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By Angela Cotey, Associate Editor
In 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act gave new life — scratch that, some life — to high- and higher-speed rail development in the United States. Today, much of the $10.1 billion made available through the stimulus bill and subsequent FY2010 transportation appropriations bill is being put to work, as states conduct environmental and engineering work and, in some cases, launch construction, on projects designed to provide faster rail service.
But in order for high-speed rail (HSR) systems to reach their maximum ridership and revenue potential, they’ll need to connect with local transit services so longer-distance travelers can get to their final destination sans-automobile. And in no place is that more evident than California, where the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) plans to build an 800-mile statewide system that will link a handful of major metropolitan areas — Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego chief among them. The state is using federal funds to begin construction on the initial segment in the Central Valley, as well as conduct planning, environmental and engineering work on the remainder of the corridor.
California transit agencies are doing some HSR planning, too, as they work to incorporate the statewide system into their long-range programs. By ensuring high-speed and transit systems connect — be it by serving the same stations in major metropolitan areas, operating on schedules that enable HSR passengers to hop on a local bus or train in a timely manner, or completing mutually beneficial projects — CHSRA and California transit agencies will be able to operate an interconnected, multi-modal state transit network.
“High-speed rail is going to be a failed system unless it connects to Los Angeles, so we take our partnership with [CHSRA] very seriously, and we take high-speed rail very seriously,” says Don Sepulveda, executive officer of regional rail for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LACMTA).
That’s why Sepulveda, who’s responsible for fostering LACMTA’s partnerships with high-speed and other area rail agencies, is in contact with someone from CHSRA or one of its engineering or consulting firms several times a week. Three California HSR segments are set to run through Los Angeles (specifically, Los Angeles Union Station) — the Los Angeles-to-Anaheim segment, a corridor running through Palmdale to northern California and a segment running south into San Diego.
In addition to LACMTA’s subway system and two of its light-rail lines, Union Station is served by Metrolink commuter-rail and Amtrak trains, and several bus lines.
“We have a very challenging future trying to get everyone through [Union Station],” says Sepulveda.
Although integrating HSR into the station — which LACMTA purchased in February 2011 from real estate developer Catellus Operating L.P. — will be tough, LACMTA officials believe it still needs to be part of the agency’s long-term plan for the station.
“There’s an opportunity to branch out and make it a true transit hub, but we have to integrate high-speed rail to make it a complete passenger experience at Union Station,” says Sepulveda
Among LACMTA’s proposals for the HSR integration: building a double-deck HSR track, a set of HSR tracks above the existing commuter-rail tracks or high-speed tracks at grade.
“Union Station is a stub-end station, so when high-speed rail does come, we have to make this a through station in order to handle the increased passenger flows we’ll have,” says Sepulveda.
And when HSR does begin serving Los Angeles, LACMTA will have ample feeder services to support it. The agency currently is in the midst of a program to build a handful of new rail lines and expand several existing ones. Although the expansion efforts weren’t prompted by HSR, they will help to improve regional connectivity once the HSR system is operating, says Sepulveda.
At this point, it’s anybody’s guess when HSR might actually be up and running in and around Los Angeles. CHSRA is facing funding, environmental and public outreach challenges at nearly every stage of project development. But while the authority gears up to begin construction in the Central Valley, officials should consider making upgrades in other parts of the state, Sepulveda says. For example, grade separating busy corridors in major metropolitan areas — which eventually will be necessary for high-speed operations — also would benefit local transit systems in the near term and show taxpayers that state bond funds are being put to work, he says.
Meanwhile, in the northern half of the state, Caltrain officials have proposed a strategy they believe will be mutually beneficial for both the commuter-rail agency and CHSRA on the San Francisco Peninsula.
For the past several years, Caltrain officials have proposed to electrify the system between San Francisco and San Jose. If they did, CHSRA could operate high-speed trains on the same corridor, says Caltrain Government Affairs Manager Seamus Murphy.
“The benefit of that would be two-fold: The [high-speed] project would have a reduced cost because we’re using as much existing infrastructure as we can, and by building a completely separate system, there’s an opportunity to minimize impacts on surrounding communities and minimize the amount of right of way needed,” he says.
