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Bullet train budget battle: Should California spend more on urban transit, not high-speed rail?

Gov. Gavin Newsom's proposal to dedicate $4.2 billion in the state budget to complete the first section of the high-speed rail project was left out of the state budget by lawmakers. Courtesy California High-Speed Rail Authority.

High-speed rail was supposed to connect California's urban hubs: Los Angeles and San Francisco. Now, it's struggling to muster enough political support to connect the tiny towns of Madera and Shafter.

Thirteen years since California voters approved $10 billion to build a bullet train, Democrats who run the state government are divided over spending the money to finish building the first section of track — a 119-mile stretch in the Central Valley.

Though Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed pouring $4.2 billion into completing the segment, lawmakers balked and left the funds out of the June budget. Now, the governor and fellow Democrats who control the Legislature are negotiating how much to chug along by laying track in the farm belt — or whether to spend more on transportation projects in more heavily populated regions.

'We would have started building high-speed rail in the San Francisco Bay Area, down in LA, and then eventually connect it.'

-Ethan Elkind, director, Climate Program at the UC Berkeley School of Law

"Typically what you'd see with projects like this is they'd start where the people are at and then radiate outwards. So, we would have started building high-speed rail in the San Francisco Bay Area, down in LA, and then eventually connect it," said Ethan Elkind, director of the climate program at the UC Berkeley School of Law.

"We did this really backwards, and now we're starting to really see the political price of that decision."

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The Newsom administration, however, praises high-speed rail as a job creator in the economically-struggling Central Valley. And then there's the federal government: If California wavers on funding high-speed rail now, it could make it harder to compete for federal funds with other states. The last time Newsom publicly questioned the project, the Trump administration yanked $1 billion — funding that was only recently restored by President Biden.

"We are going to bat at the federal level for the funding necessary to build this first-in-the-nation high-speed rail system, and we urge the State Legislature to maintain its commitment at the state level," U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla wrote in a letter to legislative leaders this week.

But the Legislature isn't so fast to green-light more money. Key lawmakers, especially in the Assembly, say they don't see the benefit for their Southern California constituents. And even if the bullet train eventually reaches Los Angeles and San Francisco, some legislators are skeptical that car-centric Californians will become train riders without more exposure to public transit in their daily lives.

"How (do) we turn California car culture into a California culture of transit of all sorts?" said Assembly Transportation Committee chairperson Laura Friedman, a Glendale Democrat. "That is the big question — and how does high-speed rail interact with that?"

Until then, she is reluctant to pump more money into a train through the sparsely populated Central Valley. With a quarter of California's population living in Los Angeles County, Friedman would like to see money spent on improving Union Station in Los Angeles, the Metrolink commuter rail and transit between the San Fernando Valley and LA's Westside.

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She said she doesn't see why California needs to immediately devote $4 billion more to high-speed rail when "they're spending a billion and a half a year."

The Newsom administration says high-speed rail construction is at a critical point. Money is needed now to complete the final piece of the Central Valley portion, according to Brian Annis, chief financial official at the California High-Speed Rail Authority. And, he said, the state is on the cusp of choosing a contractor to lay the bullet train's track. That'll cost money, too.

"The project has taken longer than originally thought. The scope has increased, which has added some costs," Annis said. "But again, we're hitting some major milestones here where we're almost fully completed with our design."

Without this funding, the Newsom administration argues, fewer workers will be needed and layoffs could start as soon as next summer.

More than 75% of those workers hail from the Central Valley — about 1,100 head to construction sites daily for jobs that come with health care and hard-to-find stability. For one Central Valley carpenter, working near home for more than three months at a time had been uncommon.

"He's home all the time now because this job has some length to it," said Chuck Riojas, the executive director of the Building Trades Council for several Central Valley counties.

But the Newsom administration is having a hard time convincing the Legislature that the investment now is worth it.

"I support the concept of a high-speed rail in California, but I think our current approach is not working," Democratic Assemblymember Luz Rivas, who represents the San Fernando Valley, said at a hearing in June. "There are other approaches that have been presented that could increase rail ridership, and I hope that those will be part of the discussion."

'I support the concept of a high-speed rail in California, but I think our current approach is not working.'

