Category Archives: High Speed Rail
Google Goes Infill, While Apple Goes Full Donut Sprawl

Perhaps a metaphor for their approach to innovation, Apple is fully embracing the sprawl office model of the past, while Google embraces the future with talks to build a downtown San Jose campus near rail.

Apple’s soon-to-open donut office.

The Apple “donut” campus (photo right), set to open soon in Cupertino, is a giant parking lot with an office building on top, no matter how many solar panels and EV charging stations the company boasts about adding.  It was Steve Jobs’ last vanity project, and at heart it’s firmly of the decade he was born — the auto-oriented suburban office campus of the 1950s.

Meanwhile, Google looks to be following other advanced tech companies, like Amazon, LinkedIn, and Salesforce, by exploring options for a high-rise, infill mixed-use office right next to the future high speed rail stop and current Amtrak and Caltrain depot in downtown San Jose.

Silicon Valley is an an absolute housing and traffic crunch, due to those cities’ willingness to permit office sprawl but no accompanying housing.  The choice by Apple will only reinforce that failed dynamic, while Google’s efforts show that the worker of tomorrow does not want to repeat the insanity.

Climate Investments As A Rural Jobs Strategy

Trump’s announcement yesterday that the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris climate agreement (although technically not for another three years or so) was a big victory for his die-hard political supporters. A significant percentage of Republican voters simply discount climate science and hate the idea of global cooperation to address it.

Why do they feel that way? There’s been a fair amount of research on the question, but the bottom line is that they must feel like climate policies and programs will have no benefit for them — and may instead drive up their costs and undermine their employment opportunities.

At the same time, the U.S. economy has experienced an uneven recovery since the last recession, which has essentially only benefited the urban, knowledge-based parts of the country while almost completely leaving behind the rest with stagnant or declining wages. And that’s where these Trump voters made their stand and determined the election last year.

The irony though is that climate policies and related investments have a huge potential to benefit these rural areas and compensate for the tectonic economic changes that have left them behind. Just take California’s San Joaquin Valley, a poor and economically challenged part of the state. Our recent Berkeley Law report with Next 10 and UC Berkeley’s Labor Center showed that California’s three major climate programs — cap-and-trade, renewable energy, and energy efficiency — boosted the San Joaquin Valley’s economy by more than $13 billion and created thousands of new jobs to date.

Or take high speed rail, which is a long-term effort to move people around the state on low-carbon electricity rather than petroleum-guzzling cars and airplanes.  The Sacramento Bee editorial writers argued in support of the project precisely for its economic benefit to the San Joaquin Valley:

The $20 billion Central Valley to Silicon Valley leg won’t carry commuters until 2025, give or take. But once it does, the forgotten part of California that coastal residents fly over or zip past en route to Yosemite will become connected to the rest of the state and gain their share of California’s bounty. That’s not a boondoggle. That’s fair.

Nationally, a “deep decarbonization” strategy for the entire U.S., with its attendant investments in the electricity grid and vehicle electrification, could generate up to 2 million jobs by 2050, according to ICF International.  Many of those jobs would happen in the economically challenged parts of the country that supported Trump and his decision yesterday.

So the solution to building more political support for climate change policies therefore rests within the solutions to combat climate change in the first place.  But given recent events, that message is simply not coming across to the parts of the country that need to hear it.

Some Environmental Wins: Methane, Clean Tech Research & Transit

The environmental policy news from Washington DC recently has not been great, to say the least.  So it’s worth stopping to appreciate some recent wins.

First, in a surprising and close vote today, the U.S. Senate failed to overturn Obama administration regulations on methane emissions from fossil fuel extraction on public lands.  Methane is one of the most harmful greenhouse gas pollutants, and this rule was critical to limiting those emissions.

Using the once-obscure Congressional Review Act, Congress could have not only wiped out the rule but also precluded the Bureau of Land Management from regulating in this area again.  The oil and gas industry lost in the senate by one vote, with Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona the deciding votes (all Democrats voted against it).

