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:
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.