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Letters: Readers have much to criticize about proposed CA HSR

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  • 2/6 East Bay Express
    Published Wednesday, February 6, 2008, by the East Bay Express Letters Readers sound off the proposed California high-speed railroad Myths and Facts Matthew
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 6, 2008
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      Published Wednesday, February 6, 2008, by the East Bay Express

      Letters

      Readers sound off the proposed California high-speed railroad

      Myths and Facts

      Matthew Green's article about the California High Speed Rail
      System <http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BATN/message/36948> and
      the environmental, political, financial, and other issues swirling
      around it was generally well done. However it contained several
      major errors which continue to circulate despite clear evidence
      to the contrary.

      Myth: People traveling from San Francisco to Los Angeles would get
      there faster with a Pacheco HSR alignment than with an Altamont
      alignment. Fact: According to the HSR EIR/EIS released last July,
      the trip would be faster via the Altamont alignment.

      Myth: The Altamont alignment will be "far more costly" than the
      Pacheco alignment. Fact: According to the EIR/EIS, the cost of
      the two alignments, including Altamont's rail bridge across the
      Dumbarton Strait, would be about the same.

      Myth: There would be "four to six tracks" through the Tri-Valley
      area. Fact: There would be up to six tracks only at stations. Through
      most of the area there would be only two passenger rail tracks.

      Gerald Cauthen
      Oakland


      They Cannot Be Trusted

      After the CA High Speed Rail Authority's choice of the Pacheco Pass
      Route over the Altamont, I can't in good faith advocate for this
      project anymore. It's not just that it will impact wetlands, as the
      environmentalists say, or even that it is a significantly less useful
      route (specifically for anyone in Sacto or Stockton who wants to get
      to the Bay Area). What's really important is that, by making such
      a vital decision as the basic route for high speed rail based on
      political lobbying, rather than honest evaluation of facts, the
      CAHSRA has demonstrated that they cannot be trusted to manage a
      $40 billion investment.

      Nicholas Kibre
      Redwood City


      Rezoning the Big Valley

      The author of your piece on California's high-speed rail project,
      as well as the persons he interviewed, believe that this project will
      be a high-speed rail system just like the ones they have in Europe.
      In fact, it will be quite different, much more expensive, and much
      more questionable environmentally.

      The idea was to have a rail system that would take people between
      San Francisco and Los Angeles in no more time than flying. This
      would clear the airways, reduce air pollution, and reduce airport
      congestion. If the state had stuck with this plan, the system could
      have been built by now.

      Instead, Central Valley interests insisted that it also serve the
      cities in the valley, such as Merced, Fresno, and Bakersfield. The
      line was therefore routed to the east side of the Valley, rather than
      the west side, which would have been the shortest, cheapest route to
      Los Angeles. That is why the map you published shows an eastward
      kink. Property acquisition costs will be much higher there, because
      land costs are higher, and construction costs will be higher because
      there is much more infrastructure already in place that must be
      allowed for.

      The author says communities in the Livermore area fought the train
      because they didn't want it in their backyards. The San Joaquin
      Valley cities are dying to have it in their backyards. And that is
      where it will be. The transportation corridor in the cities will
      be six tracks wide -- two high-speed, two auxiliary passenger, and
      two freight -- and the high-speed trains will travel at 225 miles
      per hour literally through the backyards of Merced, Fresno, and
      Bakersfield. The noise will be appalling. And there will be 96 trains
      per day. In Europe the 225-mph trains are out in the countryside,
      where few residents are around to be bothered.

      Once the trains are running, the developers will arrive, armed
      with their big smiles and their fat checkbooks. Valley counties will
      be unable to resist the pressure to rezone agricultural land to
      residential, and the farms of central California will disappear
      under a sea of gimcrack suburban houses, the residents of which will
      be able to commute to San Francisco or Los Angeles, thanks to the
      generous taxpayers of California.

      The Valley communities should be a bit more careful about what they
      ask for. They might get it.

      Michael Mahoney
      San Francisco


      Diesel Would be Fine

      In the basic engineering sense, Pacheco Pass is better than Altamont.
      The high-speed rail line need only reach Bay Area rail network at
      San Jose. The decision favoring Pacheco Pass is engineering, not
      politics. That said, I must repeat what I've several times urged
      Gov. Schwarzenegger to consider: line electrification and a top
      speed of 200-plus mph is unnecessary.

