California, East Bay, High-Speed Rail, South Bay, Tri-Valley

Altamont Bypassed

This is a post I started to write a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, a couple weeks of illness and the general pandemonium of the holidays prevented me from finishing it in a timely fashion, but better late than never, right? Somehow, this blog has been running for a few months now, with barely a single mention of the California High-Speed Rail project, but a most disheartening piece of news from a few weeks ago presents a good excuse to jumpstart the discussion here

Well-established is that this critically important project, estimated to cost around $40 billion, would link cities across California with a high-speed rail system in which trains would travel, in a little over two-and-a-half hours, between Union Station in Los Angeles and a newly reconstructed Transbay Transit Center in San Francisco. It would bring the different corners of this state closer together and is a tremendous economic benefit for California. It also provides a sustainable way of transporting a population that is projected to swell to an excess of 50 million in the next couple of decades. One point, which should not be underestimated (particularly in the growing but auto-centric Central Valley) is that the high-speed route provides a clear guide indicating where future development across the state should be carried out, with high-density uses in most cases focused at stations and in downtowns located along the route. At long last, with high-speed rail, we will have a legitimate alternative to airplanes and freeways for travel within California — an alternative we will appreciate even more when both of those current systems exceed capacity, at which time the realization will set in that high-speed rail would not only have helped curb congestion, it would also have cost less than extensive freeway expansions. At long last, we will develop and modernize our rail system to make it slightly less of a laughing stock when compared to the extensive rail networks found in many other countries around the world.

Or will we?

A perpetually thorny and long-debated issue is the alignment that trains would use to enter and exit the Bay Area from the Central Valley, and the debate has focused on different alternatives of the Pacheco and Altamont Pass alignments. Different versions of both alignments are depicted on this map:

Courtesy California High-Speed Rail Authority.

In the above map, the Pacheco alignment is represented in the broad southern sweep. Under Pacheco, every train heading north from Los Angeles would pass through San Jose and then travel up the Peninsula in a four-tracked configuration shared with Caltrain. Under various versions of Altamont, trains would not enter the Bay Area from the south, but rather, from the east, by first traveling through the Tri-Valley and the congested corridor along Interstate 580. After crossing the Bay via a new Dumbarton rail crossing, trains would then travel north up most of the Peninsula, terminating at Transbay in San Francisco. Another branch of the line could serve the Stockton and Sacramento area, while still yet another branch would follow the eastern shore of the Bay towards Oakland.

Earlier, I mentioned that a disheartening piece of news was what led to this post, namely that the the California High-Speed Rail Authority recently reaffirmed its preference for the Pacheco alignment. Why is this disheartening? Simply put, the Altamont alignment goes where people are, while Pacheco carves through much more sparsely populated areas. One important benefit of the Altamont alignment is that the presence of the rail line in this corridor would stimulate dense development in already-established cities along the route, while Pacheco would likely encourage development in areas that are currently undeveloped – in some sense, creating new sprawl, rather than providing a solution to heavy congestion brought by about existing sprawl.

The Authority has officially stressed that long-distance trips should remain the focused mission of high-speed rail, and that that mission would be compromised by running trains through the Altamont alignment at the expense of long-distance travel times. Altamont would also require that trains be split between San Jose and San Francisco after crossing to the Peninsula, while under Pacheco, any train bound for San Francisco would also serve San Jose. And even if Altamont attracts higher commuter ridership within the Bay Area, Pacheco would end up generating more fare revenue. Although trains routed through Altamont might take about 10 minutes longer when traveling between San Francisco and Los Angeles, in light of the considerable advantages that Altamont has over Pacheco, those 10 minutes and the revenue considerations should not be enough to disqualify Altamont. However, the Authority has insisted otherwise, and that decision is limited and short-sighted.

An overriding problem with the Pacheco alignment is that its southern sweep ignores an important ridership market: namely, daily commuters between the Bay Area and the Central Valley. The Interstate 580 corridor is already very congested, and absent any solution, traffic will continue to worsen; Altamont, which serves this area quite well, could be exactly that solution. In addition, riders traveling between San Francisco and Sacramento would also be faced with a circuitous route under Pacheco but would enjoy more direct service under Altamont. If high-speed rail is to be well-used, it must serve many different ridership markets, and commuters within the Bay Area and the greater northern California region should not be overlooked, particularly since routing high-speed rail through the Altamont pass presents the opportunity to upgrade and expand service offered by ACE commuter rail. Sure, a fast connection between San Francisco and Los Angeles is an important priority, but contrary to what the Authority has stated, it should not be seen as the sole mission of this project. Both the Altamont and Pacheco alignments will offer the core long-distance service, but many trips made within California may involve only San Francisco or Los Angeles. Still other trips will involve neither city, but rather might lie entirely in the middle portion of the route. The key is to diversify service to accommodate these different markets, through varying combinations of local trains, express trains, and everything in between. We should expect nothing less from this costly, yet important, investment.

