By Noel T. Braymer
Since the California High Speed Rail Project kicked off with the passage of Proposition 1A with almost $10 Billion dollars in bond money in November 2008, much has changed. Between 2009 and 2012 the planning was often needlessly expensive with few connections to other rail services. Since the major overhaul of the High Speed Rail Project’s Business Plan in 2012, the planning has increasingly become more realistic. The California High Speed Rail Authority(CHSRA) is learning to use existing facilities and Rights of Way as much as possible. That includes sharing improved tracks in urban areas where it was never an option to go faster than 125 miles per hour between San Jose and San Francisco as well as between Burbank, Los Angeles Union Station and Anaheim. We are also seeing planning for better connections with California High Speed Rail to regional rail services such as the San Joaquin trains, Capitol Corridor, Altamont Corridor Express, Caltrain, BART, Pacific Surfliner and Metrolink.
The current planning for the Initial Operating Segment (IOS) is for service at least between San Jose and Wasco which is just over 200 miles of track. Including plans to create a branch to Merced adds another 30 miles or so. This is basically what the California High Speed Rail Authority can afford right now with about $21 Billion dollars it will have available over the next 8 years or so. What the CHSRA wants to do with the IOS is build and run service from San Francisco to Bakersfield. This would add almost another 80 miles of route to the IOS. To extend service to Bakersfield and San Francisco will require in the estimation of the CHSRA another $2.9 Billion dollars. These extensions will also add many more riders and increase revenues for the IOS. The better the performance of the IOS, the sooner the CHSRA will be able to to raise additional funding from both public and private sources to expand High Speed Rail south of Bakersfield to Anaheim and then to the Inland Empire, San Diego and Sacramento as part of their ultimate plan.
In the final draft of the 2016 Business Plan now awaiting approval by the Legislature is service to Merced. This will for now be a stub service to San Jose without connections to Fresno or Wasco. Between Fresno and Merced an additional High Speed Rail station will be built in Madera at the current Amtrak Station for the San Joaquins. This will allow transfers between High Speed Rail and the San Joaquins for passengers going to and from Merced via Fresno as well as to Modesto, Stockton, Martinez or Oakland. As part of the plan additional San Joaquin trains will be run by the time the IOS is running in 2025 including additional service to Sacramento. There are also plans to run the San Joaquin trains faster in the near future. Some of these improvements will be paid in part by the CHSRA. There are also plans to extend the Altamont Corridor Express trains or ACE to Modesto and Merced. Most of the transfers on ACE with High Speed Rail are expected at San Jose to the East Bay and Northern San Joaquin Valley. With these improved connections on High Speed Rail to the Northern San Joaquin Valley and Sacramento Metro area will add about 3.5 million Californians to the HSR travel market.
Running HSR trains to San Francisco and Bakersfield will also add millions of Californians with direct service to high speed rail. The problem is finding another $2.9 billion dollars in the next couple of years to build it by 2025. The CHSRA makes the point that the planning for this project has always been for it to be funded by a third each with State, private and Federal funding. The CHSRA points out that recently the Federal Government promised to pay half the cost of Amtrak’s $24 billion dollar Gateway Project between New York and New Jersey. The other half will be loaned at a low interest rate to the States of New York and New Jersey to be paid latter. What makes Federal Government loans attractive in Washington is they are not part of the Federal Budget and not included in the budget deficit. Federal Loans are easier to get than passing legislation with an appropriation. The fact is it is often cheaper to borrow and build now, than to wait to build while inflation drive costs up.
If New York and New Jersey can get loans of roughly $6 billion dollars a piece, what about California? California has a better credit rating than either New York or New Jersey. How would such a loan be paid off? That could come from future Cap and Trade revenue or from HSR service revenue after the trains are running. Or the legislature could add it to the budget. That might depend on the outcome of the 2016 elections. In a presidential election with high voter turnout, this often works in the favor of the Democrats. If this returns the super majority to the Democrats next year, it will be easier for Governor Brown to get more money for High Speed Rail. Of course other countries can lend California money for High Speed Rail too. Most major countries have some form of Import/Export Bank to create business for their country. There is no shortage of countries interested in getting contracts with the California High Speed Rail project. This money could be used to buy rolling stock, electrification, signalling or anything which will create jobs in the lender’s country.
The San Joaquin Valley is experiencing the impact from construction now underway for High Speed Rail and the spending for it. The last thing that many people in the San Joaquin Valley want to see now is for work to stop and be left with abandoned unfinished construction sites. The potential of passengers being able to get to San Jose in about an hour from either Merced or Fresno has many local business leaders excited at the prospect of becoming bedroom communities for the Silicon Valley. It is critical to increase support for High Speed Rail construction by creating connections to it as quickly as possible to every corner of the State. This can mean good connections to the IOS with other expanded rail services and express connecting buses to High Speed Rail and with other rail passenger services. The more places in California that people will be able to connect to High Speed Rail from the start, the more popular support there will be for it. Most voters support services that they expect to use and oppose those they don’t expect to use.
This is why connecting the San Joaquin trains to High Speed Rail is so important at Madera to the northern San Joaquin Valley and Sacramento. The same is true of connections at San Jose to Caltrain, Capitol Corridor, ACE and BART. Good bus connections to the rest of Northern California from Sacramento connecting to High Speed Rail via the San Joaquin trains is important. Also bus connections from day one from Southern California train stations to the IOS is critical to ridership and political support of High Speed Rail. Having service to downtown San Francisco on the IOS from day one will greatly improve ridership for the IOS. High Speed Rail, or any transportation service is not about serving just point A to point B. It is about creating a large network of services to feed multiple travel markets and increase operating profits.