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About this blog: The Raucous Caucus shares the southpaw perspectives of this Boomer on the state of the nation, the world, and, sometimes, other stuff. I enjoy crafting it to keep current, and occasionally to rant on some issue I care about deeply...  (More)

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A Train to Nowhere?

Uploaded: Jan 10, 2012
I am generally a fan of massive public works projects. BART and the Golden Gate and Bay bridges locally, the space program and the interstate highway system are all examples of bold undertakings started in another era, which will pay multiple dividends far into the uncharted future.

I am less enthusiastic about our state's great water projects (primarily for thumbing their nervy engineer noses at Mother Nature), and recent, less inspired improvements like the capacity-neutral Bay Bridge retrofit, with bike lanes, and especially the Caldecott Tunnel expansion. Why go to the trouble of boring that ridge, to add only two more lanes and relieve congestion solely in the contra-flow direction? I'm reminded of that folly every time I drive to the West Bay, through the stacked, six-lanes-each way, Yerba Buena Island tunnel that was dug in the 1930s. Generally, more recent projects seem less imaginative, bold and useful than those created by earlier Californians.

Enter the California high-speed rail project. As a card-carrying Lionel train set veteran, I ought to love it – and I want to like it, at least. But I can't. I just can't make its claims add-up in my personal calculus, even before recent concerns, reported hereabouts last week, labeled the Rail Authority not-ready-for-prime-time.

That Peer Review Report cited problems with sustainable funding, the siting of early segments and a currently incomplete business plan. My concerns go deeper, and relate to the fundamentals of the project.
Pleading the case on its website, the Authority leads with "our economy needs a jumpstart." So this is a Keynesian stimulus project? In its companion YouTube video, 600,000 construction jobs are claimed. I'm in favor of counter-cyclical government spending, so I'm interested – especially if there's some fundamental transportation justification.

But then the track takes a wide curve and touts several other factors that set my nose a-twitchin' to the aroma of bovine leftovers. First, they claim 450,000 permanent jobs created by the economically self-sustainable system. Let's say those jobs average $60K annually, fully costed -- that'd be $27 Beellion dollars in wages alone, every year. That's a whole lot of ticket dollars from the claimed 117 million annual passengers, before paying for Anything else. And if, instead, that jobs number takes into account growth along the route, I neither believe it (way too speculative), nor would I be in-favor of it. The Central Valley is for farms.

They then claim that the cost of alternative infrastructure capacity in road lanes and airport runways would be twice the expense of building the rail system. I'm sorry, that doesn't pass the sniff test either, especially when the rail estimates have already recently doubled – and the unknowns associated with the roadbeds option are much fewer and farther betwixt. The Authority also claims substantial greenhouse gas avoidance, vs. alternatives. But the rail numbers are likely to be static, as the technology is known; cars and jets are both certain to improve dramatically in that regard.

But here's where the High-Speed rail train really leaves the track, for me – rail, even better, faster rail – is no better than the current air-based mass transit that by-passes land-based problems. It's not faster and cannot get much faster; it's not cheaper, either, and rail does not tie-into local transit substantially better than air alternatives. It feels like we're proposing to invest massively in better, faster ferry boats instead of bridges. Further, rail's technologies are already well-known as invented by others, elsewhere, so the economy is unlikely to receive the throw-off benefits of innovation associated with, say, the space program (not even Tang).

If the state and the feds are going to invest society's dollars in something to "put California in the forefront of the Green Economy," I want it to be truly visionary, cutting-edge stuff. I want Buck Rogers, not Casey Jones. There's trouble ahead.
Local Journalism.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Ralph N. Shirlet, a resident of another community,
on Jan 10, 2012 at 6:36 pm

Dear Tom,

Thank you for your commentary on local elections. Reading between the line it seems you favor the status quo.

Care to be more specific?

Ralph, kidding on the Square

Posted by Tom Cushing, a resident of Danville,
on Jan 10, 2012 at 6:53 pm

Between the lines is all I've opined on the subject, as you obviously know. ;-)

It seemed to me that I was being dragged into a controversy I have not yet followed. Truth be told, I gave up on the CCTimes last year, after a particularly egregious piece of propaganda pushed me past the brink. As I recall, it had to do with the repeal of DA/DT, and the article they published badly miss-represented the Corps' and the Marines' positions on the subject. It was a last straw kind of thing; I'd been looking for an excuse, even though they had failed to bill me for the previous six months. Sometimes free just isn't worth it.

Maybe I'll need to find an alternative, as I believe that Madam Editor would appreciate some state/local coverage. Any ideas?