It seems that this blog is increasingly turning into gripes about how important transportation projects are being hijacked and diluted to serve political ends, but unfortunately, transportation officials are doing little to disabuse us of this notion. South Bay politicos – and we cannot forget that “venerable” CHSRA board member Rod Diridon, champion of San Jose’s vastly underperforming light rail system – have long been convinced that San Jose, despite being located at the edge of the Bay Area, rightfully deserves to be the beneficiary of billions of dollars worth of flashy but far-from-adeptly-planned transit infrastructure, even if the diversion of this money prevents more worthy projects from being funded. It seems to be a case of low civic self-esteem, and in terms of high-speed rail, San Jose politicians find it imperative that every train traveling between San Francisco and Los Angeles also serve San Jose. Once convinced of this notion, it is clear that the Altamont alignment would not do, because San Jose, located on a mere spur off of the primary line, would be out of the limelight.

Although some officials have given lip service to Altamont by claiming that both alignments could eventually be built or that other rail infrastructure could be built to provide relief in the 580 corridor, it seems that realistically, favoring Pacheco kills the opportunity to build Altamont for the foreseeable future. Of course, this assumes high-speed rail gets off the ground in the first place. Altamont’s potential to provide relief to a heavily congested freeway corridor, as well as its route through land that has already been developed, makes it the natural choice for transit and environmental advocates, and these groups have long opposed Pacheco. How far will environmentalists concerned for wetland preservation go to kill a bond measure designed to fund a Pacheco-aligned project? Funds for high-speed rail are dependent on voters passing the $9.95 billion bond measure in the big election this November. To be fair, a collection of Tri-Valley NIMBYs have denounced the Altamont alignment, for the usual NIMBY reasons, but the Authority’s choice of Pacheco over Altamont will likely alienate many other voters in the East Bay and the north Central Valley, who may not see themselves as benefiting from an expensive project that completely neglects their cities — and high-speed rail no longer seems quite as high-speed if it takes over an hour to access the nearest station. Should we expect these voters to throw their support behind Pacheco on the basis of slim promises that Altamont could be built far in the future, or will the lure of a high-speed train zipping through California’s green fields and cities (but not their own cities) capture their imagination in any case? The fate of high-speed rail, California’s most important transportation investment, hangs in the balance.



24 thoughts on “Altamont Bypassed

  1. I hope that environmentalists and regional transit advocates are not swayed by silly arguments that we “need to accept compromises to get things done”, etc, and stick to their guns–even if it means postponing High Speed Rail for California by the time being.

    The CAHSRA’s choice of the Pacheco route just proves that they cannot be trusted with $40 billion. And I’m not sure if anyone in our government *can* be.

    Frankly, I think iterative improvements to our passenger railway system would not only bring more immediate benefit, but by working up to HSR, have a much better chance of getting it right eventually.

    Baby steps!

    Posted by Nick/295bus | 11 January 2008, 10:59 pm
  2. Well said Nick. Governments should solve problems incrementally. There’s just too much pork barrel influence to allow them to take a huge wad of money and try to solve every problem at once. San Jose should probably finish their earlier work (like, oh, running light rail to the airport??) before whining too much about high speed rail!

    Has anybody run the numbers? How many daily riders would a line from Livermore/Dublin to the new Transbay serve? No stops in between of course, this is supposed to be a high speed rail line!

    To me, a stop in Dublin seems counterproductive at best. If there’s no need for a stop in Dublin, then who cares if the lines go over Altamont or Pacheco?

    Eric, can you back up your thesis with real numbers? Do high speed trains whooshing through Dublin without stopping (or, worse, stopping to allow 3 people to get on) will somehow indicate where the mcmansions should be built?

    (for the record I haven’t decided if I like Altamont or Pacheco more… I’m leaning toward Altamont but not for any sound reason)

    And, if we’re going to be stopping along the way, then wouldn’t it be smarter to go over highway 24 so we can stop in Walnut Creek and put the Y in Stockton? That serves much higher density population than Dublin!

    Eric, thanks for giving this issue some thought. I’m very curious to hear your answers.

    Posted by bronson | 13 January 2008, 10:38 am
  3. Sorry, that should have read “Eric, can you back up your thesis with real numbers? *OR* do high speed trains whooshing through Dublin…indicate where houses should be built?” Changes the tone of that paragraph rather a lot. :) I’d sure like to see the numbers if you got ’em!