Caltrain is conducting a capacity analysis to determine if the existing corridor could accommodate both systems. Preliminary findings released in September were promising, showing that under the so-called “blended” system, Caltrain could operate six commuter trains and CHSRA could run two high-speed trains per hour in each direction. Caltrain officials are refining the capacity analysis results and, as of press time, were expected to soon release a draft of their findings.
CHSRA officials appear to be on board with the blended approach. On Nov. 1, the authority released a draft business plan that calls for high-speed trains to share electrified tracks with Caltrain commuter trains.
And that means shared construction costs, which will enable Caltrain to electrify its system — and reap the benefits of improved service — sooner than it otherwise could.
“Our system desperately needs to be modernized for a number of reasons, but the most pressing concern is our operating budget and structural deficit,” says Murphy. “In order to maintain current service levels, we have to find one-time money every year to fill the budget gap, and electrification would increase the capacity of the system.”
As a result, Caltrain could provide higher quality, more reliable and more frequent service, which would generate more ridership and revenue while keeping operating costs flat, Murphy says.
While CHSRA plans to build an HSR line that would branch off to the San Francisco peninsula, it does not plan to build an east-west connection between the peninsula branch and the rest of the HSR corridor. Instead, CHSRA is teaming up with the Altamont Commuter Express (ACE) — which operates commuter-rail service along a 90-mile corridor between San Jose and Stockton — to improve service on the line.
“ACE is mentioned in the high-speed rail legislation as a ‘complementary corridor’ to the high-speed rail system,” says ACE Executive Director Stacey Mortensen. “It’s somewhat political, because the northern route was not selected for the cutover from L.A. to San Francisco, so we’re listed in there to say, ‘Hey, we still think you’re important and we’ll still work with you to develop the system.’”
And important, it is. The ACE corridor would connect with the HSR line in both San Jose and the northern part of the Central Valley, where the trunk line will run up to Sacramento. Therefore, ACE could transport Altamont Corridor commuters to catch high-speed trains in two critical areas.
“The authority would like to have some say in us scheduling to meet their trains out of the trunk lines, so we decided we’d do this together,” says Mortensen. “We’ll each bring some money and between the two of us, we can build a more robust service and a more robust corridor.”
In order to provide more robust service, ACE will need to build a dedicated passenger-rail corridor. The agency currently operates along a Union Pacific Railroad line, and “continuing to add passenger trains and speed them up on a freight line that’s geared for other kinds of goods movement is not compatible long-term,” says Mortensen.
Because ACE is listed as a complementary corridor to the HSR system, the agency — which has had a memorandum of understanding with CHSRA for the Altamont Corridor improvements since early 2009 — is eligible to receive state funds for high-speed connecting services. About $1 billion will be available for transit systems throughout the state. In addition, ACE could receive some of the $9.95 billion in HSR bond funds approved by California voters in November 2008. However, those funds won’t be made available until the Central Valley construction has begun, says Mortensen.
In the meantime, preliminary planning is under way for the dedicated passenger corridor. ACE and CHSRA are in the late stages of the supplemental alternatives analysis phase, which is expected to be finished in spring 2012. Then, the agencies will begin preparing the Environmental Impact Report/Environmental Impact Statement, which is expected to take about two years to complete.
Eventually, ACE plans to build a new, dedicated line along the entire 90-mile corridor, but that work likely will be phased in as funding becomes available, says Mortensen.
“We are developing a phasing plan right now because if there are places we can buy right of way or make interim improvements to speed up service, we want to do that,” she says. “So there are some things that could go out of the gate as soon as the environmental process is complete.”
As California transit agencies work to incorporate HSR plans into their own local transit programs, CHSRA is, in turn, incorporating local transit into its plans.
“California’s system must complement and leverage local and regional systems with which it connects,” CHSRA notes in the draft business plan. “The ability to effectively plan and manage the integration of high-speed rail, and regional and local systems will require an open and transparent exchange of information with stakeholders and decision makers.”
Email comments or questions to Angela Cotey