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Old Posted May 1, 2010, 1:55 PM
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High-Speed Rail: Transit Solution or Fiscal Disaster? (Governing, May 2010)

High-Speed Rail: Transit Solution or Fiscal Disaster?

California is racing to build an ambitious high-speed rail system. Some cities think it should slow down.

By Josh Goodman
May 2010
Governing

http://www.governing.com/article/hig...iscal-disaster


Though Palo Alto, Calif.-a city of 60,000 people in Silicon Valley that is home to Stanford University-is clearly not a tall stick, that is literally what "Palo Alto" means in Spanish. Most likely the city's strange name comes from El Palo Alto, which is a tall stick or, more precisely, a famous redwood tree. El Palo Alto is an old stick too. The tree is 1,070 years old, give or take a few years. It's a historic landmark and the inspiration for Stanford's popular tree mascot. But in a few years, it might be dead.

El Palo Alto's possible killer isn't old age. It's high-speed rail. The tree stands just a few feet from train tracks where, if all goes as planned, trains will be whizzing by at more than 100 mph within a decade. Rail officials are aware of El Palo Alto's significance and are hopeful they can design the track to avoid doing any harm. Dave Dockter, an arborist and environmental planner for Palo Alto, is skeptical. "It's inconceivable," he says, "that you could do this without really serious risks to the tree."

As California advances with what is easily the nation's most ambitious high-speed rail project-and, Californians say, the largest public works project in the United States' history-El Palo Alto's uncertain fate is just one hint of the complexities of building 800 miles of new infrastructure in a heavily developed, densely populated state. How does a state pay for such a system? Who operates it? Where do you put the tracks and stations? And how do you minimize disruptions to the environment and to communities that suddenly will have trains speeding through them at up to 220 mph?

With all the enthusiasm for high-speed rail in Washington, D.C., it would be easy to miss that California does not yet have answers to all of these questions. What's more, answers the state does have are making many people unhappy-nowhere more so than in Palo Alto. The United States may be on the cusp of a high-speed rail renaissance, but if that's going to happen, California must make all the right moves over the next decade.

The federal stimulus package included billions in grants to states to build high-speed rail-or at least higher-speed rail. In reality, most of the money will fund things like additional tracks, upgraded signaling systems and improved grade crossings. Trains will travel somewhat faster, but they won't be anything close to high-speed by international standards.

When California officials talk about building high-speed rail, they actually mean it. The plan is to build a system that stretches from San Francisco and Sacramento to San Diego that's serviced by true bullet trains, similar to those in Europe and Asia. Top speeds would be 70 mph faster than the top speed of Amtrak's Washington to Boston service-at 150 mph, it's the fastest train in the United States today.

California is also different from other states in that it's been seriously contemplating high-speed rail-and arguing about it-for 15 years. Proponents advocate for high-speed rail as an environmentally friendly way to relieve congestion from clogged highways and airports. Opponents cast it as a costly boondoggle.

In 2008, the proponents won a major victory. After years of delays, California voters approved a ballot measure to authorize $9 billion in bonds to build the system. That commitment helped California win $2.25 billion in stimulus funding for high-speed rail, easily the highest share of any state. But the stimulus funds come with a deadline: Construction must begin by September 2012. In other words, if high-speed rail is going to happen in California, it must happen soon.

With its transit-friendly Bay Area sensibilities, Palo Alto is the sort of place where high-speed rail would be expected to find friends. And for a time, it did. The City Council voted unanimously to endorse the ballot measure in 2008. At the polls, Palo Altans supported it by a 2-1 margin.

But during a Palo Alto City Council meeting in March, it was evident how much the mood has changed. The debate was between members who said Palo Alto should oppose high-speed rail unless it takes the form of a tunnel, and others who said even a tunnel might not be acceptable. Ultimately with council members still awaiting more detailed plans from the state, nothing was decided-yet.