Second, in the recent budget deal to keep the federal government funded through September, congressional negotiators saved the most important clean tech research agency, ARPA-E in the Department of Energy.  As Utility Dive reported, ARPA-E actually received a $15 million boost instead of being eliminated, as the Trump administration had proposed.

Finally, the Caltrain electrification funding, which Congressional Republicans had held up because the electrification would one day get high speed rail to San Francisco, came through in the same budget deal with a partial amount of $100 million out of the original $647 million.  It’s no guarantee that the rest of the dollars will be approved, but it’s a good sign.

So while the news can be gloomy on the environment, and there are a lot of battles still to come, it’s good to see common sense rule-making and investments still moving forward right now.

Is High Speed Rail Exempt From California Environmental Law? My Take On “Friends Of The Eel River” Case Today At The California Supreme Court

The California High Speed Rail Authority has been battered not just by Republicans in Congress but by the state’s primary environmental law, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).  The law requires environmental review of projects before they commence.

While that sounds sensible in concept, in practice CEQA has opened the authority up to lawsuits and delay from opponents up and down the route, from wealthy homeowners along the San Francisco peninsula to farmers along the San Joaquin Valley route who don’t want their properties bisected by the rail line.

The impact on the project from CEQA has been increased costs, delay, and in my view a less-effective route for the rail line (of course blame primarily rests on the politicians who gerrymandered the route in the first place, but due to CEQA it’s now impossible to correct the route without opening up the process all over again and inviting even more lawsuits).

While most people can agree that the agency should mitigate impacts where feasible and study these impacts in advance, CEQA lawsuits have instead served to drag out the high speed rail planning process and drive up costs.  These effects undermine a project that is actually critical to long-term environmental goals, let alone economic goals related to mobility.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that the High Speed Rail Authority would love to escape the jurisdiction of CEQA.  And that’s precisely the issue in today’s California Supreme Court argument in Friends of the Eel River v. North Coast Railroad Authority, Nos. S222472. This case actually involves a different rail line in California’s north coast, but the rail operator makes the same argument as the High Speed Rail Authority that CEQA doesn’t apply, due to federal rail law preemption of state law.

As my colleague Rick Frank summarized on Legal Planet:

This case raises the issue of whether federal law–specifically, the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act (ICCTA)–preempts the application of CEQA to a state-owned and funded rail line on California’s North Coast.  Lower state courts have split on that issue, which has consequences far beyond the proposal to reactivate this previously dormant railroad line.  For example, the same legal issue is raised in a federal case currently pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit involving California’s High Speed Rail Authority.  In that federal appeal, the federal Surface Transportation Board–an obscure but important federal agency charged with implementing the ICCTA–notified the High Speed Rail Authority that it considers CEQA’s application to the planning and construction of California’s controversial High Speed Rail system to be preempted by the ICCTA.  (Kings County v. Surface Transportation Board, Ninth Circuit No. 15-71780.)  So the potential exists for conflicting rulings from the California Supreme Court and Ninth Circuit on the CEQA preemption question that would require the U.S. Supreme Court to resolve the issue.  Additionally, the same preemption argument has regularly been made by oil and railroad companies who seek to ship crude oil by rail through California cities that oppose such oil shipments as unduly hazardous.

I listened to the oral argument today on-line (and I also had the opportunity to participate in a moot court last week for the plaintiffs).  Based on the questions I heard from the justices, my guess is that the Supreme Court will find CEQA to be not preempted by federal law and therefore require the rail agency to enforce CEQA review.

But it’s a tough case.  CEQA is open-ended by its nature, and the delays and mitigation measures that follow are likely to interfere with rail operations, which is precisely what federal law seeks to preempt.  But it’s hard to imagine a state court voluntarily writing away its own state law.  Instead, I would guess that the justices will frame the decision as allowing CEQA review in a limited fashion, given existing legal restraints from federal law.

But with the federal Ninth Circuit case pending on the same issue (this time explicitly involving high speed rail), we could very well end up with a split that will need to be resolved at the U.S. Supreme Court.  So regardless of the outcome of this case, we’re likely to see more action to come on this question.

