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keeping up with the Jeanses

By enelson
Tuesday, October 10th, 2006 at 4:17 pm in BART, Capitol Corridor (Amtrak), Freeways, Funding, high-speed rail, Planning, rail.

 Artwork by John Mattos from

train_stylized-John Mattos from mtc site.jpgThis week the American Public Transportation Association is having its annual confab in San Jose, chosen, I suppose, because it is a city on the cusp of being viably connected to the rest of the Bay Area.

What I got out of it was some instant national relevance for BART’s latest ridership record.

To avoid spending an extra 2 1/2 hours on the train, I drove all the way down I-880 to see if I could learn something.

Number one, I discovered that it’s ok for state appointees like Caltrans Director Will Kempton to endorse $20 billion transportation bonds on the Nov. 7 ballot as long as they say “personally” within five minutes of their endorsement. When I called a state legislative media person for a quote from her boss, State Senate leader Don Perata, she referred me to the infrastructure bond campaign office, lest she cross the line between doing state business.

I also learned a little more about Canada as a model of all things socialized and federal. Single-payer healthcare they got. When it comes to public transit, they look south of the border for inspiration. I noted this when a Canadian newspaper story mentioned the Bay Area’s free transit on Spare the Air Days this summer. In Canada, such a thing would be très impossible.

At the APTA meeting on Monday, I received further confirmation of Canada’s unenlightened status from Michael Roschlau, president and CEO of the Canadian Urban Transit Association. He told the few members of the press who showed up that while Canada is busy “retrofitting our built environment” to mitigate the effects of sprawl on public transit, “there has been no history of federal involvement” in Canadian public transportation. Even so, ridership in recent years has grown 2-3 percent in Canada, he said.

I’m really disappointed in Canada, but happy to learn from Roschlau that “we’ve learned a lot from the United States.”

Perhaps a more fitting role model was represented by Angelo Pangratis, European Union deputy of delegation to the United States. He stood, both physically and philosophically, above his North American counterparts.

One of the biggest factors in recent growth of public transportation in Europe, he said, “is the importance of rail … particularly the use high-speed trains,” which have accounted for a quarter of that growth.

“Door-to-door, it costs less,” he averred, but “this is not necessarily a readily importable solution.”

I’ll say. All that stands between California and high-speed rail is another $10 billion worth of bond measure, one which never seems to fit on the ballot with all those other multi-billion-dollar bonds. Once it does, its backers promise, it’ll pay for itself and fares will be cheaper than driving.

Pangratis offered one other caveat: The parts of Europe where high-speed rail work so well are also among the most densely populated regions on earth. California has yet to join that club, at least not in population density. 

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6 Responses to “keeping up with the Jeanses”

  1. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    I do not understand how someone around here could talk about the APTA convention without mentioning AC Transit, which has dominated the awards for bus transit systems for the past decode or so.

    Also, I hope you realize that it would take considerably more than $10 billion to build a high-speed rail system to Los Angeles. $10 billion would not even build BART today. I think that you should get a projected cost and income breakdown from these backers who claim it would pay for itself, and ask them if it would pay for itself with a fare cheaper than driving, why it cannot be built with private money?

  2. Capricious Commuter Says:

    I was writing about the event staged by APTA, at which only VTA and Caltrans were representing California.

    But you’re right, I should acknowledge AC Transit and its standing on the national stage, so to speak.

    As for high-speed rail, I was only referring to the twice-delayed bond issue of nearly $10 billion. You’re right that it would cost much more, something much closer to $30 billion by the High Speed Rail Authority’s own estimates.

    And the claims about it being so cheap are also straight from the authority. No guarantee of of accuracy should be construed here. I, too, wonder why a private company wouldn’t jump at the chance to create something so lucrative. Your comment reminds me that it’s high time someone asked some of those companies just how risky said investment would be.

  3. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    I think you meant $30 billion, not million. That is the sort of mistake the proponents want people to make. Unfortunately, I think that estimate low, too. Still, if you put $30 billion in the bank at 5% interest, it would pay you $1.5 billion a year. That would be enough to provide free service on BART, the Muni, AC Transit and several other transit systems in perpetuity. Would high-speed rail serve that many riders? Not a chance!

    What I do not understand about this push for high-speed rail is that it requires a huge leap from what we have now. Presently there are three surface mass-transit routes from here to Los Angeles:
    1. The Coast Starlight, a very slow direct train that runs once a day.
    2. The San Joaquins and other Amtrak service, which is combination bus and rail service which runs infrequently during the day, twice a day from Sacramento and three times from the East Bay. It is much faster than the Coast Daylight. It requires a transfer to a bus from Bakersfield to Los Angeles, or something like that.
    3. Greyhound, which is the fastest and cheapest, but more cramped, and there is no food service on the bus.

    So why not start with a rail connection from Bakersfield to Los Angeles? Just that portion would be a much more useful and practical project.

    It still is not likely to be cheaper than driving. Current fares are about $55 on the train. That will buy you about 20 gallons of gas, which is enough to get you to Los Angeles, unless you have a real gas hog. If you take another passenger, it is no contest; driving is cheaper. I know someone will claim that you need to include insurance and depreciation, but you need to pay that even if you leave your car in an Amtrak parking lot.

    I should mention that although VTA and Caltrain were presumably hosts of the APTA convention, the other transit agencies were no doubt participating.

  4. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Ok, ok. You inspired me. While AC Transit assures me that they hadn’t won anything as of Thursday afternoon, I kept my ear to the ground and wrote about BART winning the AdWheel award for its iPod trip planner. Does AC Transit have an iPod trip planner? I wrote about AC Transit winning the bus maintenance rodeo this spring. I even took pictures of the bus driver who won the customer service competition. You didn’t see that in the other papers, did you?

  5. transit-dependent Says:

    I saw your conclusion, about California not being terribly dense, as a poor excuse for our meandering record on transit issues. Los Angeles is by far the most densely populated metropolitan area in the country (much denser than New York, since the NYC suburbs are so spread-out), and the Bay Area core is large and dense enough to support several successful mass-transit systems, particularly CalTrain and AC Transit.

    The distance between here and LA is certainly daunting, but the tremendous air traffic between the areas indicates that high-speed rail would be successful. If we could combine high-speed rail to LA with proposed transit improvements to San Jose (ie, instead of BART, have the train go from Oakland to San Jose to LA, skipping SF but saving billions by not doing a BART extension), we’d be getting somewhere. But instead everyone is focused on the wasteful and unnecessary BART line, and San Francisco seems to think that station should be there, instead of the more densely populated East Bay.

  6. Inside Bay Area > The Capricious Commuter > for whom the road tolls Says:

    […] But back to the idea of privatization: Frequent�CC commenter�Bruce De Benedictis, in questioning my paraphrasing of California High Speed Rail’s claims of profitability and economy, asks�why no private transportation provider has stepped up to make this $30 billion project happen. […]

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