The reversal from Palo Alto's council reflects the difficulty in making high-speed rail a reality. A 220 mph train can't go just anywhere; it can't intersect any road, or easily share track with slower freight trains or conventional passenger trains. It needs a dedicated right of way that is straight and flat to maintain its speed.

In practice, that means high-speed rail tracks in California will have to follow the routes of either highways or existing rail lines. Barring a last-minute reversal, high-speed rail will follow the route of Caltrain, the region's commuter rail service, from San Jose to San Francisco. That will take it straight through Palo Alto.

Adjacent to the track is Palo Alto High School, as well as parks and neighborhoods with funky one-story homes designed by renowned modernist architect Joseph Eichler.

Then there's El Palo Alto. At only 110 feet tall, El Palo Alto is downright diminutive compared to California's giant sequoias. But in old photos, it towers over the landscape. It survived the arrival of the locomotive, which puffed it with soot. It survived the tapping of its water table, which sickened it for several decades. And it survived Stanford students racing to climb it once a year-a tradition suspended in 1909 when a student got stuck. Today with careful management, including a pipe running up its trunk that serves as a personal sprinkler system, the tree's health is improving. Dockter, the arborist, says it could survive another 100 to 300 years-if it didn't have to cope with high-speed rail. "My wife and I voted for it too," he says.

No one knows for sure how high-speed rail would affect Palo Alto's schools, homes, roads, parks and trees. One major question is what form the tracks will take. The trains might run in a tunnel or a trench, or they could run at ground level, with roads burrowing underneath. Or there's the option that the people of Palo Alto like least: an elevated track.

In April, the California High-Speed Rail Authority presented alternatives on what form the track will take from San Francisco to San Jose. Acknowledging community opposition, the authority ruled out a track on top of a berm in Palo Alto-essentially a wall. Other below-ground, at-grade and elevated options remain under consideration.

Tony Carrasco, a local architect, wants to bury both Caltrain and the high-speed rail underground. In its place would be a new greenway that would help connect Palo Alto's extensive network of parks. The train tracks, one of the few impediments to Palo Alto as a walkable, bikable place, would be gone. But tunnels are expensive, and Carrasco's vision may be ignored. "The high-speed rail board is charged with the task of getting this rail line done," Carrasco says. "They're not charged with the task of making the community better."

That's what worries Palo Altans. They're concerned that noise and vibrations from the trains will affect their quality of life and reduce their property values. The noise will be hard to avoid: Thanks to a temperate climate, some homes' only air conditioning is an open window.

Of course, before the trains arrive, the track must be built. The Caltrain right-of-way through Palo Alto squeezes to less than 75 feet wide at some places. The track configuration the authority chooses will affect just how wide the right of way needs to be for high-speed rail. But it seems likely that some homes will need to come down, especially since temporary "shoo-fly" tracks may have to be installed to allow Caltrain to keep operating while construction takes place.

Opposition in Palo Alto and surrounding communities isn't unanimous. Unions are eager for the construction jobs, and many business groups hope it would enable upgrades to Caltrain allowing it to travel faster, with speeds of more than 100 mph.

Still, the concern over high-speed rail is hard to overstate. When authority representatives visited Palo Alto recently, they were greeted by a crowd of 500 people, and the meeting lasted more than five hours.

For their part, authority officials say they're willing to work with anyone who will accept high-speed rail. "We take all of those concerns very seriously," says Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle, who chairs the authority, "but there's very little we can do if someone starts out by saying, 'We don't want a high-speed train at all.'"

In response to critics in Palo Alto and elsewhere, supporters also say, "Where have you been?"

"We would oftentimes ask for meetings with city government and have a hard time getting people's attention," says Jeff Barker, the authority's deputy director, "because people didn't think it was real." Barker acknowledges that, with two years until they break ground, he doesn't have all the answers yet.

There's a less charitable response that no one with the authority would say, but that serves as tense subtext to the whole debate: Palo Altans only care about what's happening in their backyards.

