Infrastructure & Environment

High-Speed Rail: Transit Solution or Fiscal Disaster?

California is racing to build an ambitious high-speed rail system. Some cities think it should slow down.
by | May 2010

Though Palo Alto, Calif. – a city of 60,000 people in Silicon Valley that is home to Stanford University – is clearly not a tall stick, that is literally what "Palo Alto" means in Spanish. Most likely the city's strange name comes from El Palo Alto, which is a tall stick or, more precisely, a famous redwood tree. El Palo Alto is an old stick too. The tree is 1,070 years old, give or take a few years. It's a historic landmark and the inspiration for Stanford's popular tree mascot. But in a few years, it might be dead.

El Palo Alto's possible killer isn't old age. It's high-speed rail. The tree stands just a few feet from train tracks where, if all goes as planned, trains will be whizzing by at more than 100 mph within a decade. Rail officials are aware of El Palo Alto's significance and are hopeful they can design the track to avoid doing any harm. Dave Dockter, an arborist and environmental planner for Palo Alto, is skeptical. "It's inconceivable," he says, "that you could do this without really serious risks to the tree."

As California advances with what is easily the nation's most ambitious high-speed rail project – and, Californians say, the largest public works project in the United States' history – El Palo Alto's uncertain fate is just one hint of the complexities of building 800 miles of new infrastructure in a heavily developed, densely populated state. How does a state pay for such a system? Who operates it? Where do you put the tracks and stations? And how do you minimize disruptions to the environment and to communities that suddenly will have trains speeding through them at up to 220 mph?

With all the enthusiasm for high-speed rail in Washington, D.C., it would be easy to miss that California does not yet have answers to all of these questions. What's more, answers the state does have are making many people unhappy – nowhere more so than in Palo Alto. The United States may be on the cusp of a high-speed rail renaissance, but if that's going to happen, California must make all the right moves over the next decade.

The federal stimulus package included billions in grants to states to build high-speed rail – or at least higher – speed rail. In reality, most of the money will fund things like additional tracks, upgraded signaling systems and improved grade crossings. Trains will travel somewhat faster, but they won't be anything close to high-speed by international standards.

When California officials talk about building high-speed rail, they actually mean it. The plan is to build a system that stretches from San Francisco and Sacramento to San Diego that's serviced by true bullet trains, similar to those in Europe and Asia. Top speeds would be 70 mph faster than the top speed of Amtrak's Washington to Boston service – at 150 mph, it's the fastest train in the United States today.

California is also different from other states in that it's been seriously contemplating high-speed rail – and arguing about it – for 15 years. Proponents advocate for high-speed rail as an environmentally friendly way to relieve congestion from clogged highways and airports. Opponents cast it as a costly boondoggle.

In 2008, the proponents won a major victory. After years of delays, California voters approved a ballot measure to authorize $9 billion in bonds to build the system. That commitment helped California win $2.25 billion in stimulus funding for high-speed rail, easily the highest share of any state. But the stimulus funds come with a deadline: Construction must begin by September 2012. In other words, if high-speed rail is going to happen in California, it must happen soon.

With its transit-friendly Bay Area sensibilities, Palo Alto is the sort of place where high-speed rail would be expected to find friends. And for a time, it did. The City Council voted unanimously to endorse the ballot measure in 2008. At the polls, Palo Altans supported it by a 2-1 margin.

But during a Palo Alto City Council meeting in March, it was evident how much the mood has changed. The debate was between members who said Palo Alto should oppose high-speed rail unless it takes the form of a tunnel, and others who said even a tunnel might not be acceptable. Ultimately with council members still awaiting more detailed plans from the state, nothing was decided – yet.

The reversal from Palo Alto's council reflects the difficulty in making high-speed rail a reality. A 220 mph train can't go just anywhere; it can't intersect any road, or easily share track with slower freight trains or conventional passenger trains. It needs a dedicated right of way that is straight and flat to maintain its speed.

In practice, that means high-speed rail tracks in California will have to follow the routes of either highways or existing rail lines. Barring a last-minute reversal, high-speed rail will follow the route of Caltrain, the region's commuter rail service, from San Jose to San Francisco. That will take it straight through Palo Alto.

Adjacent to the track is Palo Alto High School, as well as parks and neighborhoods with funky one-story homes designed by renowned modernist architect Joseph Eichler.

Then there's El Palo Alto. At only 110 feet tall, El Palo Alto is downright diminutive compared to California's giant sequoias. But in old photos, it towers over the landscape. It survived the arrival of the locomotive, which puffed it with soot. It survived the tapping of its water table, which sickened it for several decades. And it survived Stanford students racing to climb it once a year – a tradition suspended in 1909 when a student got stuck. Today with careful management, including a pipe running up its trunk that serves as a personal sprinkler system, the tree's health is improving. Dockter, the arborist, says it could survive another 100 to 300 years – if it didn't have to cope with high-speed rail. "My wife and I voted for it too," he says.