      Electrification is at least 30 percent of the project's capital
      cost and several years of construction. Eliminating electrification
      reduces top speed to about 150 mph. However, even with
      electrification the average top speed is still only about 150 mph.

      The most significant environmental benefit of high-speed rail is not
      electrification. The line will only serve a small fraction of the
      long-distance travel market. The mostly rural route will suffer
      little environment impact of standard diesel-electric locomotive
      emissions.

      The real environmental gain is how California's languishing city
      centers along the route are afforded an opportunity to guide
      growth and development and thereby mitigate the far more severe
      environmental impacts of inner-city travel currently dominated
      by cars and trucks. All modes of travel (walking, bicycling, and
      local mass transit) should benefit with the opportunity to guide
      development.

      Adding electrification at some later date is still possible, and
      the less expensive train sets passed on to other regions in the
      US struggling to build fast enough high-speed rail.

      Art Lewellan
      Portland, Oregon


      Spend it on BART

      While the Express' High Speed Rail story provided an accurate enough
      assessment of the current situation regarding the system's chances
      of being approved by the voters, it didn't dwell long enough for my
      tastes on what a successful HSR buildout will mean for us here in
      the East Bay where most Express readers live.

      While some space was given to Sierra Club concerns and the response
      of HSR staff, the economic impact of the system -- particularly to
      Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond, and all the municipalities in between
      -- has to be dealt with so that bewildered voters can decide whether
      San Francisco, San Jose, and Silicon Valley should be the sole
      beneficiaries or whether we, too, might be allowed to share in at
      least some of the windfall that will certainly come to the Bay Area
      via increased commerce with the rest of California.

      So far, we've been told by various authorities, mayors, and MTC
      insiders that the system has to come over the Pacheco Pass because,
      Cronkite-like, that's the way it is. From San Jose to Sunnyvale to
      Palo Alto and then on to San Francisco, HSR will wend its way
      entirely on the west side of the Bay, presumably because East Bay
      folks will be ecstatic to contribute copiously to a bond issue
      that does nothing for us and everything for West Bay interests.

      If, on the other hand (or shore), the Altamont Pass were to be
      selected, with the train then stopping in, say, Union City, on to the
      Coliseum, downtown Oakland, and from there over into San Francisco,
      wouldn't all those West Bay voters suddenly feel like they'd been
      shortchanged and left facing a pretty bleak future with no nearby
      stop to assure what was to have been their hyper-improved
      connectivity with the rest of the state?

      Putting forth this "us or them" choice by MTC is either paranoid or
      nutzoid: there is a better solution for everyone, but one that is
      being kept off the table, perhaps in the fond hope that voters will
      be encouraged enough by the ecological argument for the train
      (electric, as opposed to the huge amount of fuel any airport hop
      requires) that we'll simply go along with the agency line we're being
      fed. So let me ask you, what would you do with the $10 billion that
      it will likely take to bring HSR through the Bay Area, assuming that,
      of the $40 billion total for the entire system (and that official
      estimate from the "experts" just has to be another Bay Bridge-like
      joke), $20 billion is needed to connect the Bay Area with the LA
      area, and the other $10 billion will be there to build LA's stations,
      purchase rights of way, bypass milk stops, build intermodal links to
      other systems, etc.

      If your answer was not to spend on HSR but rather to invest that
      same $10 billion to upgrade BART, give yourself an "A" for thinking
      rationally, because there's no reason whatsoever to think that being
      able to get anywhere in the Bay Area within 30 minutes -- including a
      Grand Central HSR Station, wherever it might be -- isn't better for
      everyone, not just some SF banker, say, who needs to pop down to LA
      so he or she can ink deals selling us all out to foreign interests.

      Let's face it: BART is showing its age and needs a huge infusion
      of funds to (a) ring the Bay, (b) institute Express service, and
      (c) become the Transit Village icons of smart growth that our
      transportation agencies are forever citing but doing way too little
      about.

      If you answered any other way, you're either a born and bred San
      Franciscan, a Silicon Valley booster, or Quentin Kopp himself.
      Let's hope Matthew Green will use his analyzing skills to probe
      deeper into the East Bay's role in bringing HSR into the Bay Area.

      Steve Lowe
      Oakland


      Do the Math

      Matthew Green's parroting of the press releases of the CHSRA does not
      do your publication proud. There are other points of view that differ
      sharply with his. Let's begin with a summary of why this high-speed
      train project will be such a disaster: It will be a photo-op luxury
      train for the rich and famous. It will be on TV and make the
      promoters into celebrities. It will be a bottomless money pit, an
      endless deficit operation. It will be a continuous drain on the state
      budget. It will be the "Disneyland Express," an expensive train for
      tourists. It will be the largest pork-barrel boondoggle in the
      history of the United States.

