Palo Alto Weekly
News - September 3, 2010
Palo Alto committee: 'No confidence' on high-speed rail
City Council members vow to fight project, barring 'immediate' improvements
by Gennady Sheyner
Palo Alto took its most extreme step to date to oppose the state's proposed high-speed rail line Thursday morning when a City Council committee unanimously passed a resolution declaring "No Confidence" in the project and its governing body.
The resolution, which will go to the full council Sept. 13, states the council "hereby declares that it has No Confidence in the High Speed Rail Authority and in the High Speed Rail Project as presently planned."
The resolution calls for the California High-Speed Rail Authority to "immediately" become more responsive to local communities and to come up with a "viable" plan for the system's design.
"It's time for us to recognize what the facts of life are and to act accordingly," said Councilman Larry Klein, chair of the High-Speed Rail Committee.
"We need to be proactive in defense of our community and our region, or else this will be just rammed down our throat and all the studies and alternative designs won't make a bit of difference."
Klein, who authored the resolution, suggested the city take an even bolder stance against the controversial $45 billion rail project and immediately adopt the actions he listed in the document. The actions include encouraging federal and state officials to withhold funding from the project, urging Caltrain to sever its relationship with the rail authority; encouraging Union Pacific to "remain steadfast in its refusal to waive any of its rights to the HSR Authority," and considering litigation to protect the Palo Alto's interests.
Klein, who in 2008 joined the council in formally supporting Proposition 1A, which funded the nearly $10 billion down payment, also wrote a background document explaining the drastic change in the city's position on high-speed rail.
He said since 2008 "an overwhelming number of facts have been discovered or developed and events have occurred that lead us to believe that the only reasonable alternative is to stop the HSR project now."
These include the continued uncertainty over the validity of the authority's ridership and revenue forecasts; the swelling cost estimates for the project; and a business plan that has been heavily criticized by state legislators and by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office.
Klein also accused the authority of trying to build the rail line "on the cheap" and pass on the true costs of mitigating the impact on local communities.
"If we're going to say it shouldn't be done, then I think you have to take the actions I'm suggesting or else it's going to be done to you, or done to us," Klein said.
Klein's colleagues on the committee agreed with his "no confidence" position, but balked at adopting the actions in his resolution without further discussion.
Councilwoman Gail Price characterized many of Klein's recommended actions as "premature" and said they could undermine the city's ongoing efforts to understand the impacts of the project.
"It prejudges all the materials and resources that we're investigating now," Price said of Klein's proposed resolution.
Mayor Pat Burt said he shared Klein's skepticism about the rail project but said committing to the actions in Klein's resolution could handcuff the city in future negotiations and discussions with state and federal officials.
Burt said the city should adopt a policy statement that defines the city's stance without hampering its latitude to take whatever actions it deems necessary in the future.
"I believe making this policy statement does have a substantial political impact as one additional city that is moving into a position of fundamental skepticism over the project," Burt said.
Burt and Councilwoman Nancy Shepherd also insisted the committee's resolution underscore the city's commitment to Caltrain, which is partnering with the rail authority on the Peninsula segment of the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles rail line. They added language to the resolution identifying Caltrain as the "indispensable backbone" of the local and regional transit system.
Shepherd said recent letters and documents from the rail authority underscore the need for the city to take a position against the project. The documents include the rail authority's recent application for federal funds, which outlines a backup plan in which high-speed rail would run through the Midpeninsula along the existing two-track street-level system.
"Until this can be looked at as a serious business project with serious plans I think we need to start to respond to Palo Alto's interests and not the deadlines that the High-Speed Rail Authority has produced in order to move their project forward," Shepherd said.
Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at email@example.com.
Posted by D. P. Lubic,
a resident of another community
on Sep 2, 2010 at 11:52 pm
Well, I'll probably be condemned for responding as an observer from out of state, but I see this as an important issue, not only for California, but for the whole country. I think there are some very important questions to consider, and so far I haven't seen anything about them here.
1. The USA uses two thirds of the oil it consumes for transportation. Something like 48% of total consumption is gasoline alone. Heavy trucks burning diesel fuel account for another 6%. That means that 54% of the oil used in this country is for motor fuel alone, strongly suggesting that our highway system is our Achilles heel. There is also the question of peak oil (also called Hubbert's Peak or Hubbert's curve, for geophysicist Marion King Hubbert who first proposed it in 1956, and seems to be having his theory confirmed. How would you address this?
2. One thing that has been suggested is more drilling for our own oil. This is certainly something to pursue, and it will be pursued, but the figures I've seen for total estimated reserves, including the offshore stuff that's presently off-limits for a variety of real and political reasons, totals 79 bbs (billions of barrels). We currently use 7 bbs per year. At that rate, the estimated 79 bbs would last only 17 years. What would we do in year 18, and not just for cars, but for air service, too?
