Tag Archives: passenger rail

Why Intercity Rail Matters

We’ve had some good discussions on public transit lately, focused on moving people within cities via buses and trains. But just as important is intercity rail – getting people from one part of the state to another. And just as high ridership is bumping against budget constraints on city lines, so too is intercity rail running into capacity limits:

Amtrak set records in May, both for the number of passengers it carried and for ticket revenues – all the more remarkable because May is not usually a strong travel month.

But the railroad, and its suppliers, have shrunk so much, largely because of financial constraints, that they would have difficulty growing quickly to meet the demand…

“We’re starting to bump up against our own capacity constraints,” said R. Clifford Black, a spokesman for Amtrak….

Today Amtrak has 632 usable rail cars, and dozens more are worn out or damaged but could be reconditioned and put into service at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars each.

And it needs to buy new rail cars soon. Its Amfleet cars, the ones recognizable to riders as the old Metroliners, are more than 30 years old. And the Acela trains, which have been operating about eight years, have about a million miles on them.

We are running into similar problems here in California. Our intercity rail services under the Amtrak California brand, are experiencing soaring ridership. The Pacific Surfliner trains, from San Luis Obispo to San Diego via LA, are the second busiest trains in the Amtrak system, often with standing room only. The Capitol Corridor, from San José to Sacramento via Oakland, is the third busiest route in the Amtrak system, and it too is bursting at the seams with riders.

That we have these routes at all is remarkable, and is due to the passage of Proposition 116 in 1990, which sank $2 billion into passenger rail. Amtrak California is mostly funded by the state, and administered by Caltrans’ Division of Rail (with Amtrak providing most of the operations and some funding). But this investment has run its course and new funding is needed to expand intercity rail, so that Californians can travel from city to city without relying on their cars or on flights, which are either too expensive or nonexistent (can’t exactly catch a plane from San José to Sacramento).

Proposition 1B, the multibillion transportation bond approved in the 2006 election, was supposed to deliver funding to purchase more cars and expand Amtrak California services, including the creation of a “Coast Daylight” train from SF to LA via the 101 corridor.

Those funds haven’t materialized because Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Department of Finance stunningly claims that there is no need for new cars. According to the Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada (RailPAC):

The Department of Finance, whose director Michael Genest maintains that public fund support for mass transit, particularly the intercity rail program, is not a legitimate expenditure of public funds, has conducted an “audit” that said “we don’t see you need it.” So, “we can’t spend any because of that.” That puts the expected order of new cars for the Surfliners, Capitols, and San Joaquins on hold.

What happened was that Genest sent auditors to ride the Capitol Corridor in the middle of the day on a Wednesday in the middle of January – traditionally a time of low ridership, whereas the route is packed to the rafters on weekends and during commute hours. This flawed “sample” enabled the Schwarzenegger administration to extend its war on public transportation to the successful Amtrak California system, in an attempt to starve it of services right at the moment when Californians are embracing intercity rail.

Intercity rail is crucial to this state’s economy. As gas prices rise fewer Californians are becoming in-state tourists. Places like Santa Barbara, Yosemite, and yes, Monterey rely heavily on visitors from the big metro areas to survive. Without reliable and available intercity rail they will see significant economic damage.

We’re also in the middle of an airline crisis as flights are cut back and fares inexorably rise. That is going to make it even more difficult – and more expensive – for Californians to travel around their state.

I would be remiss if I did not mention high speed rail as another solution to the need and demand for intercity rail. But even though it is a necessary project, it won’t open until the middle of the next decade. Amtrak California can help meet California’s needs right now – if only Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn’t bent on shackling Californians to oil.

Sure, Arnold doesn’t want to drill offshore, but if he succeeds in strangling passenger rail, that opposition won’t mean much for mobility and economic prosperity in our state.

Save the High Speed Rail Project!

Last week I explained to you all California’s plan for a true high speed rail system that would link the state’s major metropolitan areas, and described how Arnold Schwarzenegger was trying to terminate the plan.

Since then there has been a great deal of activity in the state, ahead of a crucial meeting in Sacramento this week on funding for the project. There now appears to be some significant movement from Arnold’s office toward a supportive position. However, there is still a long way to go, and your help is needed to ensure that California does the right thing and saves this project.

Note: For a full explanation of the California high speed rail plan, see my diary from last week

Is Democratic Pressure Bringing Arnold Around?

As of a few weeks ago it looked like Arnold was trying to kill the project outright. The CHSRA (California High Speed Rail Authority) plan was originally slated to go before voters in November 2004. That was postponed to November 2006 and again to November 2008. In Arnold’s initial budget proposal he suggested postponing the vote indefinitely and slashing CHSRA’s budget to a mere $1 million, barely enough to keep the office open.

Since news of this got a wider hearing, there has been a significant amount of pushback, especially from Democrats. The California Democratic Party, at its annual convention in San Diego two weekends ago, passed a resolution strongly supportive of the plan. Activists from around the state began calling their legislators and rallying support for the project.

Now it appears Arnold has budged – to some degree on this all-important project. In a letter to the Fresno Bee last Friday, Arnold announced that “the state must build high speed rail”:

But let me be clear: I strongly support high-speed rail for California, and especially for the San Joaquin Valley. Increasing the Valley’s transportation options, especially after voters passed Proposition 1B to repair Highway 99, would better serve the region’s growing population and enhance the Valley’s critical importance to our state’s economy.

The promise of high-speed rail is incredible. Looking forward to the kind of California we want to build 20 and 30 years from now, a network of ultra-fast rail lines whisking people from one end of the state to the other is a viable and important transportation alternative and would be a great benefit to us all.