      The decade-long construction process itself will generate immense
      amounts of pollution and greenhouse gases. Although it will take very
      little vehicle traffic off the roads, it will demand high electric
      loads just as electricity is to be generated by ever-increasing
      coal-fired power plants. It will be a money trough for construction
      companies, consultants, lobbyists, developers, the rail bureaucracy,
      Parsons Brinkerhoff and their subcontractors, and too many corrupt
      government employees and politicians. It is destined to be hugely
      over-budget by several orders of magnitude. All the costs are
      understated and the productivity and performance overstated.

      Tragically, it will not solve the major traffic gridlock problems or
      urban commuting and transit problems in the Bay Area or Los Angeles
      Basin. So far very few appear to be arguing effectively that 220-MPH
      trains running up and down California is really a dumb idea, and
      would make California look like the state with expensive high-speed
      trains and cheap low-speed schools. The California High Speed Rail
      Authority has ignored the well-known and costly lesson that brought
      the American passenger rail system to its knees: "They thought they
      were in the railroad business when they should have understood that
      they were in the transportation business!"

      Amtrak, the surviving, vestigial, money-losing passenger rail system,
      is continuously on the verge of collapse, sustained only by the heart-
      lung machine of revenues from Congress. In short, building a high-
      speed people mover using 19th century steel-to-steel technologies in
      California in the 21st century is taking a giant step backward. In
      the future, while freight rail will continue to be profitable and
      make good sense, people-moving requires far more creative and
      imaginative new technology solutions.

      Europe and Japan have it? Sure. But they also have far higher-density
      urban centers and far shorter routes. Japan has 339 people per square
      acre. California has 84. Unlike the US, they have traditionally been
      rail-based cultures for the masses while automobiles were only for
      the rich. The rail culture and society have evolved together and rail
      is an integral component of that society. Europe is, to all intents
      and purposes, one large metropolitan area. The economic history of
      Europe is one of high taxes and extensive services provided by the
      government. Rail transit is one of them. The CHSRA promoters love to
      cite these foreign examples as exemplars, but as actual analogies
      they are non-compatible: different context, different problem,
      different solution. The United States is a culture of individualism
      and autonomy. Passenger mass transit has never been profitable and,
      after the automobile, never fulfilled its promise.

      Here's a comparison: Remember the futuristic, but now defunct trans-
      Atlantic Concorde? It was the Mach 2 supersonic high-speed icing
      on the British Airways and Air France cake. It was also the least
      cost-effective mode of flying outside of NASA. These trans-Atlantic
      flights were never more than advertising; the plane was a photogenic
      promotional icon. Huge development costs. Huge always-in-the-red
      operating costs. These flying sculptures now reside in museums.
      We will remember them as expensive money losers that served the
      "rich-and-famous." Isn't there a lesson here? There is a saying in
      engineering: "Because something is possible doesn't make it necessary
      or even desirable." California's high-speed train will be like the
      Orient Express, a photogenic, luxurious promotional icon, hugely
      expensive, unaffordable to most of us, and underutilized.

      Do you think that the "Concorde" analogy is not close enough to the
      high-speed train? How about the Eurotunnel, the 31-mile long tunnel
      under the English Channel that fast trains run through? Called
      the "Chunnel," this project was projected to carry 16 million
      passengers per year between London and Paris. After nearly sixteen
      years, it is carrying 9 million. A ticket goes for about $200. And,
      they carry freight.

      Here is a quotation from a Cost-Benefit Analysis of the Channel
      Tunnel (2004): "The history of large capital projects suggests that
      almost invariably capital costs tend to be underestimated (and
      revenue costs overestimated)." Original costs were projected to be
      around $7 billion. The most recent number is around $15 billion. The
      financiers recently "restructured" their loans again. They have not
      been able to make adequate payments on their debt service, much less
      the outrageous cost overruns of the construction. Why, for heaven's
      sake, would our project here in California be any different? Their
      over-estimates of riders and underestimates of costs are mind-
      boggling.