City Visions Conversation With Gov. Brown Senior Adviser Ken Alex, Tonight At 7pm

Pretty much everything boils down to land use, at one level or another. Certainly housing and office development is traditionally within that sphere, but so is energy development, when we think about siting new transmission lines or solar farms. Even electric vehicles involve permitting and siting public charging infrastructure.

Tonight on City Visions, KALW 91.7 FM, I’ll talk with Ken Alex, Governor Brown’s senior adviser and director of the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR), which helps the state set land use policy. We’ll talk transportation, housing policies, water, and climate change. And beyond local government matters, Ken also helps the state with its international climate efforts like the Under 2 MOU.

Tune in or stream at 7pm tonight, and please send in your questions or comments for Ken to address on the air.

UPDATE: audio available here.

California’s Courageous Plan For Transportation Infrastructure Repair

7800801564_594fdc5fe9_bLast week the California legislature did what many have been hoping for at the national level: pass an infrastructure bill. The issue was the state’s nearly $60 billion backlog in deferred maintenance for our transportation infrastructure.

But rather than deficit spend or raid other programs, the legislature took a politically brave step with SB 1 (Beall) of raising gas taxes and vehicle registration fees to pay for this work. It took a two-thirds super majority, which meant no room to spare on votes.

From an environmental perspective, the plan is good because it generally doesn’t pay for new capacity, just repairs and maintenance of existing infrastructure. The money will also help fund transit and bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.

Environmentalists complained about a weakening of standards for truck drivers to retrofit or retire their dirtiest vehicles, but those impacts could potentially be blunted by tightening other environmental standards related to fuels and pollution limits.  Some also objected to the new annual electric vehicle fee ($100) per year, which could discourage consumer adoption.  But that fee seems relatively modest for vehicles that contribute to wear-and-tear on the roads.

The primary criticisms of the plan boiled down to the following:

1) California should spend its existing dollars more efficiently. Republicans and even one Democrat took this approach, arguing that “Caltrans reforms” could save us an equivalent amount of money. However, none of them to my knowledge spelled out exactly how much money could be saved and how from these reforms.  I also don’t know of any study that has attempted to quantify potential savings. As a result, this criticism struck me as ideological posturing, along the lines that eliminating foreign aid and welfare could help balance the federal budget, when those programs are a mere pittance compared to military and insurance spending.

2) California should devote high speed rail money to deferred maintenance instead of funding this unpopular train project. Democratic state senator Steve Glazer made this argument, which is uninformed and inaccurate. High speed rail is funded by state bond money, approved by the voters, that cannot legally be diverted to other uses. Additional federal dollars are also reserved solely for train projects. Some cap-and-trade auction proceeds are directed to high speed rail and could theoretically go to other transportation uses, but these are only a few billion dollars at this point, hardly anywhere close to the $60 billion we need. Plus, those funds should go to projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which high speed rail will do once it’s built and operational, whereas highway investments have the opposite impact.

3) California should find the money from existing transportation revenues that are instead spent on the general fund or other non-transportation sources.  I’m admittedly less familiar with how transportation revenues are spent in the state, and in concept I would support efforts to ensure that dollars collected from transportation go to transportation improvements.  But the critics, to my knowledge, presented no hard numbers on how much could be redirected to address the funding needs.  So it was hard to take this criticism too seriously.

4) Californians already are overtaxed on transportation.  Not when it comes to the gas tax and spending for road maintenance.  The existing state and federal gas taxes have not kept up with inflation, and as vehicles become more fuel efficient, the revenues will continue to fail to keep up with usage.  In short, most drivers are actually getting a cheap ride when it comes to paying for their fair share of road repair, minus the bills they have to pay to repair their cars from hitting potholes.

Overall, it’s an important spending bill that should help the environment to some extent, while also providing a fiscal stimulus in rural communities through the repair work.  Higher gas taxes could also marginally dissuade people from buying gas guzzlers, although the taxes are relatively minimal compared to the price of gasoline.

