HSR would go to both SF and SJ regardless of the outcome of the Altamont/Pacheco debate.

anthony dominguez said...

R.M.,
So if San Jose isn't going to happen, WHY MENTION IT AT ALL? Kind of like last year, when asked what could further help in the revitization of DSJ, Lew Wolff replied "If they (San Jose) could get the A's, that would help."

I was down at Plaza de Cesar Chavez this afternoon, and with the exception of kids running through the fountains, THE ENTIRE DOWNTOWN CORE WAS DEAD! I could only imagine the tumbleweeds and silence at Diridon South. You read the AT&T Park article, then watch Sunday Night Baseball at Petco Park/San Diego, and you realize what San Jose missed out on...a real chance for our downtown to become a major destination (go ahead Rob, accuse me of crying).

R.M. (or Murf, Bartleby), has Lew Wolff (or the DiNapoli's for that matter) given up on downtown San Jose?

Marine Layer said...

Tony, I'm afraid you're guilty of espousing the same philosophy that the Oakland-only types do. That is to say that the location is more important than the team. It's easy to take that stance when you don't have to be intimately involved in running the team on and off the field. In a perfect world, the two would be synonymous and inseparable. The reality is that they're not. Not even the Niners are immune. Sometimes it comes down to timing. Perhaps if Wolff owned the team 10 years ago at the start of the dot-com boom he would've built it in Oakland because the real estate market wouldn't have grown the way it did. But he didn't. I've already said that I think he'll regret not building in San Jose due to his ties here. But honestly, he's done plenty to build up the city and he doesn't need to do anymore.

An hour ago I went down to the Camera 12 to pick up advance tickets for the Harry Potter screening on Tuesday night. It wasn't completely jumping, but it definitely wasn't a ghost town. Not bad considering there were no events tonight.

Georob said...

Tony, I know you and others that post here think of San Jose as a potential world class city that just needs that "last thing" to make it complete.

Unfortunately, when you say things like "we need recognition", and "we're the tenth largest city in the US", it comes across like something we'd see from places like Charlotte, Jacksonville, and Salt Lake. Cities where "Waffle House" often makes the top ten restaurant listings.

Well, San Jose doesn't need Waffle House, and perhaps they don't need major league baseball either. And when you all start acting like that perhaps THEN you'll finally get a team.

BTW, I wanted to put Fresno on that list of cities, but we don't have Waffle House, either. We DO count our blessings here in the Valley, don't we Jeff?

anthony dominguez said...

Hey Rob,
At least you guys have a beautiful downtown ballpark in Chukshansi Park (and AAA ball to go with it). Try being in a city of 1 million residents, and you're relegated to Single A ball in a 4,000 seat, 1940's play pen. BTW, I'll take a Waffle House any day over MLS! Thanks for the re:'s Rob and R.M.

anon-a-mouse said...

Georob - Tony might be a bit over-the-top with the civic cheerleading, but downtown SJ would benefit greatly from having the A's there for 81+ games a year. Recognition, etc is exactly what you said, the goal of second-tier wannabies. But that kind of draw is exactly what downtown SJ needs to really come into its own. The place has so much potential and some really great restaurants and other attractions. It just needs another regular draw, and baseball would be the perfect complement to the Sharks.

Anonymous said...

Tony's a "iittle bit over the top with his civic cheerleading"?

That's like saying Diamond Lil's a bit pudgy.

Georob said...

Chuckchansi Park has done NOTHING for downtown Fresno as nice as it is. And yes, a gaming casino now has the naming rights, think Selig would allow that for an MLB park?

In my opinion, downtown ballparks enhance what is already there(or not there in the case of Fresno) In contrast, The dot-com boom affected all the SOMA area of SF, not just China Basin. And I'll betcha there's no way they's consider building ATT Park today on that site as valuable as the real estate is.

I'll bet if you went down the list of all the revitalized downtowns that now contain a ballpark, you'd find that those revitalizations were either already under way or about to start anyway.

Were the ballparks catalysts for development? Certainly, but an office complex, condos, mall, or conbination of the three would have likely done the same thing while not limited to 81 days of operation a year.

That's why San Jose went ahead and approved Diridon's EIR knowing it wouldn't go to waste. I'm sure Lew Wolff is aware of this as he looks to what will be going on in his ballpark village the other 270 plus days of the year.

Jeff said...

Rob,

Yeah, that's it! We need a Waffle House to put Fresno on the map! God knows politico's have tried everything else. I believe this is the first time I have ever heard someone from out of town compliment the city core in Fresno. Unfortunately, the praise is hardly deserved. Chuckchansi is a very nice park in its own right. But anyone who believes baseball will revitalize a downtown core is sadly mistaken.

Perhaps it's the sheer size of SJ, but it always strikes me as odd that a city that large can't attract large scale sporting venues. I know, the TR's probably prevented the A's from moving there, and the clock is running on the Niners....but damn, maybe SJ really is Fresno on steroids.

Marine Layer said...

Many SJ pols point out the divisive fight that occurred prior to the construction of the Arena, and that now you'll find nary an opponent. Out of that battle was the city charter addition that requires a vote for a large venue. Ironically, Lew Wolff helped lead the charge there, and he's even acknowledged it.

For San Jose, it's largely the prevailing attitude. While there are many who would love to have MLB/NFL closer to home, most have simply understood that an hour drive here or there is expected. To ask the fans to put up major funds to make it more convenient is not easy. Complicating matters, SJ's Redev Agency was often accused of excess and waste the last two decades, so the political will there is weak. San Jose is slowly but surely moving beyond their status as a gigantic bedroom community, but even within the confines of the Valley it's still prevalent.

anthony dominguez said...

I guess all's not lost Rob and R.M. Last night on NBC11 Raj Mathai, when talking about a future All Star game at Cisco Field, stated that San Jose would be the host city for said game. All Star festivities at McEnery Convention Center...sounds good to me!

Georob said...

To recap ML's comments, San Jose doesn't seem to have the political will to go after the 49'ers let alone build a stadium for them, plus the fans appear content to drive 50 miles for baseball and football. Plus, I'll repeat that SJ officials pretty much caved in without a fight when Bud Selig asked them to stop lobbying for a MLB team

I'll add one more: What's the San Jose CofC/Convention & Visitors Bureau doing to secure a "San Jose Identity" for the A's when they go to Fremont?

And yet you, Mark Purdy, and now this bozo from Channel 11(a SJ station, no less) are ABSOSLUTELY CONVINCED that this is going to all be San Jose's baby when all is said and done.

Sounds like one too many cups of coffee at Waffle House to me.

Jeff said...

I don't know Rob, but I still think the A's will market extensively to San Jose, to the point of calling themselves the San Jose A's. The market is just to large a target to ignore, plus, as has been mentioned ad nauseum here, it's no longer necessary for a team to play in a city that's name it bears. Fremont appears more than willing to rake in the potential tax revenue and let their larger neighbor glory in "recognition." They will insist on an honorable mention, but that's no problem these days either. Apparently even cities are getting in on corporate naming rights. The San Jose A's at Fremont. At least it has a nice ring. I know you disagree, but I find it hard to believe it could be anything else.

anon-a-mouse said...

Georob, regarding your 1:03 post, I completely agree. That's why I think a downtown baseball park is just what SJ needed (past tense because that opportunity no longer exists, barring a collapse of the PC plan). It's already been redeveloped and the area is ready. A ballpark would be just the magnet to draw critical mass downtown and make it a real draw. As they say, nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd.