News

Plan for 'blended' rail system gains steam

Rail Authority's peer review group latest panel to support Peninsula lawmakers' proposal to blend Caltrain, high-speed rail

A proposal by three lawmakers to blend high-speed rail and Caltrain on the Peninsula received a boost Friday when a panel of experts retained by the California High-Speed Rail Authority (HSRA) decided to lend its support to the idea.

The rail authority's "peer review group," which is chaired by Will Kempton, submitted a letter to state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, and state Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, largely endorsing the plan the two legislators and U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo unveiled in April. Under the Eshoo, Simitian and Gordon proposal, the Caltrain corridor would be electrified and modified to accommodate both Caltrain and high-speed rail.

The rail authority, which is charged with building the voter-approved rail line, has so far focused on the "full build" approach, which calls for separate tracks for the new rail system.

In its letter, the group notes that the rail authority's demand forecasts remain uncertain and that the "full build" approach is "an unnecessary bet that the upper ranges of the demand forecasts are highly likely whereas the 'blended' approach would postpone larger investments until demand has been demonstrated by the initial services on the line.'"

The shared-tracks approach, the committee said, could also help the rail authority manage the new system. The agency has been in existence for more than a decade, but has spent most of this time advocating -- rather than planning -- for a new system.

"HSRA has, as yet, no actual experience with construction cost and management," the letter states. "Adopting a blended approach with local agencies would permit a sharing of the planning and management burden in those areas where HSRA could move up the learning curve on the higher speed section in the Central Valley."

The three legislators unveiled the plan largely out of concern about the way the controversial project is being managed. Early design plans, which called for the possibility of elevated tracks stretching along the Caltrain corridor, have galvanized Midpeninsula communities and have prompted various city officials, including the entire Palo Alto City Council, to formally oppose the project they once supported. The legislators have also been increasingly concerned about the cash-strapped Caltrain service and believe the electrification of Caltrain (which currently uses diesel fuel) could increase its ridership and revenues.

The rail authority has been skeptical about the "blended" proposal, with several members of the agency's board of directors saying they were worried about the prospect of Caltrain dipping into high-speed-rail funds. Rail Authority CEO Roelof van Ark has also said that the blended approach could make it difficult for the rail system to meet its mandated goal of getting from San Francisco to Los Angeles in about two and a half hours. Earlier this month, when Caltrain released a study finding the blended option to be feasible, van Ark said such a system could be possible in the "near term."

The new findings by the authority's peer review group, which reports to van Ark, lend further credence to the legislators' proposal. The panel determined that the "blended approach" could make the system more financially feasible. The project, whose cost was initially estimated at $43 billion, is now expected to cost more than $60 billion. The 2008 bond passed by California voters allocates about $9 billion to the project and the rail authority hopes that federal and state grants, along with private investment, would make up the balance.

The rail authority decided late last year to launch the rail system in the Central Valley.

"A 'blended' approach would be much less costly at the outset than the 'full build' approach, meeting one of the fundamental objectives of efficient investment management, which is to shift investment as far out in time as is consistent with project needs," the panel wrote. "Given the large capital needs of the project, money saved can obviously be used elsewhere."

The committee's findings were greeted with enthusiasm by Gordon and Simitian, both of whom have been critical of the rail authority's projections. Gordon said in a statement that he appreciates the peer-review group's feedback.

"Their statement, in conjunction with last week's capacity study released by Caltrain, shows a way forward for a system that is consistent with the current rail system and also begins to address the concerns of the communities that will support it," Gordon said. "There is much work to be done, but I am encouraged by these statements."

Simitian, who has been one of the Senate's leading skeptics of the rail authority's projections and business plans, called the commentary by the Peer Review Group "particularly compelling given the professional expertise and experience of the Peer Review Group membership." Simitian said in a statement there appeared to be a "growing consensus in support of a blended system" and cited recent statements from the peer review group, Caltrain and various Peninsula cities. He also said he wasn't surprised by the panel's findings.

"My colleagues and I have been making the case that high-speed rail 'done right' means a 'blended system' along the San Jose to San Francisco corridor -- a system that integrates High-Speed Rail with a 21st century Caltrain," Simitian said.

Comments

Posted by Hardin, a resident of Cuesta Park
on Aug 30, 2011 at 12:38 pm

""HSRA has, as yet, no actual experience with construction cost and management," the letter states. "Adopting a blended approach with local agencies would permit a sharing of the planning and management burden in those areas where HSRA could move up the learning curve on the higher speed section in the Central Valley.""

-----------------

So in other words, the largest, most expensive, most ambitious public works project in the history of California, is being managed by......



....an advocacy group.



I'm still waiting for someone to pinch me so I can wake up from this nightmare.


Posted by Hardin, a resident of Cuesta Park
on Aug 30, 2011 at 12:44 pm

"The rail authority has been skeptical about the "blended" proposal, with several members of the agency's board of directors saying they were worried about the prospect of Caltrain dipping into high-speed-rail funds."

---------------------

Considering that the HSR project's projected budget has ballooned from 43 billion to 60 billion without shovels hitting dirt yet, I find it ironic and somewhat hypocritical of the HSR to express concerns that Caltrains may "dip" into their budget.

