Will L.A. Times’ Irresponsible Coverage of High Speed Rail Doom the Project?

Times' Big Scoop on CAHSR Was Overblown Coverage of a Routine Report

A rendering of the project. Image: CaHSRA
A rendering of the project. Image: CaHSRA

On Monday, the Los Angeles Times published a bombshell article, outlining the details of a “confidential Federal Railroad Administration risk analysis,” in an attack on the competence and ethics of the California High Speed Rail Authority. Reporter Ralph Vartabedian claims the report shows cost overruns and delays, although the Times does not provide readers a chance to read the report for themselves.

The California High Speed Rail Authority is given little space in the story to defend itself. Much more is given to critics who have been seeking to kill the project for years.

Jerry Brown has shown unwavering support for the High Speed Rail Project. But if the federal government turns its back, will that support be enough? Photo: NPR
Jerry Brown has shown unwavering support for the High Speed Rail Project. But if the federal government turns its back, will that support be enough? Photo: NPR

The story went viral with conservative news websites that are read by decision makers in Washington, D.C. Breitbart, the news website that was once edited by incoming senior adviser to President-Elect Donald Trump, summarized the article with the headline “CA High-Speed Rail: Over Budget, Behind Schedule.” Even less-reputable website PJ Media took a harder swing in “Train Wreck: California High-Speed Rail in Worse Shape Than Anyone Thought” charging corruption and incompetence at the highest levels.

With today’s report at The Hill that the administration plans massive cuts to the Department of Transportation for unnamed programs, the timing of the piece couldn’t have come at a worse time for the High Speed Rail Authority. In a critique of the article at the pro-High Speed Rail website CAHSR Blog, Robert Cruickshank writes. “I will bet money that the Trump FRA finds a way to claim that the Authority missed this deadline and must repay that $220 million. I would not be surprised if they also make a play to try and clawback much more of that stimulus money, though I doubt it can go very far.

Of all the obstacles I described above that the Authority has weathered, they may be about to encounter the largest one yet: Donald Trump.”

Of course, if the article is true, that there are cost over-runs and major delays and the FRA did publish a secret report slamming the project, the Authority deserves whatever is coming next.

And that’s where things start to fall apart. The Times’ critique isn’t a fair one, using partial truths to create doubt. While it is factually true to state that the report is “confidential,” Vartabedian uses the term without providing any context, leaving readers to imagine why the report’s findings would be withheld from the public.

First, the FRA conducts risk assessments of every project that receives federal funding. In response to an email asking why the FRA completed this study, Deputy Director of Public Affairs Marc Willis responded somewhat cheekily, “Risk analysis is a standard oversight tool used on major capital projects—not just California.”

So why is the report marked “confidential?” Simply put, because the FRA and its local and regional partners want to be able to have a frank conversation about the status of the project without fear of the report being misunderstood by political opponents and the local press. The High Speed Rail Authority, in its response to the article in the legislature, outlines many complaints with the article, but seems especially exasperated about the characterization of the report.

“Risk analysis is an ongoing iterative process; factors are discussed, assessed for their potential impact, and determinations are made as to whether they are applicable and to what degree,” the letter states. “It was marked deliberative because it is just that – part of that ongoing work among staff to determine what risks might be applicable and how to manage them.”

So how about the damning critique Vartabedian outlines from the routine deliberative report draft? Turns out their are plenty of holes in the report as well.

First claim : The project could cost $3.6 billion more than the budget announced to the public. The Authority announced a $6.4 billion budget. It could now cost $10 billion.

The key word here is could. There are a lot of things that could increase the budget of the project. But at the moment, the budget for the project is $7.8 billion, not $6.4 billion. Why is that number higher than the $6.4 billion estimate? $900 million of the $1.4 billion difference is contingency funds should other parts of the project go over budget.

Currently, only the route through the Central Valley is under construction. Construction should be completed by 2025.
Currently, only the route through the Central Valley is under construction. Construction should be completed by 2025.

Second claim : The California High-Speed Rail Authority originally anticipated completing the Central Valley track by this year, but the federal risk analysis estimates that that won’t happen until 2024, placing the project seven years behind schedule.

This is true, but hardly news. The route for the Merced to Bakersfield wasn’t approved by the Board until last October. In fact, when the plan for the Initial Operating Segment was approved last year, the estimate for the opening date was 2025.

Third claim : The Federal Railroad Administration is tracking the project because it has extended $3.5 billion in two grants to help build the Central Valley segment. The administration has an obligation to ensure that the state complies with the terms, including a requirement that the state has the funding to match the federal grants. 

This is true. This routine report is put together because the state received a federal grant. And good news, the Authority is on track to meet its goal, including the matching funds and the requirement that all funds be spent in the grant timeline. A statement released by the FRA, and quoted in the CAHSR article, clearly states, “Is California on track to spend the Recovery Act Funds at this moment? Yes. Will it? With continued focus and hard work, yes.”

Fourth claim : Staff morale is low.

I wonder why that is? Probably because the project is a political hot potato and is often pilloried in the local press, including the nation’s fourth largest newspaper?

Vartabedian clearly has an ax to grind with the Authority. Roger Rudick, now editor of Streetsblog SF, wrote a scathing takedown of his coverage in 2014. Perhaps that explains the many pieces of good news left out of his article, news that is outlined in the Authority’s response. Or maybe it explains why much of the background for Vartabedian’s article is from anonymous sources, without any context for who is providing the information and why anonymity was granted.