But don’t expect this kind of action at the federal level, barring unlikely bipartisan cooperation with the Trump administration.  Because raising taxes and fees isn’t popular, and it takes courage to do so when the need is great.  And that kind of courage and foresight is in short supply at the federal level.

The Border Wall “Poison Pill” On Federal Infrastructure Spending?

The one area where political observers thought Democrats could work with Trump is on infrastructure spending.  Even Governor Brown, who got a lot of attention for savaging Trump right after the election, submitted a wish-list of projects he was hoping would get federal support, particularly high speed rail.

Trump could certainly use a big legislative achievement, and most Republicans are unlikely to go along with infrastructure spending, either because it will increase the deficit or require tax increases.  So he’d rely on working with Democrats.

But at the same time, Trump wants to fulfill his promise to build a border wall on the U.S. border with Mexico.  And if he doesn’t get money to build it through other means, it’s likely he would include it in an infrastructure bill.

Not so fast, says Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer.  In a letter to the senate majority leader, he warned against its inclusion in a budget bill or else it would risk a government shutdown, per Politico.  And if it’s not in a budget bill, it may reappear in an infrastructure proposal.

Of course, a faster way to kill the wall might be to get some libertarian groups like the Pacific Legal Foundation to sue over the wall route, where it runs through private property.  I know that’s an issue in state like Texas, where the wall would bisect some properties.

So far though, Trump seems like very much the political novice he claims to be, having campaigned on promises that are hard to achieve in practice.  His unorthodox style got him an upset political win, but it remains to be seen if it’s actually going to work in the difficult process of getting major legislation passed.  And the infrastructure bill seems like just one of those tests.

Republicans Start Targeting Urban Transportation Investments
Current proposed high speed rail route

Current proposed high speed rail route

It was only a matter of time.  Once Republicans swept the election in November, they were likely to start using federal transportation funds to kill urban transportation projects.  Not only do Republicans tend to dislike public funding for any form of non-car-related transportation, but most transit systems are in Democratic urban strongholds, giving Republicans little incentive to spend dollars there.

California’s high speed rail project is apparently the first up in their crosshairs.  Even though state voters approved the system in 2008 and have been largely funding it themselves, what little dollars from the federal government to support the system are now in jeopardy.

Case in point: right before this past holiday weekend, congressional Republicans succeeded in getting the new transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, to effectively kill funding for Caltrain electrification.

The Caltrain project actually has little to do with high speed rail, although eventually high speed rail could use the upgraded tracks to serve San Francisco.  But in the meantime, electrifying the popular commuter rail between Silicon Valley and San Francisco would decrease travel times and air pollution and increase capacity, providing a huge benefit to the technology breadbasket of the country, while generating jobs from contractors and suppliers around the country.

The federal government under Obama had already agreed in principle to help fund the line with a $647 million transportation grant, with high speed rail funds used to help support the state’s contribution to the project.  But then 13 Republican members of congress wrote Chao a letter demanding that the grant be halted until a full audit of the high speed rail system could occur.

Chao complied on Friday, proving that the administration is keen to play politics with transportation dollars and keep them away from urban areas.

Perhaps most galling for Bay Area residents, Congressman Kevin McCarthy, a leading critic of high speed rail from Bakersfield, wrote an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle full of hypocrisy:

We should work to unwind the messy and unworkable high-speed rail project, and instead try to direct more funds to modernizing needed transit and infrastructure projects — up and down the valley and the coast, in and out of downtown Los Angeles, and along Bay Area commuter corridors.

Which is of course exactly what the high speed rail money would have done with this project.

Meanwhile, the Bay Area’s business community had tried to lobby McCarthy not to hold up the funds, at a fundraiser on February 9th.  As Matier and Ross report in the San Francisco Chronicle:

“He [McCarthy] said he supported electrification of Caltrain, but said the problem was that the $647 million was commingled with high-speed rail money and that the line would be used by high-speed rail,” said Bay Area Council President Jim Wunderman.

As for McCarthy’s argument against high-speed rail?

“Same as it has always been,” Wunderman said. “Too costly. It’s not really high-speed rail.”