    Posted by bronson | 13 January 2008, 10:43 am
  4. bronson,

    Why the concentration on Dublin? Altamont serves Modesto and Tracy – both much larger populations than Dublin (and growing at much greater clips) and completely unserved by Pacheco.

    And remember, not every train has to stop at every stop – so there could be more stops along the line – some would be once an hour, some might be every thirty minutes, some might be twice a day (this would still allow for “high speed”)

    My biggest problem with Pacheco has always been that it pretty much renders any extension to Sacramento useless for the Bay Area. High speed rail from SF to Sacramento via Los Banos? Are you freaking kidding me?

    Posted by Chris | 13 January 2008, 11:10 am
  5. A few comments (sorry, these got a bit long):

    In general, I am also a proponent of incremental change, but it’s worth noting that HSR is only going to get more expensive, the more we wait. In addition, because Altamont follows existing rail corridors, rather than blowing through hinterlands, building Altamont presents the opportunity to upgrade the service on those corridors. So, rather than spend money now to upgrade service on ACE, for example — which also wouldn’t be cheap — and then spend even more money on HSR later than we would now, we could build high speed rail now instead, which would upgrade ACE, but also do a lot more. Also, the most pressing part of Caltrain that needs upgrading is exactly that section that an Altamont alignment would serve, north of the Dumbarton. So basically, building HSR now allows us to kill multiple birds with one stone… if we choose the right alignment.

    Bronson: I’m not clear on why you’ve honed in on Dublin as the primary beneficiary of Altamont. Dublin is getting its infill BART station. For HSR, the Central Valley — and travel between the Bay Area and the Central Valley — is far more important. As Chris mentioned, routing SF/Sac trains through Pacheco is more than mildly ridiculous. Pacheco, in general, is a circuitous route for people commuting only within Northern California, and just a glance at the map should tell you that. These areas are quite populated, which is surprising to many people in the Bay Area who think the Central Valley is cow country and don’t give it a second thought. Sacramento and the surrounding area are home to over two million people. Modesto? Over 200,000 people. Stockton? Over 300,000 people. And Sacramento proper has close to a half million. All three are more populated than all but a few Bay Area cities. Compare that to Gilroy, Morgan Hill, and Los Baños, which, combined, have around 100,000 people. People in the Bay Area tend to have an elitist attitude toward these areas, but the fact is, they already have a lot of people, they are growing, and most are driving cars for their commute to the Bay Area.

    Bronson, as to the development issue: since you picked Dublin, let’s look at Dublin, which has been doing some development — and we’re not talking McMansions at all. In fact, 15-20 story towers have been proposed there even recently — something which would be instantly shot down by neighborhood groups (or not even proposed in the first place) in most places around San Francisco — and yet the reaction in Dublin was not nearly as negative as you might think, though it seems likely those towers will get shorter through the planning process. I believe Dublin city plans allow for 10 stories near BART and 6 stories elsewhere. So, despite your remark about “McMansions”, there is actually a real potential for denser development in already-urbanized locales, even if they are suburbs we might instinctively think to write off. Should I have tried to project how much housing will pop up in which places? Maybe, but if you look anywhere around the country or the world, you will find the common truth that development follows rail lines — and HSR, with its fast connections to the rest of the state, is no ordinary rail line.

    Posted by Eric | 13 January 2008, 12:10 pm
  6. Eric, thanks for your reply. I agree that population will be drawn toward the rail corridors, especially as gasoline cruises past $6/gallon in a few years. It just seems like going through Walnut Creek and Stockton, which are high density now, would make more sense than Dublin/Livermore/Tracy/Modesto, which will probably be high density in the near future. (dunno, maybe geology makes this too expensive?)

    Alas, Pacheco seems like a bad idea in pretty much every way. It would be nice to see San Jose be reasonable here.

    Alas, CA’s budget looks to be in shambles for the next few years (thanks lenders…). I really hope high speed rail survives the shakeout.

    Thanks to transbay for keeping up with the process.

    Posted by bronson | 13 January 2008, 9:37 pm
  7. Word to the wise from this week’s East Bay Express:

    “We think this report is fatally flawed,” said Bill Allayaud, the Sierra Club’s state legislative director. “There’s a bias toward the Pacheco Pass in the way they account for ridership and … environmental impacts.”

    Emphasis mine. Folks should really take a look at the EIR.

    Posted by Steve | 14 January 2008, 11:11 am
  8. Hi Steve, thanks — I was hoping someone would raise exactly this point, which was conspicuously left out of the post because it was already getting way too long.