      Here are the "facts" as presented by the CHSRA, taken from their
      web site:

      "The transportation and economic consulting firm of Cambridge
      Systematics (CS) presented new ridership and revenue forecasts for
      the Authority's proposed high-speed train system. The CS study, which
      was prepared for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC),
      shows the potential ridership of the high-speed train system in the
      range of 86 million to 117 million passengers per year and annual
      revenue of between $2.6 billion and $3.9 billion by the year 2030.
      These projections exceed the previous forecasts in the Authority's
      2000 Business Plan that projected up to 68 million passengers
      annually and up to $1.8 billion in annual revenue by 2020. The new
      projections represent a 72 percent to 104 percent increase in annual
      ridership and a 110 percent to 170 percent increase in annual
      revenue."

      $40 billion for capital development? $2.6 to $3.9 billion annual
      revenue? 86 to 117 million passengers per year? By 2030? That's 23
      years from now. How can they possibly know? Predicting business
      numbers 23 years out is like predicting the weather 23 years out.
      There is no other word for these numbers: nonsense. I'm guessing that
      Cambridge Systematics told their clients exactly what they wanted to
      hear.

      Let's reconsider their high-speed "facts" with the following. As it
      happens, the United States already has a high-speed train system
      that's operational; it's the Acela, a part of Amtrak that runs
      from Washington DC to Boston, about the same distance as from San
      Francisco to Los Angeles.

      This Acela high-speed train had its best year in 2006, with 3.1
      million riders, and $403.5 million in revenues. This train serves a
      regional population of 44 million. That's greater than California's
      total population. Furthermore, the federally subsidized parent rail
      company, Amtrak, which runs on 21,000 miles of track in the United
      States, reaching 500 destinations had a record 25.8 million
      passengers in 2006. The total revenue was $2.2 billion. Shouldn't all
      these numbers raise a few eyebrows when reading the CHSRA projected
      expectations?

      Who will be the ridership on the HSR? The same executives, managers,
      sales staff, and other professionals now flying up and down
      California. (But only if it's less expensive and more convenient than
      flying.) It will NOT be serving the great working majority of the
      California population. This will NOT be another local commuter mass
      transit system. It will be a heavily tax-subsidized luxury train for
      the well-to-do. Overpriced and underused; is there a better reason
      for not putting a mindless tax burden on our children and their
      children? Reminder: bond funds are not free money; they still put
      huge demands on our state budget. Every dollar borrowed will cost $2
      dollars in interest over the life of the bond. Bonds, like mortgages,
      cost interest on the debt, and the principle has to be paid back. Who
      pays? The promised profits from the train? When you vote for a bond
      issue, you are voting for a mortgage. Should we be mortgaging even
      more in this cash-strapped, deficit state? I don't think so!

      It is disingenuous for the CHSRA to seek a bond issue on the ballot
      in 2008 for $9.95 billion without fully apprising Californians of
      what the actual ultimate costs will be for this train system. The
      current cost projections are, as some of the media say, "less than
      $50 billion." I would venture to suggest that it would end up
      somewhat more, perhaps three times as much!

      They claim that by 2030 the HSR will carry as many as 117 million
      passengers per year. And that works out to 321,000 passengers per
      day, each day of the year. And that works out to three annual trips
      from San Francisco to Los Angeles for each and every Californian.
      That's marketing blather.

      A fast intercity "commuter" travel system already exists. It's called
      flying. The high-speed train people argue that this new rail system
      would relieve overburdened airports. In that case, fix those and/or
      build new ones. Think what the presently projected total costs of $40
      billion for this project could do to enhance an air shuttle service
      among the key cities and to develop it to go more efficiently,
      faster, and safer, and develop new shuttle air terminals reached by
      existing and expanded ground systems. The newest jets are far more
      fuel-efficient and far less polluting.

      San Jose's terminal could continue to expand. Oakland is still
      underutilized. There are (at least) five commercial air terminals in
      the LA area. Air commuting could operate even more cost-effectively
      the way JetBlue and Southwest do now, without help from taxpayers.
      Air travel will have lower per-mile seat costs than this train and
      does not require the annual tax subsidies that now sustain Amtrak,
      and would be required for the high-speed train.

      For that matter, think what $40 billion could do to solve the urban
      and regional transit problems in the northern and southern population
      centers of California. That is a far higher priority for the economic
      recovery of this state.

      If speed/time benefits are the ostensible reason for these fast
      trains, air travel is twice as fast and that commuter system is
      already well established. It takes about one hour from SF to LA by
      air. The train advocates say their trains will take over one hour
      longer. Regardless, it's really about how fast you can get from your
      house in SF or Sacramento to your desk in LA or San Diego (or vice
      versa), and that's a local transit problem at both ends. Does anyone
      really believe that air transit users will stop flying (at lower
      ticket costs) and start riding the slower (and higher ticket cost)
      trains?