After all, if high-speed rail lives up to its promise, it will move tens of millions of people each year, create tens of thousands of jobs, help relieve congestion, clean the environment and spur economic growth. With benefits that big, does it really matter if a few homes must be removed and some other residents have to deal with a little more noise? Or that the view in one city isn't as nice and that traffic doesn't flow quite as smoothly? Or if one old tree must be sacrificed?

But there are a few reasons the critics in Palo Alto can't be dismissed so easily. For one thing, in some sense, it doesn't matter whether they're right or wrong. Local opposition could stall the project regardless.

To some extent, it already is. In 2008, Menlo Park and Atherton, two nearby cities, launched a lawsuit against the authority, claiming that the chosen path of high-speed rail up the San Francisco Peninsula was based on faulty environmental reviews. The cities preferred a route that would take high-speed rail through the East Bay, avoiding their cities. In 2009, Palo Alto supported that position in court. The court ruled that the authority had to redo some environmental analysis, but the route appears unlikely to change.

The suit in Menlo Park and Atherton suggests another reason why critics in Palo Alto can't be ignored: They're not alone. Burlingame and San Jose also are worried about elevated tracks. Buena Park, near Anaheim, is worried that a commuter rail station or adjacent developments will be torn down to make room for high-speed rail. Farmers in the Central Valley wonder whether vibrations from the train will knock almonds off their trees.

All of this is quite familiar to anyone who's ever been involved in a major building project, whether it's a new airport, road, ballpark or Wal-Mart. Residents worry about noise and how new development will affect their quality of life. Sometimes they sue.

What's different about high-speed rail in California is the scale. The state will make hundreds of interdependent design decisions that must work from an engineering standpoint and pass legal muster. In effect, California is testing whether the most mega of mega-projects can succeed in today's fiscal, legal and political context.

Success certainly won't be easy. While Palo Altans are worried about their own backyards, they're also voicing much bigger concerns-concerns that are shared by many others, including key legislators in Sacramento.

First, there's the question of paying for the system. Estimates peg the cost of building the initial San Francisco to Anaheim section at $42.6 billion. So far, the authority has about $11 billion from the California bonding measure and the federal stimulus. This is an impressive start. There's no way California could attract private investment without this upfront public commitment.

But cost estimates already have increased. What if they increase again? The authority's business plan counts on $17 billion to $19 billion in federal funding and $10 billion to $12 billion in private funding. The stimulus package only had $8 billion for high-speed rail for the entire country. If Congress doesn't provide recurring funding for high-speed rail, the project's budget will a have giant hole. It's a hole that California-the nation's most fiscally troubled state-is uniquely unqualified to fill. "They don't appear to have the dollars to do the $43 billion of construction that they're estimating," says Palo Alto Mayor Pat Burt, "and $43 billion appears to be severely below what it will really cost. They're two giant steps away from reality."

Another question is ridership. A series of trade-offs will influence how many people ride the trains. The more stations that are built, the more places trains can pick up riders. But stopping frequently slows high-speed rail down. Likewise, lower fares would mean higher ridership, which would relieve more train and plane congestion. But up to a point, higher fares would generate more revenue for the system.

The authority's most recent business plan floated the idea of train fares at $104.75 from San Francisco to Los Angeles-or 83 percent of a plane trip's projected cost, instead of the 50 percent in its previous report. For ridership, that difference is huge: The authority projects 58 million riders with the 50 percent level in 2035. At 83 percent, it drops to 41 million. Critics contend that the projections are unrealistic. Everyone agrees ridership estimates are, at this point, informed speculation at best.

But how do you design a rail system if you don't know how many people will ride it? "It drives everything-how many tracks, how many parking spots, how many everything," says Nadia Naik, co-founder of Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design, a Palo Alto-based group that has pushed for more disclosure from the authority. Ultimately Palo Altans worry that their homes will be razed to build capacity the system won't end up needing.

