December 9, 2014 - From the December, 2014 issue

CA High-Speed Rail Isn’t About the Train—It’s About California’s Future

At the High Speed Rail Conference on December 2 in Downtown Los Angeles, California High-Speed Rail Authority CEO Jeff Morales provided a progress report on the state's bullet-train project. TPR presents an edited transcript of Morales' remarks, followed by a question-and-answer session. Here, he discusses stages of project implementation and the challenges facing the authority—which mirror difficulties overcome by major California infrastrucutre achievements of the past. Morales also delves into the potential for economic development that high-speed rail provides.


Jeff Morales

"High-speed rail is filling a niche. That’s what it has done around the world. That’s what it will do here in California. It’s not about replacing cars or trains. It’s about providing transportation in a way that makes the most sense." —Jeff Morales

Jeff Morales: Over the course of the last year, I spent a lot of time explaining how California High-Speed Rail is going to overcome obstacles and get past challenges in the legislature. What’s great about the progress we’ve made is that the conversation can shift to what we are doing, because over the past year we have overcome the challenges. I am pleased to share that we’ve made tremendous progress on all fronts.

Every major infrastructure investment faces these sorts of challenges. It’s part of the process. But in the last year, we have moved ahead very aggressively. We’ve secured unprecedented funding. We’ve received environmental clearances all the way through the Central Valley for construction, and federal approvals from the Surface Transportation Board. Construction has begun. We’ve broken ground. We’ve not yet done our groundbreaking, but that’s on the way. We’ve got major agreements signed with third parties necessary to move the programs forward.

Very importantly, we’re beginning to see the economic stimulus that an investment like this creates—a crucial element of this program. It’s becoming real and is only going to accelerate.

The lesson from earlier programs is that if they call you bad names, you’re probably doing something good. The Golden Gate Bridge is the example we always talk about—arguably the most iconic structure in this state and certainly one of the most iconic in the country. It was fiercely debated when being constructed. The guy who called it the “upside-down rat trap that will mar the beauty of the bay” was none other than Ansel Adams, the great photographer. Look at what that structure means to California today.

Every major decision that helped shape the state has gone through a similar process. Back in the 60s, the Master Plan for Higher Education—which created the University of California as we know it, the preeminent public university research system in the world—passed the Legislature by a single vote. The State Water Program passed the Legislature by a single vote. That puts us in good company, because we passed the Legislature by a single vote two years ago. This past year we got two votes, so we’re way ahead of the game.

As we look back at the development of the University of California and the water system, there’s no one today who thinks they were a mistake. If anything, we want to make sure we reclaim what was intended through those programs. I am absolutely confident that 50 years from now, people will look back at what we’ve been doing and say, “What the heck was all the fuss about? Thank goodness you stuck with it, because it made a real difference for the state.”

The above examples are evidence of how we need to remind people that this really isn’t a choice in many respects. We have to go forward with the California’s High-Speed Rail Program.

Our transportation infrastructure is at its capacity. We can’t keep building more roads. If you think what we are going through in clearing two tracks up and down the state is difficult, think about what it would mean to add 4,500 lane miles of freeway. That’s what would be needed to replace the capacity of our system. Think about what it would mean to try to add runways and new terminals at airports, because that’s what would be needed. Compared to our price tag is, those alternatives are two to three times higher. An investment like this is absolutely critical.

High-speed rail is filling a niche. That’s what it has done around the world. That’s what it will do here in California. It’s not about replacing cars or trains. It’s about providing transportation in a way that makes the most sense. A lot of people don’t realize that LA-to-San Francisco is the busiest short-haul air market in the country. In addition to the air quality issues that brings, it is not a very efficient way to utilize public facilities—runways—at airports. Airports would much rather use those to serve long-haul flights. That’s why San Francisco Airport is one of our major proponents, calling high-speed rail its third runway. That’s the answer to its capacity as we go forward. Our system will fill that niche, creating a much more efficient way to move people within the state on trips that aren’t efficient by car or plane.

Very importantly—and I say this sometimes to the dismay of our engineers and manufacturers—it isn’t about the train. It’s about connecting up the state and what that can mean for its future. The folks who wrote Proposition 1A, which provides the initial funding for the program, had a lot of foresight to insist that the system connect all of the state’s population centers. That’s never been done before. When I-5 was built, it bypassed the Central Valley—which has 5-8 million people, depending on where you define boundaries.

