How We Roll, Oct. 26: rebuilding infrastructure

Lots of ground to cover today, so let’s get going…

Art of Transit: 

Goodbye 6th Street Bridge -- the going away party was held Saturday. FWIW, I was always less than awestruck by the bridge and look forward to some long overdue infrastructure in DTLA. Photo by Steve Hymon.

Goodbye 6th Street Bridge — the going away party was held Saturday. FWIW, I was always less than awestruck by the bridge and look forward to some long overdue infrastructure in DTLA. Photo by Steve Hymon.

Reinventing infrastructure: how hard is it? (NPR)

The Erie Canal in the mid-1800s. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Erie Canal in the mid-1800s. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

A depiction of the test run in 1829 of the Stourbridge Lion -- the first steam locomotive in the U.S. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

A depiction of the test run in 1829 of the Stourbridge Lion — the first steam locomotive in the U.S. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

A Sinclair gas station in the 1920s. Photo via Flickr creative commons.

A Sinclair gas station in the 1920s. Photo via Flickr creative commons.

Dulles International Airport near Washington D.C. Photo: Wikimedia.

Dulles International Airport near Washington D.C. Photo: Wikimedia.d

Certainly relevant to our readers as our area is in the midst of greatly expanding its rail transit. What a great report by Adam Frank. The gist of it: America has already reinvented its transportation infrastructure several times over. And there’s no reason, Adam argues, that America and much of the globe can’t do it again in the face of climate change.

Here’s what he’s talking about:

Rochester, New York, is sometimes called America’s first boomtown. The city’s rapid growth in the 1800s was driven by the Erie Canal, started in 1808 and finished in 1825. The canal still cuts through Rochester, and I recently found a place where a railroad bridge crosses above it. That bridge is part of the rail infrastructure that went into operation in Rochester in the mid 1800s. At this particular site, I could also see fast moving cars running along I-390, a highway built in 1960s. And, just past I-390, I could see passenger jet planes making their approach into the Rochester International Airport.


Right there in front of me, I could see four different versions of infrastructure built over the last 200 years. Without a doubt, constructing a new version of human civilization that does not rely on fossil fuels will require great effort.

But it’s not like we haven’t done this before — and it’s not like we haven’t done it quickly.

Adam is right, I think. It’s not easy to change and it’s certainly expensive these days. But should we wallow in the doom-and-gloom? I don’t see a flying car future, but I do think the transportation future of Los Angeles County will include a lot more rail transit, a lot more electric cars and both transit and electric cars pulling electricity from cleaner sources. That said, it’s probably not helping that Congress has in recent years had so much trouble passing transpo spending bills — it’s hard to execute a play if you can’t get out of the huddle, to speak.

If you set your DeLorean to Oct. 26, 2035, what do you think you would find transpo-wise?

As for all that green electricity, see below. As for one piece of our potential infrastructure future…

$68-billion California bullet train project likely to overshoot budget and deadline targets (LAT)

Looking down the Arroyo Seco and Highway 1 toward DTLA. Photo by Steve Hymon.

The article focuses on the prospect of having to tunnel under the San Gabriel Mountains between Palmdale and the San Fernando Valley if the California High-Speed Rail Authority forgoes a surface route along the 14 freeway. One big complication: the San Gabriel Mountains are geologically complex and such a tunnel may have to cross the San Andreas Fault (as the 14 freeway already does).

Bullet train backers won’t like the article and many have criticized the LAT’s coverage of the project. That said, I think the LAT has raised a lot of valid questions about a completely grade-separated project to link Los Angeles and San Francisco that also involves a lot of bridges and tunnels (the project will also have to tunnel under the Tehachapi Mountains between Bakersfield and the Antelope Valley). Attentive readers know how hard and expensive it is to plan and build light rail and subway lines and the bullet train project is more complicated in many ways.

Quasi-related: Looking for something to read about local environment whilst on transit? Try John McPhee’s classic book, “The Control of Nature,” which includes a long article from the New Yorker on Los Angeles versus the San Gabriel Mountains. It’s John McPhee so it’s a great read.

Clean energy’s dirty secret (High Country News) 

Uh-oh! This is a subscription only article but looks at the very real bird-kill problems associated with some wind and solar projects. Western states also rely heavily on hydropower and that, too, has very real impacts on fish migrations and river ecosystems.

I don’t think these impacts are “secret” — some have been widely discussed for years – and certainly should be discussed in the future as part of weighing the pros and cons of any energy project. Tough, tough issues but I think it’s worth remembering the enormous amount of land and other resources consumed/changed by fossil fuel drilling.


