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.