No one knows for sure how high-speed rail would affect Palo Alto's schools, homes, roads, parks and trees. One major question is what form the tracks will take. The trains might run in a tunnel or a trench, or they could run at ground level, with roads burrowing underneath. Or there's the option that the people of Palo Alto like least: an elevated track.

In April, the California High-Speed Rail Authority presented alternatives on what form the track will take from San Francisco to San Jose. Acknowledging community opposition, the authority ruled out a track on top of a berm in Palo Alto – essentially a wall. Other below-ground, at-grade and elevated options remain under consideration.

Tony Carrasco, a local architect, wants to bury both Caltrain and the high-speed rail underground. In its place would be a new greenway that would help connect Palo Alto's extensive network of parks. The train tracks, one of the few impediments to Palo Alto as a walkable, bikable place, would be gone. But tunnels are expensive, and Carrasco's vision may be ignored. "The high-speed rail board is charged with the task of getting this rail line done," Carrasco says. "They're not charged with the task of making the community better."

That's what worries Palo Altans. They're concerned that noise and vibrations from the trains will affect their quality of life and reduce their property values. The noise will be hard to avoid: Thanks to a temperate climate, some homes' only air conditioning is an open window.

Of course, before the trains arrive, the track must be built. The Caltrain right-of-way through Palo Alto squeezes to less than 75 feet wide at some places. The track configuration the authority chooses will affect just how wide the right of way needs to be for high-speed rail. But it seems likely that some homes will need to come down, especially since temporary "shoo-fly" tracks may have to be installed to allow Caltrain to keep operating while construction takes place.

Opposition in Palo Alto and surrounding communities isn't unanimous. Unions are eager for the construction jobs, and many business groups hope it would enable upgrades to Caltrain allowing it to travel faster, with speeds of more than 100 mph.

Still, the concern over high-speed rail is hard to overstate. When authority representatives visited Palo Alto recently, they were greeted by a crowd of 500 people, and the meeting lasted more than five hours.

For their part, authority officials say they're willing to work with anyone who will accept high-speed rail. "We take all of those concerns very seriously," says Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle, who chairs the authority, "but there's very little we can do if someone starts out by saying, 'We don't want a high-speed train at all.'"

In response to critics in Palo Alto and elsewhere, supporters also say, "Where have you been?"

"We would oftentimes ask for meetings with city government and have a hard time getting people's attention," says Jeff Barker, the authority's deputy director, "because people didn't think it was real." Barker acknowledges that, with two years until they break ground, he doesn't have all the answers yet.

There's a less charitable response that no one with the authority would say, but that serves as tense subtext to the whole debate: Palo Altans only care about what's happening in their backyards.

After all, if high-speed rail lives up to its promise, it will move tens of millions of people each year, create tens of thousands of jobs, help relieve congestion, clean the environment and spur economic growth. With benefits that big, does it really matter if a few homes must be removed and some other residents have to deal with a little more noise? Or that the view in one city isn't as nice and that traffic doesn't flow quite as smoothly? Or if one old tree must be sacrificed?

But there are a few reasons the critics in Palo Alto can't be dismissed so easily. For one thing, in some sense, it doesn't matter whether they're right or wrong. Local opposition could stall the project regardless.

To some extent, it already is. In 2008, Menlo Park and Atherton, two nearby cities, launched a lawsuit against the authority, claiming that the chosen path of high-speed rail up the San Francisco Peninsula was based on faulty environmental reviews. The cities preferred a route that would take high-speed rail through the East Bay, avoiding their cities. In 2009, Palo Alto supported that position in court. The court ruled that the authority had to redo some environmental analysis, but the route appears unlikely to change.

The suit in Menlo Park and Atherton suggests another reason why critics in Palo Alto can't be ignored: They're not alone. Burlingame and San Jose also are worried about elevated tracks. Buena Park, near Anaheim, is worried that a commuter rail station or adjacent developments will be torn down to make room for high-speed rail. Farmers in the Central Valley wonder whether vibrations from the train will knock almonds off their trees.

All of this is quite familiar to anyone who's ever been involved in a major building project, whether it's a new airport, road, ballpark or Wal-Mart. Residents worry about noise and how new development will affect their quality of life. Sometimes they sue.

What's different about high-speed rail in California is the scale. The state will make hundreds of interdependent design decisions that must work from an engineering standpoint and pass legal muster. In effect, California is testing whether the most mega of mega-projects can succeed in today's fiscal, legal and political context.

