Why California High Speed Rail Is Needed
To understand why California High Speed Rail is needed despite its high cost and lengthy construction time, a thoughtful combination of text, videos, and charts simplify a lot of “Nerd Stuff” in this explainer. Hyperlinks to supporting resources are boldened as well.
The state ranks 1st in Industrial and Agricultural products. California also has the 1st, 2nd, and 10th busiest commercial seaports and the 2nd busiest military seaport. So private companies built America’s second-largest freight rail network between agricultural areas, manufacturing & distribution centers, military bases, and seaports.
If the Golden State was a sovereign country, it would have the world’s 5th largest economy. It is the most populous state and has the highest Average Household Income of any big state in America. In Fiscal Year 2021-22, the California’s State Transportation budget of $31 billion and California Air Resources Board had a multi-billion dollar budget too.
When large U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) grants join equally large state agency budgets for big infrastructure, know that America and California can afford it. I’ll explain below why America and the state must change their Transportation budget priorities to feature California High Speed Rail, Regional Rail, and more Rapid Transit. By the way, commuter rail is considered Rapid Transit.
California Freeway Widening Has Become Fool’s Gold
You would think that California’s impressive transportation infrastructure would deftly handle all traffic. Yet in 2018, a US News article proclaimed that Los Angeles and San Francisco as 2 of the 5 most highway-congested cities in the world. San Diego wasn’t far behind. At first take, that’s odd because Los Angeles Metro Area, San Francisco Bay Area and San Diego Metro Area have several of the biggest freeway systems in the world.
When Los Angeles Metro Area and San Francisco Bay Area freeways widened to 2 HOV + 6 Standard lanes, they reached the most practical balance of “Capacity-Efficiency-Per-Lane” in 1990. Ditto for San Diego Metro Area by 2000. Beyond that number of HOV & Standard lanes, each freeway widening reduces Capacity-Efficiency-Per-Lane more than it helps traffic flow.
The mathematics of Queuing Theory helps explain why. For each freeway lane beyond 2 HOV + 6 Standard lanes, drivers spend increasingly more time adjusting speeds and lane-changing lateral motion that slows Average Speed during Rush Hour.
Other factors denigrate traffic flow too. When new lanes open, they also induce demand from drivers who otherwise take local streets. The population of California’s metro areas is increasing despite rural populations decreasing. The state’s percentage of car ownership increased. More people are driving from deeper suburbs to work, school and play in the city. The urban planner at City Beautiful has YouTube videos illustrating these congestion factors.
Considering all those factors, the freeways re-congest 2 or 3 years after each widening.
Since most people were unaware of those congestion factors, politicians convinced Los Angeles Metro Area (19M pop.), San Franciso Bay Area (8M pop.), and San Diego Metro Area (3.4M pop.) voters to fund freeway expansion to 2 HOV + 8 Standard lanes under the hype of “Congestion Relief.” If they stopped at 2 HOV + 8 Standard lane freeways to fund better Amtrak Regional Rail, more Metro Rail, more Bus Rapid Transit, and more Dedicated Bikeways, highway and boulevard congestion would not be as rampant.
When congestion returned, politicians retread the same Congestion Relief hype widening freeways to 2 HOV + 10 Standard lanes. Some freeways widened to 12 and 14 Standard lanes. Yet congestion is continuing to slow Rush Hour Average Speeds. Even the breathtaking 21-lane freeway junction in San Diego congests because its exorbitant number of lanes are NOT capacity-efficient.
Further freeway widening is like loosening your belt to treat obesity.
Intrastate driving is another component of traffic congestion that costs California residents $28 billion/year in wasted time and fuel. Residents and visitors love driving from metro areas to the beaches, national & state parks, and to Las Vegas just beyond it border. Hence, California intra-state travel is forecast to increase from 361 million annual trips in 2010 to 545 million annual trips by 2040.
Remember the “545 million intra-state trips 2040 forecast” for the end of the California High Speed Rail explainer.
California Hub Airports Swamped, Airlines Skipping Over Central Valley
Sunny days, fertile soil and canal water make California’s San Joaquin Valley, hereafter called “Central Valley”, one of the world’s great agricultural regions. Economic bounty from freight trains and freight trucks transporting agriculture & oil, military bases, plus five major universities helped Central Valley cities sprout small to midsize metro areas.
Today, the Central Valley’s Stockton-Lodi, Modesto, Merced, Fresno, Hanford-Corcoran, Visalia-Porterville, and Bakersfield metro areas range from 150,000 to 1,000,000 population. Yet major airlines are skipping over small and midsize metro areas like those in the Central Valley because those short flights don’t break even. Since flights are a vanishing option to/from the Central Valley, more drivers in mostly single-occupant vehicles contribute to highway congestion, Smog & Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions.