It’s going to be completely transformative to connect the Central Valley with the rest of the state for the first time. It’s going to connect Palmdale and the High Desert area to Los Angeles in a way it’s not connected today. It’s going to connect the Central Valley with Silicon Valley. Even within the Peninsula, driving up and down the 101 can take at least an hour, not to mention the aggravation that ages you even further as you’re driving. A half-hour connection between San Francisco and San Jose will change how that economy works.

One of the biggest things that’s happened in the last legislative session was the dedication of cap-and-trade funding for high-speed rail. That was driven by the governor’s proposal to fill the gaps in funding. As we went through the legislative process, it became a historic investment in not just high-speed rail, but also in inner-city rail, commuter rail, transit, and affordable housing—which will help make sure California continues to lead the way in combating climate change and reducing greenhouse gases.

For us, it is truly a game changer because it provides us with an ongoing source of funding for the first time. As anyone knows who has ever developed a system you need a steady stream of funding.

We’re developing this as a statewide system, ultimately 800 miles connecting all of the state’s population centers, from Sacramento to San Diego.

We’re moving forward right now on three focused areas: on the Peninsula, in the Central Valley, and in Southern California—advancing the segment in the San Fernando Valley from Palmdale to Burbank. We’re creating the opportunity to connect with the XpressWest line that will be coming in from Las Vegas, to create the first interstate high-speed rail line in the country.

After Proposition 1A passed, there was a sense that I sometimes call the “Christmas morning scenario”: Everybody thought that you vote for it, then one day you just wake up and it is there. There was no pain and no suffering. That’s not the way big things get built.

The comparison is I-5. Over a period of a few decades, it was planned, funded, designed, and constructed as funding became available, as environmental approvals were secured, and as contracts were entered. During periods over the course of 20 or 30 years, it wasn’t all one connected system. There were pieces that ultimately tied together. That’s what we’re building with our system.

In Northern California, we’re doing something that has been talked about for 30-40 years: electrification of the commuter rail system on the Peninsula—the Caltrain corridor. The actual process of electrification will start next year, with the target for completion 2019 to 2020. That may well be the first electrified train service in the State of California. The Transbay Terminal, which will be the northern terminus, is well under construction.

It’s important that this system does what we intend it to do: help shape development and growth of our cities. We’re working with cities where we’ll have stations to provide planning grants so they can make the investments they need. We’re doing things collaboratively to achieve the outcomes that we want in those cities.

The Valley is where we get a lot of attention and where a lot of people focus because that’s where the new construction is starting. It’s the spine of the system. We have been underway for a while. There is work happening. Over the next few months, you’ll see a rapid acceleration of that work. A lot of men and women in orange t-shirts will be out there. We have initial design-build underway. We anticipate awarding the second contract, which will cover about 65 miles, in January. Within the next few months, we will have upwards of $3 billion worth of work under contract and underway in the Central Valley. That’s where we’ll see the true high-speed, 220-plus-miles-an hour system.

In Southern California, the cap-and-trade money has helped us move forward by ensuring funding to get these segments going faster. We’ve separated out the segments so that we can move forward on Palmdale-Burbank as an initial leg, potentially. It will then come into Los Angeles and go down to Anaheim. We’re working with our local partners, like Art Leahy at Metro, to identify key projects to improve the existing commuter rail system—grade separations, the run-through tracks at Union Station—that will ultimately be incorporated into the high-speed rail system. We’re working with the host cities to make sure the planning is done to accommodate and take advantage of the investments that we’re making.

The economic benefits of high-speed rail are a huge component of what we’re doing. Particularly in the Central Valley, it’s sorely needed. The Central Valley is the fastest growing part of the state but has suffered from chronic high unemployment, roughly twice the state average. Unemployment in the construction industry in the Valley is 25-35 percent. Our program is going to be a game changer for that region, investing billions of dollars into that economy. It is going to create unprecedented opportunities for people, not just to work on our program, but to be trained to work and have a career in other programs. Working with our partners, three pre-apprenticeship programs are already training people to work in the industry. We’re at the very front end of the major construction, but we’re already seeing people get jobs.

We have a major commitment to small businesses, because almost by definition, a small business is a local business. As we bring small businesses into our program, we’re investing in California’s local economies. We have almost 160 small businesses already under contract. We have 28 disabled vetery business enterprises under contract and working.

