Transitions – Part 1: California High Speed Rail Project

The California High Speed Rail Authority is putting its ambitious project from L.A. Union Station to San Diego into hibernation. The Rail Authority budget for the current fiscal year, beginning July 1, has no funding for any design, outreach, or other efforts to build the L.A. to San Diego line, which would potentially go through Alhambra and other cities in the San Gabriel Valley.

Instead, the Rail Authority has decided to focus completely on the first phase of the high speed rail project from San Francisco to Anaheim (Phase I). All funding that originally had been requested for the L.A. to San Diego line has been redirected to Phase I. The Rail Authority expects to break ground next year on a segment in the Central Valley between Fresno and Bakersfield. Phase I service is scheduled to begin between San Francisco and Anaheim in 2020.

What this means for Alhambra and the San Gabriel Valley:

Alhambra and the San Gabriel Valley have a respite from the high speed rail project. I expect the project to remain in stasis for 5 to 7 years and perhaps longer.

Work on the L.A. to San Diego line will not be restarted until after Phase I is near completion or the state gets a lot of guaranteed money to complete Phase I and begin the L.A. to San Diego line concurrently.[1]

Waiting until 2020 to restart environmental studies for the the L.A. to San Diego line is in the best interests of the Rail Authority. Those environmental studies are necessary to complete the environmental impact report and environmental impact statement (EIR/EIS) required by state and federal environmental laws. The EIR/EIS process is expected to take 2 years to complete based on earlier statements by Rail Authority staff and contractors.

Even though it expects to begin service between San Francisco and Anaheim in 2020, Rail Authority spokespersons told our community that it does not expect to not break ground for the L.A. to San Diego line until about 2025. That means, an EIR/EIS completed in 2017 or even 2020 will be stale and very likely vulnerable to court challenges when the Rail Authority breaks ground in 2025.

Sadly, there is a good chance that Alhambra and the San Gabriel Valley get saddled with the high speed rail project like we are with the 710 extension between Alhambra and Pasadena. Delays in the project, cost overruns, and failure to meet ridership estimates may push back additional segments of the high speed rail network into the future. Moreover, if the Rail Authority repeats Caltrans’ mistake with the 710 and tries to use a stale EIR/EIS a court likely will halt all work and require an updated EIR/EIS before work can begin. In which case, our children may be grappling with how to fill a gap in the high speed passenger rail network.

Plan now for the future!

Alhambra and other cities along the I-10 corridor must plan the future of the I-10 corridor now.

The Rail Authority will be back one day. In the meantime, we need to take advantage of the time granted by the budget crunch and have a regional dialogue about what we want the I-10 corridor to look like in 25, 50, and 100 years. That way we can give direction to the Rail Authority when it does restart work on the L.A. to San Diego line instead of the other way around.

I recommend that all practical options for the I-10 corridor be evaluated and debated, even those that sound almost sacrilegious to our car-centric lifestyle. Here are four options that deserve some consideration.

1) No change. The I-10 would continue as it will look in 2013 when Caltrans completes its current construction project. We will be left with a whole host of questions, among them: What volume of traffic can it handle? What is the volume today? What will the volume of traffic be in 25, 50, and 100 years based on current population models? What can be done to handle congestion?

2) Congestion pricing. Multiple lanes would require drivers pay a toll when traffic density increases. Caltrans is planning to test congestion pricing as part of its current construction. During the test period, a single high occcupancy toll (HOT) lane each way would require single-occupant cars to pay a toll to use that  lane. Buses and carpools could use the lane for free but cars with only one passenger (the driver) would pay a toll.

3) Ground level rail expansion. The I-10 corridor would host a ground level double-tracked Metrolink line. Currently, part of the I-10 through Alhambra and its neighboring cities has a single track in a 20 foot right of way. This plan would require about 50 feet for a railway right of way. Meaning, it would take away about 30 feet from the freeway, or the width of 2.5 lanes.[2]

4)  Elevated road or railways. This option is in line with what the Rail Authority has already proposed running through the I-10 corridor. It will look a bit like the 110 freeway does south of Downtown L.A.

Someone will suggest adding a fifth option to expand the footprint of the freeway beyond its current boundaries today.  That should be a non-starter. Small adjustments should be expected for safety or other reasons strongly in the public interest, but no large scale expansions should be made to accommodate additional traffic lanes. If allowed to expand infinitely, when would Caltrans stop expanding the freeway? When it is a mile wide?

An Argument for Ground Level Rail Expansion

It may sound radical today but I personally support the third option, to expand ground level rail.

Under this plan, the Metrolink right of way would be expanded at ground level, a second set of tracks would be laid, and the system electrified and grade separated. Through Alhambra, the plan would take the two HOT lanes that currently do not exist today.

At its most basic, it would be a sister project to Alameda Corridor East (ACE), similar in scope and size. ACE is grade separating the Union Pacific freight railway as it goes through the San Gabriel Valley so as to separate auto and pedestrian traffic from trains. Part of the ACE project will continue the Alhambra trench along Mission Road past the San Gabriel Mission. Unfortunately, like the ACE project, it will be necessary to take some homes and businesses that are along the Metrolink route in other communities depending on the route, otherwise there may not be enough space to double track Metrolink.

The fundamental goal of our transportation system is to get as many people from where they are to where they want to go. With that in mind, the goal of the I-10 freeway corridor is to transport as many people as possible along that corridor. If trains can serve that goal better in the future as our population increases then we need to re-adjust some of our uses of the corridor back to rail. After all, Pacific Electric Railway tracks were torn out to put in the freeway. Of four tracks, the only one remaining is owned by Metro and used by Metrolink.