The move by the feds won’t kill high speed rail though:

Dan Richard, chairman of the state’s High-Speed Rail Authority, said that if McCarthy and the other 13 California House Republicans were out to kill bullet trains, they picked the wrong target.

“The business plan allows us to stop at San Jose,” Richard said. “If McCarthy is trying to blow us up, Caltrain was collateral damage.”

But the message is clear: until Republicans lose power in Washington DC, California is on its own in funding vital transportation infrastructure like high speed rail.

Time For Higher Speed Rail Between Los Angeles And San Diego

HSR1The one place California should be building high speed rail immediately is between Los Angeles and San Diego.  As I’ve blogged before, the two big cities are too close to fly and too painful to drive conveniently, due to traffic.  That makes them perfect for high speed rail.  The line would likely be the most lucrative of any in the state.

So of course it’s slated to be the last line built in the statewide high speed rail plan.  But transportation researcher Alon Levy makes a case in Voice of San Diego that the current line could be upgraded relatively inexpensively, given new federal rules that allow lighter European trains to run on U.S. tracks:

This means that the region needs to invest in electrifying the corridor from San Diego to Los Angeles, and potentially as far north as San Luis Obispo. Between San Diego and Los Angeles, the likely cost – based on the California high-speed rail electrification cost – is about $800 million.

The benefits are considerable. Electric trains emit no local pollution, while diesel is an unusually dirty fuel, contributing to Southern California’s poor air quality. New EPA rules, the Tier 4 standards, have required rail agencies in the U.S. to buy cleaner-burning diesel locomotives. The Pacific Surfliner has recently bought Tier 4-compliant locomotives, but many intercity and commuter rail routes around the country are interested in such trains, so they could likely fetch a good price by selling them now on the second-hand market. While these locomotives are cleaner than the legacy ones they replace, they are almost as heavy, and are unsuitable for a fast operation.

Levy also recommends specific track upgrades, such as running trains along I-5 to avoid Miramar Hill, which slows down the trains considerably as they wind up it. Ultimately, with these improvements, train times between the cities could clock in at less than two hours — competitive with driving even without traffic.  And with full high-speed rail service, the estimated travel time would be closer to 1 hour and 20 minutes.

Local leaders in the three affected Southern California counties should act immediately to invest in these upgrades. A multi-county bond issue could probably provide the sufficient dollars, and I’m guessing it could get public support with the right campaign.

Meanwhile, the benefits for the local rail transit systems in the two cities would be immense. Passengers getting off the high-speed trains in Union Station would be more likely to hop on a Metro Rail train to Pasadena, Long Beach, Hollywood or Santa Monica, while train passengers in San Diego could take the trolley around the region, boosting ridership on both systems.

The upgrade is really a no-brainer when it comes to boosting train service.  It will just take the political will and the dollars needed to finance it.

My High Speed Rail Interview On KALW Radio — Key Takeaways

7a43ru0tMy interview on Monday night’s City Visions program on KALW radio with Dan Richard, chair of the California High Speed Rail Authority, covered a lot of ground on the status and future of the proposed system.  You can listen to the audio here.  Some key takeaways from my perspective:

  • A federal infrastructure spending bill next year with a new president will be critical to shoring up the existing system’s finances and allowing it to get fully built out by 2029.  The current federal contribution is historically meager, compared to how much the state is contributing in tax dollars.
  • The Authority will need the San Jose to Fresno section to get up and running as soon as possible to demonstrate a revenue-making, operable segment, which will lay the political foundation for more support for the system.
  • The Authority and other local leaders are going to need more tools to ensure that the system does not lead to more sprawl around the stations and instead encourages more station-oriented development.  Those tools could involve urban growth boundaries coupled with more funding for infill areas.

This will be a very long-term project for the state, but it’s the first high speed rail system under construction in the United States.  While a fully built out train is decades away, perhaps with a big federal push next year we’ll see the first section operating soon between Silicon Valley and Fresno.  That development would be transformative for the Central Valley.  Overall, it’s a vital infrastructure project for the state’s residents to keep tabs on.

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