    The prediction that Altamont would have some five million fewer riders is premised on the assumption that any train coming from L.A. would only serve one of the Bay Area terminal destinations. So for riders traveling the whole distance from L.A. to the Bay Area, the frequency of trains serving their desired destination would be lower. (From the ridership forecast: “The Altamont Pass alternatives generally do not compare favorably to the Pacheco Pass alternatives; only because many of these alternatives have split service to multiple destinations, rather than a single line, as is the case in most of the Pacheco alternatives.”) In emphasizing the higher revenue long-distance trips, the EIR claims that Altamont ridership can only fully capture ridership by skipping key terminal cities and not splitting service, and that the perception of split service would lower ridership so much that even the additional Altamont riders coming from Sacramento and the 580 corridor would be offset.

    Posted by Eric | 14 January 2008, 2:26 pm
  9. I realize this counts for very little, since we who live in the central valley seem to have little say about anything, but I vote for Pacheco Pass. I live in Fresno, not Los Banos, and I would be thrilled to have high speed rail to the bay area. Now, if I want to get into SF, I drive to Dublin/Pleasanton, park my car for a week or so, and go in on BART. None of the peninsula stations will let me park my car overnight so Dublin is first closest BART station. I would gladly get on a fast train in Fresno and go right into the city, not to Emeryville where I have to take a bus to get to SF.

    Posted by dkzody | 16 January 2008, 8:02 pm
  10. Hi dkzody: actually, both of the alignments can connect Fresno to San Francisco. Even though Altamont approaches from the east, it needn’t remain on the east side of the Bay; trains would cross at the Dumbarton, and then go north up the Peninsula straight into SF. The Pacheco alignment might be a bit faster for your trip, but it would just be a few extra minutes. Under either alignment, you’d still have a fast trip to San Francisco.

    Posted by Eric | 16 January 2008, 8:08 pm
  11. High Speed rail is intended to solve the problem of connection between the LA basin and the Bay Area, not the local problems along 580. We need to extend BART east, improve the ACE route, but not at the expense of making the HS system conform to local needs. The construction costs via the southern route would be much lower due to the relative lack of construction congestion and land costs. Since we cannot even get Santa Clara and San Mateo counties to work with us on extending BART around the Bay, then why would we get any better cooperation from them on the routing of HS train systems. Leave the routing alone as the Altamont route will always be opposed by Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties.

    Posted by charles simkins | 17 January 2008, 3:39 pm
  12. Charles, I address your comments, point by point:

    High Speed rail is intended to solve the problem of connection between the LA basin and the Bay Area, not the local problems along 580.
    The Authority has put forward this view, but it seems incredibly short-sighted. Why should we pay $40 billion for an alignment that only addresses one problem, when we could have an alignment that solves multiple problems? Also, it’s more than just “local problems along 580” — what we are talking about is improving connectivity between the Bay Area and the north Central Valley in general.

    We need to extend BART east, improve the ACE route, but not at the expense of making the HS system conform to local needs.
    Extending BART east would not serve this market as well as HSR, and it would cost billions, on top of what we would be spending on HSR Pacheco. The ACE route would already be upgraded if we put HSR on Altamont. Once again– why would we spend more money on extra rail projects, when an HSR Altamont alignment would solve those problems? If Altamont were substantially inferior to Pacheco on the long-distance segment — say, if it took 30 or 40 extra minutes under Altamont to travel between SF and LA — then I might agree with you. But the difference in time will not be anywhere near that large, nor large enough to justify Pacheco over Altamont. It’s all about striking a balance. I think it is well worth it to add a few minutes to the SF/LA trip in order to provide better, more thorough coverage to more of northern California.

    The construction costs via the southern route would be much lower due to the relative lack of construction congestion and land costs.
    Take a look at the EIR — in some alternatives, Altamont is actually cheaper than Pacheco. In any event, the difference in cost for the likely alternative is, once again, not monumental enough to justify choosing Pacheco, particularly for such an important project, given that Altamont better serves millions of people that Pacheco would ignore.

    Since we cannot even get Santa Clara and San Mateo counties to work with us on extending BART around the Bay, then why would we get any better cooperation from them on the routing of HS train systems. Leave the routing alone as the Altamont route will always be opposed by Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties.
    Santa Clara and San Mateo counties will still have HSR access, even under Altamont. Moreover, the East Bay, Modesto, and Sacramento will oppose Pacheco because that alignment completely bypasses their cities. The point is, you will never be able to satisfy everyone, so this comment really doesn’t go far to prove that Pacheco is superior to Altamont.

