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[RM: This is Robert Cruickshank's response to Ralph Vartabedian's Oct. 9, 2022 feature piece "How California's Bullet Train Went Off the Rails",]

Robert Cruickshank
Digital Strategy for @cayimby. Chair of @SierraClubSEA.
Personal account — tweets represent my own opinions, for better or worse.
Joined August 2008

11:54 AM Oct 9, 2022

So the big NYT article about California high speed rail is not actually saying anything new. It's the latest from a former LA Times reporter who spent the last 12 years writing biased hit pieces about the project. I shut my blog down years ago. But it's time to debunk him again.

Vartabedian wants you to believe the California HSR project is expensive because of political forces that wanted to serve riders rather than serve empty farmland. He criticizes both the routing via Palmdale (population ~500K) and via Fresno-Bakersfield (population ~3M). But the entire point of a bullet train is to serve riders. Get Californians out of cars and into electrified trains. If you pass up nearly 4 million people, when serving them doesn't cost that much more money or time, you're doing it wrong.

The San Joaquin Valley, home to 3 million people and growing, has some of the nation's worst air quality. Putting stations along a Highway 99 corridor that parallels I-5 just a bit to the east is not just smart, it's essential.

The Palmdale routing (shown in red) is said to be controversial because of higher engineering costs. But... the I-5 route (shown in blue) is even more mountainous! And bypasses half a million people.

two routes through the Tehachapi Mountains

Because the California HSR board chose Palmdale early, we don't have great cost estimates for an I-5 route. But the map above makes it clear that either way, you're spending huge sums to get north of LA. So why not pick up 500K people while you're at it?!

Vartabedian goes on to claim that building HSR to serve the cities of the Central Valley added huge costs and complexities. No, it didn't. The tracks follow existing rail corridors in cities, and open farmland between them.

More importantly, his article looks at "costs" very narrowly, only considering construction. He doesn't consider added revenues of serving Valley riders. He doesn't consider benefits of reducing dependence on oil and slashing pollution. Doesn't consider TOD [RM: transit oriented development, which means regional planning, city revitalization, suburban renewal, and walkable neighborhoods combined].

For those of you who don't know California well, Central Valley is often neglected and forgotten by powerful political forces on the coasts. The quickest way to connect SF and LA is via the Valley. Refusing to serve 3M+ people is absurd, pointless, and leaves money & riders on the table.

Vartabedian then rehashes an utterly pointless argument, whether to use the Altamont or Pacheco Pass to connect the Valley to the Bay Area. This one was a wash. Costs would likely be same. Pacheco is taller but narrower. Altamont would have had more NIMBY opposition.

Why did HSR construction begin in the Central Valley? Because it was easier to start construction there. Flatter, fewer NIMBYs to fight you. Starting in SF or LA would have meant a minefield of NIMBY opposition. They sued anyway to try and stop project, and thankfully failed.

So if Vartabedian's article is full of flawed and easily debunked claims against the HSR project that he's been making for over a decade... what does explain why California HSR is bogged down? I'll tell you.

1. Lack of political support in Sacramento. The state legislature has never wanted to fully fund a bullet train between SF and LA, no matter what route was chosen. Jerry Brown and now Gavin Newsom have had to fight hard to get legislators to back it.

2. Lack of political support in Washington, D.C. California HSR received plenty of federal stimulus funds from the Obama Administration, and expected Congress to fund the bulk of the project, as the Obama Admin had intended. But the 2010 election put a stop to all that.

2a. In fact, once GOP took Congress, its leaders declared war on HSR and tried to stop it at every turn. When Trump became president, he tried to use his administrative powers to do the same. This added huge delays and extra costs, while also eliminating a potential revenue source.

3. Lack of expertise in land acquisition. Arnold Schwarzenegger wanted a project run by consultants rather than CalTrans. The result was CalTrans's expertise at land acquisition wasn't brought into the project, until years of delays had happened.

4. NIMBY lawsuits, from pretty much every place along the proposed route from SF to LA — but especially the Palo Alto area and Kings County (Central Valley). These also added years of costs and delays.

Most crucially, all four of the above problems would have bedeviled California HSR no matter which route was chosen. Vartabedian's central thesis is flawed. Choose an I-5 route and then Altamont, and all four problems still exist.

So how do you fix this? California has learned it can't rely on Federal funding. It also has a $3.5 trillion GDP, larger than all but four countries. California has to solve this on its own. Here's how:

1. Streamline environmental reviews, so that HSR doesn't get bogged down in process, and so NIMBYs can't slow it down again. 2. Provide sufficient state funding for HSR and other transportation projects, including mitigation funds near construction areas in communities. 3. Bring in overseas experts in design and construction. SNCF isn't the only HSR builder, and plenty of experts from other countries have shown interest in the project. 4. Bring in experts from other agencies to streamline land acquisition.

The future of California and the country as a whole depends on ending fossil fuel dependence. HSR is a piece of that puzzle. We can't just give up on it because of California's flawed but repairable political process problems. California can and should be a model for how to do it right. (So can Cascadia!)

Jake Woll
Oct 9

This is a great answer to the piece and pretty convincing. I'm still hung up on SNCF allegedly going to Morocco instead, because of the political dysfunction in California. Thoughts?

Robert Cruickshank
Oct 9

California has had a lot of massive political dysfunction, especially prior to 2011. It's gotten better since, especially on housing (see my day job), but transit remains mired in process hell and lack of funding. And even local rail projects have had huge delays — BART, LA Metro, etc.

[RM: Related commentary by Casey Handmer is here:]