05 June 2010

News Roundup

Another all-stops local round up of relevant peninsula rail news.

SJ - Merced Alternatives Analysis

The California High Speed Rail Authority releases its preliminary alternatives analysis for the San Jose to Merced segment (see board presentation and full report), including the section through San Jose. The result is a balanced trade-off between maximizing construction pork and placating residential neighbors, with transportation utility clearly taking a back seat. The resulting twisty aerial viaduct is already being hailed as a potential "iconic" structure for San Jose, never mind that it will permanently restrict train speeds to a disfunctional 50 mph. That's right, the curve radius will be even tighter than the existing railroad alignment, in another fine example of high-speed rail à la Californienne.

The key take-away phrase, for our dear communities on the peninsula:
After considerable study (...), it is concluded that all underground options are not practicable due to unsafe mining conditions (poor soils combined with high groundwater), construction schedule, potential for settlement, extensive surface disruption and very high construction cost and should be eliminated from further evaluation.

Caltrain Fiscal Emergency

Caltrain declares another fiscal emergency, despite being the second-most "profitable" transit operator in the Bay Area, with a fare box recovery ratio of 43%, not far behind BART. Board member Omar Ahmad makes the shocking but astute suggestion that a wind-down plan may be needed to pull the plug on Caltrain in 2012. Maybe the specter of fighting traffic with another 18,000 cars on the road will jolt the system into providing Caltrain with a much-needed dedicated source of funding.

Bets are open for how long it will take the California High Speed Rail Authority to shed another crocodile tear about the impending bankruptcy of the owner of a 700-acre piece of prime railroad real estate.

Bring Home That Bacon

The Bay Area congressional delegation, likely realizing that the CHSRA will never meet the federal stimulus deadlines and lose the entire $2.3 billion California HSR allocation to other parts of the state, fires off a letter to transportation secretary Ray LaHood asking for some of that largesse to be showered upon shovel-ready Caltrain capital projects.

Now if only Caltrain could get some operating funding... This is like adding a new bedroom when you can't even pay the heating bill. Operating funds create jobs too!

Californians for HSR Letter

The grassroots group Californians for High Speed Rail writes an excellent letter to Caltrain, laying out many of the same compatibility concerns that have long been the central topic of this blog. Hats off to them, and here's hoping that the letter will have more impact than one guy on his internet soapbox (right here.)


  1. Can someone please tell the City of San Jose that they don't need an "iconic bridge" that no one will be able to see except from straight below while driving past on a freeway?

    A regular aerial will do just fine, thank you very much, without the same potential for explosive cost-overrun a-la Bay Bridge East Span.

  2. Caltrain First05 June, 2010 23:44

    This "iconic" bridge idea would be another hilarious send-up of San Jose "leadership's" notorious inferiority complex if only it weren't yet another sad indictment of wasteful, counter-productive contemporary megaproject planning. San Francisco and Oakland fought over the "iconic" status over rebuilding half of the Bay Bridge, resulting in a mega-billion fiasco that will only be completed 25 years after the 1989 earthquake damage. It should have been a simple causeway, as it's shallow most of the way! If SF and Oakland construction interests get to feed at the trough, San Jose needs an iconic porkfest as well!

    It is notable that Caltrain's ridership has actually proved remarkably stable compared to other transit operators during this deep recession, particularly BART. BART isn't talking about shuttering operations. Can we expect executive staff resignations if deep cuts are made to a service with a comparatively decent farebox recovery rate??

  3. If constructing HSR tracks in the ROW through Gardner that PCJPB already owns really isn't feasible - a highly questionably conclusion - then those tracks should descend into the 280 median, cut over to the 101 median and hop off to a dead-straight alignment just west of 101 at the 85 interchange. Given UPRR opposition, constructing tracks in the northern section of the Monterey Hwy corridor and cutting over to the 101 corridor near Bailey Rd isn't easy, either.

    Yes, there would still be two fugly tight corners in a 280/101 alignment and it would add a little distance to the entire line. On the other hand, it would avoid the massive cost escalation risk for "iconic" crap.

    It's not like the northern section of the Monterey Highway alignment would be cheap to implement.

  4. Wrt to the ARRA grant: the feds know California voters have approved a $9.95 billion bond to get HSR built. There was a (needless) commitment to match every ARRA dollar awarded with one from the state.

    CHSRA always intended to build those pieces of the puzzle that would anyhow be needed for HSR but could be leveraged early by Caltrain first. Specifically, electrification infrastructure like substations. Unfortunately, they also included the San Bruno station project, not because it's a top priority or because it still makes sense in the context of HSR but simply because it's a "shovel ready" make-work project.

    Now, SF peninsula politicians are beginning to realize that the very safeguards they put into the wording of AB3034 are making it impossible to meet the commitment to match the ARRA grant right away.

    Unfortunately, they're missing the point: Caltrain isn't in trouble because there aren't any capital investment dollars available. It's because the three counties have slashed its operating subsidy.