Expanding ground level rail along the I-10 will provide a number of benefits to the San Gabriel Valley.

First, Metrolink will be safer. Each set of tracks would carry trains in a single direction. Currently, Metrolink tracks are two way, meaning trains traveling both ways use the same tracks. Most of the gnarly Metrolink accidents have been head-on collisions due in part to track sharing by trains going in opposite directions.

Second, Metrolink’s capacity to carry passengers will increase. Today, its capacity is limited to the number of trains it can run along a particular route. Double tracking will allow Metrolink to safely increase the number of trains it can run.

Third, improving both safety and capacity can make Metrolink more convenient for travelers along the route. That in turn would mean fewer cars on the freeway.

One thing to keep in mind is that population will only increase. Few who live along the I-10 corridor want all those people trying to drive, further clogging the freeway and city streets. Our roads are already congested so we need to find other ways to utilize the corridor to get people around.

Fourth, emissions along the I-10 could be decreased. First, Metrolink will be electrified so its emissions will decrease to a negligible amount. Although diesel engines are cleaning up due to EPA regulations they still will have emissions. Second, removing two lanes of traffic will decrease particulate matter pollution. Apparently, a large part of the localized pollution along the freeway is dust from tires. If you live along freeway, you know tire dust as the black soot you can never seem to keep out of your house. It is also the reason areas adjacent to freeways have higher incidences of asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Tire dust contains more than just rubber.

Fifth,the Rail Authority would not have any reason to build an elevated structure through the San Gabriel Valley. Metrolink and the Rail Authority could enter into a joint use plan that allows high speed trains to use Metrolink tracks. Moreover, Metrolink could generally serve the local L.A. to San Diego passenger rail market if it is double-tracked, electrified, and grade separated all the way to San Diego.

High speed rail will not travel at high speeds through our area. According to the Rail Authority, its trains will travel between 125 and 150 miles per hour through densely populated areas such as the San Gabriel Valley. If sharing tracks, its trains will be limited to the top speed Metrolink trains travel, which would be about 110 to 125 if grade separated, double tracked, and electrified.

Of course, there are several significant hurdles to such a plan.

1. Despite the fact that no law forbids Caltrans to take away freeway lanes it is not politically practical (not today at least). Freeway users and the business community will be outraged should anyone even mention taking away a freeway lane, let alone for rail.

HOT lanes should be considered operating lanes for sake of discussion because they are already under construction and will open in 2013. The HOT lane experiment will not be converted back to unused median. Caltrans will either continue its congestion pricing model or convert it to a HOV lane. That’s at least what Metro and Caltrans have said.

A Caltrans right of way rep who I spoke to last year told me that Caltrans would consider requests by the local county transit agency (Metro, OCTA, etc) if it directed Caltrans to utilize freeway lanes for rail transit. Caltrans does have a history of permitting joint use of certain freeway rights of way. Examples include Metro’s Gold Line in the center of the 210 freeway and Green Line in the center of the 105 freeway in South L.A. County.

2. Like any major infrastructure project, this project would cost a lot. How much? I’m not sure, but ACE is expected to cost a few billion dollars, the Expo light rail line cost Metro about $108 million per mile, and Caltrans is spending $1.34 billion to widen and install a carpool lane on the 405 in West L.A. from the 105 to the 101 freeways. Costs will depend on a number of factors including route chosen, whether property needs to be acquired, terrain, and costs to mitigate negative affects. This project, like other transit projects have a number of funding resources available to them including gas taxes, sales and other use taxes, and federal and state grants.

Bottom Line

Alhambra and other communities along the I-10 corridor need to take advantage of additional time given by the Rail Authority’s change in priorities. The Rail Authority will be back in the next decade, intent on building a high speed rail line between L.A. Union Station and San Diego. The most likely route will lead the high speed trains along the I-10 corridor.

The San Gabriel Valley needs to proactively consider and plan what we want and need of our future transportation infrastructure and freeway corridors.Doing so will give us a stronger leg to stand on and dictate to the Rail Authority how it may traverse our communities. Failure to do so means the Rail Authority will build 50 to 75 foot elevated platforms on which its trains will travel 125-150 miles per hour,  every 7 to 15 minutes, from 5 a.m. to midnight, 365 days a year.

Alhambra123 will continue to follow the high speed rail project and post from time to time when information specifically relevant to Alhambra and the San Gabriel Valley becomes available.

That said, we will also continue to post points of interest relevant to Alhambra. The goal of this web site has always been to discuss and help improve the quality of life of Alhambra residents. Now that the high speed rail project is no longer an imminent threat, we will continue to broaden the web site’s focus to more generally include other related aspects of quality of life.

Footnotes:

1. Needless to say, there is very little chance the state will suddenly become flush with cash and able to afford working on Phase I as well as the L.A. to San Diego line at the same time. The state only has a small amount of overall funding for Phase I of the high speed rail project. Phase I is estimated by the Rail Authority at $43 billion. Other estimates peg the costs at closer to $76 billion. Currently, the Rail Authority has about $13 billion.

2. “[T]ravel lanes depending upon the type of highway can vary from 10 [feet] to 15 [feet].” A 50 foot right of way will take 5 ten foot lanes, while it will take 3 and a 1/3 fifteen foot lanes.  Caltrans: How wide are freeway lanes.

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