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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.

Posted in political, sierraclub, transportation.

3 Responses

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  1. rafael says

    Saw your comment on A couple of things you may want to consider:

    a) cities and counties in California depend on property and sales tax revenue to fund local services like schools, roads, transit etc. I suspect the real reason behind the preference for Pacheco is that communities in the SF peninsula want people who work there to also live there, to protect realty values and their tax base.

    High speed rail service for the East Bay, Livermore Valley and part of the Central Valley could encourage even more Silicon Valley worker bees to move to Alameda, San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties. The term often used to refer to this is “sprawl”, but that actually refers to the unbridled expansion of low-rise construction in a single city. HSR is really about “exurbanization”, i.e. people living near the center of one city and working near the center of another, far away.

    In France, the TGV network has greatly increased the attractiveness of this new form of long-distance commuting. That’s fine by them, Paris is an old city with very little room for residential growth. No-one complains that SNCF is offering sweet deals for people who ride the TGV every day. In stark contrast to California, local authorities in France get their funding from the central government.

    Ergo, while running HSR over Altamont would indeed benefit a larger number of existing communities, people paying mortgages in Silicon Valley mostly prefer Pacheco. The risk of long-distance commuters moving to Gilroy is much smaller, because San Jose made sure long ago that residential development in southern Santa Clara county is highly restricted. For various reasons, there are also no passenger rail services to Hollister, Watsonville, Monterey or Salinas. For good measure, the Sierra Club even got the Assembly to explicitly prohibit the construction of a station in Los Banos.

    At a state level, Altamont does make more sense. It’s just that someone needs to assure Silicon Valley residents that it is in their best interest, as well.

    b) A new Dumbarton rail bridge isn’t going to happen, ever. Period. It would cost upward of $2 billion, far too much unless it is used for HSR – and perhaps even then. Construction would inevitably stir up Bay mud laced with methyl mercury still leaching from tailings dumped into San Jose creeks during the Gold Rush. In a National Wildlife Refuge, that is not acceptable.

    More importantly, you want to pick the HSR technology that offers the greatest safety in the event of an accident, e.g. a derailment due to an earthquake. That means a design with an articulated frame, in which the wheelsets are located in-between rather than underneath the cars. The downside of this concept is that you can’t easily reconfigure the trainsets, which typically provide 300-500 seats each. The best you can do is combine two trainsets into a long single train.

    Splitting and recombining trainsets serving SF and SJ, respectively, at either Redwood City or Fremont would cost valuable time. Alternating single trainsets to these destinations would cut the service frequency to each in half. Ridership per trainset would also be lower than if every train served both ends of the SF peninsula.

    Of course, there is an obvious alignment that would do just that, avoid the construction of a new rail bridge and still serve secondary stations with non-express trains. Note that CHSRA did not even include it in its list of variations on the Altamont option – quite possibly on purpose. One of the downsides is that the SF-LA line haul time would probably be ~20 minutes longer than via Pacheco, because of lower speed limits. At the time, it was believed that short-hop flights would be the primary competition for HSR – only later did it become apparent that it’s really the car.

    UPRR’s idle Southern Pacific Milpitas Line (SPML) branches off the peninsula corridor south of Santa Clara station and runs through north San Jose and up the East Bay to Niles and beyond. North of Milpitas, the SPML is adjacent to the separate Western Pacific Milpitas Line (WPML), a ROW that Santa Clara county bought for the planned BART extension to Santa Clara.

    map of Altamont Pass via SPML option

    Construction of an HSR alignment along the narrow SPML ROW would surely face ferocious opposition from nearby condo owners, even if the tracks are placed underground – possibly on top of one another – and the street level is ultimately converted to a linear park. Moving the VTA light rail line up to street level would be a hassle, but there are also more daunting technical issues: a high water table and, tunneling under the 101 freeway.

    Moreover, the solution implies that San Jose Diridon would *not* be served by HSR trains. If the planned BART extension ever gets built, that would be survivable. However, its costs have escalated to a staggering $300 million/mile, well beyond all rhyme or reason.

  2. rafael says

    Announcment: California High-Speed Rail Final Program EIR/EIS Final Comments Meeting on July 8 in SF.

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