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[whitespace] Orient Express
Photograph by Jeff Kearns

Orient Express: An Osaka-bound Shinkansen pulls into Shin-Yokohama station, near Tokyo.

The Last Train Out
Part II

Proponents argue that high-speed rail is the only way to save our state from death by sprawl. So what's the holdup?

By Jeff Kearns


In the first half of this story published last week, Gov. Gray Davis forecast the end of new freeway construction in California. On a cost-per-mile basis, Davis said, freeways don't pencil out. With once-overcrowded airports in lockdown and airlines teetering into bankruptcy, the state is taking a new look at an old technology: steel rail. On those rails, a new technology--high-speed trains--might one day make it possible for passengers boarding at San Jose's Diridon Station to get to Los Angeles in just two hours--faster, in total trip time, than any airline flight. But the agency that's supposed to plan this technological wonder--the California High-Speed Rail Authority--has struggled to win the attention of state lawmakers. This year, Gov. Davis drastically cut the authority's budget, and what should have been an important policy initiative wound up with crumbs. Will recent events change all that? How will the airlines take to the idea of rail as a feasible competitor? And what will San Jose's role be in the commute of the future? (Part 1 is available online at: http://www.metroactive.com/rail/)

California's Central Valley is the fastest growing part of the state. It's also where poorly planned developments sprawl like bad fungus into farmland to make way for blocks of cookie-cutter housing developments and the retail boxes to serve them. High-speed rail stations could be the impetus for bringing development back to city centers where it belongs, instead of pushing car-oriented sprawl further out into the fields. At this point in the planning of a high-speed rail system, cities are hoping for a piece of the rail action. Fresno and Bakersfield both want downtown stations. A station in Merced would one day serve the newest University of California campus. All three communities would be less than an hour's ride from major employment centers like Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area.

California High-Speed Rail Authority Executive Director Mehdi Morshed, a civil engineer and transportation planner who spent 20 years as a transportation consultant for the state Senate, anticipates the argument that high-speed rail will worsen sprawl in the Central Valley by encouraging more housing to be built there--something he dismisses: "The valley is going to grow whether we build the train or not," he points out. And when that happens, Morshed says, the capacity won't be there--especially with the lack of commercial airline service in the region.

San Jose would be one of the busiest stations--good news for a huge population center with an underdeveloped downtown surrounded by strip-mall-served suburbs. A new station would also spur the kind of high-density, mixed-growth that's needed in its downtown. In a more perfect Sim City version of San Jose, anyone walking out of the train station would be greeted by mid-rise office and apartment buildings and a San Fernando Street transformed into leafy gateway to the rest of downtown.

City planners have already sketched out plans for higher-density developments around Diridon Station, with office buildings rising on either side of the light-rail line that will eventually head west from downtown, past Compaq Center, under the station and on to Campbell and the west side. Residential developments are already under construction a block from the station, and more will follow.

[line]

Y'all Missed It: High-speed rail plans in Texas and Florida flopped, but California is the real test case.

Baby Bullet: Caltrain is moving ahead with its own plan to speed up commute service.

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San Jose Transportation Planner Ben Tripousis says the Redevelopment Agency is working on a study of the area around the station. Today, much of the land around the train station and the Compaq Center is dedicated to surface-level parking lots--a wasteful land use in any downtown. Tripousis says those properties are already designated for higher-density commercial uses.

A new station would be built alongside the historic 1935 building, and close to the planned BART station. San Jose transportation planners envision a world-class facility, and are doing their best to work with the high-speed rail authority to make sure it happens.

"Having a high-speed rail facility built around Diridon Station would be a real jewel in the crown because there's a big opportunity here to do something great," Tripousis says. Planners have even prepared a presentation including examples of work by visionary Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, who has designed several train stations in Europe and is designing a cathedral in Oakland.

Systemwide, stations themselves could be a significant source of income for the authority through commercial leases. With millions of passengers coming through every year, stations would become highly desirable locations for stores and restaurants. In Japan, busy stations often resemble shopping malls more than rail facilities.

Perhaps because of this potential, South Bay officials have tried to be helpful to the high-speed rail authority. San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales, a fan of the idea, dropped in at the August meeting to pledge his support. The Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group, which represents 190 of the region's corporate titans, is also backing fast rail service.

Trained Ignorance

While getting local officials on board has so far been a relatively easy feat in traffic-crunched locales like San Jose, drumming up support nationally promises to be a more difficult sell, even with the current crisis faced by the airlines.

Congress and the Eisenhower Administration changed the country forever with passage of the Interstate Highway Act in 1956, but it seems unlikely that an equivalent rail bill could gain support today. And without a large-scale investment from the federal government, it becomes less and less likely that private investors will take an interest in funding high-speed rail efforts.

Meanwhile, the Federal Railroad Administration has identified several regional rail corridors that could be upgraded to high-speed tracks. In addition to earlier proposed corridors in Florida and Texas, the list includes corridors in the Pacific Northwest, northern New England, the Gulf Coast, the Carolinas and several lines converging on a Chicago hub. Trouble is, with no money, none of the projects is going anywhere.