But the sad reality is that even though the Times’ article is sloppy and unprofessional, it could have negative consequences for the California High Speed Rail project. A hilariously terrible article by the Reason Foundation on the then newly-opened Phase I of the Expo Line, lamented that ridership for the completed Expo Line hadn’t reached it’s 30-year ridership projections–in its second week of being half-open. That terrible article was cited in private meetings between transit advocates and capitol hill staff about rail funding in Southern California.***

Let’s hope Vartabedian’s article has even less impact than Reason’s. But in these uncertain times, it seems likely High Speed Rail will remain a partisan issue.

*** – Anonymity was granted because said activist doesn’t want to burn bridges in Washington, D.C. Even though these meetings took place five years ago.

  • Wiching

    HSR as public transportation should fund by Gov. than issue funding solved.
    than HSR ticket collection use to operation and future development.also like advertisement income from station, possible packages with transit-Oriented-Development (TOD) can provide more income to operator.

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  • neroden

    Vartabedian is a dishonest hack who should have been taken off the HSR beat a long time ago. Write to Shelby Grad, his editor, and complain about the assignment of a fool with an ax to grind against HSR to this beat.

  • Doesn’t look good for any more Federal money for this dumb project. As a Democrat, for once I agree with the Repugs. This is probably the only issue they’re right about.
    http://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/State-s-high-speed-rail-project-comes-under-10873467.php?cmpid=gsa-sfgate-result

    • CeeTee55

      You probably have never seen a rail or bike project you approve of. False flag….

      • Both rail and bikes have this in common: both are essentially fantasies.

        • CeeTee55

          Right. Fantasies. Sure.

    • The State has the money it needs for the present and as stated, Trump’s priorities for infrastructure would actually be great for the CAHSR project.

  • This project is like all big rail projects: it starts with lies by its supporters to get it started. See Megaprojects and Risk: An Anatomy of Ambition
    by Bent Flyvbjerg (Author), Nils Bruzelius (Author), Werner Rothengatter (Author)

    The authors studied a lot of similar infrastructure projects and came to this conclusion:
    “Cost underestimation and overrun cannot be explained by error and seem to be best explained by strategic misrepresentation, namely lying, with a view to getting projects started” (page 16).

    Once a project is started, it’s hard to stop, and good money has to be thrown after bad. Besides, even dumb projects create jobs for powerful construction unions, a major part of the Democratic Party’s base here in California. And for Streetsblog’s readers the great thing about trains is they aren’t cars and are therefore morally superior. Only bicycles rank higher in their estimation.

    Randal O’Toole nailed this delusion: “All you have to do is mention the words ‘public transit,’ and progressives will fall over themselves to support you no matter how expensive and ridiculous your plans.”
    http://ti.org/antiplanner/?m=20160328

    • crazyvag

      I disagree that costs are lying. Costs are simply impossible to predict more than a few years in advance. (Copying from another comment). Consider this:

      Suppose for a minute that you’re building a tunnel. It will take 10 years to finish. Now try to budget how much it will cost to hire an electrician in 2027 to install a single light in a ceiling. You have no idea what inflation will be, what rates will be, and whether we’ll move on from LED bulbs to some exotic OLED lights. What would you guess, $200, $300? If you guessed $200 and it’s $400, LA Times will write an article in 2027 how you lied and your project cost twice as much.

      Is this lying? Is it bad prediction? Bond was passed in 2008 – about 9 years ago. How accurate do you think planners can be that far in the future? Furthermore, since costs go up with time, you’d have to predict every single lawsuit designed to delay the project and budget for that.

      Calling someone a liar is easy. But predicting costs 10+ years in advance is not.

      • The book I linked is by people who studied big projects all over the world, and their conclusion is that big project supporters routinely lie in the beginning to get projects started. None of the HSR litigation has delayed this project at all.

        • neroden

          Liar. The litigation has, in actual fact, delayed the project.

          • Where and when? Specifics, please! Unless the litigant asks for and gets an injunction to stop a project until a final court decision, a project is not delayed at all.

    • Eric

      That’s all very true provided you completely ignore any rail projects in California that come in under budget or ahead of schedule, and like Mr. O’Toole, you view literally every rail project as an unnecessary waste of money

      • Most of them are. Buses are much cheaper.

        • Joe R.

          And much slower, less comfortable, more dangerous, more subject to the vagaries of weather. They’re not even cheaper once you count the costs of highways plus their higher operating costs. For sure, buses fill a niche, but that niche is mostly short distance local travel or as feeders for rail of all types. Occasionally, they may make sense on some longer routes where the density is too low to ever get numbers to make rail feasible. These would be mostly rural areas. In general though they’re a much lower quality alternative to rail. “Let them ride buses” is the modern day equivalent to “let them eat cake”.

          • A lot of assertions but no evidence for any of them.

          • Joe R.

            I don’t have to supply evidence. You do. You’re the one who thinks every rail project is a waste of money because buses can provide a ready substitute for less. Show me how they’re cheaper to operate, can go 200 mph like HSR, don’t get stuck in traffic, offer more comfortable rides than trains, and so forth. If you can’t then STFU.

        • Only because they don’t have the build the infrastructure that they run on.

    • CeeTee55

      Citing Randal O’Toole is not helping your argument. He never meet a highway or low-density development he didn’t like.

      • Convenient for your argument that you automatically reject rail’s best critic.

        • CeeTee55

          He’s a anti-urban hack, like Wendell Cox .

        • “Rail’s best critic”? That’s laughable. Randy O’Toole is a full-on anti-transit fanatic.

          • Calling people who disagree names isn’t a very convincing argument.

          • O’Toole has shown a consistent pattern of opposing any transit project for some reason or another. Calling those actions out for what they are isn’t “calling people…names”, it’s noticing a pattern.

  • In 1956, Dwight Eisenhower signed the Interstate and Defense Highways Act. First estimated to cost $27 billion, the Interstate system took more than 30 years and $200 billion to complete.