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Nothing gets done without political leadership. We could do all the good staff work in the world, but if the leadership wasn’t there, it wouldn’t make a difference. For us, that starts with Governor Brown. We’re blessed as a state to have him leading this effort. He has the ability to look beyond the short term to think about the future and what’s right for the state. He’s been a huge proponent.

Consistently, the mayors of the five biggest cities and many other cities, as well as every regional chamber of commerce, strongly endorse this program. Labor and environmentalists do, as well. We’re working hard to make sure these folks continue to speak out and be in support. They see this as the next wave of investment in the state

Some of us aren’t going to see the direct benefit of high-speed rail—although a lot will. This is about building for the future. The up-and-coming professionals who will be riding this system and driving the state’s economy want to do things differently. We’ve seen a dramatic decrease in vehicle miles traveled in automobiles by younger people; a dramatic increase in transit; and a dramatic shift in terms of people wanting to live in urban areas. Our program has to embrace that, building for the future that they want and will take advantage of.

We’ve had great support in tapping into that  group. The “I Will Ride” group started at UC Merced has spread to other campuses. Students say, “You built the freeways and airports before—now it’s our turn. You need to build high-speed rail and help us succeed in this state.” The engagement of young people and their advocacy is part of what will help this program go forward—making sure that we do as a state what previous generations did for us.

Q&A:

Could you address with more specificity the Palmdale to Burbank segment?

I can summarize the Palmdale to Burbank connection in this way: Today on Metrolink, it takes almost two hours to make that trip. On our system, it will take 14 to 15 minutes. That’s a pretty big difference. 60,000 people a day come down the hill from Palmdale into LA to work. High-speed rail is going to connect those economies in a way they’re not today. We’re now advancing our plan to make a direct connection with a dedicated new line between Burbank and Palmdale—tying in right at Burbank Airport where the regional investments are going and tying in up at Palmdale’s transit center. We’re in the process of looking at alignments now. It will be full-blown high-speed service, coming into Union Station and on to Anaheim.

Do you foresee any technological challenges?

Challenges, but not obstacles. We’re using proven existing technology. One of the requirements of our procurement for rolling stock, for instance, is that it has to be demonstrated in service. We’re not going to be the guinea pig for anyone. We will be on the leading edge of high-speed technology in terms of speed and other factors, but it will be proven technology.

We have challenges in building the system—like getting through the mountains. But it’s been done before and it’s been done all over the world. We don’t see anything that will prevent us from being able to do this.

How safe is high-speed rail given the number of earthquakes that we get in Southern California?

I put seismic issues in the category of challenges. But we have lots of really smart engineers in California who know how to build things through seismic areas.

We’re benefiting from expertise throughout the world. Japan, for instance, has a very similar situation. There were dozens of trains out in the system when the major earthquake hit a few years ago. They have an early warning system that worked the way it’s supposed to—trains were slowed and there were no injuries or fatalities. I think there was one derailment in the system. We’re absolutely looking to gain from that expertise. Again, we think those are manageable issues.

Could you elaborate on the status of the High Desert Corridor and the interface between Las Vegas, Palmdale, and Union Station?

Based in part on the availability now of the cap-and-trade funds, we are advancing our segment from Burbank to Palmdale. One of the goals of doing that is to create the opportunity to connect with the XpressWest project coming in from Las Vegas. We’ve got agreements with XpressWest to look at joint planning activities so that this can be a coordinated effort going forward. We see a tremendous opportunity if those two lines can connect together and operate seamlessly.

Could you elaborate on opportunities for P3 to help finance high-speed rail and Metro collaborations?

Right now we’ve got, in effect, three different pieces: The XpressWest project is coming in from Vegas to Victorville; Metro and Caltrans are clearing the High Desert Corridor between Victorville and Palmdale; and we’re take it from Palmdale down into Burbank, LA, and Anaheim.

Based on the discussions we’ve had with a variety of private-sector partners, we believe there’s real potential for direct private participation in the development of that corridor. We’re working with XpressWest on that. The ridership clearly would be there to warrant private investment and ultimately private operation of that line. 

There’s been some discussion at the federal level of creating a Southwest US rail corridor, from Arizona through to Southern California. Have you been involved in those discussions?

We have. We participated in the FRA efforts looking at that. We do think that the LA to Las Vegas leg could well become the first interstate high-speed leg in the country. We’ll see where the planning goes from there.

Our resources are focused right now on building our system within the state, but we’re very interested in where we could go from there.

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