-Luz Rivas, Assembly member

A poll funded by the Assembly Democrats found that Californians are evenly split between killing high-speed rail or continuing it, but that support for the project is far higher among Democrats, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Friedman argues that better local service will boost support for trains, eventually restoring voters' favor for high-speed rail. "We need to create a state of train riders in order to have the political will to finish this project," she said.

Newsom also wants to fund local transit — his May revision proposed $1 billion toward improving regional and local rail services. The debate is over how much.

"It's not really an issue of high-speed rail or local transit. What the governor is proposing is to advance both," said Annis at the rail authority.

But Friedman is dubious whether $1 billion is sufficient, saying it would "be helpful. But… tracks are expensive. Trains are expensive."

Some urban Democrats have been vocal about accepting the governor's proposal as is. Sen. Scott Wiener from San Francisco tweeted in June that he supports Newsom's funding plan because "high speed rail is a critical part of California's transportation & climate future."

'It's not really an issue of high-speed rail or local transit. What the governor is proposing is to advance both.'

-Brian Annis, chief financial official, California High-Speed Rail Authority

Most Senate Democrats support moving ahead with funding high-speed rail, Senate leader Toni Atkins said. But she, too, wants to see more money for local transit projects in her region.

The San Diego Democrat said she'll advocate for funding to move train tracks along the coast in Del Mar, where bluffs are eroding as much as six inches a year.

"We're within 21 inches of the bluffs, so we are underway to move that line. That is the second busiest line in the country," Atkins said.

With legislators having left Sacramento for a month-long summer break, decisions on rail and transportation funding likely won't be settled until after they return in mid-August. Then negotiations kick into high gear before the legislative session ends on Sept. 10.

Elkind, the UC Berkeley climate lawyer, sees politics at play in the stand-off over high-speed rail:

"Given that it doesn't seem like there's much hope of the project coming anywhere close to the major population centers anytime soon, you're seeing these legislators trying to essentially get leverage to salvage… money for their districts."

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Bullet train budget battle: Should California spend more on urban transit, not high-speed rail?

by / CalMatters

Uploaded: Sun, Jul 25, 2021, 10:03 am

High-speed rail was supposed to connect California's urban hubs: Los Angeles and San Francisco. Now, it's struggling to muster enough political support to connect the tiny towns of Madera and Shafter.

Thirteen years since California voters approved $10 billion to build a bullet train, Democrats who run the state government are divided over spending the money to finish building the first section of track — a 119-mile stretch in the Central Valley.

Though Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed pouring $4.2 billion into completing the segment, lawmakers balked and left the funds out of the June budget. Now, the governor and fellow Democrats who control the Legislature are negotiating how much to chug along by laying track in the farm belt — or whether to spend more on transportation projects in more heavily populated regions.

"Typically what you'd see with projects like this is they'd start where the people are at and then radiate outwards. So, we would have started building high-speed rail in the San Francisco Bay Area, down in LA, and then eventually connect it," said Ethan Elkind, director of the climate program at the UC Berkeley School of Law.

"We did this really backwards, and now we're starting to really see the political price of that decision."

The Newsom administration, however, praises high-speed rail as a job creator in the economically-struggling Central Valley. And then there's the federal government: If California wavers on funding high-speed rail now, it could make it harder to compete for federal funds with other states. The last time Newsom publicly questioned the project, the Trump administration yanked $1 billion — funding that was only recently restored by President Biden.

"We are going to bat at the federal level for the funding necessary to build this first-in-the-nation high-speed rail system, and we urge the State Legislature to maintain its commitment at the state level," U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla wrote in a letter to legislative leaders this week.

But the Legislature isn't so fast to green-light more money. Key lawmakers, especially in the Assembly, say they don't see the benefit for their Southern California constituents. And even if the bullet train eventually reaches Los Angeles and San Francisco, some legislators are skeptical that car-centric Californians will become train riders without more exposure to public transit in their daily lives.

"How (do) we turn California car culture into a California culture of transit of all sorts?" said Assembly Transportation Committee chairperson Laura Friedman, a Glendale Democrat. "That is the big question — and how does high-speed rail interact with that?"

Until then, she is reluctant to pump more money into a train through the sparsely populated Central Valley. With a quarter of California's population living in Los Angeles County, Friedman would like to see money spent on improving Union Station in Los Angeles, the Metrolink commuter rail and transit between the San Fernando Valley and LA's Westside.