    From this article: http://www.progressivepolicy.org/issues/how-america-led-and-lost-the-high-speed-rail-race/. Last I checked, CAHSR is nowhere near costing eight times the initial estimates (though it has doubled).

    • DennisinOhio

      The original concept did NOT include all the beltways and extra freeways added much later to the 1950’s plan not to mention the exceedingly high impact of inflation along the way. No one would claim the interstate system was not needed – find some empty freeways now that are not being utilized.
      .

  • QuinsigamondMan

    Well well another media producing FAKE NEWS. All one needs to do is go to the Times article, end of story.

    Plus the acronym CAHSR equates to one outcome – deficits approaching that were estimated by experts beginning in late 2011 to be a low of $150 to a high of $500 billion CALIFORNIA taxpayer dollars $$$$. It is now readjusted to $350 to $500 billion.

    As this is a fractured legacy project that most likely it will not be completed by the end of this century.

    • crazyvag

      When you talk about deficits, are those same as operating subsidies that California pays today for Capital Corridor, Surfliners and San Joaquins service? Do you think California should spend less on transportation?

    • Feel free to expound on the deficits as to date, all the contracts have come in under budget.

  • JustJake

    Look, Jerry Brown has been over-selling and performing legislative sleight-of-hand with HSR long before Trump was on the political radar. The majority of Californians do not support HSR, currently, and he is lucky the courts have not yet shut things down. This could be A Blessing.

    • Even if the courts did “shut things down”, the Federal monies used require that whatever has been started has to be finished.

      • JustJake

        Or funds returned…

        • We would abandon viaducts and bridges because…?

          • neroden

            Only if we become a worthless third-world cant-get-it-done country like Indonesia (which has abaonded viaducts because stupid).

        • No, the Federal law says that it has to be left usable by Amtrak.

          • JustJake

            No, “If the federal office determines the project is not making adequate progress, it can terminate the grant, according to the agreement.”

      • crazyvag

        The existing Central Valley work can be used by San Joaquin trains at 125mph. Caltrans already purchased Siemens Charger locomotives for that purpose back in 2015.

        Another $700 million of HSR funds went to electrify 50 miles of Caltrain corridor which was matched by $500 million federal funds. I would argue that current money is being spent rather efficiently.

        • JustJake

          Federal funds? Don’t count on money until it is received, not pledged.

    • 1976boy

      The majority of Californians voted for HSR. Where can you cite a verifiable source that they do not support it? If so, why did it pass?

      • JustJake

        It sqeaked by in 2008 by 3%, and what was presented for ballot approval is not what is being done in 2017.

        It passed with stipulations, deadlines and requirements that are no longer being adhered to. Thus, public approval is not in effect. The HSR proponents fear the change in public sentiment, are trying to avoid further public votes, and are busy trying to keep the con in play. They’re failing.

        https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2016-06-28/california-hits-the-brakes-on-high-speed-rail-fiasco

        • murphstahoe

          wow – do we get to use this same logic to cancel Donald Trump?

          • JustJake

            I suspect we do, indeed. Already decent betting odds that he doesn’t last 4 years.

  • High Speed Rail has never had a really solid funding plan. I see that as the major problem. Way back in 2008 the proposal should have been for an ongoing tax to pay for the construction and operations and maintenance (just in case it doesn’t turn out to be profitable in the US).

    Instead we got a bond that was insufficient to build the system and the initial cost estimate was way too low. The cap and trade funds are a good idea but being challenged in court as a tax without the required 2/3 vote.

    In that context I understand the scrutiny. We should be honest about what it takes to do this or not do it at all.

    • crazyvag

      I think the planners understood that asking for all $69 billion from one source will be politically impossible. To mitigate that, the bond they are building in “operating segments” that can serve a purpose alone even if full line is not funded. The part being built from Merced to Bakersfield can be used by San Joaquin trains at about 110 or 125 mph until rest of the system is up.

      So the thinking was that given we’ll never get full money at once, let’s build segments, get momentum and show public what they’re getting. In 5 years, sentiments can change, millennials will form a bigger voice and money will follow. If not, we’ll have faster San Joaquins.

      • Problem is by not being honest, they make people distrust them.

        • And the project wouldn’t have been passed by state voters, who only okayed it by 2% of the vote.

      • JustJake

        I’ll agree in that they knew the reality, that a total HSR package would never be approved, so they mis-represented, mis-calculated and used deceitful and dishonest tactics to get the minimum public buy in, and then changed the rules. Tried and true Sacramento con-game.

        • crazyvag

          I will agree that this might not have been as clear, but I don’t think it was all the way dishonest. At the time of the bond, it was said that this is a down payment, that money from the bond will be used to match federal and local dollars and that eventually private investors will join.

          The bond money is being used to leverage federal dollars. Private investors have not materialized yet.

          With the current funding scheme we’re getting 130 miles in Central Valley and 50 miles between SJ and SF leveraging Caltrain project. 180 miles of right of way is a good start given it’s funded from the same original $9.95 billion bond.

          Highways weren’t built in a year or a decade either, and I think some people don’t realize how hard such planning is.

          Suppose for a minute that you’re building a tunnel. It will take 10 years to finish. Now try to budget how much it will cost to hire an electrician to in 2027 to install a single light in a ceiling without. You have no idea what inflation will be, what rates will be, and whether we’ll move on from LED bulbs to some exotic OLED lights. What would you guess, $200, $300? If you guessed $200 and it’s $400, LA Times will write an article in 2017 how you lied and your project cost twice as much.

          Most voters aren’t used to thinking in such mindset, and with newspapers vying for the most spectacular headline, it’s easy to see why big projects are always vilified for bad projections.