3. Electric and other alternative fueled vehicles are touted as the future of the automobile. I won't say this is a bad ideait's notbut there are other problems. For instance, how do you deal with failing road revenue (which is mostly fuel taxes) when you get a significant number of vehicles on the road that do not burn fuel as such? What would be your alternate highway funding mechanism?
4. In a related matter, currently only 51% of highway expenditures comes from fuel taxes on a cash flow accounting basis. Not included in any of that are other costs, such as deferred maintenance, and external costs, such as air pollution. This strongly suggests the road system is badly underpriced. How would you deal with this?
4. We are, I believe, at the limit of what we can do with cars in terms of operating speed. The limit is not the cars themselves, but the abilities of drivers. This is becoming one of the attractive attibutes of even "higher speed rail," or HrSR (as an editor of Railway Age suggested calling 110 mph operations), and of course is a core benefit of true HSR. Assuming you prefer to stay with a modern highway option, how would you improve overall running times, and do so with improved safety?
5. As a corollary to the above, we have an aging population, with problems due to failing eyesight, hearing, reactions, and other problems. What would you propose as an alternative transportation system for people who are, through no fault of their own, becoming unfit to drive? (P.S.: I'm facing this personally, with failing night vision, specifically vision that does not recover from headlight glare as readily as it used to.)
6. Part of the reason for pursuing the HSR option is highway capacity problems. In many places, roads can no longer be widened, due to constraints of a filled right-of-way. If you were to add still more road capacity, where would you do it?
7. Other problems include incompetent drivers, rude drivers, drunk drivers, and finding a parking space. Many of us are weary of dealing with this same old garbage day in and day out. How would you address this?
I'm going to say I know HSR is not an answer to many of these questions; rather, I would argue that a general change of lifestyle, largely based around a turning away from the car culture as we currently know it and returning to a "rail culture," much like what this country was in the 1930s and 1940s, would be be strong answer to a good deal of these questions. This would include reviving streetcars and interurbans such as the old, gone and beautiful Sacramento Northern, intercity rail service (i.e., Amtrak), and something that wasn't around then, high speed rail.
Now,others would say I'm full of hooey (and I've also been called a rotten Communist, which was hooey), but these questions still remain. What would be your opinions on how to address these things, and do so without a greatly expanded rail component, including the high-speed stuff?
Posted by D. P. Lubic,
a resident of another community
on Sep 7, 2010 at 12:17 am
Many of you are concerned about the effect of high speed trains in your neighborhood. Part of this concern is driven by costs (i.e., taxes) and worries about subsidy. What many do not know (and politicians seem reluctant to tell us) is that your automobile (and the oil industry that supports it) is very heavily subsidized, just in ways that aren't so obvious.
Come along for a look.
In 2008 (last year for which statistics are currently available), this country, as a whole (Federal, state, and local governments), spent over $182 billion on roads, but only collected a bit over $94 billion in fuel taxes and tolls ($84.9 billion and $9.3 billion respectively). The $88 billion difference, spread over the approximatly 174.5 billion gallons of motor fuel sold that year, works out to a bit over 50 cents per gallon. This is on top of whatever you are paying now.
All this material comes from a USDOT website called "Highway Statistics." Curiously, for all the statistical information there (and the site is a gold mine of information!), the subsidy cost I just mentioned above is not in it; you have to work it out yourself between the two tables listed above.
Now, if we had an honest accounting, the additional 50 cents per gallon would be bad enough to pay on top of, say, $3.00 per gallon, but there are other costs, such as deferred maintenance, poor design and compromise in construction standards due to limited available funding, and external costs such as air pollution, unrecovered accident costs, and, at least until recently, a couple of oil wars.
My seat-of-the-pants estimate is that gasoline in this country really costs about $7 to $8 per gallon, and I'm conservative. There are others who estimate the cost to be as high as $15 per gallon. (You'll have to do an internet search for the "true cost of gasoline" to find out more about this, due to the limited ability of this page to relay links, otherwise I would have a couple for you.) You--we--are paying that $7 or whatever now, hidden in our income taxes, sales taxes, property taxes, insurance costs, and so on.
This comes back to several of the questions in the original post. How do we get off the oil diet, particularly in transportation? How do we pay for roads when cars use little or no fuel as such, or, in other words, how do we divorce road revenue from fuel consumption? How do we come up with answers to the other questions?
Finally, I know a lot of the concern about rail and grade seperation in Palo Alto and other places is about the potential of noise and other nuisance factors. Believe me, it will not be what so many naysayers claim.