She said she doesn't see why California needs to immediately devote $4 billion more to high-speed rail when "they're spending a billion and a half a year."

The Newsom administration says high-speed rail construction is at a critical point. Money is needed now to complete the final piece of the Central Valley portion, according to Brian Annis, chief financial official at the California High-Speed Rail Authority. And, he said, the state is on the cusp of choosing a contractor to lay the bullet train's track. That'll cost money, too.

"The project has taken longer than originally thought. The scope has increased, which has added some costs," Annis said. "But again, we're hitting some major milestones here where we're almost fully completed with our design."

Without this funding, the Newsom administration argues, fewer workers will be needed and layoffs could start as soon as next summer.

More than 75% of those workers hail from the Central Valley — about 1,100 head to construction sites daily for jobs that come with health care and hard-to-find stability. For one Central Valley carpenter, working near home for more than three months at a time had been uncommon.

"He's home all the time now because this job has some length to it," said Chuck Riojas, the executive director of the Building Trades Council for several Central Valley counties.

But the Newsom administration is having a hard time convincing the Legislature that the investment now is worth it.

"I support the concept of a high-speed rail in California, but I think our current approach is not working," Democratic Assemblymember Luz Rivas, who represents the San Fernando Valley, said at a hearing in June. "There are other approaches that have been presented that could increase rail ridership, and I hope that those will be part of the discussion."

A poll funded by the Assembly Democrats found that Californians are evenly split between killing high-speed rail or continuing it, but that support for the project is far higher among Democrats, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Friedman argues that better local service will boost support for trains, eventually restoring voters' favor for high-speed rail. "We need to create a state of train riders in order to have the political will to finish this project," she said.

Newsom also wants to fund local transit — his May revision proposed $1 billion toward improving regional and local rail services. The debate is over how much.

"It's not really an issue of high-speed rail or local transit. What the governor is proposing is to advance both," said Annis at the rail authority.

But Friedman is dubious whether $1 billion is sufficient, saying it would "be helpful. But… tracks are expensive. Trains are expensive."

Some urban Democrats have been vocal about accepting the governor's proposal as is. Sen. Scott Wiener from San Francisco tweeted in June that he supports Newsom's funding plan because "high speed rail is a critical part of California's transportation & climate future."

Most Senate Democrats support moving ahead with funding high-speed rail, Senate leader Toni Atkins said. But she, too, wants to see more money for local transit projects in her region.

The San Diego Democrat said she'll advocate for funding to move train tracks along the coast in Del Mar, where bluffs are eroding as much as six inches a year.

"We're within 21 inches of the bluffs, so we are underway to move that line. That is the second busiest line in the country," Atkins said.

With legislators having left Sacramento for a month-long summer break, decisions on rail and transportation funding likely won't be settled until after they return in mid-August. Then negotiations kick into high gear before the legislative session ends on Sept. 10.

Elkind, the UC Berkeley climate lawyer, sees politics at play in the stand-off over high-speed rail:

"Given that it doesn't seem like there's much hope of the project coming anywhere close to the major population centers anytime soon, you're seeing these legislators trying to essentially get leverage to salvage… money for their districts."

Comments

Samuel L
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 25, 2021 at 12:08 pm
Samuel L, Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on Jul 25, 2021 at 12:08 pm

Laughable when they laud these projects as "job creators". At the $4.2 Newsom proposed with 1100 workers on the project, they can give each of those workers $3.8 MILLION.

The people making the most money are not the actual workers. It's the consultants, the lawyers and the politicians. (i.e. the people who don't really need the money).

Fund projects that build something that will be useful to transporting Californians throughout the state. You'll still get your "job creation" sound bite and in the end, something that people might actually use.