All of these obstacles would be difficult enough if the authority had complete flexibility to execute the project. But it doesn't. In addition to the 2012 deadline to begin construction under the stimulus, the 2008 ballot measures included two key requirements: Trains must run between Los Angeles and San Francisco in two hours and 40 minutes or less, and the state isn't allowed to pay an operating subsidy for the system. It must at least break even. The optimistic view is that these rules will help keep the project focused on key goals. "Of course they tie your hands, but they also create the parameters in which you operate," Pringle says.

The less optimistic view is that the mandates are one reason the doomsday question is unavoidable: Will high-speed rail ever be built in California?

It turns out the authority has addressed that question explicitly. On orders from the Legislature, its most recent business plan included a section titled, "Risks That Could Jeopardize Project Completion."

The section reads like a road map for what could prevent high-speed rail from becoming a reality. Federal funding could fail to materialize. Low ridership projections could drive away private investment. Political support could crumble. The project could fail to meet environmental standards or could get tied up in courts. Construction problems could leave the authority short on cash to complete the system.

Burt, Palo Alto's mayor, worries the system won't be built, citing costs. "Once it gets over $50 [billion] to $60 billion," he says, "we think there'll have to be a 'come to God' on why we are spending all this money on a plan that can't conceivably be funded."

But he also worries that the system will be built. "Our fear," he says, "is that [the authority] is planning to do what's called the 'stake-in-the-ground' strategy, which is that you get something partly built and so much money spent that they can't back out because they've already put so much money into it. Somebody somehow has to come up with tens of billions of dollars more."

Burt's mantra is that he's for high-speed rail if it's done right. His fear is that signs point to high-speed rail being done wrong just to get the project completed one way or another.

Authority officials think this view is awfully cynical for a project that, despite its lengthy conception, is in many ways just getting started. They acknowledge that the challenges are great, but feel that with trains not scheduled to start carrying passengers for a decade, they can overcome the obstacles.

In fact, Barker, the authority's deputy director, has his own idea as to the project's biggest threat. "The biggest hurdle from a governing point of view is going to be public involvement," he says.

What he means is that in places such as Palo Alto, the authority has lost the goodwill of local officials and residents. As a result, Barker says there've been many disagreements about process, but comparatively little discussion of substance: what high-speed rail should look like and how it can best serve California's people.

Barker says it's essential that the authority make up for lost time by fostering a constructive, respectful dialog. Such a complicated, expensive endeavor will never succeed unless the people most affected by it are, by and large, on board.

On this point, no one in Palo Alto would disagree.
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  #22  
Old Posted May 1, 2010, 7:14 PM
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http://articles.latimes.com/2010/apr...-rail-20100430

Quote:
California high-speed rail plan troubled, official warns

The state auditor cites poor planning and uncertain funding. She says the result could be delays or a failure to complete the system.

April 30, 2010|By Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times

California may not be able to complete a high-speed rail system, set to begin construction in 2012, because of poor planning and a lack of funding, the state auditor warned Thursday.

Auditor Elaine Howle reported that the authority overseeing the rail system could very likely fall billions of dollars short of what it needs to complete the project, even though California voters approved borrowing billions of dollars to help pay for it.
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  #23  
Old Posted May 1, 2010, 7:16 PM
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Slowly but surely, this proposal is dying...how sad.
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  #24  
Old Posted May 1, 2010, 7:24 PM
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Andd...the plan is taking hits, what do you know. California will be lucky if they get anything out of it all now.
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Old Posted May 3, 2010, 6:22 PM
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What reallly pisses me off is that despite the passage of Prop1A, which allocated $10 Billion to the project, it still is being opposed.....