Now, in the interests of disclosure, I've got to admit I'm a rail enthusiast, or as some others would say in less flattering terms, a "foamer" or "train geek." Having said that, I am also quite familiar with railroads, and have spent time about them, including steam roads; I've even lent a hand (for an impromptu two hours or so) to a steam locomotive overhaul. We have commuter and Amtrak service where I live, plus freight trains, including heavy coal trains over a mile long (with their corresponding returning empty trains). Like your own, these are all diesel powered and oil burning, except the steam heritage roads, which have locomotives that burn coal and spit much of it out the stack, where much of it comes down as hot, sand-like cinders around the third car in the train (guess how I know this).
A notable exeption, however, is the Amtrak service north of Washington, DC. This is the Northeast Corridor, or NEC, and is the former main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad, which was converted to electric operation in the 1930s. I've had the chance to see some of those trains whiz past stations on the line at well over 100 mph. Besides the visual speed (which is frightening the first time you see it), what was most impressive was how quiet the trains were compared to the diesel and steam trains I was more familiar with. I can easily imagine the possibility of one of these things sneaking up on you if you were on the tracks, and the engineer didn't see you in time to give a warning blast on the horn.
I will also mention that Palo Alto and other places would have good company if you got the electric HSR line built. Another line, also Amtrak operated, is the Keystone Corridor in Pennsylvania. Again, this is a former line of the Pennsylvania Railroad, running west from Philadelphia to Harrisburg (state capitol). It was also electrified in the 1930s, and recently upgraded to 110 mph operation. This line goes through what are called "Main Line" communities west of Philadelphia, which are some of the richest places in the state; the Paoli Local is an institution for those moneybags commuters. It doesn't sound like something to hurt property values!
Amazingly, this same semi-high speed route also goes through some of the prettiest farming country you ever saw, and this country, in the vicinity of Lancaster, Pa., is worked by old-order Amish people with horses! (This was the setting for a film called "Witness.") Also on the line are a sweet-smelling chocolate factory in Elizabethtown (Mars), an 1880s era station with a great steel canopy over the tracks at Harrisburg, and a working interchange (ironically, for freight only) with the steam-powered Strasburg Rail Road (yes, that's the way its corporate name is spelled).
To you and all, I welcome you aboard the train.
Posted by D. P. Lubic,
a resident of another community
on Sep 7, 2010 at 10:16 pm
Thanks, Bill, I'm glad you appreciate rail. But I would still have concerns about attempting to kill this project.
First, I should state that it's my understanding that the new railroad is supposed to fit into (or very nearly into) the existing right-of-way. That should minimize property takings, unless a house is right up against the tracks. I took a look at some satellite photos, and it does't seem to be the case here. Of course, if the project is rerouted for some reason, then my comments are off. . .
The semi-high speed service in Pennsylvania is, like the proposal in the Peninsula, over an existing legacy road that predates the Civil War. It was originally a single track, then expanded to two and later to four, was electrified, and later shrunk back to two tracks. Its grade seperations actually predate the electrification work of the 1930s by up to 20 years or so. Much of the upgrade to 110 mph operation involved new rail (when I saw it, the track had rail from 1942 in it--and industrial tracks had rail from 1898!), proper line-and-surface work, and upgrades to the signal system. Otherwise, it's essentially the same railroad as before.
That NEC is also a legacy route--yet it is the fastest section of railroad in the country. And yes, those electrics are quiet, almost unervingly so, at least to me. . .
What would worry me if I were a Californian would be the idea that this project (and rail projects in general) would get killed over money (again), and then we would be stuck with the next oil shock (again) because we decided trains weren't good enough for us, while we kept on feeding money to people who don't like us for a variety of reasons (again). I've been anxious about this for 35 years, following the first oil crunch in 1973. All that time, we wasted chance after chance to prepare for what happened a year or two ago. I want us to be properly prepared for the day.
Do I like the prospect of these construction companies gouging the taxpayer? Of course not, but I dislike the prospect of OPEC gouging us more, and on top of that, some of that money in support of the oil market winds up in the hands of the terrorists. Note that I know our actual oil imports aren't all that much from Saudi Arabia, but at the same time, our oil demand drives up the price world wide. This is because the oil business is truly a global enterprise; locally produced oil goes into the world commodity market, where we have to bid against everyone else for our own oil!
Al Gore was right, the internal combustion engine, at least as used the way we do now, has got to go, although not entirely for the reasons Gore suggests. Another writer, more creative than I am, suggested that the "American way of life," at least the part that considers cars to be freedom, is also our most serious and immediate security problem. If this project is killed, it will be a decade or more before someone attempts to bring it back. Considering the world oil situation, can we wait that long?
As to ridership, there is reason to think many such estimates may be understated, i.e., overly conservative. I believe part of this is that the loss of rail patronage in the past may have been generational. I'm short on time, so I can't write the whole thing out properly here, but there is another website where this was specifically discussed a while back. It's a history rail preservation site, so most of the material is on old trains (as in, steam), but much of what is said in this form (linked below) also applies to the pro-rail and anti-rail people in regard to modern rail service as well.