    The approach should therefore be one of turning water into wine, capex into opex. The traditional way to do that is to sell off assets so you have some cash on hand. Well, some $41 million of prop 1A is reserved for Caltrain. Reprogram what's left of that (I believe $37m) to be at CHSRA's disposal and have CHSRA write PCJPB a check marked "ROW preservation" for the same amount to plug the hole in the operating budget for the next three years.

    Then, take a breather and figure out how to keep running the old diesel fleet while Caltrain and CHSRA figure out how to squeeze cost out of the corridor upgrade program by integrating their capital investment, regulatory relief and long-term operations plans in the SF peninsula more tightly than ever before. In terms of available dollars, CHSRA is the dog, Caltrain is the tail. Let CHSRA make sane decisions on electrification, signaling etc. for the entire corridor and let Caltrain piggy-back onto those.

    Note that PCJPB would still have to come up with its full (currently ill-defined) fraction of the corridor upgrade cost, but those funds would then have to come from sources other than prop 1A, a few years down the road.

  5. At risk of repeating myself, unless the city pays for their "iconic bridge" entirely, design, engineering, construction, massive cost overrun, there should be no "iconic bridge". It's across a freeway intersection for Chrissake!!! Why build anything but a regular aerial?

  6. The design of the "ironic" bridge may as well be in the shape of a giant Middle Finger, because that is the message being conveyed by CHSRA to its critics.

  7. @ Drunk Engineer


    It even has the right number of fingers.

  8. Rafael: in terms of available funding, CHSRA doesn't actually have nearly as much as you think. They have a bond authorization, but that's not cash in the bank, nor even in the budget. Bond authorizations get passed all the time and then the money doesn't get allocated. Where's the funding for new Amtrak cars that was supposedly authorized as part of the 2006 infrastructure bond, for example?

  9. @ arcady -

    I suspect the HSR appropriations will happen because CHSRA can't even request them before it secures non-state matching funds and meets other stringent criteria.

    However, you do have a valid point. California voters do approve bonds but the the state legislature can then often not appropriate them due to the requirement to balance the budget. Thus, expectations are set and then not met, souring everyone on "the mess in Sacramento".

    Let me rephrase that: general obligation bond measures require a simple majority of the electorate, which means Democratic majority prefer them to push its pet projects. Tax hikes and the annual state budget require a 2/3 supermajority, which means the GOP minority can hold the entire state's finances hostage to their ideology.

    It's probably high time for a ballot initiative to amend the state constitution, such that budgets can be passed by a simple majority in both houses, plus the Governor's signature (analogous to US Senate rules on the federal budget). Tax hikes would remain subject to approval via separate ballot initiatives, but those would pass with simple majorities.

    That way, whichever party has a majority can implement its program and be held entirely accountable for the results. If voters don't like them, they'll give the other lot a crack at the whip.

    Ironically, the only changes that really ought to require a supermajority are those to the state constitution. Right now, a simple majority can achieve that result via a ballot initiative.

  10. @ Drunk Engineer -

    The tallest of the supports would cast a loooong shadow over the Gardner neighborhood every morning.

  11. That's absolutely harebrained. Suspension and cable-stayed bridges don't work well with trains, so that bridge will have to be rather massively stiffened.

    So it would be more appropriate to have the sort of concrete beam viaduct that most road and rail construction typically uses nowadays.

  12. Loren -

    What about Øresund or Great Seto bridges?

  13. What? I've seen plenty of cable-stayed/suspension bridges supporting rail traffic. Maybe the weight is a bit more concentrated than for road bridges, but this isn't a huge engineering obstacle, especially when you aren't dealing with FRA monsters.

  14. @ Loren -

    cable-stayed bridges are quite a bit stiffer than suspension designs, but viaducts are stiffer still. The problem is that there are only so many places you can put a support in this particular case, because of the freeway lanes. In addition, the structure has to survive storms and earthquakes, so a little flexibility is no bad thing.

    Still, the whole idea is fairly hair-brained. CHSRA should be working with FRA and Caltrain plus UPRR, Amtrak, Amtrak CC and ACE to come up with a way to safely share the already existing tracks between Santa Clara and the Monterey Highway, with a single-level station featuring at least four platform plus one tail tracks at SJ Diridon.

    That implies finding land near SJ for mid-day stabling of Caltrain and ACE trainsets. Caltrain already has a small stabling yard just south of Tamien station. There's room for a second, similar one between Curtner and the Monterey Highway, right about where Caltrain's ROW ends and UPRR's begins (satellite, terrain maps).

    The above strategy would imply speed limits for HSR plus some changes to how the legacy operators deliver their services in San Jose. A precondition for safe operation would be that every single train - regardless of operator - that enters this section must submit to a single traffic controller, using the technology CHSRA selects and implements. The most likely candidate is ERTMS, which includes ETCS level 2 for positive train control.

    In practice, CHSRA would have to pay UPRR, Amtrak, Amtrak CC and ACE some money to make a reasonable number of locomotives compatible by installing in-cab equipment and training drivers to use it. Elsewhere on its network, UPRR may decide to implement a different PTC technology, in which case drivers would have to switch between them at defined interface locations. This is standard practice in Europe.

