High-Speed Rail Gets Real for the Bay Area

A rendering of high-speed rail at Diridon Station. Courtesy California High-Speed Rail Authority

When the 800-mile high-speed rail system connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles is finished, it will be California's most significant transportation project since the 1950s. This year, the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CAHSRA) announced that the first segment completed will connect the Central Valley to San Jose, instead of Los Angeles. The Bay Area will become the proving ground for how high-speed rail can transform California’s cities. What do we need to do to get it right?

Next week CAHSRA will meet to approve its Draft 2016 Business Plan. Released in February, the plan summarizes the project’s status, outlines key milestones and updates forecasts for costs, service levels and ridership. The 2016 draft plan includes a few significant changes from the 2014 draft plan.

What’s New in the Draft 2016 Business Plan?

The big news is that high-speed rail would connect the Central Valley to the Bay Area first, before Southern California, running service from Fresno to Diridon Station starting in 2025. CAHSRA is continuing to plan for a mid-peninsula station in Millbrae that would connect travelers to San Francisco International Airport. Additionally, CAHSRA estimates that the system will have a smaller bill than previously anticipated, bringing the cost down from $68 billion to $64 billion. While CAHSRA is using the funding it has to get going, the 2016 business plan is a “funding-constrained” plan because the federal government has not supplied as much to high-speed rail as was anticipated.

SPUR strongly supports the direction of the 2016 draft business plan, with a focus on getting a segment up and running soon with the money that is available. Successfully building and initiating service is the best way to demonstrate the positive impact that high-speed rail will have in the state, and will help to build public confidence in the project. We think high-speed rail can have a profound and transformative impact in California, reducing pollution, strengthening regional rail, saving travel time, relieving airports of some of their expected growth, and providing an armature for the state’s population and job growth.

While these benefits are exciting, they’re not inevitable. To be successful, high-speed rail will need to build new and better partnerships between cities, transit operators, local businesses and civic groups to implement some major policy changes. We recently outlined our top priorities for Diridon Station, Transbay Terminal and Millbrae Station in a comment letter on the draft business plan. These include:

Full Funding for Great Stations

Several stations need major upgrades to make high-speed rail easy and attractive for riders to use. By 2025, Diridon Station will have the largest concentration of public transit west of the Mississippi. It’s critical that the station provides a superb transit experience to travelers and visitors, and that it becomes the focal point of a memorable urban place. The City of San Jose estimates that achieving these goals would cost between $1 billion and $2 billion. The $50 million earmarked for Diridon in the draft business plan provides a foundation for this work, but more will be needed. That will only happen with strong funding commitments from local, regional and federal partners. In addition, the completion of San Francisco’s downtown extension project, which will bring rail to the Transbay Transit Center, will be a critical step in the success of high-speed rail. SPUR supports CAHSRA’s investment in the downtown extension and recommends continued cooperation with all partners to ensure that this project is funded and completed as soon as possible. Until the downtown extension is completed, the 4th and King Station may be the terminus for high-speed rail trains.

Governance to Deliver a Unified Vision

For an opportunity of this magnitude, effective governance structures will be needed to complete the stations and oversee high-quality land use development. Many cities have established single-purpose entities to design, develop and construct major transportation investments. Some examples include the Denver Union Station Project Authority, Kings Cross Central Limited Partnership in London or the Transbay Joint Powers Authority in San Francisco. The advantage of this structure is that piecemeal decision-making can be avoided. This will be particularly important in cities with many transit operators or landowners sharing a terminal or station area. To help high-speed rail reach its potential for transforming areas near transit all over the state, SPUR recommends the creation of a multiagency group that reviews all high-speed rail station plans. This review can be as simple as providing feedback on how plans can better meet state guidelines.

The Long View on Land-Use and Form

Many stations offer opportunities to significantly shape growth around high-quality transit. We believe it’s important to take the long view when developing each station. For example, in the future we may not need all of the parking today’s market would supply. Additionally, new development must be carefully managed to ensure that the limited development capacity in the station area is not underutilized. (For example, Diridon Station has building height constraints due to its proximity to San Jose International Airport and federal aviation policies.) Station area plans should focus on creating high-quality, high-intensity, destination-oriented uses such as office complexes, hotels and convention centers.

While each site needs to be maximized, each development should also contribute to the making of a high-quality, walkable place. Great urban design may require shifts in policy, technical and professional practices, markets and norms. For a great discussion of urban design and land use around high-speed rail stations, see Making the Most of High-Speed Rail in California.

Connections by Transit, Bike and Foot

SPUR strongly supports maximizing connections between places and between different modes of transportation. This can be accomplished by adding great local transit service, building protected bike lanes, implementing a shared ticketing/payment program between all kinds of transit, providing bike storage, and creating a rational system for pickup and drop-off from on-demand and driverless vehicles, among other strategies. In addition, transit service planning between high-speed rail and local transit should be prioritized to provide reliable connections between statewide and local transit systems.

SPUR supports the 2016 Draft Business Plan, and we look forward to working with CHSRA to ensure that high-speed rail succeeds at connecting Californians and shaping growth in the Bay Area and beyond.