          • Yes, a lot of people forget that the bond was aiming to be matched. Thus far, it’s attracted an additional investment of ~40% from the Feds and another ~25% from the GGRF.

          • Funny, but I don’t see anything about a “down payment” in the Voter Information Guide:
            http://vigarchive.sos.ca.gov/2008/general/title-sum/prop1a-title-sum.htm

          • crazyvag

            Down payment is my term. i was referring to this aspect: “Provides that at least 90% of these bond funds shall be spent for specific construction projects, with private and public matching funds required, including, but not limited to, federal funds, funds from revenue bonds, and local funds.”

          • randyw

            From Legislative Analysis:
            “Of the total amount, $9 billion would be used, together with any available federal monies, private monies, and funds from other sources, to develop and construct a high-speed train system…”

            From summary of Official Voter Guide (search under text of proposed law:)
            “…with private and public matching funds required, including, but not limited to, federal funds, funds from revenue bonds, and local funds…”

          • That’s not about a “down payment.” That’s supposedly how the project will be paid for. But where’s the “private monies”?

          • crazyvag

            Rob, private money in passenger train systems usually occurs at operational level. For example, private money will be used to finance new trainsets in exchange for collecting ticket revenue. Similarly like you wouldn’t fund a mortgage 2-3 years prior to your house being finished, you don’t begin to fund and build trainsets until project is closer to completion. HSR had an extra $100 billion, they wouldn’t start purchasing trains until line is closer to completion. Consider Amtrak’s new trainsets. Deal signed in 2016, first test trains arrive in 2019 and fully rolled out in 2021. That means a deal will be signed no later than roughly 5 years before track will be operational.

            I think we seen a completion date of 2026. That means you might not seen private money until 2021, 4 years from now.

          • If, as expert opinion says, high-speed rail systems don’t earn a profit, that means that the taxpayers end up subsidizing the system. That’s how every such system in the world has been done: built with taxpayer’s money and then subsidized to operate. That’s explicitly prohibited by the authorizing legislation. The voters were promised that users would pay for the system, not taxpayers.

        • Daniel

          the Shinkansen’s budget was deliberately misrepresented by 50% in order to get it passed

          • JustJake

            And that is something admirable, or appropriate?

      • gb52

        Thank you for being rational. People do not realize we fail to fund most transportation projects in the US, and take for granted the freeway system for instance. Highways and bridges are built in phases and segments much the same way and projects go into the deep end quite frequently because large construction projects have issues, incur lawsuits, get delayed by politics, and much more. OH and do not forget that roadway maintenance is underfunded, bridges are structurally deficient, and gas taxes and car registration fees do not even come close to providing adequate funding.

        If groups stopped the frivolous lawsuits the alignment wouldn’t have been delayed, which caused construction to be delayed. They should have come to the table to provide useful commentary to make this a better project instead of a costly bump in the road. Your commentary increases the cost of the project, your tax money is spent in the courts, and construction materials keep getting more expensive.

        Realize you cant build your way out of traffic. You’re not going to build more airports. You’re not getting flying cars. But there will be more people in CA, and luckily the sun will come up tomorrow.

        • The “segment” approach was not what voters were told/sold in 2008. None of the litigation on the project has delayed it at all.

          • neroden

            Yes, the litigation has delayed it. Yes, “segments” are what voters were told in 2008. I can’t help it if you’re ignorant.

          • Both statements are untrue. The only way litigation can stop a project is by getting a court injunction to do that. Please also give us evidence about the “segment” claim.

      • That’s not the way the project was sold to state voters.

        • crazyvag

          Rob, what is your complaint? I don’t think you have made a single rational argument. At high level the vote was for HSR in California. Something that will take time and money.

          I think you understand that $10 billion is not enough for a whole system. I think you understand it’s hard to estimate precise cost and time.

          Are you against it because it was decided to build system as money came along instead of waiting for whole budget be available?

          I think most people would agree that for such a complex system to be completed and at a lower cost, you need to start building sections as money comes along. Inflation is the enemy of constructions, so waiting 5 years for an extra $10 billion will mean the extra $10 billion will go to inflation and will waste tax dollars. However, you don’t seem to understand either the political climate or that inflation will spend money faster than anything else.

          It’s also better to build sections in partnerships that have additional uses. Using HSR money for Caltrain and Central Valley means taxpayers get multiple uses for their dollars. However, you seem to be against that as well.

          At the moment, it sounds like all you’re for is wasting taxpayers dollars be complaining that we don’t delay project further or that money will be leveraged by other projects as well.

          • My complaint is that this project has been misconceived and mischaracterized by its supporters from the beginning. Voters were told in 2008 that the total cost would be $45 billion. Then in 2012 the HSR Authority said it would be $98 billion. When people were stunned by this doubling of the estimate, the authority came back with a $68 billion price tag. The problem with this is not just that it’s hard to get a realistic cost estimate of the project; it’s that no one really knows how much it will cost.

            That makes it a bad investment, since it makes it impossible to judge whether it will provide a reasonable public benefit for the amount of money spent. The project was passed by only 2% of the vote because of what voters were told about costs and benefits.
            The number of future passengers, for example, was estimated at a ridiculous 70 million!

            More importantly, the source of all that money was never plausibly identified. Instead there was airy talk about federal, state, and local contributions in the billions. And, least plausibly of all, there was talk of private investment, which of course has not happened.

            If the project was sold to voters based on your “sections” idea, it might have passed, but that’s not how it happened. Instead, it looks like a bait-and-switch with a growing and unknowable price tag at the end. Some responsible critics say the project will end up costing more than $200 billion!

            The state needs to stop this project completely or go back to the ballot with a realistic proposal on costs.