      A research study by Professors Levinson, Gillen, Kanafani, and
      Mathieu at the UC Berkeley Institute of Transportation Studies (1996)
      is titled "The Full Cost of Intercity Transportation -- A Comparison
      of High Speed Rail, Air and Highway Transportation in California."
      The title and article are long, but the findings can be stated
      briefly: high-speed rail travel, when you do full-cost accounting,
      is more expensive than either by air or automobile.

      In a report by the US Congressional Budget Office (2003), "The Past
      and Future of US Passenger Rail Service," a team of transportation
      scientists and researchers identify many of the drawbacks for a high-
      speed train such as proposed for the California north-south corridor.

      Also, research shows that no one will get out of their car to ride
      this train. The fact is that California's major traffic problems are
      intra-city and regional, not inter-city. Urban commuter traffic is
      certainly in crisis, but a 700-mile long train ride in California
      -- no matter how fast -- won't solve it.

      Final development costs for the entire high-speed train -- you
      already know this -- will NOT be the presently projected $40 to $50
      billion. It will be three times as much by the time it's finished.
      (Bay Bridge, or Boston "Big Dig," anyone?) Even after capital
      construction and its huge debt burden on the state taxpayers, the
      operating costs will continue -- permanently -- to require massive
      subsidies from our tax dollars. Time to ask, who really benefits,
      such as, who owns property on or along the finally selected right-of-
      way?

      "Passenger rail policy is a classic case in which most of the
      benefits are concentrated among a few identifiable groups but the
      costs are borne widely by taxpayers." (pg. 31, CBO U.S. Rail Study)

      Parsons Brinkerhoff of "Big Dig" cost-overrun fame has been
      identified as the prime contractor and will have their hands in the
      HSR cornucopia of mega-funds; that is, if they ever materialize.
      Parsons Brinkerhoff has a history of waste, fraud, and abuse; also
      corruption and bribery. They continue to be under indictment in
      Massachusetts. They are to be the lead contractor for the high-speed
      train. What is wrong with this picture? Watch for those promoters,
      landowners, lawyers, consultants, developers, contractors, and
      lobbyists, all standing in line. It's a boondoggle for the rail
      bureaucracies and their friends. It's the 19th-century rail robber
      barons all over again. Could "pork-barrel" politics be an appropriate
      term for this? California High Speed Rail is a financial train-wreck
      waiting to happen. And all California taxpayers will be the victims.

      Finally, there is one more way to understand this project. There are
      many supporters -- political leaders -- who don't really care that
      this project involves a high- speed train. Their real agenda is to
      pump money into California's flagging economy, and if the HSR can
      accumulate private or federal funding support, so much the better.
      These train promoters see the opportunity for expanded employment
      and development; they see this not in transportation terms but in
      economic terms. It's a terrible way to run an economy, and it will
      come at the expense of all California taxpayers.

      The state is approaching a $14 billion deficit. Some have already
      said it could go as high as $20 billion. The governor is calling
      for a fiscal emergency. He also wants to provide a water management
      program and health care coverage for everyone in the state at a cost
      of $14 billion.

      Boy, here's a hard decision! Shall we have a $100 billion boondoggle
      luxury high-speed train for the well-to-do with an initial cost of
      $10 billion, paid by a mortgage -- sorry -- bond issue on the '08
      ballot?

      Or shall we make sure we have enough drinking water and health care
      coverage for everybody in California? That's really a tough one,
      isn't it, Judge Kopp?

      By the way, will future bond issues in California be like subprime
      mortgages in the current financial markets? Will the high-speed rail
      bond issue be like that? And, if that's the case, wouldn't we, the
      taxpayers, have to bail them out?

      Martin Engel
      Menlo Park

      [BATN notes Mr. Engel, a frequent and determined critic of projects
      proposed near his home, lives adjacent to the right-of-way the High
      Speed Rail Authority is proposing to share with Caltrain.]


      [BATN: See also:

      Atherton, Menlo Park councils blast high-speed rail plans
      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BATN/message/37253

      2008 could be make-or-break year for CA high-speed rail
      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BATN/message/36948

      Comment: I'll say anything to oppose HSR, trains near my Menlo condo
      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BATN/message/36062

      Comment: Trackside Menlo Park NIMBY on "scary" push for HSR
      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BATN/message/35184 ]
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