Another glimmer of hope: A pending Senate bill would funnel $12 billion in bonds into the regional corridors identified by the FRA over 10 years. It's not much, but it's a start. Amtrak has also asked Congress for $30 billion to expand high-speed service over 20 years.

Although the General Auditing Office has issued reports generally skeptical of fast rail, interest seems to be picking up on the Hill. Amtrak is asking Congress for $12 billion to speed up service. And before the terror attacks, Republicans were proposing a $71 billion aid package to help develop high-speed rail corridors around the country. Senate Democrats, after the attacks, proposed a $37 billion investment in passenger rail to help pump up the sagging economy.

Air Supply

Former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, now the vice chairman of Amtrak, is publicly pushing high-speed rail as a solution to the nation's mounting problem with airport gridlock.

In a Sept. 1 op-ed piece in The New York Times, Dukakis said high-speed rail would ease the crunch for airlines because a third of all commercial flights in the U.S. are for distances of 350 miles or less--the ideal trip length for high-speed rail.

Dukakis and other high-speed rail backers say the problem is that federal and state lawmakers throw billions of dollars worth of subsidies at roads and airports while ignoring passenger rail altogether.

"Federal money continues to flow overwhelmingly to highways and airports," Dukakis wrote. "This year Congress spent $33 billion on highways, $12 billion on airports and only $521 million on passenger rail--and more than a third of that went to a railroad industry retirement fund."

Environmentalists are also lining up behind high-speed rail. Patrick Moore, who sits on the Transportation Committee of the Sierra Club's Loma Prieta Chapter, says his organization is backing high-speed rail because it would be electrified, cutting air pollution, and because rail has a small footprint that moves passengers at a high capacity, unlike freeways. Additionally, Moore says, high-speed rail would ease the need for expanding SFO and Oakland International into the San Francisco Bay, something the Sierra Club opposes.

Rep. Mike Honda (D-San Jose) has pledged to support high-speed rail, and, as a member of the House Transportation Committee, could emerge as one of the players who helps move it forward. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) also supports the state's fast-train plan.

Another high-powered local could also be a major force.

U.S. Transportation Secretary and former San Jose Congressman Norm Mineta recently said in a speech to a San Francisco business group that high-speed rail is "a very important transportation mode that has to be considered." But, at the same time, he warned that systems must be profitable and, perhaps more importantly, Americans first have to "change their mind-set about rail travel." He also acknowledged that California's plans don't look like they're going anywhere fast.

Though the airlines are struggling to get back on their feet, the nationwide surge in passenger rail traffic has already passed, and many Amtrak lines are back to carrying passenger loads far short of capacity. While some Amtrak routes--generally on the east and west coasts--are popular and profitable, others continually operate at a loss.

But even as the High-Speed Rail Authority is slowly running out of money, board members plan to move forward anyway--and will soon take some of their biggest steps yet.

At their November meeting, board members will take a major step by eliminating many of the routes currently under study for purposes of the environmental report. Right now, the authority is in the first phase of the two-year environmental clearance process. By starting at the conceptual level, planners can streamline the rest of the environmental approval process.

But if the authority doesn't get a big cash infusion quick, there's a chance it will have to put the environmental report on hold, creating delays and losing momentum.

High-Speed Rail Authority Deputy Director Dan Leavitt says the authority will have to cut its consulting budget to zero for the upcoming year, after the governor slashed its budget. Meanwhile, Leavitt is looking for other funding sources, including a $4 million appropriation that Sen. Dianne Feinstein is trying to secure.

The authority is also partnering with Caltrans on a $2.5 million study of how to improve conventional service (Amtrak) on the coastal Los Angeles-San Diego route.

Meanwhile, the cash-starved authority is cleaning out its bank account like a troubled dotcom.

"We're still working with last year's money, which concludes Nov. 14," Leavitt says. "Most of our budget will be used up by the end of the calendar year. And if we don't have money for all the regions, then parts of the study may have to be delayed."

One of the biggest problems, if that happens, is that without a completed environmental report, the authority can't preserve land along the route.

"Every year the system waits, it gets more expensive to build the whole system, and decreases our options," Leavitt says.

And as development in the state rolls on, the clock is ticking, and the longer it takes to secure state funding, the longer it will take to line up the needed matching federal funds, which could account for 25 to 50 percent of the total funding.

The authority board voted last year not to put a statewide quarter cent sales tax on the ballot. Rather than risk rejection, board members wanted to wait until they could say how much would come from the federal government and the private sector. With construction still years away, that decision allowed the authority to concentrate on moving ahead with the environmental report.

With a completed EIR, the authority would have a more specific plan to pitch to private partners, even though when--or even if--high-speed rail goes to the voters remains undecided.

"The board isn't convinced we need a vote," Leavitt says. "A phased approach means we may not need to go to voters or have a tax increase."

The EIR is being prepared in accordance with both state and federal guidelines. When it's done, it will outline the preferred route, station locations and the type of rail technology to be used.