C.A.M.
Crescent Park
on Jul 26, 2021 at 12:18 pm
C.A.M., Crescent Park
on Jul 26, 2021 at 12:18 pm

I spent four years attending the frustrating high speed rail meetings in the mid-peninsula before the High Speed Rail group gave up (largely because of lack of consensus in a congested area) and moved to the Central Valley so as to not lose the hefty federal government funds already allotted for HSR. What we, the Los Angeles and San Diego metro areas need is efficient, reliable commuter rail service 24 hours a day at reasonable intervals before considering high speed transit between San Francisco and Los Angeles. As both Elkind and Friedman said, the high speed rail project is putting the cart before the horse. If people first get used to riding trains for local commuting they are more likely to look at rail for longer distance travel. Also, maintaining and upgrading the current rail lines between San Francisco and San Diego is more important than than making the corridor high speed as Atkins indicated. We should stress funding for these local transit projects now! Apply for federal high speed rail funds after reducing local commute traffic.

As far as jobs are concerned, there will be rail building jobs on transit available, perhaps not close to home, but transit projects inevitably move from one area to another as transit projects are built so that argument doesn't hold water. Politics needs to be curtailed in favor of planning financially for what will do the most for the constituents in the long run, not for a short period.


Demetrius Lanham
Registered user
another community
on Jul 26, 2021 at 12:30 pm
Demetrius Lanham, another community
Registered user
on Jul 26, 2021 at 12:30 pm

Why not a bullet Caltrain between San Jose and San Francisco?


William Hitchens
Registered user
Mountain View
on Jul 26, 2021 at 12:31 pm
William Hitchens, Mountain View
Registered user
on Jul 26, 2021 at 12:31 pm

We need to be thinking about Utilitarianism and its concept of "The Greater Good". If applied to this situation, that would argue very heavily in favor of investing in urban and suburban public transport for the masses, and not a hugely expensive high speed rail that benefits only a very small fraction of CA residents.


Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 26, 2021 at 12:34 pm
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Jul 26, 2021 at 12:34 pm

Personally speaking, I think public transportation has to be put center stage in the Bay Area. Get rid of all the difference agencies. Get one agency to coordinate schedules, tickets, pricing and advertising. Stop looking at public transport as a system for poor people, instead look at it as efficient travel for commuters as a reliable alternative to driving. Get shuttles to airports and business areas from highway offramps and get more ferries and shuttles to cross the Bay.

If Google can do it for their employees, then everyone should have that option. Perhaps Google can be asked to run it!


NeilsonBuchanan
Registered user
Downtown North
on Jul 26, 2021 at 3:10 pm
NeilsonBuchanan, Downtown North
Registered user
on Jul 26, 2021 at 3:10 pm

Thanks for distributing CalMatters news. CalMatters is solid journalism for the entire state.

I hope this can be a springboard for more local insight on the latest funding and activities of VTA and Caltrain. BART releases much better information about their service levels and resumption of traffic and capacity.

Covid slowdown has created an opportunity window to refocus on Palo Alto's grade crossing dilemmas. What is the latest thinking of city staff and Council?

Last but not least: What is the future of Palo Alto Transportation Management Association? The recent coverage of Mt. View TMA raises the opportunity to re-evaluate small employer PATMA assumptions vs greater attention to last-mile transportation services subsidized by larger employers.

BTW, Mt. View TMA shuttles serve employees and the general public!

Here is great link to the Mt. View Voice newspaper coverage of Mt. View's public/private TMA.

Web Link


Pat Markevitch
Registered user
Downtown North
on Jul 26, 2021 at 4:10 pm
Pat Markevitch, Downtown North
Registered user
on Jul 26, 2021 at 4:10 pm

Demetrius Lanham, high speed trains between San Jose and San Francisco is not possible. The top speed a train is allowed to travel through that corridor is 65 MPH. Caltrain, without any stops in between, could do the in an hour.

Bystander, I agree with you 100%. One agency coordinating every aspect of all local agencies would be wonderful.


Me 2
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Jul 27, 2021 at 3:18 pm
Me 2, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Jul 27, 2021 at 3:18 pm

Public transit requires a critical mass of density of housing and businesses to pencil out. As long as residentialists are in charge in the mid-peninsula, there won't be enough people to ride transit. Even at it's peak in 2018-2019, Caltrain had a pathetic ridership of less than 70K riders *each way* (which pencils out to only 35K roundtrips).

As for single agency, it's not a panacea. We have VTA as a single agency in Santa Clara County, and they're looking to defund North Santa Clara County of service. That's what would happen with a single agency - most funding would go to the population centers - SF, Oakland and San Jose, leaving transit deserts in between.