    The CHSRA has aligned itself towards Pacheco for years, and their studies reflect this bias. Basically, you’ve brought up some of the points the Authority has raised, but they do not strike me as strong arguments. In fact, they are the points I rebutted in the post!

    Posted by Eric | 20 January 2008, 11:41 am
  13. Why does Altamont/Stockton need HSR? There already is ACE (it’s called the ALTAMONT Commuter Express). The biggest transit problem in the Bay Area is that BART doesn’t connect to the 10th largest city in the country, San Jose. Instead of pie-in-the-sky proposals with tunnelling to downtown SJ, BART-to-Berryessa would connect BART to the VTA Light Rail system and to the Great Mall transit hub. And most of that link is in Alameda County, as part of the Warm Springs Extension. HSR is isn’t HS if it tries to stop every mile for a commuter dropoff/pickup.

    Posted by Reedman | 25 January 2008, 11:23 am
  14. Hi Reedman,

    I think that perhaps the better question to ask is: why does the virtually uninhabited Pacheco Pass route need HSR? ACE doesn’t serve its corridor adequately, and as mentioned in the post, HSR on Altamont would upgrade ACE, in addition to obviously doing much, much more. As for why Stockton needs HSR — take a look at the population stats I put in an earlier comment. The north Central Valley is home to some two million people, all of whom would be given a circuitous route to the Bay Area through Pacheco. This is an important regional market where Altamont is superior to Pacheco, hands down.

    HSR isn’t HS if it tries to stop every mile for a commuter dropoff/pickup.
    This is an important point that I think a lot of Pacheco-supporters are missing, and it’s crucial: not every train will stop everywhere. World-class rail networks do not subscribe to BART’s every-train-is-local model. With HSR, we can have quite a bit of service diversity, including both local and express trains. Building stations does not imply that every train will stop at every station. However, by placing stations in an already urbanized corridor, we increase the number of people who can easily access the system.

    Posted by Eric | 26 January 2008, 12:01 am
  15. This is a good discussion and an excellent blog! I think the point Eric is making cannot be emphasized enough – if you are going to the astronomical expense of constructing a new, high-speed ROW, you want to take every advantage of it by diversifying services. While the design must allow (and really cater to) a maximum speed train passing through non-stop once an hour or more in each direction with express service from the Bay Area to the LA area, you want to also maximize the utility of the line by filling the rest of the time with slightly slower trains with more stops serving other markets.

    While I’ll readily acknowledge that Amtrak probably shouldn’t be a model for anything, the Northeast Corridor is a good example of a corridor that tries to do this – it supports “high speed” Amtrak service making limited stops as well as slower Amtrak services and more localized services in commuter markets throughout the corridor, which actually carry a lot more people and operate a lot more trains.

    To me, it seems that the Altamont option is clearly superior; even if you ignore the more localized commuter markets, the lack of Bay Area-Sacramento service on the southern route alone should disqualify it. I agree with others also in saying that a project of this magnitude is very rare, very unlikely to ever happen, and is one shot – it HAS to be done right from the beginning. As for the issue of service, once the tracks are in place running enough service to satisfy everyone will be significantly easier than answering why many logical trips/routes are not possible.

    Posted by Alex | 6 February 2008, 5:55 pm
  16. You are completely wrong on this. Altamont would require the building of yet *another* bridge across the bay, destroy wetlands and add time to the trip. The high speed rail authority is completely correct that the HSR line is for LONG DISTANCE travel, not local commuter travel, and that any train serving San Francisco can also serve San Jose.

    Posted by Surf | 29 March 2008, 7:20 pm
  17. Surf, Pacheco also goes through wetlands, and this has been discussed ad nauseum. Altamont would add a few minutes to the trip, yes, but it would also provide better access to the system for millions more people. The notion that Altamont does not adequately serve SJ and cannot provide a high speed trip between SF and LA is quite simply not true.

    You may believe what you wish, of course, but I wouldn’t be so quick to fully trust the Authority, as your words make it clear that you do. Quite correctly remarked above: read the EIR. There was an agenda to meet, and they were successful in casting the EIR so as to support that agenda.

    Posted by Eric | 29 March 2008, 7:32 pm
  18. Well we will have to agree to disagree. I believe Pacheco is better and that Altamont was a very poor choice. I agree with the authority, as well as the elected officials who support Pacheco, including Gavin Newsome. In the end, Pacheco has won, I’m quite happy about that, and think it is without a doubt the best choice. Altamont was just a terrible idea, supported for the wrong reasons. If Altamont had been chosen, it would have been severely misguided.

    Posted by Surf | 29 March 2008, 8:21 pm


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