Wednesday, March 02, 2011

SPUR's high-speed rail fantasy

Of course Metcalf is a bike guy

Like all the smart growth, dense development, pro-highrise, new urbanist groups, SF's SPUR is anti-car, which is reflected in their recent report on high-speed rail and development in California (SPUR's Executive Director, Gabriel Metcalf is a bike guy). The report has a January, 2011, publication date, but it was "reviewed, debated and adopted as official policy by the SPUR Board of Directors on October 20, 2010," which makes it inexcusable that it completely ignores all the criticism of the project before publication, like this detailed critique of the project's finances published last October 12.

That means that SPUR assumes that the California high-speed rail system will be built, which is increasingly unlikely given the financial and political realities affecting all sources of funding for construction---federal, state, local, and private---the sytem is relying on.

But the high-speed backers sold the system to California voters in 2008 based on the lie that those who use the system would pay for it, and that it wouldn't require the state's taxpayers to subsidize its operation once it was built.

The California High Speed Rail Authority implicitly acknowledges that that promise was a lie in its 2009 business plan, wherein it repeatedly says that some kind of government guarantee to private investors is the only thing that will encourage them to invest.

State Treasurer Bill Lockyer addressed this reality last year, when he told the San Diego Tribune that the project was going to have problems getting private funding, that the state couldn't even sell the $9.95 billion state bonds authorized by voters in 2008 (“I would be reticent[sic] to try to go to market to issue bonds to finance the state’s share.”) The problem is that the legislation voters passed to authorize the bonds prohibits the state from subsidizing the system, which precludes the state from guaranteeing a return to bondholders.

SPUR ignored the financial issues when it endorsed the high-speed rail fantasy in 2008, seeing the boondoggle as essentially an opportunity to further its "transit-oriented" development ideology: "High-speed rail provides a major opportunity to reshape the surrounding environment to reflect principles of good urban place-making."

That means that cities have to prevent the stations from becoming "islands surrounded by parking," that the areas around the stations should instead be developed as "high-density" population and employment centers. But the report occasionally touches on reality when it admits that the more "suburban, more commuter-style station areas will undoubtedly need a lot of parking, but for them to be successful it is essential that that's not all they have." So what about stations in the cities?

Few cities have adequate rail networks linking surrounding cities or destinations to high-speed rail stations. This problem is much more acute in California than it is in the Northeast corridor of the U.S., where Amtrak’s Acela line links Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington. The simple fact that most of California’s urbanization occurred later in time means that we are inserting this rail system into a built environment that is more sprawling and less walkable than most places in the world that have successful high-speed rail systems. We are, therefore, faced with the daunting challenge of retrofitting the buildings, streets, transportation systems, and land-use patterns to be more transit-supportive (page 10).

Well, yes, that is a "daunting challenge" (not to mention the fact that Amtrak gets a $1 billion annual susidy from the federal government). Cities on the Peninsula are already litigating the issue, since the system will tear through existing communities, raising huge right-of-way and property issues and conflicting with Union Pacific's existing freight rail system.

But not to worry, the main thing is that

...high-speed rail forces a conversation about future infrastructure and planning needs for the state. It challenges residents to think about mobility in a way that does not always privilege the automobile...Parking should be extremely limited and not built with public funds. Most direct station parking should not be in the immediate station area and travelers should arrive at the station on foot, by shuttle, or in a drop-off zone (page 11).

SPUR acknowledges that its recommendations for transit connections and dense development around the stations will be expensive and require a lot of planning, land acquisition, and capital, so it recommends that the State of California---which has a $26 billion deficit---put another bond on the ballot to pay for it all!

Like the city's bike people and the Bicycle Plan, the report worries that pesky environmental review could hinder the implementation of its "vision," so the state would need "an abridged environmental impact process under CEQA, or selective CEQA exemptions in the station area and/or a total CEQA exemption for a period of years for projects consistent with the station area plans."

The report includes extensive discussions about state and local zoning and preserving farmland in the Central Valley, but it all has only a theoretical relationship to the economic and political realities in California or the rest of the country.

A recent story in the Chronicle (BART to open its 44th Station) on the new BART station injects some reality into the transportation "conversation" that SPUR wants: 

The West Dublin/Pleasanton Station will feature nearly 1,200 parking spaces---721 in Dublin and 468 in Pleasanton---relieving pressure on the end-of-the line Dublin/Pleasanton Station, where spaces typically fill by 7:30 a.m.

If people in California are going to get to train stations, they have to have parking for their cars, since, as the SPUR report itself notes, the state doesn't have the kind of infrastructure to enable most people to get there any other way.