Gas and transit cross-price elasticity in Los Angeles 2013 to 2014 (Lisa Schweitzer) 

The USC professor had her students take a look at what happens to transit ridership when gas prices change. Their finding: as gas prices went down in 2012 and ’13, so did Metro ridership.

Gas prices in California over the past decade. Source: State of California.

Gas prices in California over the past decade. Source: State of California.

There has been a lot written over the years about the relationship between the cost of gas and ridership. While others have certainly echoed the findings above — and it certainly seems intuitive —  the American Public Transit Assn. has lately been making the case that the gas/ridership relationship is eroding in many cities across the U.S. where transit has been expanded (i.e. people are taking transit because they prefer it to driving).

Of course, California’s special blend of gas — intended to help reduce smog — means that gas prices here are always higher than most parts of the U.S. That said, Metro has seen a ridership dip beginning in April 2014. In the time since, gas prices have ping-ponged considerably.

My hunch is that within L.A. County there’s a wide variety of ways that people react to gas prices and I’m not sure it correlates to household income. I think many will drive no matter what whereas some people have a line in which gas prices become so unpalatable (and perhaps unaffordable) that they will switch to transit.

My dark California dream (NYT)

A hiker in the Little Lakes Valley in the Eastern Sierra. Photo by Steve Hymon.

A hiker in the Little Lakes Valley in the Eastern Sierra. Photo by Steve Hymon.

In this op-ed, Daniel Duane — born in 1967 in the Bay Area — mourns the California his parent had. Far fewer people. Less traffic. More free parking. And, most of all, far fewer people in the state’s protected lands, i.e. Yosemite. And, of course, real estate that was affordable. Excerpt:

Back in my 20s, I thought I’d grown up in California too late — after all the mountains had been climbed and all the good surf breaks discovered. Right on schedule, in middle age — as the state’s population reaches 40 million — I am now tempted to think that I lived through the end of a golden era.

But maybe the better way to say it is that just like every other Californian for as long as anybody can remember, I have merely witnessed a fleeting chapter in a centuries-long human story in which the lost Eden we all heard about from our parents is eternally changing into the pretty damn nice place we found — and then, much too soon for comfort, into the next bewildering mixture of good and bad that we scarcely recognize.

Good article. It’s worth remembering, too, that in the past far fewer people in our state certainly carried their impacts in ways that were either loosely regulated or not regulated at all — think of those gold miners blasting away at Sierra rivers (among other impacts). While I do think our state’s national parks have gotten a little too popular for their own good, I’m also surprised at how much elbow room is available on our public lands in California, if you know where to look.

Chris Christie kicked out of Amtrak’s quiet car (NY Post)

The headline could have been “asked and politely agreed to move to a quiet car.” But it’s the Post. So that’s not the headline and that’s not all the news not fit to print. 🙂

And since it’s Monday, a lil’ Erie Canal-related music for you….

Recent How We Rolls:

Oct. 23: Social media reaction to announcement of Foothill Gold Line opening, Denver’s rail line to airport set to open in April, funny things to listen to while riding transit.

Oct. 21: Back to the future edition, i.e. what Los Angeles County transit officials of the past century got right and wrong about your transportation future.

Oct. 20: CicLAvia gives the air a good scrubbing, L.A. to legalize locking bikes to parking meters, millenials versus the driving habits of Americans.

Oct. 16: the Velotopia, closing gaps in the Valley LA river greenway, rideshare and taxis competing for business travelers.

Oct. 15L.A. as a city of dreams, thoughts on fare structure, USC’s transit subsidy cut and potential effects on employee commuting behavior, more affordable housing and possible reasons for transit ridership decline.

Metro is on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. I’m on Twitter and my photo blog.

8 replies

  1. State eyes land owned by Bob Hope Airport for high-speed rail project

    High-Speed Rail Authority officials said this week they plan to propose to Bob Hope Airport officials that the state agency purchase the nearly 60-acre “B6 parcel” — also known as the “Opportunity Site” — north of the airfield’s terminal, an area which is already being marketed for sale.

    “You are sitting on something that is an amazing public and private benefit to the future,” said Michelle Boehm, the rail authority’s Southern California regional director. She said transit officials don’t want to lose the “once-in-a-generation opportunity to make something really great — not just great times one, but great times 10.”

    Boehm’s pitch capped off an informational presentation in which she updated members of the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority on the rail project and touted the promised benefits of high-speed rail, including relief of congestion on the state’s roads, rails and short-haul commuter flight routes throughout California.

  2. All the HSR alternative routes under consideration would cross the San Andreas Fault on the surface after exiting tunnels from the Los Angeles basin.

