California High-Speed Rail: March 2018
March 10, 2018
The Transportation Museum's online exhibits are based on previous museum exhibits or similar, transportation-related exhibits found online, in the media, in other museums, or something else. This exhibit gives an update on the California High-Speed Rail Project, as of March 2018. Have an idea for an online exhibit? Contact the museum and use "Online Exhibit" in the subject line.
The California High-Speed Rail is the high-speed rail system currently under construction, with plans to connect passengers between San Francisco and Southern California in under 3 hours. At certain parts of the journey, the train would be running at 220 miles per hour. The plan, Proposition 1A, was approved by voters in 2008. Construction on the project began in 2015 near Fresno. Extensions to San Jose and San Diego are currently in the planning stages.
In March, the High-Speed Rail Authority released their draft 2018 High-Speed Rail business plan, which revealed some differences in the system from the 2016 plan. The information covered in this exhibit illustrates those differences, and what the current idea is for the construction cost, route, expected completion, and more. To see the full plan, which was open for public review until Monday, May 7, click here.
Overview of Updates
Cost Estimates: Rises $13 billion (from $64.2 billion to $77.3 billion, with a possible estimate of $98.1 billion); currently the authority has only about $20-$28 billion
Funding Plans: Equally from the federal government, state government, and the private sector
Revised Schedule, San Francisco to Bakersfield: 2029 (was 2025)
Revised Schedule, San Francisco to Anaheim: 2033 (was 2029)
Scroll down to learn more about funding plans, travel time, greenhouse gas emissions, jobs, relocation to the Central Valley, and the future of High-Speed Rail.
Funding the High-Speed Rail
Whether the cost of the rail system remains at $77.3 billion, or increases or decreases, there is no current plan in place that provides funding for the system. Currently, the authority gets funding from California's cap-and-trade program. ("Climate polluters" like refineries and electric utility companies must buy a permit to emit each ton of greenhouse gases, and the profit from these permits go into a Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, which the rail authority taps into.) Brian Kelly, the CEO of the rail authority, has asked lawmakers to extend the program from 2030, as was planned, to 2050. There are two significant problems with this.
First, voters in 2008 were told that the $9.95 billion would be the only thing taxpayers would pay for in the project. If the cap-and-trade program were to be extended until 2050, consumers would have to pay increased amounts for services through climate polluters, whether that would be higher costs for gasoline (this money would be given from refineries) or increased utility bills (this money would be given to the cap-and-trade program by electric utility companies). In short, Californians would be paying for the project, long after they paid $9.95 billion, through the cap-and-trade program.
Also, the 2018 Draft Business Plan specifically increases revenues from the cap-and-trade program to $750 million per year, when currently the authority receives, on average, $330 million per year. It is uncertain as to whether the program would continue to have even $330 million a year to give out to the rail authority, let alone $750 million. Companies that provide cap-and-trade funds are pressured to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions rather than to continue paying such high amounts of money to the state government.
After the San Francisco to Bakersfield system is complete, the rail authority expects profit from passenger fares will be enough to pay for the extension to Los Angeles. In the business plan, there is an assumption of nearly 31.7 million passengers in 2033, about the same as Amtrak's annual ridership (throughout the entire nation) or the number of people who board planes at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport each year. Is it realistic for the rail authority to expect such high ridership?
The original plan in 2008 called for the High-Speed Rail service to extend from San Francisco southward to Los Angeles, through the Central Valley. However, when building tunnels through the Tehachapi Mountains near Southern California proved more costly and difficult than expected, the committee decided to extend the service from San Jose to Bakersfield, and upgrade the Caltrain commuter rail line from San Francisco to San Jose. Read more about Caltrain Modernization here >
This second part is called a "blended system," referencing the fact that both Caltrain and High-Speed Rail trains would share the approximately-50-mile stretch of track between San Francisco and San Jose. However, this would result in an increased travel time between San Francisco and San Jose, and San Francisco and Los Angeles:
A graphic in the 2018 Draft Business plan. Related to the concept of a "blended system," note the last line in the graphic above: "Run times do not take into account integration with other operators' services in blended sections."
