Sunday Train: First California HSR Service to connect Bay & San Joaquin Valley

Hey, long time no see!

The Sunday Train was on hiatus during the Chinese Fall Semester, as I had four sections to teach four hours a week with two new preps and one repeat prep, plus two weekend sections of an eight week intro to macro class for the International MBA (all in English ~ my Mandarin is next to non-existent) ... and so by the time Sunday rolled around, I was either in recovery from a six day week or teaching in the afternoon.

This coming semester promises to be a little bit less hectic, so I will once again try to hit the fortnightly writing schedule that was my original promise last summer, before the reality of my Fall teaching schedule hit me between the ears.

There has certainly been no shortage of things to write about, from the latest ebikes designs to be funded on Kickstarter to progress on Rapid Passenger Rail projects around the to the ongoing fight to raise the profile of the Steel Interstate to the President Obama's proposed $10/barrel oil tax. However, the first topic of the new semester is going to be continue a long-standing Sunday Train topic ... the California HSR project.

Because the California HSR authority just released its preliminary 2016 Business Plan for public comment, and it includes the headline grabbing change of Initial Operating Service route from Merced/Burbank, to San Jose / Bakersfield ... in other words, switching to a route from the Bay to the San Joaquin Valley, instead of the 2014 proposed IOS route from the LA Basin to the San Joaquin Valley.

So, in my first Sunday Train out, I've got a short look at what is going on.


Following the Cost Engineering to San Jose

The current sources of funding in place for the California HSR project are:

  • "Prop 1a" funding, $9b in state bond funding for the project, passed in 2008
  • The Federal funding allocated as part of the Stimulus II in 2009, and added to in the HSR funding provided under Pelosi's speakership in 2009 and 2010. This funding ended up being larger than originally allocated, since Florida tea party politics led to Florida handing back the funding for the their HSR corridor, which allowed for the funding of much more of the core trunk line through Fresno to Bakersfield
  • 25% of California Cap and Trade funding, passed in 2014.

The initial construction segment is being worked on now, with work proceeding on Construction Package One and the bid results for Construction Package 2-3 having been announced back in 2014.

In the 2014 Business Plan, service would commence in 2022 from Merced to the San Fernando Valley, then to the Bay in 2026, then finish both ends, San Jose to San Francisco and Burbank to LA/Anaheim, by 2032.

In the full system map to the right, the original Business Plan saw finishing on an alignment from Merced through to the San Fernando Valley (Burbank). Then the Segment to San Jose would be finished ("Bay to Basin"). The SFV to Anaheim and San Jose to San Francisco would be finished to complete Phase 1, and after that work would start on Phase 2 to complete the system with the "Y" to Sacramento and the "Y" to San Diego.

Since then, cost estimates have been shifting in opposite directions in the north and south sides of Phase 1 from SF to LA/Anaheim. In the San Joaquin segments currently under construction, costs have been coming in under estimates. At the same time, as work proceeds on alignment alternatives between Palmdale and Burbank, the cost estimates of the descent from the desert down into the LA Basin have been rising.

The new Business Plan flips the 2014 Business Plan on its head. Given the Cap and Trade funding provided for in 2014, and the existing Prop 1a and Federal funding available, the Authority cannot afford to complete the tunnels to get from Bakersfield to Burbank, while it can afford to complete the much less challenging alignment between Fresno and San Jose. The service from (just northwest of) Bakersfield to San Jose is now planned to commence in 2025.

Note that none of this involves a "re-routing" of the California HSR system. It is important to stress this, since there is a cottage industry of "confuse and distract" that has become established in California over the California HSR project, and there is certain to be some segment of that C&D Industry that will try to con people into thinking that this is a change in route

Phase 1 of the HSR system is still a corridor from San Francisco to LA/Anaheim with a small branch to Merced. What has changed is the sequencing of the construction along Phase 1 in order to be able to be assured that a non-subsidized Initial Operating Service can be built.