A 21st-century mega-trend is that airlines are shifting to more Medium-Haul flights (2-5 hours), Long-Haul flights (6-12 hours) and Ultra-Long-Haul flights (over 12 hours) to meet rising demand for them and for higher profits.
Major airlines only tolerate 45- to 90-minute flights like LA-San Francisco, LA-Oakland, LA-San Jose, LA-Las Vegas, San Diego-San Francisco, and Los Angeles-Phoenix because their flights currently have high passenger load factors. When their passenger load factors reduce, flights will reduce too.
California Striving to Cut Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Transportation
California acquired the Golden State nickname due to sunny days tanning brush on majestic hills and mountains. Since 2000, California has seen rising temperatures produce more frequent drought conditions that dry an abundance of brush fueling wildfires.
The increasing number and severity of droughts and wildfires are two of many reasons why California leads America’s initiative in the Paris Climate Agreement. The members’ primary goal is to limit Global Warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2050 to prevent apocalyptic stuff from happening. To accomplish that goal, every advanced and emerging nation must slash GHG emissions in all economic sectors.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports that America is the world’s second-highest GHG emitter and Transportation Sector is America’s largest GHG emitter. In descending order, the largest Transportation Sector GHG emitters are:
1. Oil-powered Cars & Small Trucks
2. Freight Trucks
3. Regional Flights
4. Cargo Ships
5. Freight Trains
First, the good news. Californians are purchasing 7 times more Electric Cars than the next 10 states combined. Charging stations will be pervasive along California highways by decade-end. By 2035, Amazon and Walmart electric freight trucks will be commonplace for Short-Haul and Medium-Haul loads.
Elon Musk expects that Battery Electric freight trucks will reach the 500-mile range for Long Haul loads in few years. By decade end, charging stations will provide 500 miles of range in 30 minutes as well. When you consider that freight trucks are fully depreciated for tax purposes in 10-12 years, Battery Electric freight trucks should be commonplace by 2035.
Cargo ships, cruise ships, and ferries are implementing Sustainable Maritime Fuels and new technologies to cut GHG and Smog emissions. California implemented regulations that will dramatically cut GHG and Smog emissions in seaports by 2031.
There’s also work-in-progress news. Unlike freight rail in Europe, America’s freight rail industry has not committed to a Battery Electric locomotives. Instead, the industry is moving towards a variety of biofuels that only lower GHG & Smog emissions by 20-30%. The industry has yet to settle on a single widely available Sustainable Freight Train Fuel.
Airplanes are getting more fuel-efficient and switching to greener Sustainable Aviation Fuels. LAX and SFO Airports have committed to the large-scale use of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) and other airports are following. By 2030, airline use of SAF should be commonplace in America.
Now, the bad news. Aviation GHG emissions will only stabilize due to excessive Short-Haul (41% of U.S. flights are regional) and more Medium-Haul and Long-Haul flights coming in greater numbers.
Though electric cars, small trucks & freight trucks will comprise a large percentage of highway vehicles by 2035, the percentage of oil-powered cars, small trucks & freight trucks will remain large, and total highway vehicles are growing. Since highways are becoming less Capacity-Efficient-Per-Lane, increasing highway congestion will continue producing significant GHG & Smog emissions.
Transportation Smog Lowered, But Not Enough
Diesel-powered freight trucks, cargo ships and freight trains also emit Smog particulates that contain elemental black carbon — the main cause of Asthma.
South Coast Air Quality Management District confirms that most Smog emissions in Los Angeles Metro Area is transportation-related. In 2014, 5.2 million people or nearly 14% of Californians, had asthma. That will remain a health issue of magnitude for the state.
Catalytic converters and California regulation for cleaner gasoline paid off. Excluding wildfire days, the air in Los Angeles Metro Area is no longer brown. But don’t pop the champagne yet. California cities still dominate the American Lung Association list of metro areas suffering the nation’s worst Smog, with LA Metro Area topping the list.
The American Lung Association also reports that high Smog levels within 1 mile of highways, airports, and seaports trigger higher levels of lung diseases. Smog also reduces the quality of sleep. Black and brown communities live disproportionately closer to highways, airports, and seaports.
California’s Central Valley has more conditions tormenting air quality. Its diesel-powered agricultural equipment and high concentrations of diesel-powered freight trucks & trains moving agriculture elevate Smog emissions. When clouds from the Pacific Ocean climb over the western mountain range they are trapped in the Central Valley by the eastern mountain range. Those clouds combine with warmer temperatures to trap Smog inversions.