          • crazyvag

            Why do you say that federal, state and local money not materializing? If you look at the comments, you’ll see that:

            1) Federal funds are helping the Central Valley segment and Caltrain segment.
            2) State funds are helping with Central Valley segment.
            3) Local funds are helping with Caltrain segment.
            Lastly, I mentioned that private funds are typically used for operations and trainsets which don’t get purchased until the project is nearly ready.

            It sounds like you’re objecting to not building everything at once and that it’s the huge bummer for you. However, many voters would agree that building in phases is a SMARTER use of money especially since there are multiple uses for each phase.

            The ballot didn’t say that portion of Central Valley track can be used by San Joaquins early and that Caltrain gets to share the costs of electrification, but that’s also a benefit.

            BART wasn’t built in a single phase, nor was highway systems, nor other large projects, so why you insist holding HSR to a much higher standard is not clear from your comments.

          • Joe R.

            Why is he and others holding HSR to a much higher standard? Simple—they’re setting it up for failure. To some segment of the population all rail is a boondoggle, indeed all public transit is. If you’re not wealthy enough to own a car and fit enough to drive it, you don’t deserve any type of mobility. Of course, we can continue to blow billions on highway widening projects or massive interchanges which benefit relatively few people because those are the “important” people, namely upper class, mostly white suburbanites. Everyone else doesn’t need to get around because, you know, they’re drug addicted human detritus without jobs or ambitions or needs which matter. Or at least this seems to be the prevailing line of thought among his ilk.

            Thankfully those who think like this are slowly dying off or otherwise losing political influence.

          • neroden

            The cost numbers were changed for stupid reasons related to projected inflation *sigh* and have nothing to do with actual changes in cost.

            The number of passengers is about right. 70 million is completely normal for an HSR line of this sort. (Note that that’s 70 million trips — many people will travel several times per year, some almost daily)

          • 70 million passengers for this project? Not likely. The busiest rail line in the country is Amtrak’s Acela line in the densely populated Northeast, and it carries less than 12 million passengers a year:
            http://media.amtrak.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Updated_FY15Ridership_Revenue_Fact_Sheet_7-7-16.pdf

            Your claim about “project inflation” versus “costs” is cryptic nonsense.

      • Vooch

        building the section which can immediately be used by the San Joaquin is a big winner.

        Ridership will skyrocket on the San Joaquin.

        The Surfliner has huge ridership and it averages 30 MPH. Just fiesta show latent demand for even mediocre service is yuge

        • Precisely. Also, the State was investing in a Tehachapi double-tracking project which should’ve involved a commitment to allow run-through passenger service over the pass, though I hear that it’s now scaled back a bit.

          • Vooch

            blame Obama for trashing the double track project which cost a mere $100 million ( about what 1 on ramp upgrade on the SD freeway costs )

          • Yea, it’s a real shame. Double-tracking Tehachapi would really be a game-changer for early support of HSR with feeder service to Bakersfield, Mojave, and Palmdale. And of course by running Amtrak all the way through, though that likely will still take longer than the Thruway bus over the Grapevine.

          • Vooch

            in the winter ?

  • While you’re defending this dumb project, tell us some “good news” about exactly where the state is going to get the money to finish it. Tax hike? Bonds? The state legislature? The Trump administration?
    http://www.cc-hsr.org/assets/pdf/4RevisitingRisks0911.pdf

    • dustinjamesfoster

      Well, every year the project receives funding from Cap and Trade and the associated Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, which is set to expire in 2020. The intent is to continue that program. Those funds will then be used as match funding for Federal Rail Administration grants. Not that I trust his judgement or word, Trump did compare the United States transportation infrastructure to China’s High Speed Rail system and did seem approving of increasing Federal rail transportation funding. This project would clearly be a top priority, considering its long-term benefits.

      • And that it’s already under construction.

        • JustJake

          Keep checking, as that status is not assured, despite your momentum argument. House of cards…

          • Keep checking on what? Are you saying that what’s under construction actually isn’t under construction or…?

        • Which means good money must be thrown after bad?

          • The Feds were the one who required it to be left usable by Amtrak, but you’re still using that ridiculous assumption that the project will be “bad” just because it’s costing money. Even if–and that’s a very big if–the project never makes it to San Jose, it will still be extremely useful for the Central Valley. It will cut the Bakersfield-Fresno trip down from 2+ hours to around an hour. That alone will mean volumes for mobility in the Central Valley, to say nothing of the connections to destinations farther up the line that will also benefit, albeit not quite as much.

          • If true that’s good for the Central Valley. But the project was sold as a quicker, cheaper way to get to Southern California. On the money: The money spent on a project must be in proportion to the benefit to the public. This project is already much more expensive than advertised to voters in 2008, and it will be more expensive than driving or flying to LA. Poorly conceived and unfunded.

          • crazyvag

            Well, you can’t say that it’s bad money because cost went up, and then when it’s pointed out that it’s still useful for Central Valley, then make a different claim that project was sold as something for So Cal.

            I think you understand the situation that since project was scoped in 2008, it has also been delayed by numerous lawsuits designed to stop it causing the cost to go up.

            I wish there was a way to factor in the increased costs due to lawsuits. For example:
            This was a 30 billion dollar project. Then 3 cities sued which caused $10 billion worth of delays caused by these three cities. etc…

          • No, those suits didn’t delay the project at all. It continued while the courts came to a decision. Litigants have to get an injunction to stop the project, and none of them did on this project, probably because the court wouldn’t have granted it.

          • The current estimate of costs for the ~120 miles in the Central Valley, which have been coming in under budget, is around $8bn. Remind us all again how much the Bay Bridge cost for the five miles to Treasure Island.