While the funding already allocated makes it likely that the CHSRA can build this Initial Operating Segment (IOS), they would prefer that the IOS goes farther. If possible, they would prefer to run from San Francisco all the way to Bakersfield, as opposed to from San Jose Diridon to a temporary "beetfield" station to the northwest of Bakersfield. They estimate that this would require $2.9b in additional Federal Funding.


Wait, What about Southern California???

With this change, there going to be an obvious reaction to not having the HSR running into the LA Basin until the late 2020's, with no certainty as to where the funding will be coming from to allow that to happen.

I presume with a view to this reaction, the Business Plan proposed to accelerate investment into the portion of the LOSSAN corridor between Burbank and Anaheim. The headline proposal is a package of Burbank to Anaheim improvements including:

  • Grade separations at Doran Street, Glendale; Rosecrans Avenue / Marquardt Avenue, Sante Fe Springs; and State College, Anaheim
  • Full funding of the Southern California Regional Interconnection Project with run-through tracks at LA Union Station
  • Fullerton Junction & Station improvements
  • Full funding through environmental clearance of high capacity urban corridor between Anaheim and Burbank

The CHSRA is not proposing to fully fund all of this work. However, the action underlying the headline is commitment of an additional $2.1b. This is made possible by the cost savings that they have been able to achieve, in part through "value engineering" of contractors bidding for the construction of the initial sections of corridor being built.

For Southern California, the package of works means substantial additional operating slots along the LOSSAN corridor for both Metrolink and Amtrak. And as many of these are projects that have already received substantial planning development, and have already had a range of funding sources identified, much of this work can be completed prior to the commencement of operations of HSR service between San Jose and "Bakersfield".


So, is it going to fly?

So, it is going to fly? There will, of course, be substantial manufactured controversy alongside genuine, serious, debate over this Business Plan. But given the constraints that the CHSRA operates under, it appears to be the most credible approach. The CHSRA has funding commitments to likely allow it to complete the corridor from the end of the federally-assisted work near Bakersfield to San Jose Station. It does not have funding commitments to give it confidence of reaching Burbank on current funding.

Should it fly? Changing the sequencing of the construction does not fundamentally change the positive net benefit of the project. And while it seems like a political move, at least in part, to advance work on the Anaheim to Los Angeles corridor, it certainly does increase the immediate benefits that Metrolink and the Amtrak California Surfliner will receive from the project, well above the benefits already committed to through the $900m in Prop1a (2008) bond funding for improvements for transportation connecting to the HSR system.

So, yeah, I reckon it should fly.

Will Phase 1 ever be finished? As before when looking into the future of the California HSR project, my crystal ball remains on the blink. On the one hand, substantial private investment is far more likely to be attracted to the project once the Initial Operating Service is in operation. But on the other hand, the most capital intensive part of the project, the tunneling to reach the San Fernando Valley, will likely still require public funding.

If there was a shift in Federal transport policy, which brought the Federal share up to reasonable levels for an intercity transport system of this scope, that would make a substantial step in the direction of meeting the funding needs. And with a shift in Federal transport policy on the scale of the President's proposed $10/barrel oil tax, it seems like it would be straightforward.

In addition to outright project opponents, part of the controversy on the California HSR project is the fact that it chose a route, and so some of those who support route alternatives will continue to press for a switch to their preferred route until the chosen track has been built. This change will give heart to those who are pressing for a route to bypass Palmdale and to run a more direct route through more challenging terrain between Bakersfield and the LA Basin. At the same time, it will shorten the time available for those pursuing an alignment entering the Caltrain corridor further north via an Altamont alignment to win a reversal of the route decision. However, there are years ahead for Sunday Train to cover any movement in that direction, so there is no pressing need to prognosticate how those efforts will go at this point in time.


Conclusions and Considerations

Of course, the Sunday Train only leaves the station when the Sunday Train essay has been published: the journey is the conversation that follows. So, what do you think?





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