    Both the existing ROW though Gardner and this iconic bridge nonsense prevent express HSR trains from running through at 125mph anyhow, so exploiting what's already in place more effectively is by far the cheapest and least intrusive solution to the problem.

    Perhaps some gauntlet tracks will be needed in the Gardner curves for adequate superelevation, plus some transparent sound walls plus perhaps some triple glazing for selected residences - ok. Those things cost peanuts compared to an iconic bridge.

    Perhaps Auzerais and W Virginia crossings will have to be permanently closed for safety - also not the end of the world, those are hardly major thoroughfares.

  15. Designing 2-span cabled-stayed bridge is not so complicated. But this one appears to be multi-span, which can be very complex to design and will not be as stiff.

    Nobody in their right mind would propose such a thing. It shows, once again, what happens when the CHSRA does not have in-house engineers, and farms everything out to contractors who have vested interest to inflate costs as much as possible.

  16. Prohsr Anticruickshank08 June, 2010 08:39

    Multi-span, on a curve, for rail traffic!

    Just picture how much this bridge will flex in the mid point of that curve. It'll be like a slinky (unless the cable stays are just there for show of course).

    I gotta agree: whoever proposed this one knows very little about engineering or aesthetics. It's almost as if they WANT the proposal to get shot down...

  17. Or you could just weigh the costs of rebuilding this area against the travel time benefits provided and decide to leave it be with a 60 mph limit between San Jose and Tamien. Unfortunately, the travel time is specified by law, which means that this is a trade-off HSRA is not allowed to consider.

  18. Or you could just weigh the costs of rebuilding this area against the travel time benefits provided and decide to leave it be with a 60 mph limit between San Jose and Tamien.

    I'm not sure what you mean by that. The new route isn't supposed to be faster. It's just supposed to be prettier, and more expensive.

  19. It's almost as if they WANT the proposal to get shot down...

    SHocKed I tell you I'm shocked that anyone would propose something expecting to be shot down....

  20. @Rafael

    What is really needed is a constitutional revision that would require any initiative debt measure to include a specific fund raising mechanism.

    Thus Prop 1A, which passed by about 52.5% of the voters, if included had been the realization that taxpayers would have to pony us some kind of tax increase to pay for the bonds, it would have failed.

    We then would not have heard time and time again from Diridon, "this won't increase your taxes", because the net result is, of course your taxes (or fees or elimination of some other programs or services), would have to be included in the initiative.

    It would be illegal to take funds from the 950 million that was allocated to other transit agencies and allot them to operating subsidies.

    From the ballot measure (Prop 1A) voters guide:

    A YES vote on this measure
    means: The state could sell
    $9.95 billion in general obligation
    bonds, to plan and to partially fund
    the construction of a high-speed
    train system in California, and to
    make capital improvements to state
    and local rail services.

    Note capital improvements statement....

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  22. Rafael said:
    "It's probably high time for a ballot initiative to amend the state constitution, such that budgets can be passed by a simple majority in both houses, plus the Governor's signature (analogous to US Senate rules on the federal budget). Tax hikes would remain subject to approval via separate ballot initiatives, but those would pass with simple majorities."

    Thank you, considered words of wisdom.

    I actually would go further. Citizens should not have any veto power over any allocation on the state budget or tax hike required to balance the budget. Why? Because citizens can't take the time to analyze all the costs/benefits of both spending the money and of not spending the money, not to mention the benefits of *raising* the money, which, I know everyone will be *shocked* to hear, sometimes requires taxes.

    If you ask citizens a direct question "would you accept higher taxes to do xxx," they will basically never say yes. But suppose xxx is "have a functioning police dept," or "maintain road," or "clean your tap water?" Well, we all need these, but no one wants the government to have any of their hard-earned pay. Libertarian existential failure. Tea-baggers, the line forms to the right.

    (Yah yah, exceptions occur. Who knew, 2/3 majority to bring BART to SJ?)

    Instead, citizens should elect representatives to make these decisions for them, and then should vote them out of office if they do a bad job.

    Constitutional change required yesterday.

  23. @ morris brown, Dan S. -

    Fair enough, as a quid pro quo I'd go along with outlawing bond appropriations in favor of ballot proposals that are funded by tax hikes - or eliminating spending-related ballot initiatives altogether.

    After all, the whole point of representative democracy is to elect people whose day job it then is to formulate coherent spending programs and make the requisite trade-offs. Elections are good things, but too much of a good thing can make it a bad one.

    If voters don't like the trade-offs, politicians in both parties will moderate their positions to keep or win power at the next election. Works just fine all over the world, as long as a simple majority is enough to transact day-to-day legislative business like passing a budget.

    California Republicans worried that they'd be giving away the farm to Democrats should take note: after just one electoral cycle of tax-and-spend, they'd actually have a fighting chance of running the show. Assuming, of course, that they jettison the tea party fringe first.