Posted by [removed], a resident of another community,
on Jan 11, 2012 at 7:24 am

Dear Tom and Editor,

I took time yesterday to discuss this exchange with media members of CDSI Research Fellowship to better prepare a contribution to this discussion. Thus, first, after experiencing high speed rail in Europe and Asia over the past 20 years I can support our need for such transportation but point to politics as our inability to achieve any meaningful result.

It is the politics we see in Contra Costa County that demonstrates why our governments are not active innovators. Politics has become a technology unto itself fully established to prosper individual politicians and little else.

In another exchange on this forum, we are discussing 2040 when a very tired BART that does not go to new economic centers at speed and convenience will be the subject of "why didn't we do something about this 20, 30, 50 years ago." Our children's children will be simply wondering about more highways and the lack of solutions found in light rail, rapid bus systems, and traditional rail alternatives.

In humor, it is likely Danville will still be working on their heritage planning and no more economically successful as a economic center. Might we expect a fully-electric, sustainable stage coach with robotic horses??

So, where do WE, the people, start to make a change?. Tom, as you pointed out, media must change from political subservience to interactive, immediate discussion of issues and resolutions. Politics must be challenged as an industry in the way of innovation and be replaced with direct representation of the will and interests of the people. That does not exist in Contra Costa County or the San Francisco Bay Area.

We should expect BANG, EMCEB, Patch, and other broadcast, print and on-line media to drop their political allegiance and actually represent their readers in the news process and effecting innovation of our children's future.

Certainly new subscriber news services are providing on-line, immediate and interactive informational services focused on politics and economics in our area, region and corridors. More certainly, very-savvy professionals as the majority of our residents are such subscribers. But that must not excuse public media, including EMCEB, from being positive, balanced contributors to important consideration of issues and resolutions beyond political influence.

As a CDSI Research Fellowship courtesy

Posted by Douglas, a resident of Blackhawk,
on Jan 11, 2012 at 5:44 pm

I don?t usually agree with Tom as it seems we come from different ends of the political spectrum, but on this one, I TOTALLY AGREE. I grew up in So. Cal and have lived here the past 18 years. When I go and see my family down south, I would so prefer to get in my car, be able to stop along the way if I so choose and actually have my car down there to be able to get around. California, especially southern California does not have the infrastructure to support the high speed rail once you get there. The example of Europe's high speed rail being touted doesn't point out that many of the cities where it goes have the ingrained nature of using the tube, metro, etc. once you arrive in the city. All you have to do is look at how many people still CHOOSE their car over the Metrolink in LA and to a lesser extent the same with BART up here to see this idea will not take hold and is a complete waste of money.

Posted by [removed], a resident of another community,
on Jan 11, 2012 at 7:18 pm

Dear Tom and editor.

We are asked to cling to the status quo simply as a political convenience to those without innovation or talent among our politicians to do anything better.

That is not resolution or service to the will and interest of our communities and neighborhoods.

SPEAK UP, Tom, it is only a matter of review and consideration.

CDSI Research Fellowship courtesy, halbailey@yahoo.com

Posted by Huh?, a resident of Danville,
on Jan 12, 2012 at 10:58 am

"But the rail numbers are likely to be static, as the technology is known; cars and jets are both certain to improve dramatically in that regard." Tom, if you seriously think that transportation of people in individual cars on pneumatic tires, or by airplanes which have to constantly maintain altitude while propelling themselves forward, can ever remotely approach the energy efficiency required to transport people in trains running on carefully graded steel tracks, you really, really need to go back and study basic physics again. Energy is money. It will **always** cost more to move people or object by air or on rubber tires than on trains, and that transportation will **always** create more pollution. Add to that the fact that trains can be electrified, and this run on energy from static sources like nuclear, hydroelectric, and other alternative energy sources - the technology of which is not "static" - and you get a glimmering of the idea that locking ourselves into current technology may not be the best idea after all.

Honestly - this is as close to a "no-brainer" as your ever likely to run across. Killing off all hope of creating a California transportation system which will use less fuel per passenger mile under current technology, and make a transition to even better and cleaner energy sources in the future impossible, is short sided in the extreme.

Are you sure you don't work for Chevron?

Posted by Dick K, a resident of Alamo,
on Jan 13, 2012 at 7:21 am

Tom is right on. We are wasting billions just to put in a system without new technology that no one will ride. It's the steam engine of bullet trains. Take a look at www.cybertran.com for an alternative that at least bears greater scrutiny.

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