GOOD LORD I HATE NIMBYs.....
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  #26  
Old Posted May 3, 2010, 7:51 PM
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oh well , at least we know the Northeast Corridor will be upgraded to speeds of 190mph and i know that nimby's in the Northeast are really low.
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  #27  
Old Posted May 3, 2010, 11:15 PM
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Hopefully this is the first step in reshaping HSR into something that makes sense. There never seemed to be any doubt that the economics didn't work and this is what led to the dramatic shifts. Hopefully one or two more good auditors can weed out the nonsense and figure what is salvagable.

Again, I would focus on the intra-regional (LA and Bay Area) sections; each of those areas has legitimate traffic issues already and each area expects substantial growth. Palmdale, IE, OC to DT LA should be quite heavily used if priced correctly. Since the Peninsula doesn't want the train, I would just upgrade the existing service, and focus on SJ-Oakland-Sacto, which has train connections but they are very slow and with multiple stops.

Of course, these routes need to be audited for reasonable costs and ridership projections so that the amount of the losses expected can be budgeted for.
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  #28  
Old Posted May 3, 2010, 11:27 PM
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Did I miss something? Nothing has changed with the project. A state auditor released a report, nothing more.

The Bay Bridge had several such reports showing that the price was likely to double or more - guess what? The auditor was wrong - the price ballooned by several times that. Guess what else? The bridge is still being built.

Until there's an actual ballot initiative to kill the project, I don't understand why everyone's getting in a tissy about it being killed. We can talk about poor management or wasted money, but those things happen with projects (public and private) every day, everywhere. Doesn't mean that they don't get built.
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  #29  
Old Posted May 3, 2010, 11:42 PM
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Gordo: the single most cynical post I have ever seen: "just because it doesn't make sense, doesn't mean we shouldn't build it; none of our projects make any sense!".

btw, any idea how the state got so broke?
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  #30  
Old Posted May 4, 2010, 12:25 AM
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btw, any idea how the state got so broke?
The initiative system. You and I both know that that's the only way anything gets done, and whether or not something "makes sense" has little bearing on whether an initiative will pass or not. Cynical? Perhaps. Realistic? I think so. If an initiative could pass court muster and be put on the ballot that would hand out hundred dollar bills every day to everyone, it would certainly pass in a landslide, even with the state's current finances.

BTW, I certainly don't think that the auditor's report showed that the project "doesn't make sense" - it simply showed that the authority has been poorly managed and that the total price of the project is likely to go up. Most folks would concede that the Bay Bridge still "makes sense" to build at $6 billion, even though the original price tag was $1 billion.
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  #31  
Old Posted May 4, 2010, 1:48 AM
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I certainly don't think that the auditor's report showed that the project "doesn't make sense" - it simply showed that the authority has been poorly managed and that the total price of the project is likely to go up. Most folks would concede that the Bay Bridge still "makes sense" to build at $6 billion, even though the original price tag was $1 billion.
well said!
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Old Posted May 4, 2010, 4:03 AM
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Damn, the new bridge's cost increased by 600%? Why?
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  #33  
Old Posted May 4, 2010, 4:20 AM
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Short-comings of the CHSRA can be fixed. Probably the biggest obstacle they have had is insufficient funding and inability or permission to increase staff. As a result, they have resorted to hiring consultants... whom must also be overseen.

I don't trust that the State auditor is qualified to understand and appropriately measure the effectiveness of the HSR program... and they seem to overlook that the entire plan was to build the system in operable segments... to assure that something usable is constructed should funding come in spits and spurts... as would be expected with a $40 billion project. They also overlook that CHSRA just was awarded $2.5 billion in Federal funds that were not originally planned... they are ahead of the game.
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Old Posted May 4, 2010, 4:30 AM
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Damn, the new bridge's cost increased by 600%? Why?
Im merely guessing but I'm going to guess it was the idea to make the bridge more aesthetically pleasing as well as a decade of inflation and material's rising cost.

HSR, likewise, has had its cost misinterpreted in the media because cost is relevant to time. The longer we wait, the more it costs.
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Old Posted May 4, 2010, 3:05 PM
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Short-comings of the CHSRA can be fixed. Probably the biggest obstacle they have had is insufficient funding and inability or permission to increase staff. As a result, they have resorted to hiring consultants... whom must also be overseen.