          • Exactly! But the Bay Bridge is absolutely necessary to the Bay Area, which can’t be said about this project.

          • Er, the 36 people who died at the Ghost Ship and many thousands of others who can’t find an affordable place in the Bay Area to live even on a banker’s salary would like to have a word with you. CAHSR isn’t just about ferrying people from LA to SF, it’s also about opening up the ability for more people to live in the Central Valley and work in either place in an affordable and timely manner.

          • Not clear what your reference to the Ghost Ship is about. Those artists should consider moving to the Central Valley because of this project?

          • Many people have made the connection between the living conditions there and the fact that housing is so unaffordable in the Bay Area. One of the key goals of HSR is to open up the Central Valley to be within reasonable commuting distance of the Bay Area. As it is, tens of thousands of people already commute in from areas like Stockton and even Modesto because that’s where they can afford to live. HSR adds Fresno, Merced, and other cities to that list.

          • In that case, the state should dump the LA segment of the project and just go to the Central Valley.

          • Perhaps, but I think that any abandonment should include completing the Tehachapi double-tracking project to at least allow Amtrak to provide through service to LA from the Central Valley. Also, there is another plan in the works to extend the Pacific Surfliner all the way up to SF by 2030, so there will be trains available between SF and LA. They just will unfortunately, not be operating at the under three hour time threshold provided in Prop. 1A.

          • If the connection to SoCal never gets completed, then I’ll be right there with you crying foul. But current plans all intend for it to be completed, so it isn’t a broken promise yet.

          • The worst case scenario: The project limps along with the cap and trade money keeping it on life support. Even $250 million a year—an optimistic number, given the uncertainty of that source—isn’t nearly enough to finish this project.

            It’s the sheer expense of this project that doesn’t make any sense and can’t possibly deliver any comparable public benefit. If just the $9 billion in bonds authorized by voters in 2008 are all sold, it will cost the state’s general fund $647 million a year in payments!
            http://vigarchive.sos.ca.gov/2008/general/analysis/prop1a-analysis.htm

          • The winning construction bid was for $350mn, so $250mn isn’t an unworkable figure, though it will obviously explode the timeline. But at this point, the State should have access to enough funds to get to San Jose. Barring any outrageous circumstances, the IOS should produce the revenue to continue the project. Also, the Stae could always allocate funding away from expanding highways in the corridor to finishing this project.

      • China? Check this skepticism about China’s bloated high-speed rail system:
        https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2016-07-07/just-say-no-to-high-speed-rail

        • dustinjamesfoster

          I’m confident Trump wouldn’t read that article anyway…

        • neroden

          So, China built a large and extremely popular high-speed rail system, and “some people” think they shouldn’t have.

          What a dumb article.

          • No, the point is China continues to build rail lines that don’t pay for themselves with enough passengers, which leaves that country with a system that has a massive debt problem.

          • So you’re saying that because China is now building HSR to the equivalent of Montana or Wyoming, CA shouldn’t build it through some of its largest cities and along its most-used rail lines. That makes zero sense.

    • Richard

      Private investment. President Trump has repeatedly talked about infrastructure investment, particularly tax-credit based incentives to build new public works. That type of plan has been heavily panned in progressive circles because most infrastructure doesn’t turn a profit and requires a subsidy to operate/hence no profit for a private corporation. HSR tickets are pricey though and that provides a large revenue stream for a concessionaire to go after with those tax credits. Most analysis shows the HSR route from LA to SF turning a tidy profit once completed, that profit was one the state hoped to use to build out the system to Sacramento and other parts of the central valley. If things get back though the state can basically sell the HSR rights to a private concern who will use the profit to pay back their loans and turn themselves a profit.

      • Please cite an “analysis” that shows that route will be profitable. Here’s what a real expert on the subject had to say:
        “High-speed rail is good for society and it’s good for the environment, but it’s not a profitable business,” said Mr. Barrón of the International Union of Railways. He reckons that only two routes in the world — between Tokyo and Osaka, and between Paris and Lyon, France — have broken even.”
        http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/30/business/energy-environment/30trains.html

        If tickets are too “pricey,” ridership will go down and reduce the “revenue stream.” The system won’t make a profit, and the problem with the California project is that the legislation implementing Prop. 1A explicitly prohibits any government subsidy if/when it’s ever built:
        http://www.cahsrprg.com/files/ab_3034_bill_20080826_chaptered.pdf (pages 8 and 9)

        • TomD

          One major US route: Amtrak’s NEC (“Northeast Corridor”—457 miles from Boston to Washington, top speed 150 mph), also breaks even. Actually, it more than breaks even.

          in FY 2015, NEC ticket revenue was $1,199 million and NEC operating cost was $755 million.

          • One line of Amtrak overall that makes sense. The rest of the system costs taxpayers more than a billion dollars a year. Passenger rail hasn’t been a profitable business for almost 50 years, which is why Warren Buffett invested in freight rail, not passenger rail.

          • If anything, the NEC shows the potential of Amtrak when operating at (near) optimal conditions. I’d imagine that if better service and upgrades to NEC-like speeds were provided on the rest of the Amtrak routes nationwide, then ridership and revenues would increase. Several states have already adopted the same approach and have taken the initiative on their own to upgrade Amtrak corridors within their borders to 110 MPH, which is a good starting point on the way to true HSR. Of course, CA opted to just skip the “higher-speed rail” part entirely, at least for the Bay-to-Basin.

          • The Northeast corridor is the only Amtrak line that pays for itself only because of the population density there.

          • …and because of the frequency and speed of service. There are several other corridors that would come close to or even completely cover their costs through ticket revenues if better and faster service were offered.