But building that kind of statewide infrastructure is a fantasy on the same scale as California high-speed rail itself.

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At 3:14 PM, Blogger Mikesonn said...

It's a good thing airlines aren't subsidized. And it's also a good thing they oil is so cheap and the price will never go up. Flying will be cheap for a long time.

Every mode of transportation is heavily subsidized, Rob. You just are blind to the things you like and stuck on things you don't. Like a picture of a guy on a bike makes him a bike guy. So simplistic, life must be easy for you.

At 4:06 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

You're the simpleton, Mike. Every existing transit system in the state has a deficit, including Muni ($20 million) and Caltrain ($30 million). Why is it a good idea to spend $80+ billion to build a new system and then subsidize it with billions more after it's built? Before the election in 2008, the supporters of HSR inflated future ridership projections and downplayed what it would cost to operate, which means more unknown expenses for the state, and that doesn't include debt service after the system is built.

It's just a dumb idea pushed by people like you who are too intellectually lazy to even try to come to grips with the numbers just to build the system:

Federal Grants $17-19 billion
State Grants (Prop. 1A bonds) $9.95 billion
Local Grants $4-5 billion
Private Investment $10-12 billion

This is where the CHSR Authority's own business plan says the money is going to come from. The Feds have given us around $3 billion already, but please tell me how this makes any sense. There are no private investors after more than two years, and, as Lockyer tells us, the state bonds are unmarketable.

At 4:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

80 billion? Cox projects it to be 2 Quadrillion. Boehner calls him an optimist.

At 4:17 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

By the way, the governors of Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida rejected the federal money because they understand that their states would be liable for the inevitable cost overruns and to operate the system after it's built. They didn't reject the money just because they are Republicans, though the opportunity to stick it to Obama made the deciscion easier for them. I voted for Obama, and I like him, but HSR is a dumb policy. He should fire LaHood and get someone reality- based in that job.

At 5:12 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Looking at the link to a site provided by Mike Sonn---of a Rush Limbaugh conservative, who seems more worried about security people groping his genitals than he does about the money---and add up the subsidies he lists, and you come up with about $32 billion. The official price tag for just building the California HSR system is $43 billion, and no one really thinks it can be done for less than $60-100 billion.

But included in that $32 billion is $3 billion for post-9/11 airport security mandated by the Feds. There's no reason the airlines should have to pay for that. And $10 billion in "loan guarantees" is not the same as an out-of-pocket expense, unless an airline defaults on the loan.

The Federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation is picking up UAL's pension plan for more than $10 billion, but that agency does that for any pension plan that's going belly-up, not just the airlines.

When you deduct those numbers from the $32 billion, you get a grand total of around $9 billion in subsidies, according to this very unreliable source, anyhow.

I don't mind subsidizing transit systems. After all, fares never cover the total cost of running those systems. Muni fares cover less than 25% of its costs last time I saw a number. But Muni has 672,000 "boardings" every weekday, and more than 30% of city residents rely on public transportation to get to work.

At 5:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"By the way, the governors of Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida rejected the federal money because they understand that their states would be liable for the inevitable cost overruns and to operate the system after it's built."

Except that it has been painfully shown to Rick Scott that Florida was not going to be on the hook. Now the cities along the route are asking if they can take the money and build it themselves - but that's unlikely to happen because a bipartisan set of legislators down there are going to sue him for breach of what he's constitutionally allowed to do.

Scott is no brain surgeon. And of course Walker is setting himself up to be recalled.

At 5:40 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Bullshit. Evidence, please?

Last Friday Governor Scott issued this statement after the Feds extended the deadline for accepting/rejecting the money:

My position remains the same on High Speed Rail
by Rick Scott on Friday, February 25, 2011 at 1:59pm

"My position on High Speed Rail remains unchanged. I believe High Speed Rail is a federal boondoggle, as I said more than a week ago. This morning I communicated to Secretary LaHood that as long as Florida remains on the hook for cost overruns, operating costs and paybacks in the case of default, I will vigorously oppose this project.

"Since that time, Secretary LaHood has extended his own deadline for coming up with a way to alleviate Florida’s risk on High Speed Rail. While I appreciate his continued efforts to keep the project alive in Florida, it is important to note that I have yet to see any proposal that accomplishes my goal of eliminating risk to Florida’s taxpayers."

At 8:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

to mike: what the hell is wrong with calling a guy riding a bike a "bike guy"?

jeezus, you bike nuts are fucking sensitive.

At 9:06 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Mike evidently didn't read the link I provided for Metcalf to the picture and an interview he did with the Bicycle Coalition. From the interview, it doesn't sound like Metcalf would deny that he's "a bike guy."