I don't trust that the State auditor is qualified to understand and appropriately measure the effectiveness of the HSR program... and they seem to overlook that the entire plan was to build the system in operable segments... to assure that something usable is constructed should funding come in spits and spurts... as would be expected with a $40 billion project. They also overlook that CHSRA just was awarded $2.5 billion in Federal funds that were not originally planned... they are ahead of the game.
While I'm not going to dispute the state auditors lack of understanding or sophistication, the $2.5 billion in federal funds is actually a big part of what she takes issue with.

From the article I previously posted (you have to click on the link to read the whole article )

Quote:
The California High-Speed Rail Authority is counting on up to $19 billion from the federal government but has a commitment for only $2.25 billion so far, Howle said.
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  #36  
Old Posted May 4, 2010, 3:56 PM
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Quote:
BTW, I certainly don't think that the auditor's report showed that the project "doesn't make sense" - it simply showed that the authority has been poorly managed and that the total price of the project is likely to go up. Most folks would concede that the Bay Bridge still "makes sense" to build at $6 billion, even though the original price tag was $1 billion.
I'm sure most of you have seen it but the California High Speed Rail Blog has a good analysis of the short-comings of the Audit report: http://www.cahsrblog.com/2010/04/pus...uditor-report/
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  #37  
Old Posted May 4, 2010, 9:12 PM
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Hey, does anyone know if there's a reason the Caltrain and CAHSR trains won't be set up to share tracks when needed, eg to run an express Caltrain service? After the electrification is done, Caltrain trains won't have to be FRA compliant will they? So there shouldn't be a regulatory reason to keep them separate, should there?
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  #38  
Old Posted May 4, 2010, 9:17 PM
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Originally Posted by mwadswor View Post
Hey, does anyone know if there's a reason the Caltrain and CAHSR trains won't be set up to share tracks when needed, eg to run an express Caltrain service? After the electrification is done, Caltrain trains won't have to be FRA compliant will they? So there shouldn't be a regulatory reason to keep them separate, should there?
I don't believe that has been officially decided one way or the other yet (whether Caltrain will be able to share tracks for express service). There isn't any federal regulation that would preclude it, and there isn't any technical reason that would preclude it, only local/regional/state bickering and fiefdom-protecting that would do the job. The CHSRA has been pretty vocal about "needing" four of the six slots at the Transbay Terminal (chalk that one up to fiefdom-protecting), but I haven't heard much about the actual tracks on the peninsula (recently).

Everything would point to at least HSR trains using the Caltrain tracks at times (since it's likely some express trains will have to pass locals somewhere on the peninsula), so hopefully we'll see the reverse as well.
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  #39  
Old Posted May 5, 2010, 3:29 AM
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Everything you ever wanted to know about CAHSR and Caltrain compatibility and inter-operation can be found at http://caltrain-hsr.blogspot.com/
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Old Posted May 5, 2010, 9:55 AM
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Originally Posted by pesto View Post
Again, I would focus on the intra-regional (LA and Bay Area) sections; each of those areas has legitimate traffic issues already and each area expects substantial growth. Palmdale, IE, OC to DT LA should be quite heavily used if priced correctly. Since the Peninsula doesn't want the train, I would just upgrade the existing service, and focus on SJ-Oakland-Sacto, which has train connections but they are very slow and with multiple stops.
I'm among those who are indifferent to many of these stories and to the increased resistance. This pattern of initial support that is gradually replaced with vociferous opposition has been repeated with every reinvestment proposal that has come from the President and from those aligned with him.

I do agree very much with Pesto that working on the intraregional service before the backbone Initial Operating Segment is preferable, even though doing so may be less profitable in the short term.

The car and highway problems are probably more immediate than the airplane issues.
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