Its much more likely that the HSR will be doing the "dipping"/raiding into other people's budgets, before this project is through, provided it ever gets off the ground.


Posted by Hardin, a resident of Cuesta Park
on Aug 30, 2011 at 12:49 pm

"The agency has been in existence for more than a decade, but has spent most of this time advocating -- rather than planning -- for a new system..."

------------------

Elementary my dear Watson, Elementary...the mystery of how got to be in this predicament we are now faced with is now crystal clear.


Posted by Martin Omander, a resident of Rex Manor
on Aug 30, 2011 at 2:29 pm

Starting small and adjusting as you go along makes sense to me. I am hopeful this blended approach will bring us closer to a sane transportation infrastructure in California.

There are 37 million people in the state, with many living in one of the two major urban areas. A proper rail system between them makes sense.


Posted by Hardin, a resident of Cuesta Park
on Aug 30, 2011 at 3:27 pm

As with most things, mass transit in the form of high speed rail is a great idea, in theory, but execution makes all the difference.

Unfortunately, as noted in this article, the organization (HSRA) responsible for the execution of this particular project has spent more time advocating for it, as opposed to planning the project. They publicly admit they don't have a stitch of experience managing the construction or costs of any project, let alone one of this size and complexity.

Regardless of whether you start small or not, you don't hand over the keys to the Ferrari to a 16 year old teenager by telling him, "Well, just go slow first and you'll be fine..."

Sure, going back the moon sounds like a great idea. But if Homey the Clown is driving, I don't hold out much faith in it being a successful venture.

If starting small is truly the intent here, the monies allocated for the HSR should be divided amongst the regional transit agencies like BART, Caltrans, VTA, etc, that can focus funding to address acute regional transit problems.

More good will be done by figuring out how to get people out of their cars for commuting on a daily basis, rather than how to get them off the airplane, when they go on vacation. California spans enough area and demographics from Southern to Northern California to make it obvious that no one mass transit solution is going to unilaterally fix all our transit problems. The strategy instead should be to divide and conquer.


Posted by jusme, a resident of Blossom Valley
on Aug 30, 2011 at 5:01 pm


As I noted 2 or 3 weeks ago in this 'venue', let's thank the Board
(Advocates!) or whoever for their 'service' to the public and this
left-field-project, and re-group to work on something a lot more
realistic and logical. And just look at the BILLIONS of dollars
that won't be wasted!


Posted by kman, a resident of Monta Loma
on Aug 31, 2011 at 3:27 pm

I would hate to see a high speed crash or rail derailment going at top speed.

Lets face it the quickest way between these 2 locations is by flying.

The environmental impact this would have is outrageous. We think the birds hitting wind generators is bad, wait till they have to wipe there remains off the trains.

By the time all the committees and the many people involved in this project, come up with a solution, all the money for the project will be gone.


Posted by curious, a resident of Cuesta Park
on Sep 1, 2011 at 9:19 am

"The three legislators unveiled the plan largely out of concern about the way the controversial project is being managed."

There is no hope for this project. Let's kill this turkey before it costs us, the taxpayers, even more money.


Posted by chuck, a resident of Gemello
on Sep 1, 2011 at 3:41 pm

How do we get a grass roots movement started to put a measure on the ballot to repeal this unbelievably ill-conceived proposal?
With the economy and national debt as it is and is projected to be the timing is absolutely the worse.
I would anticipate that the length of time it will take to complete will be double or more and the cost over-run three to four times the current estimates. And all for a system that seems to have little verified value. It is a bottomless pit that will suck up our money to build and continue to do so to subsidize it's ongoing operation.
It is not the governments responsiblity to create jobs. That is the result of successful and profitable private enterprise.
The only ones who will gain in this endeavor are the foreign countries that proveide the material and machinery and the bloated profits of contractors who lobby to get the bids. Lets stop this now and cut our losses.


Posted by DCS, a resident of Old Mountain View
on Sep 6, 2011 at 10:58 am

Lots of negative comments about HSR, I wonder if anyone one of them have taken the rail system that currently exists. A dear friend cannot fly due to medical issues, and spent $1400/round trip to go see her son in Denver. It took over 24 hours each time, they lost her bags, and tons of other problems.

I would like to see HSR built, and I would like it done right, maybe the people on the HSR board aren't the right people, but this is a transportation system that would get used if built right.


Posted by tommygee54, a resident of Rex Manor
on Sep 6, 2011 at 6:12 pm

I too would like to see this built. Too many naysayers. Timing is always bad it seems. But think of gasoline costs in the future among other things. I believe HSR should have been seriously discussed in the 1970's and built THEN!!!


Posted by Hardin, a resident of Cuesta Park
on Sep 6, 2011 at 9:14 pm

"A dear friend cannot fly due to medical issues, and spent $1400/round trip to go see her son in Denver. It took over 24 hours each time, they lost her bags, and tons of other problems."

-----------

One off anecdotal examples do not make a compelling argument for spending billions of taxpayer dollars on a scheme managed by amateurs who have no experience in managing construction projects of any size, let alone one of this magnitude.

I would also casually point out that your friend would not be any better served by HSR, as it is intra-state rail, not inter-state.


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