As Global Warming increases average heat level, Smog inversions last longer and more Central Valley residents develop breathing problems. Since Central Valley workers produce one quarter of America’s food, this is a health problem of national significance.
To keep the economy humming along while addressing the 21st-century challenges of traffic congestion, smog & GHG emissions, the state needs California High Speed Rail System, upgraded Amtrak Regional Rail lines, more extensive Rapid Transit networks and better stations connecting them all.
California HSR Authority Vision Undercut by Naive Journalists
A high-speed, high-capacity, high-frequency, zero-emission, interconnected passenger rail network is the best way to lower GHG and Smog emissions from cars, small trucks, and regional flights. California High Speed Rail System is the spine to that network. That state-of-the-art rail system will open in multiple segments within two phases:
Phase 1: 494-miles San Francisco-Anaheim (includes Norwalk/Santa Fe Springs & Fullerton between LA & Anaheim)
Phase 2: 300-miles Merced-Sacramento and Los Angeles-Riverside-San Diego
In November 2008, California voters passed a $9.95 billion High Speed Rail (HSR) bond measure in the same election President Obama promised economic stimulus grants to states with Preliminary Plans and Environmental Clearances for HSR-Amtrak projects. In the bond measure, California HSR was authorized $9 billion, while $760 million would go to local projects in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles Metro Area that would connect to HSR stations.
To keep the cost for Phase 1 below $88 billion (latest quote by California HSR Authority), the state must continuously build multiple segments. From 2022 to 2034, I estimate that the California HSR project needs $3 billion/year in federal, state & local funds to build an impressive Phase 1 Initial Operating Segment in these stages:
Preliminary Plans >> Environmental Clearance >> Property Acquisition & Engineering >> Construction >> Testing >> Open
The average voter in Los Angeles Metro Area and San Francisco Bay Area wanted a straighter alignment between them. Naive journalists and lazy bloggers repeated that sentiment to the public. Against that media and public pressure, California HSR Authority had the vision and political courage to select the more inland Central Valley alignment from Burbank-Palmdale-Bakersfield-Kings/Tulare-Fresno-Gilroy.
When the most direct San Francisco-Los Angeles alignment was shot down for practical reasons, naive journalists and lazy bloggers pushed for a straighter alignment between Burbank and Bakersfield. That alignment was also quickly discarded for being more expensive than Burbank-Palmdale-Bakersfield due to 60 miles of tunneling required under the mountainous Angeles National Forest from Sylmar to Wheeler Ridge in the Central Valley.
Nor did naive journalists and lazy bloggers remind the public that $760 million of HSR Bond money helps fund Caltrain commuter rail electrification between San Francisco and San Jose, the massive Los Angeles Union Station upgrade, a new Metro Light Rail tunnel towards Los Angeles Union Station, and Rosecrans-Marquardt overpass that improves two Amtrak lines, two LA Metrolink commuter rail lines, one freight rail line, while reducing gate-waits for automobiles by 21 hours per week before it serves California HSR.
Another baseless criticism was that trains could not operate at 200 mph to meet a trip time requirement in the HSR bond measure. If naive journalists had checked Youtube in 2007, they would have seen video of a modified French TGV setting a 357 mph speed record. And in January 2008, the French train maker Alstom was taking orders for a new TGV certified for operation up to 224 mph (360 kph).
That baseless criticism didn’t stop until 2017 when China elevated commercial operation of high-speed trains to 217 mph (350 kph).
Federal Funding Failure for California HSR
In the 20th century, America liked to lead in successful technology and infrastructure that are good for America’s international influence. Consequently, there is a federal precedent of lead-funding technology and infrastructure projects that have national significance. America’s first 220 mph HSR system certainly checked both boxes. And for decades, California had been a “Donor State” sending billions more in taxes to the federal budget than it received back in benefits.
The nationally significant project should have easily qualified for $20-24 billion/12 years of federal grants.
Large federal grants always increase state and local political willpower to provide more matching funds. If USDOT stipulated that state & local governments cover 40% of the project cost, like many highway projects today, California politicians would have grown kahunas to do it. That $20-24 billion/12 years combined with the $9 billion HSR bond, would have attracted $6-7 billion more over 12 years from California State Transportation Agency, California Air Resources Board, and local transportation agencies.