Success certainly won't be easy. While Palo Altans are worried about their own backyards, they're also voicing much bigger concerns – concerns that are shared by many others, including key legislators in Sacramento.

First, there's the question of paying for the system. Estimates peg the cost of building the initial San Francisco to Anaheim section at $42.6 billion. So far, the authority has about $11 billion from the California bonding measure and the federal stimulus. This is an impressive start. There's no way California could attract private investment without this upfront public commitment.

But cost estimates already have increased. What if they increase again? The authority's business plan counts on $17 billion to $19 billion in federal funding and $10 billion to $12 billion in private funding. The stimulus package only had $8 billion for high-speed rail for the entire country. If Congress doesn't provide recurring funding for high-speed rail, the project's budget will a have giant hole. It's a hole that California – the nation's most fiscally troubled state – is uniquely unqualified to fill. "They don't appear to have the dollars to do the $43 billion of construction that they're estimating," says Palo Alto Mayor Pat Burt, "and $43 billion appears to be severely below what it will really cost. They're two giant steps away from reality."

Another question is ridership. A series of trade-offs will influence how many people ride the trains. The more stations that are built, the more places trains can pick up riders. But stopping frequently slows high-speed rail down. Likewise, lower fares would mean higher ridership, which would relieve more train and plane congestion. But up to a point, higher fares would generate more revenue for the system.

The authority's most recent business plan floated the idea of train fares at $104.75 from San Francisco to Los Angeles – or 83 percent of a plane trip's projected cost, instead of the 50 percent in its previous report. For ridership, that difference is huge: The authority projects 58 million riders with the 50 percent level in 2035. At 83 percent, it drops to 41 million. Critics contend that the projections are unrealistic. Everyone agrees ridership estimates are, at this point, informed speculation at best.

But how do you design a rail system if you don't know how many people will ride it? "It drives everything – how many tracks, how many parking spots, how many everything," says Nadia Naik, co-founder of Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design, a Palo Alto-based group that has pushed for more disclosure from the authority. Ultimately Palo Altans worry that their homes will be razed to build capacity the system won't end up needing.

All of these obstacles would be difficult enough if the authority had complete flexibility to execute the project. But it doesn't. In addition to the 2012 deadline to begin construction under the stimulus, the 2008 ballot measures included two key requirements: Trains must run between Los Angeles and San Francisco in two hours and 40 minutes or less, and the state isn't allowed to pay an operating subsidy for the system. It must at least break even. The optimistic view is that these rules will help keep the project focused on key goals. "Of course they tie your hands, but they also create the parameters in which you operate," Pringle says.

The less optimistic view is that the mandates are one reason the doomsday question is unavoidable: Will high-speed rail ever be built in California?

It turns out the authority has addressed that question explicitly. On orders from the Legislature, its most recent business plan included a section titled, "Risks That Could Jeopardize Project Completion."

The section reads like a road map for what could prevent high-speed rail from becoming a reality. Federal funding could fail to materialize. Low ridership projections could drive away private investment. Political support could crumble. The project could fail to meet environmental standards or could get tied up in courts. Construction problems could leave the authority short on cash to complete the system.

Burt, Palo Alto's mayor, worries the system won't be built, citing costs. "Once it gets over $50 [billion] to $60 billion," he says, "we think there'll have to be a 'come to God' on why we are spending all this money on a plan that can't conceivably be funded."

But he also worries that the system will be built. "Our fear," he says, "is that [the authority] is planning to do what's called the 'stake-in-the-ground' strategy, which is that you get something partly built and so much money spent that they can't back out because they've already put so much money into it. Somebody somehow has to come up with tens of billions of dollars more."

Burt's mantra is that he's for high-speed rail if it's done right. His fear is that signs point to high-speed rail being done wrong just to get the project completed one way or another.

Authority officials think this view is awfully cynical for a project that, despite its lengthy conception, is in many ways just getting started. They acknowledge that the challenges are great, but feel that with trains not scheduled to start carrying passengers for a decade, they can overcome the obstacles.

In fact, Barker, the authority's deputy director, has his own idea as to the project's biggest threat. "The biggest hurdle from a governing point of view is going to be public involvement," he says.

What he means is that in places such as Palo Alto, the authority has lost the goodwill of local officials and residents. As a result, Barker says there've been many disagreements about process, but comparatively little discussion of substance: what high-speed rail should look like and how it can best serve California's people.

Barker says it's essential that the authority make up for lost time by fostering a constructive, respectful dialogue. Such a complicated, expensive endeavor will never succeed unless the people most affected by it are, by and large, on board.

On this point, no one in Palo Alto would disagree.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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