          • neroden

            Have you ever looked at the population density in San Francisco and Los Angeles (and also in the Central Valley cities)?

            I’ll wait. When you have compared them with the numbers on the Northeast Corridor, maybe you’ll be a California HSR supporter like everyone else who has *actually looked at the numbers*.

            Amtrak requires subsidies for three reasons:
            (1) The competition, the Interstate highways, are MASSIVELY subsidized, about $40 billion a year
            (2) Amtrak is trying to fix up decayed 19th century infrastructure which was obsolete and had 50 years of deferred maintenance when they got it in 1971 — that’s the capital subsidy
            (3) Amtrak is running infrequent trains such as the Sunset Limited through rural areas with low population — trains which can’t break even — because Congressmen (mostly Republicans) represent those districts and want service for their districts

          • TomD

            If—as you agree—Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor (NEC) makes sense, why doesn’t California’s HSR also make sense?

            Look at what makes the NEC different from the rest of Amtrak (but similar to California’s HSR):

            • Speed—The NEC (150 mph top speed) is Amtrak’s only route where trains exceed 110 mph. CaHSR will exceed 200 mph.

            • Frequency—While many Amtrak routes have only one (or even fewer) train(s)/day, the NEC typically has 1 train/HOUR (and twice per hour between NYC and DC). This increases ridership without increasing fixed costs (like station upkeep). CaHSR will have similar frequencies.

            • No freight train interference—While the NEC has freight trains, Amtrak dispatches them so that passengers never get stuck behind one. On virtually all other Amtrak lines, freight railroads dispatch trains and regularly delay passenger trains so freights can pass. CaHSR will host no freight trains.

            • Electric power—Diesel fuel (used on other Amtrak routes) costs more, and electric trains accelerate faster than diesels. CaHSR will be all electric.

            In the very competitive NYC-DC market, Amtrak carries 3X more passengers than all airlines combined. There is every reason to believe that CaHSR will be similarly successful.

            Finally, while Warren Buffet isn’t investing in passenger rail yet, others are. In Florida, construction continues on track that will carry “Brightline” passenger trains between Miami and Orlando. It is expected to fully open next year (with diesel trains hitting 125 mph). Service on the first part, between Miami and West Palm Beach (with a somewhat lower top speed), is expected by this summer.

            A Texas startup, the “Texas Central Railway,” plans to run passenger trains between Dallas/Ft Worth and Houston. Compared to Florida’s Brightline, the Texas Central is more like CaHSR in that it will run electric Japanese bullet trains over a built-from-scratch right-of-way without freight train interference. Texas Central has already raised $75 million from the private sector and is currently fighting for eminent domain rights to begin acquiring the land they need.

          • Promises by promoters are often different than the reality. I’m skeptical that these systems will be able to pay for themselves once they start operating. When the inevitable happens and the systems don’t make money, fares will be raised and ridership will go down, etc. I guess we’ll see about those projects.

          • Here’s a critique by Randal O’Toole of the Dallas to Houston project: http://ti.org/antiplanner/?p=12813#more-12813

            $75 million isn’t impressive for a project that may need $12 billion to build and a lot to operate if/when it’s built.

          • bolwerk

            Most Amtrak services, maybe all, make sense at some level. You can say they’re mismanaged, but you can’t say they aren’t used.

            For that matter, if you standard for making sense is not costing taxpayers anything, most roads and airports don’t make any sense.

          • People in the US abandoned passenger trains when they could buy cars to get where they were going, that is, door-to-door transportation. Public transportation, including trains, is only used now by a small minority of the population, mostly in big cities.

            Speaking of door-to-door transportation, the HSR system would have the same problem with that the airlines have now: how do passengers get home from the terminals?

          • bolwerk

            People in the U.S. abandoned passenger trains as hostile government policies undermined the practicality and viability of passenger trains while increasing their costs to operate. This included taxing private railroad ROWs to fund highways, which don’t pay taxes, a practice that continues today.

            The problems with passenger catchment have commonalities but are not exactly analogous. First of all, it’s trivially cheap to add a stop on an HSR route and have trains stop there, so HSR is viable in much smaller settlements. Second, downtown train stops tend to be more central to their conurbations than airports, which are often located on the periphery of the markets they serve, making them less accessible to many people.

            HSR is intended to be city-to-city, not door-to-door. The trip to the door needs to be provided by local transit or car. IMHO smart HSR should feed and be fed by airports. There is little room for competition.

          • The door-to-door issue is exactly why people in the US stopped using trains and bought cars. Hence, freight rail is the only rail operation that doesn’t require a subsidy. It will always be cheaper, for example, to drive to LA from SF than taking HSR, especially if you have more than one person in the car.

          • bolwerk

            Just like how they stopped using airplanes when cars came out?

          • They make enough “sense” to get Federal subsidies. Roads and airports are used by a lot more people than trains in the US and as such those subsidies make political sense.

          • bolwerk

            They are probably the cheapest way to provide the transportation they offer. Certainly providing airports in place of train stations on Amtrak routes would be an enormously expensive undertaking.

        • bolwerk

          I really wish Barron would have explained that one, or the New York Times could be arsed to do journalism. In 2014, SCNF’s whole “Voyageurs” unit (the various HSR and perhaps other non-HSR long distance lines) was ~€250M in the black.
          https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/7d568c935396cb0d1a146d4334bc3262afedc3e70a73a0071871f3d992c44a20.png

          In fact, I think intercity operating subsidies are even illegal in Europe. This may not be true for regional services, but my understanding is the intercity routes are either profitable, or they’re paid for by routes that are.

          Here‘s the financial report if anyone cares.

