California High-Speed Rail project: Altamont (Immediate Benefit) v. Pacheco Pass (Fuzzy Future)

The California High-Speed Rail Authority is trying to pretend that the Pacheco Pass alignment is somehow equivalent to the Altamont Pass alignment.

They are not. There are a number of key differences.

The Altamont Pass roughly follows the i-580 corridor – a heavily used freeway connection the Bay Area with bedroom communities to the east.

The Pacheco Pass follows the CA-152 – a relatively lightly used (in some places it is only a 2-lane road) state highway (not even a freeway).

So clearly there is a huge difference in terms of potential passengers.

Altamont Pass: Immediate Benefit

And more significantly, for the Altamont Pass – each segment as it is completed can be put to immediate use.

Because of inflation, a dollar today is more valuable than a dollar tomorrow. So having a revenue stream start after a couple years of construction has a tremendous impact on the actual costs.

Every segment of the Altamont has existing traffic/commute patterns. So running existing transit service such as Altamont Commuter Express on each 10-15 mile newly-constructed segment as will result in ACE getting increased ridership (and revenue). The revenue increase should be split with the CHSRA as payment for use of the improved ROW.

Some examples. Construct the Dumbarton Bridge – ACE can start using it immediately to provide service to Redwood City and north to San Francisco. Construct the High-Speed Rail line through Niles junction in Fremont – Capitol Corridors and ACE both have 10-15 minutes shaved off of their run time. Those services become more reliable and are able to increase their frequency.

Give ACE its own ROW in segments from San Jose to Stockton. As each is completed (even before the overhead wires are strung) start letting ACE use the track. ACE would only need it for 3-4 trains each way a day – it shouldn’t interfere too much with construction. Many systems would need to be in place before ACE could start using the tracks. Signaling for one wouldn’t need to be in place. The ACE train would be the only train on the new ROW. Either way, the payback to the public is immediate and visible. This builds ridership and support for the rest of the system.

It also establishes hard ‘floor’ ridership numbers for the financiers. The Wall Street types will now have less risk – and this will affect the credit rating of any bonds that California issues to the cover the construction cost. Furthermore, the bonds could be issued not as general obligation bonds against the State of California’s General Fund – but rather against the (proven) revenue potential of the train itself.

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