Travel Partners

Who would be its opponents? "We don't really know," Morshed says. "There is a bit of a rumbling that perhaps Southwest [Airlines] might be against it, but if you look at it, it won't take a lot of business from Southwest because two-thirds of the riders will be between the Central Valley and the Bay Area, which is a corridor that Southwest won't serve, that nobody will serve, and Southwest could even become an operator of the system."

Ironically, high-speed rail could conceivably help airlines more than it could hurt them.

Most major airports in the state are or will soon be stretched beyond their capacity as demand increases (the U.S. Department of Energy forecasts an 85 percent rise in domestic air travel by 2020).

With delays, cancellations and airtight security subtracting hundreds of millions in profits a year from the airline industry, high-speed rail would free air carriers from short shuttle flights and regional commuter service to small cities, leaving them free to concentrate on doing what they do best: moving people quickly over long distances.

The airline industry, however, could be a potent opponent of high-speed rail.

A spokeswoman for Southwest Airlines, however, says high-speed rail isn't necessary in California, because SWA can continue to meet the travel needs of residents cheaply and efficiently.

Asked if Southwest would oppose the plan, company spokeswoman Kristin Nelson portrayed the carrier as a savior for travelers.

"Each year, our presence in the marketplace saves consumers and taxpayers money," Nelson said. "So in our eyes, high-speed rail just isn't necessary because you have Southwest Airlines."

But air carriers and air traffic controllers at a major airport like SFO, a turboprop carrying 14 passengers from Modesto requires about as much airspace, traffic separation and controller attention as a 747 carrying 400 people inbound from Tokyo. And with thousands of arrivals and departures per day, it makes less and less sense to operate small planes on short routes.

As High-Speed Rail Authority board Chairman Rod Diridon Sr., a former Santa Clara County supervisor, points out, a public-private partnership between a public agency and an airline may be the best way to operate the state's high-speed rail system.

Airlines already have established ticketing and marketing systems which would have no problem serving a few million more passengers per year. With operations contracted out to airlines, it would be easy to establish code sharing agreements, like those that allow travelers to connect different legs of their trip on multiple air carriers by purchasing just one ticket. In Europe, passengers can already buy one ticket for a trip by both air and rail. Additionally, the German airline Lufthansa and the British airline Virgin both operate rail lines.

Another possibility for a public-private operational partnership, Leavitt says, is that the state could build infrastructure like track and stations while private operators pay to purchase and operate the trains.

Fastest Mode

Though the train would not travel at high-speed through urban areas, planners predict the trip from San Jose to San Francisco would take 31 minutes--more than three times faster than it does today.

Though commuter options would be available in both the Bay Area and L.A.-San Diego region, high-speed rail's target market is trips in the 100-to-500-mile range, between driving distance and airline range.

Fast rail, of course, shines on intercity trips, from city center to city center. For example, though flying from SFO to LAX takes less than an hour, the entire trip usually takes two or three hours, after travelers drive to the airport, arrive an hour in advance, endure the delays, claim bags on the other end, and drive the rest of the way to their destination.

High-speed rail holds other advantages over air. Trains aren't subject to weather delays, and a full train would haul 600 to 1,200 passengers.

Additionally, California doesn't need to develop its own technology. Japanese and European builders have refined their systems over decades of use, and continue to improve their designs. Case in point: Spain saved a bundle by using French technology and trains to build its AVE high-speed rail network.

While it doesn't promise to drop travelers off at their doorsteps, trains outshine planes because they can stop in the middle of any downtown, cutting minutes or hours from total travel time.

For travelers headed from downtown San Francisco to downtown Los Angeles, high-speed rail would take just a few minutes longer.

But, in total trip time, planners say high-speed rail would beat the airlines on some routes, such as Los Angeles to San Diego, Sacramento to San Jose, or Fresno to Los Angeles.

Additionally, the business plan calls for tickets priced in the $20 to $50 range, or about half the price of an airline ticket. With lower prices, the plan predicts, the high-speed rail system will generate surplus revenue.

On a larger scale, a statewide high-speed rail system would stimulate economic development both directly and indirectly. While a $25 billion construction project spread over 10 years isn't that much in an economy as large as California's, the system would also spur additional development and investment in the areas around each station.

New or greatly expanded train stations would also inject new life into California's cities, bringing office, retail and residential development to areas where it's sorely needed, from underdeveloped areas surrounding San Jose's Diridon Station, to downtown Stockton, where urban renewal efforts have continually failed for years and a beautiful but neglected Southern Pacific station much like San Jose's sits boarded up on the edge of the city center. Sacramento's station is also in poor condition.

Shelling Out

So will Californians buy it? Morshed says the authority hired pollsters to run that question by the public, and two-thirds of respondents said they would support the train and would be willing to support a quarter-cent or half-cent sales tax to finance its construction. It's a good indication, though the plan may not need to go on the ballot if state, federal and private sector funding can cover the cost.

Additionally, any opposition by the airlines would only confirm what rail advocates have been saying: The public will embrace it.

And while the bill sounds big, transit planners say the key is thinking of it as an investment rather than an expense. With a system designed to last 50 or 100 years, an initial investment of $25 billion sounds downright cheap.

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From the October 11-17, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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