Nayeli
Registered user
Midtown
on Jul 28, 2021 at 11:23 am
Nayeli, Midtown
Registered user
on Jul 28, 2021 at 11:23 am

The problem with most of California's "urban transit" is that it simply isn't COST EFFECTIVE as a driving replacement.

The people who argue otherwise claim try to nitpick all of the "costs" of car ownership -- including everything from routine maintenance to licenses/fees, tolls, parking, insurance, gasoline, etc. The problem, of course, is that MOST people will still own a vehicle even if they periodically or regularly use public transit.

Why?

Public transit only gets you from Point A to Point B (and anywhere in between along the line/route). It can't take you to grandma's house, the beach, etc. In fact, if you want to take public transit to the San Francisco Zoo, it's going to take over TWO HOURS and several public transit changes (whereas direct driving can take 40 minutes). It will also cost nearly $25 per person for public transit.

In other words, most people will still own at least one car. All of those routine ownership costs are still going to be felt by the population. So, it isn't fair to assess those costs when comparing the costs of public transit.

Right now, it costs $8.25 (one way or $16.50 roundtrip) to take Caltrain to San Francisco from Palo Alto. Those prices are (yet again) going up soon.

Imagine that a person earns $15/hour in San Francisco. To take Caltrain, more than one hour of your workday earnings is used to pay for transit each day (and that is if you walk before or after arriving to stations). When you consider the cost of taxes (state, local and federal), nearly three hours of each eight-hour workday is consumed by little more than going to work.

My point is that public transit should be the best financial option. A $16.50 round trip EVERY DAY fare is just too high. In fact, I would argue that it should be roughly half of that -- probably the equivalent of the price of gas to make such a commute. A less expensive fare would raise demand. More demand means more riders. More riders means more money per train.


Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 28, 2021 at 12:58 pm
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Jul 28, 2021 at 12:58 pm

I do believe in public transit, particularly for regular commutes or things like trips to airports.

I don't believe in public transit for say weekend trips to visit Grandma, but then again, they are a great way to get to a Giants game or Sharks game. I don't believe they will replace the family car. Remember all the zip cars a few years ago. People were encouraged to stop owning a car and use a short term rental program for trips to Costco or Ikea, or even to go skiing! What happened to those. Uber and Lyft have been very popular, but is that popularity waning?

Having lived in areas, nowhere near as big as the Bay Area, where public transit is the norm, it can be done. It is attitudes that make it so poorly workable here. The attitude of transit agencies that they are providing a service for people who can't afford car ownership. The attitude of people who think that they need to have a car with them so that after work they can go to do other things without first going home. The attitude of people who are afraid of the half mile walk which in fact would give them some much needed exercise on a daily basis. The attitude that unless we have dense housing it won't work. The attitude that transit has to pay for itself. The attitude that workplaces need to provide a huge parking lot to be attractive to employees.

Free parking outside the office is a perk and should be treated as such. Can free parking at work be taxed? Parking at Caltrain stations makes for a much more expensive trip than just the cost of the ticket, can we get more free parking at transit hubs? Can we get our highways to have transit buses with stops at say 5 mile off ramp parking/shuttle facilities?

The real problem is attitudes to transit, not the transit itself. Make public transit an affordable, efficient, comfortable, reliable, alternative to driving and if it works better than solo driving, people will use it.


Leslie York
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Jul 30, 2021 at 10:33 pm
Leslie York, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Jul 30, 2021 at 10:33 pm

ANOTHER $4.2 billion for HSR? What happened to the $10 billion we voted for in 2008? Did it evaporate? How many billions are we going to pour into this sparsely-traveled route between Madera and Shafter? It'll be a high-speed train between nowhere and nowhere — the world's most expensive rail line, if it's ever built. The article tap dances around air travel, the most expedient option to go between northern and southern California.

Why are we focusing on rail transit in drought-stricken California with our agricultural economy? A succession of Governors has done practically nothing about water or water management despite periodic droughts since the '70s. Is anybody in Sacramento even thinking about desalination plants?

Nobody thinks about water until we've had a couple of years of sparse rainfall; then it becomes an instant crisis which seems to vanish come the first wet year. But don't worry — you can get from Shafter to Madera at high speed through the California dust bowl.


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