Between San Francisco and Los Angeles:
According to the 2008 Proposition, maximum non-stop service travel times shall not exceed 2 hours, 40 minutes
According to the 2018 Draft Business Plan, travel time is now 3 hours, 31 minutes
Between San Francisco and San Jose:
According to the 2008 Proposition, maximum non-stop service travel times shall not exceed 30 minutes
According to the 2018 Draft Business Plan, travel time is now 63 minutes
Greenhouse Gas Emissions
The 2018 Draft Business Plan expects the reduction of 64.9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide over 50 years (after the entire San Francisco to Anaheim system is built) to 84.1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide over 50 years (after the extension to San Diego is finished). Eventually, states the report, the average greenhouse gas emissions savings would be approximately 1.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide every year. This is the equivalent of taking 322,000 cars off the road, resulting in 169 million gallons of gasoline avoided, and more than 3,700 tons of harmful pollutants, like carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide, from being released into the air.
While these benefits are undeniable, when we look closer, the assumptions may be overly optimistic. First, to understand the rail authority's estimate above, it is estimated that a passenger car, on average, produces 4.7 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. Multiply this amount by 322,000 cars, times 50 years, and the result is close to 84.1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, which the rail authority estimates. This suggests that the greenhouse gas emission reduction is directly tied to the ridership estimate, which is converted into an estimate of fewer car miles. However, it is important to note two considerations: electric cars and rail construction.
In the future, an increasingly larger fraction of cars will not be gasoline fueled (estimates suggest 40% of cars by 50 years from now will hybrid, plug-in hybrid, or all-electric). The estimate above of 4.7 metric tons annually is for cars with gasoline engines. Electric vehicles produce far less emissions: 1.6 metric tons annually for hybrid electric cars and 1.0 metric tons for all-electric. Assuming these types of cars make up 40% of cars in California, the emissions savings would more accurately be at 40 million metric tons for San Francisco to Anaheim and 50 million metric tons for the extension to San Diego. Furthermore, the number of electric cars would continue to increase, with or without High-Speed Rail, ultimately decreasing this benefit.
The rail authority does not include construction emissions in their draft business plan. Research done by the Town of Atherton and the Atherton Rail Committee suggest construction done along the 800-mile San Francisco to Anaheim phase would produce about 2.6 million metric tons, equal to about 2 years of estimated savings once the rail line opened to passengers.
Why does this all matter? While it is true that the High-Speed Rail would help reduce greenhouse gas emissions in California, the fact that the rail authority publishes overly-optimistic numbers can help support two other arguments, as stated by the Town of Atherton:
"They serve as an example of the unsupported nature of claims made in the Draft 2018 Plan and, given the prior history of inaccurate forecasts by the Authority, they may lend credibility to other criticisms. [Additionally, graphics in the plan] indicate that a major fraction of their anticipated funding is from the Cap-and-Trade funds [which are supposed to be used for projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions]. To the extent that the justification for using those funds is tied to the Authority's claim of being a significant contributor to meeting California's GHG goals, which is disputable."
A slide from the California High-Speed Rail 2012 Business Plan. The authority has achieved their hopes related to creating jobs, both during the construction phase and planned long-term jobs after construction is finished.
High-Speed Rail Jobs
On May 31, 2018, the California High-Speed Rail Authority announced that the 2,000th construction job was created. Representatives from the State Building and Construction Trades Council, as well as the rail authority's Chief Operating Officer Joe Hedges, attended an event to mark the milestone.
Work began in January 2015 and there are currently more than 20 active construction sites throughout the Central Valley. "Once we expand out from [California's Central Valley] to the north and the south, there are going to be hundreds of major structures that will need to be built, creating thousands of jobs and new opportunities," COO Joe Hedges said.
And there's another benefit: unlike other transportation infrastructure projects like bridges or tunnels, the High-Speed Rail will create long-term jobs, like service attendants, engineers and conductors, and more.