At 8:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a bike guy! #tigerblood #winning!

At 8:53 AM, Blogger Mikesonn said...

Hell, I'm a bike guy, and a Muni guy, and a walking guy. My problem with Rob's use of the phrase is that he says it to demean the person and therefore their argument doesn't carry an weight - "they are a bike person, what do they know?"

And Rob, you are comparing building (capital) costs with operating costs. How the hell is that even comparable? Where airports already here when the Pilgrims landed? No, there was a huge amount of national wealth dumped into them, same with the highway system. But there is also something called sunk costs. Airlines are going to continue to be very expensive to maintain and will only get more so as the price of oil continues to climb. Why not try to keep cross country travel as cheap as possible and not squander it on short travel that could easily be done via HSR. Also, any amount of cars taken off our highways will reduce wear/tear and associated fuel.

But yes, comparing $9B in annual subsidies to the $80B in CAPITAL costs will make it look skewed.

At 11:21 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

As I say, it would be hard for Metcalf to claim that calling him "a bike guy" demeans him, since he's obviously proud to be recognized as a dedicated cyclist, as he told the Bicycle Coalition.

Metcalf is more than just an occasional cyclist; he clearly sees bikes as a major transportation "mode" and an important part of the anti-car movement, the latter thinking is evident throughout SPUR's HSR document. In short, I suspect Metcalf is an adherent of BikeThink, the ideology of dedicated bike people everywhere.

Construction costs and operational costs for HSR are exactly the issues here, and we really don't know what either will be. The governors who've rejected the Federal HSR money understand that uncertainty. They know that the Feds are not going to cover the inevitable cost-overruns and the expense of running these systems if/when they are built. The taxpayers in their states will have to pay for those costs, which could be billions of dollars.

The airports and the highways are already built, unlike HSR in the US. All the US has to do now is continue to maintain those systems.

"Cross-country" travel via HSR will not be cheap. It will be very expensive to build and to operate, which is the whole point. Anyhow, that's irrelevant, since none of the proposed HSR systems is even designed to "cross-country." HSR is not designed for "short travel," Mike. Quite the contrary.

Your comments show your ignorance. Here's a short, 20-page critique of the California HSR proposal. You should read it before commenting again on that issue.

At 11:26 AM, Blogger Mikesonn said...

I meant saving fuel for cross-country flight, and using HSR to save on the most fuel intensive flights - the shorter distances as take off and landing is where most fuel is burned.

I'm a bike guy too and proud of it. But when you lead with that it is meant to take his opinions and rub dirt on them because you look down your nose at "bike guys".

And once again, sunk costs. I don't know what you think you are going to be put on those highways when gas hits $8+/gal.

And what does calling me ignorant gain you? Is there some +1 for bloggers somewhere for every argument you can avoid by calling the person ignorant?

At 11:44 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

I call you ignorant because evidently you're unaware that HSR isn't conceived to reduce short trips but to compete with long trips by cars on highways and airline trips between SF and LA.

Gas is going to be $8.00 a gallon? Ridiculous. That's just wishful thinking by you anti-car folks.

You evidently took offense at my calling Metcalf "a bike guy," but he can't be offended, since the Bicycle Coalition link I provided has that picture and an interview wherein he proudly says he's a bike guy. Send me a similar picture, Mike, and I'll post it to show that you too are a proud "bike guy."

At 11:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, so now the great and powerful mike predicts that gas will hit $8 a gallon...

when will that happen mike?

sounds like more fear mongering. Have you been sleeping with Glen Beck again?

At 1:20 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

On the costs for security on airlines versus high-speed rail: Airline security is expensive, but how is security for a high-speed rail system that has hundreds of miles of track even possible? It will only take one bomb on one small portion of track to damage the entire system.

At 1:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Second - "It will only take one bomb on one small portion of track to damage the entire system."

Let's say they bomb a track in Bakersfield. That messes up SF-LA traffic for a day or two. A bomb *threat* at O'Hare can bugger up Air Traffic across the entire US.

HSR just isn't a very attractive target. Case and point - they aren't blowing up the TGV, they just keep trying to blow up planes.

At 1:31 PM, Blogger Mikesonn said...

I'm bringing the fear? Alright Anon. I'm not selling oil so I have no gain if it does hit $8. If you think gas will stay under $4 forever, you are the one smoking the good stuff.


At 3:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gas is going to be $8.00 a gallon?

I love it when you talk dirty to me.

At 3:43 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

That's not going to happen; it's just the usual "peak oil" wishful thinking from the anti-car movement. Whenever there's trouble in the Middle East, the anti-car folks get all excited.