On the surface this sounds great. Clearly Arnold understands that this project – the most important project proposed for  California in the last 45 years – cannot be allowed to die. And that is a major victory for our side.

However, careful parsing of his letter indicates how much work we have left to do to truly save this project, and just how little faith we can have in Arnold’s apparent “support” at this time.

The Outstanding Issues: Funding

The bulk of Arnold’s letter to the Bee is a claim that the CHSRA does not have adequate funding identified. The proposal that will go before voters in November 2008 will provide $10 billion in bonds, out of a projected $40 billion cost. Arnold’s letter asks where the rest of this money will come from.

The CHSRA has always maintained that the $10 billion is necessary seed money to convince the federal government and private investors that they can invest in the project and provide for the remaining costs.

Steven T. Jones, a reporter for the truly excellent San Francisco Bay Guardian, notes that these claims are not totally correct, and that major bond houses like Lehman Bros believe that state seed money – in this case, $10 billion – WILL bring in private capital and convince the bond market that the project is worthy of their support.

Arnold’s letter to the Bee makes the CHSRA plan sound like another flawed and unfunded government project and posits a false “chicken and egg” problem. In fact this is by no means the case, as the necessary starting point – $10 billion in state bonds – has already been identified, and a whole lot of people, from venture capitalists to the aforementioned bond market are convinced this will break the logjam and produce the remaining $30 billion. In short, CHSRA has already identified where the remaining money will come from, although they understandably cannot get a firm commitment from the private sector until they get a firm commitment from the public sector.

Arnold’s Unspoken Caveats

As Steven T. Jones noted, Arnold’s administration has not answered this point, nor has it addressed the nonpartisan, no BS Legislative Analyst’s Office report that says there can be no more delays on the project – it is time to vote.

Instead the letter to the Bee suggests Arnold wants to do with high speed rail what he’s done with climate change – adopt a posture of support for action, but in practice do nothing that will actually produce action. Arnold claims to “propose additional funding” in his budget for CHSRA but this is unspecified and probably an effort to claim his paltry $1 million proposal for the 2007-08 budget as “additional funding.” Nor does he commit to a 2008 vote, which everyone else involved agrees is key to the success of the high speed rail project. Reading Arnold’s letter carefully, one finds he talks a big game, but does not actually provide any firm assurances that high speed rail will go ahead. Instead he seems to want “more study,” which as anyone with knowledge of politics knows, is pretty much a statement of nonsupport.

What might be at the root of Arnold’s opposition? Last week I speculated that his millions in campaign contributions from oil companies might have something to do with it. Surely that plays a role. But as Steven T. Jones notes, it is also partly because wants to use the state’s bond capacity for other things – like more prisons, more dams, more freeways. In other words, things the state needs less of, instead of high speed rail, a transformative project that will add much more to the state’s economy and long-term needs than a prison or a dam or a freeway.

How YOU Can Help Save High Speed Rail

As I said at the beginning, there is a all-important hearing in Sacramento this week regarding the project. A State Senate Budget Subcommittee will meet to determine the fate of CHSRA funding – whether Arnold’s paltry $1 million sum will stand, or whether the full funding needs of $130 million to keep the CHSRA alive will be provided. The Bay Rail Alliance has provided the crucial contact information:

Senate Budget Subcommittee 4 hearing
Thursday, May 10
@ 10 AM or upon adjournment of the previous session,
Room 112, State Capitol
item 2665, the High Speed Rail Authority’s budget

Members of Senate Budget Sub 4 Committee

1) Senator Michael Machado (Chair)
Senate District 5 – Tracy, Manteca and Stockton in San Joaquin County; Suisun City, Fairfield, Dixon and Vacaville in Solano County; Davis, West Sacramento, Winters and Woodland in Yolo County; as well as Walnut Grove and a portion of Elk Grove in Sacramento County.

Phone:  (916) 651-4005
Fax:  (916) 323-2304

State Capitol, Room 5066
Sacramento,  CA  95814

2) Senator Robert Dutton (Republican)
Senate District 31 – southwestern portion of San Bernardino County and the northwestern portion of Riverside County: all of Big Bear, Grand Terrace, Highland, Loma Linda, Rancho Cucamonga, Redlands, Upland, Yucaipa, Yucca Valley, Crestline, Lake Arrowhead, Mentone, Running Springs, An Antonio Heights and portions of San Bernardino and Colton; all of Riverside, Glen Avon, Highgrove, Mira Loma, Pedley, Rubidoux, Sunnyslope and all but a small portion of Woodcrest.

State Capitol, Room 5094
Sacramento, CA 95814
Phone: (916) 651-4031
Fax: (916) 327-2272

3) Senator Christine Kehoe – Democrat from San Diego
Phone:  (916) 651-4039
Fax:  (916) 327-2188  State Capitol, Room 4038  Sacramento,  CA  95814

State Capitol building, room 112, Sacramento

If you live in these districts, by all means, CALL! Even if you don’t there may well be value in calling them to let them know of your strong support for high speed rail. Of course, if you can attend the hearing, by all means do so. I wish I could be there, but unfortunately I cannot.

Some overviews of why high speed rail is a good and necessary project can be found:

In my comprehensive CA High Speed Rail diary from last week
An excellent letter from the Bay Rail Alliance

There may also be value in contacting Arnold’s office, to explain how valuable the project will be in terms of transportation alternatives, traffic relief, sustainable development, reducing pollution, slowing global warming, and providing jobs. To contact the governator:

Main contact page E-mail link

Call him! (916) 445-2841

Write him a letter! Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger
State Capitol Building
Sacramento, CA 95814

More contact info for important state legislators can be found in my original CHSRA diary.

Help us save high speed rail in California!