With a $35-40 billion sum committed, Three times more Environmental Clearances, Property Acquisitions, and Engineering Designs could have been completed by 2015, erasing doubts about Phase 1. California HSR Authority could have secured lower-cost contracts for a 250-mile Initial Operating Segment (IOS) from Gilroy to Palmdale. More Environmental Clearances and early Property Acquisitions would have started in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles Metro Area too.
At Gilroy, the IOS could connect to Caltrain commuter rail running to San Francisco. At Palmdale, the IOS could connect to Metrolink commuter rail running to Los Angeles. More travelers with early access to 220 mph trains would jack-up public confidence in the project and HSR in general.
The Obama Administration envisioned that opportunity. In 2009, President Obama authorized a $3.5 billion federal grant to California HSR from economic stimulus funds. Using savings from a reduced Defense budget, President Obama planned to fund more Transportation infrastructure projects without raising federal taxes. Obama proposed to invest $53 billion/6 years in HSR-Amtrak projects beginning in 2011.
Two of America’s bipartisan political achievements were great Highway and Aviation infrastructure. Unfortunately, a political change in Congress was hell-bent against President Obama’s entire agenda. The 2011 House of Representatives majority kneecapped that and all subsequent HSR proposals. The absence of more federal grants devastated the California HSR project. Beyond the initial $3.5 billion federal grant, the state alone had to fund the IOS. The smaller budget reduced Central Valley IOS from 250 miles to 119 miles.
By default, the shorter IOS did not reach the outskirts of the Los Angeles Metro Area and San Francisco Bay Area, giving rise to a “Train to Nowhere” narrative. Haters, naive journalists and lazy bloggers pounced on that narrative even though the Central Valley already had a larger population than 30 states.
In the 2016 election campaign, both presidential candidates backed major federal HSR investments. A compelling majority of Democrat, Republican, and Independent voters wanted it. Chambers of Commerce, big construction companies, labor unions, and environmentalists wanted it. There was real hope that Interstate HSR would become another bipartisan infrastructure achievement. Those hopes were quickly dashed.
In 2017, the next president submitted a $1.5 trillion proposal that would have cut federal infrastructure funding to $200 billion and shifted $1.3 trillion in costs to states, counties, cities, and the private sector over 10 years. He lied to voters.
With sleight of hand, his administration cancelled all HSR project funding, froze Amtrak’s operational “Life Support” funding, and slashed Rapid Transit project funding that could have improved commuter rail projects overlapping California HSR route.
Fortunately, Congress shot down his Bait & Switch Infrastructure proposal. As a political vendetta against the governor, however, that president withdrew $929 million of previously committed federal funding to the California HSR project.
The Root of Rookie Mistakes and Bad Luck
California HSR Authority made many rookie mistakes from 2002-2016. It underestimated delays getting environmental clearance, acquiring property, and construction costs that invited more inflation. It did not shape a reasonable project timeline. That triggered public communication missteps and sapped political willpower.
It’s fair to criticize the California HSR Authority’s rookie mistakes. Haters gonna hate. But to many naive journalists still overplay the “Troubled, Over-Budget, Delayed Again, Train to Nowhere” narrative. If fair-minded journalists want to insightfully criticize the project, they should place a magnifying lens over the “Root of Why” so many rookie mistakes were made. Bloggers will follow.
America has liked the idea of high-speed trains since 1964 when Japan introduced the world’s first at 130 mph. Since America’s first HSR project launched in 1965, the nation has never summoned political willpower to continuously invest in passenger rail. If it did, America’s Interstate HSR System with Regional Rail appendages would be more impressive than its counterparts in Europe today.
The reason we lacked political willpower is a bipartisan failure by Congress and several Presidents who fear or coddle HSR Haters — the Highway Lobby and Aviation Lobby. This Amtrak Acela High Speed Rail article explains in more detail. The short story is they have never committed a sufficient level of funding for the project to succeed and inspire confidence along the way.
Since America lacked Institutional Knowledge to efficiently build HSR infrastructure, California HSR Authority could not hire a project team of experienced engineers, planners, contract managers, and program managers from an American agency to plan better, execute better and communicate better. Mistakes were inevitable.
Those shortcomings were drummed into the national consciousness for so long that few leaders would risk political capital to wait for an impressive California HSR Initial Operating Segment. Instead, it was politically safe for the 2011-2020 Congressional majority and 2017 President to disregard HSR and related Amtrak Regional Rail upgrades.
California HSR Authority also had bad luck. No one could predict a 2020-22 pandemic triggering supply chain delays, labor shortages, and inflation for infrastructure projects worldwide.
That brings us to the 2021, when the California High-Speed Rail project picked up construction, political and funding momentum. In 2022, the project got a shot in the arm with more funding committed by the state and federal governments.