At 4:25 PM, Blogger Mikesonn said...

Rob, once again, I was commenting on how you use "bike guy" like it is a dirty word.

Gas doesn't even need to go to $8, or $7, or even $6 to have the economy go into the tank. Anything over $4.50-$5 for an extended period (6+ months) would bring us to our knees. I don't want to see that happen, I'd just like to be prepared and work to avoid being crippled by it. It will happen, and sooner then you think.

Also, SF to LA is a short flight. It can be covered in the same time frame by HSR. MSP to ORD is a short flight. LAX to JFK is not and jet fuel should be used for such flights, not puddle jumpers.

At 4:48 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Yes, of course I think the whole bike thing is ridiculous, so the term "bike guy" when I use it has derogatory connotations. But in this instance I merely link to the picture and the interview that Metcalf gave to the SFBC. Just by appearing on my blog, I suppose you can claim that the material is derogatory. Not much I can do about how my readers and I think about the bike trip. Notice that I don't claim that President Obama is "a bike guy," because there's no real evidence that he is to the extent that you and Metcalf are, though he is pushing dumb anti-car policies that please you folks.

HSR between LA and SF is not faster than flying: HSR is claiming 2.5 hours, while an airliner makes the trip in about 30minutes. Getting to and from the airport often takes longer than the flight itself, but HSR would face the same problem.

At 5:29 PM, Blogger Mikesonn said...

"HSR between LA and SF is not faster than flying: HSR is claiming 2.5 hours, while an airliner makes the trip in about 30minutes. Getting to and from the airport often takes longer than the flight itself, but HSR would face the same problem."

That right there shows you don't really know what you are talking about. HSR is at urban cores, there won't be 30 min (on a good day) security lines, there won't be getting to some airport way outside of town (40+ min on BART from downtown to SFO), then collecting your bags and getting from the airport to downtown on the other end.

Have you ever flown?

I'm a transit guy, a walking guy, and a bike guy.

At 6:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When Rob uses the term "bike guy" in a derogatory term, or when others like myself use it with same tone, we really mean it that way.

When "bike people" continue to genuflect to the gods of Critical Mass..

and when "bike people",men and women continue to fly thru stop signs and stop lights on Valencia St. and Market St..

we will continue to use that term, yes,in a derogatory way.

Grow up, bike people, and we will begin to respect you and support your right to ride safely in San Francisco.

At 7:41 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Right. All those "urban cores," like Merced, San Jose, Fresno, Bakersfield, and Palmdale! These are as much "suburban" as they are urban cores. Even in San Francisco and LA, how many people who will be riding high-speed rail live downtown near the terminals? You still have to get home from the terminal, whether it's an airport or a rail terminal. This is one of the things the SPUR report goes into in some detail, though the end result of all their analysis is a concession that big parking lots will be necessary for cars, taxis, buses, and shuttles. 40 minutes on BART? That's not bad. It would take me at least 30 minutes to get home on Muni from the terminal downtown in SF, but it would be 10 minutes in a taxi.

At 9:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It would take me at least 30 minutes to get home on Muni from the terminal downtown in SF, but it would be 10 minutes in a taxi.

clearly because of those bike lanes screwing up MUNI.

Of course, I can ride from 2nd/Market to your house in 8 minutes.

At 10:14 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

For door-to-door transportation between LA and SF, you'll never be able to beat driving a car.

At 2:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Then why does anyone fly?

At 4:20 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Flying between SF and LA can still be a lot faster than driving I5 if speed is the only factor considered. High-speed rail will not be faster than flying---or even cheaper.

At 8:36 PM, Anonymous Bob Aulton said...

Of course high speed rail will be faster than flying - when door to door travel times are taken into consideration. Even the half-assed Acela beats flying from NY to DC or Boston, and our train will be significantly faster. It will be cost competitive. Even at a slightly higher price, it'll still be very popular among business travelers.

At 10:37 AM, Anonymous Huraay said...

"For door-to-door transportation between LA and SF, you'll never be able to beat driving a car."

What? Sorry I had to read that twice. That is a 6 hour drive in the middle of the night, as much as 8 hours if you time it badly.

A worst case flight is 30 minute cab, 60 minute airport time, 60 minute flight, 60 minutes screwing around and another cab.... 3:30 tops. Maybe 4.

Flying to LA is ALWAYS faster.

The train, however, will be faster still - assuming we get real high speed times of 2:30 or so. If your destination is downtown the time on the ends can be as low as 15 minutes.

Finally, even it Fly/Train is about the same, the comfort level on the train is radically superior to the plane.


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