          • Of course you’d rather talk about Europe than about this particular project, which is indefensible. I suspect, by the way, that the profits you cite there don’t include original construction costs.

          • bolwerk

            “Suspect”? Are all your opinions so faith-based? It’s a GAAP-compliant report. It includes the cost of financing and depreciating the construction costs, and can be compared with similar ones from Amtrak.

            Except that I’d like to see American infrastructure spending reformed generally, I don’t give a tinker’s fuck about CAHSR. That comment from Barron just cannot be reconciled with observable reality in any way I can see. (I wasn’t blaming you for that, as you had reason to believe you were pasting from a reliable source.)

          • Right, Barron doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Maybe the Times misquoted him? Come off it and show us some more of your “observable reality” showing how profitable HSR systems are around the world.

          • bolwerk

            DB + SCNF cover most of the HSR lines in western Europe. They’re both profitable. So is Japan, AIUI.

            Where are the unprofitable ones? China?

          • You still haven’t provided a link to where that graphic came from or what those numbers supposedly mean.

          • bolwerk

            *eye roll*

            Here, I drew a red asterisk’s or cat anus next to the link for you. It has been there since I posted it. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/8e81e7024cdd0c79d098f5d1a044bfbbf1a9233956c5bfc43df6931191817ddd.png

            It’s from a consolidated financial report: income, cash flows, balance sheet, blah blah. The main purpose of these reports is to provide the stakeholders in a public entity summaries of its financial performance. Every publicly traded corporation must produce one, as do government agencies.

            Reading it should mostly be pretty straightforward, as such reports are produced for layman investors, but if you need deeper understanding than that I would suggest an introductory financial accounting text.

          • Nothing but a blow-up of this graphic. Nice try, phony!

          • bolwerk

            I’m starting to suspect I’m being trolled.

          • Why don’t you provide some context for your graphic? Where’s a link to wherever you found it and what exactly is it about?

          • bolwerk

            Where it has been since I posted it: at the bottom of the post.

    • murphstahoe

      tripling the gas tax

      • Wouldn’t be passed by the state legislature.

    • Considering that the State already has ~120 miles under construction, just barely started to touch the Prop. 1A bonds, and continues to direct GGRF monies to the project, I’d say that there’s certainly enough money to get the first segment, i.e. what’s currently under construction, completed. Next concern.

      • crazyvag

        Don’t forget that they dropped $700 million to electrify 50 miles of Caltrain, so technically they have 170 miles under construction.

        • That’s just for CalTrain, not for the HSR project.

          • crazyvag

            It’s shared infrastructure since both Caltrain and HSR will use electric trainsets using the 25Kv AC catenary being installed, so makes sense that both share the costs.

          • dustinjamesfoster

            Robbie just got MODED!

          • Wrong! There is no HSR rail “infrastructure” on the Peninsula and there never will be.

          • crazyvag

            Rob, I think we have a different definition of infrastructure. Here’s how I say it: once Caltrain is electrified, there won’t be a single technical issue preventing a HSR trainset from going under its own power from SJ to SF using Caltrain track.

            I think you consider ticket counters, signs also infrastructure, and which case you might have a point, but those aren’t necessarily hard to setup.

          • Okay, but high-speed rail is not there yet and probably never will be, so you can’t claim that electrifying CalTrain itself is the same as completing part of the high-speed rail project.

          • crazyvag

            Well, I see what you mean. But that’s like saying even though we paved a road, it’s not really a road because trucks aren’t allowed to drive on it.

        • bolwerk

          $14 million/mile just to electrify some track?

          Some first world countries get greenfield [electric] HSR for little more than that. Please tell me there is more to that project. :-O

          • crazyvag

            Can you explain your comment? Are you saying that $14 million/mile is cheap or expensive?

            Your comment doesn’t make any sense for the following reasons:
            1) That amount is HSR contribution to the electrification. You should say “HSR is chipping in $14 million/mile towards electrification”, but you probably realize that the budget for electrification also includes new trainsets, right?
            2) Why are you comparing HSR construction to electrification of an urban rail line? Building new right of way is a different task than adding overheard catenary to an existing urban right of way.

          • bolwerk

            #1: no, you didn’t specify that, but that sounds somewhat more reasonable. AIUI, most electrification comparisons usually look at the costs of electrifying the ROW. This is not something that should cost more than a million$ or two per mile.

            #2: of course, building a new ROW is a much more complex and expensive task.

            Anyway, good to know they aren’t spending 7-14x a sane price on electrification, but I asked because I think Amtrak really did something approaching just that in New Jersey!

      • Getting money for the next segment.

        • More cap-and-trade funds, matching from the counties, Caltrans, private investment…there really are a lot of options.

          • Counties and CalTrans are going to help for this project? Still no private investors have come forward. Pure fantasy! The HSR bond money is paying to electrify CalTrans, not vice versa.

            In its 2009 business plan, here’s how the HSR Authority proposed paying for the project:

            Federal Grants: $17-19 billion
            State of California: Prop. 1A bonds, $9.95 billion
            Local Grants: $4-5 billion
            Private Equity Funding: $10-12 billion

            The Feds have thrown $3 billion into the bottomless pit, but no more can be expected from that source. But billions from local governments? Not from San Francisco, where I live, since here in Progressive Land City Hall is already trying to deal with its own red ink. And there’s been no private investment at all. This bulletin just in: Private investors like to make money on their investments!

          • What exactly do you think “local grants” are if not money from counties and CalTrans?

          • CalTrans is a state, not a local agency. No evidence that it is spending any money on the HSR project. San Francisco is spending millions on its Transbay Transit Center, including facilities for high-speed rail, money for which it got from the HSR Authority itself. “Local” in this context clearly means city and county governments. Not going to happen.

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