Relocation to the Central Valley
Connecting large cities in the Central Valley — take Fresno, for example — with the sprawling Bay Area by way of a relaxing, short train ride would have tremendous benefits, for residents, companies, and cities throughout California.
People could live in towns like Turlock, Merced, or Fresno, where housing costs are low, and work in Silicon Valley, where salaries are high. As a result, more Silicon Valley companies would have motivation to relocate or expand. "I talk to businesses that want to expand all the time," says Lee Ann Eager, CEO of the Fresno County Economic Development Corporation. "Many of them are in Silicon Valley, where they can't expand anymore. They can't expand because there's no land, it's too expensive and people can't afford to live there anymore. They're looking for that next big thing..."
As is usually the case, there is an opposing view to this idea. The Town of Atherton, in a letter to the rail authority, argues that this presumption (of commuters traveling to Silicon Valley from Fresno, resulting in an affordable housing market for those working in the Bay Area) is unrealistic. The plan states that the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment is approximately $4,200 per month in San Francisco, but only $900 per month in Kings County (implying $3,300 per month in rent savings). However, with the 2018 proposed fares for a trip between San Jose and Fresno costing $66 each way, this would cost commuters $2,800 every month, meaning only $500 per month in savings. When you factor in the hassle of this daily commute, along with the relative desirability of living in Fresno as opposed to the Bay Area, "it is unlikely that there will be significant development or migration in the Valley area related to employment in Silicon Valley."
The Future of High-Speed Rail
Though there has been opposition to High-Speed Rail, much has been achieved in terms of progress since voters approved Proposition 1A in 2008. What does the public think now?
A recent USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll surveyed 835 total respondents in the Bay Area, Central Valley, and Southern California, ultimately revealing that while the public supports the dream of a high-speed train system, they do not believe in the rail authority to build it.
How do those running for California's Governor spot feel about this issue?
Gavin Newsom was an early supporter of the bond in 2008, but in November 2017 expressed some concerns about the proposed system. (He did not respond for comment when asked about the new business plan.) Antonio Villaraigosa said he supports the rail project and has been a consistent support, "unlike others." Both GOP candidates Travis Allen and
John Cox vowed in March that they would block the project, if elected.
You've learned about the benefits of High-Speed Rail—reducing emissions, creating jobs, perhaps increasing development and providing a much-needed affordable place to live for those who work in the Bay Area—but you've also read about some of the drawbacks, mainly the cost, travel time, and perhaps the lack of a realistic funding plan. You've read the arguments of both supporters and opponents, and even those in-between. How do you feel? What is your opinion on this issue?
One interesting note for the second poll was responses based on geography: only 27% of poll respondents in the Bay Area said they would stop the project, as opposed to 41% in Los Angeles, 56% in San Diego and Orange counties, and 64% in the Central Valley.
How do you feel about California's High-Speed Rail? Should construction continue? Should it be stopped?
This topic may be presented as an exhibit at the 11th Annual Transportation Museum, so have your opinion ready!
Curious? Want to learn more?
Read through the articles and webpages below to learn more about the High-Speed Rail system. All the information found in this exhibit comes from these sources.
Global Rail News (March 12, 2018): Article on Cost Increases >
Orange County Register (April 12, 2018): Opinion Story on the High-Speed Rail >
San Francisco Chronicle (March 15, 2018): Article on High-Speed Rail Progress >
Alan Kandel Science Blog (June 3, 2018): Science Blog Post on High-Speed Rail Benefits >
CNBC (March 12, 2018): Current Challenges the High-Speed Rail is Facing >
The Almanac (April 19, 2018): Letter from Atherton's Mayor to the Rail Authority >
Los Angeles Times (May 25, 2018): Data about High-Speed Rail Polls >
California High-Speed Rail Authority: High-Speed Rail Plans, Reports, and Updates >
High-Speed Rail Draft 2018 Business Plan: Draft Business Plan >
Caltrain Modernization: Information on Caltrain's Modernization, Expansion, and Electrification >