    The route Steve Hymon describes as a surface route along the 14 freeway actually has about the same amount of tunneling as the routes under the Angeles Forest. Alternative SR14-1 along the 14 freeway has 20.7 miles of tunnel in 49 miles total length. Alternative E2a under the forest along the East Corridor has 19.5 miles of tunnel in 37.7 miles total length.

    Table 1 – SR14 and East Corridors Alignment Alternatives Detailed Evaluation Table is on Page 1 of Appendix A of the following document.

  3. The HSR debacle is exactly the same thing with the problems facing Metro. It takes them billions of dollars in stupid meetings and studies before anything gets built and at the same time, you have backward minded people who are totally clueless about the rest of world who say no to everything that has to do with progress and end up filing tons of frivilous lawsuits to block anything from getting done.

    And this is a country that used to built the transcontinental railroad in less than 4 years. Now it takes decades to get through all the stupid legal stuff and negotiating with people who don’t want to negotiate and just want this project killed and billions of dollars are wasted in doing all of this before it even gets to construction phase.

    No wonder we’re the laughing stock of the world. If this were any other country we’d already have one built by now but noooooo we had to build roads, freeways, and airports. And fifty years later we’re kicking our own butts saying why we didn’t invest in railroads like every other practical minded country in the world. Stupid is as stupid does.

  4. I think the right approach to HSR should be incremental, the way it’s done in Europe: build segment by segment, over a period of decades, while in the meantime high-speed trains travel at regular speeds on the rails that haven’t been upgraded. Taking this approach to the SF-LA route would entail as a first step closing the Lancaster-Bakersfield gap, and running a diesel train that would take 8-9 hours. After that, gradual improvements could allow a high-speed diesel to make the run in 5-6 hours. At some point the whole line would need to be electrified, though even that can be done in stages (we probably wouldn’t want to wait decades between the electrification of the initial and final segments, as was the case for Boston–New York). Additional incremental improvements, such as a tunnels and upgrading of individual segments to higher speeds could come gradually as support becomes available.

    The advantage of the incremental approach is that it gets something useful early on — a 100 mph diesel between L.A. and Oakland is much more useful than a 200 mph electric train between Bakersfield and Merced, with a bus connection to points south. A useful operating train can help garner support for future funding, and it’s still useful even if the full HSR never gets built. I don’t know why California decided to go for an all-out rather than incremental approach; Federal incentives may have been one reason, or politicians’ desire for bling. But I believe we’re much more likely to get stuck with a white elephant this way.

    • Hi Ron;

      Good comment and good points. I love the idea of a bullet train. That said, I think many people (including me) would be happy to use a train to travel to the Bay Area if the trip was in the five-six hour range. I’d miss the stop for biscuits/gravy at Harris Ranch, but otherwise would be delighted to leave the car at home.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  5. I am very anxious to see the HSR built between LA and SF in my lifetime as the air route between LAX and SFO is now officially the nation’s 2nd most busiest air route (after Chicago-New York), serving 3.6 million passengers between April 2014 and May 2015 ( and I can tell you from personal experience that constant air travel between two major cities in the same state less than 500 miles apart sucks. You spend more time going through the wonderous joys of post-9/11 TSA security and waiting at the gate instead of moving through the air.

    But the cost overruns and constant delays are really getting frustrating. We’ve already passes Prop 1A to issue $9 billion in bonds for this plus additional $4 billion in funding from the Feds with Florida and Wisconsin rejecting building HSR in their states. The HSR idea began during the 1st term of Gov. Schwarzenegger, supposed to be on the ballot on 2004, was pushed back until 2008, and was supposed to be shovel ready to begin immediately, but not much has been done and we’re already in the 2nd term of Gov. Brown. We’re at year 11 on this whole HSR issue and nothing has been done.

    Why does everything take so long and so expensive to do here?

    At the same time we’ve been discussing HSR since 2004, Japan already opened and started operating the full length of TWO HSR lines, the Kyushu Shinkansen ( and the Hokuriku Shinkansen (

    You can’t help but feel disappointed, disheartened, and frustrated by government who promises something only to fail to deliver due to lack of competence and leadership.

  6. Bullet Train: “State officials say the tunnels will be finished by 2022 — along with 300 miles of track, dozens of bridges or viaducts, high-voltage electrical systems, a maintenance plant and as many as six stations.”

    Regional Connector: “The official groundbreaking for heavy construction was held on September 30, 2014.[1] Metro hopes to complete construction and begin revenue service by 2020”

    Crenshaw LAX: “Heavy construction began in June 2014 and initial revenue service projected to begin by 2019.”

    and finally; The Westside Subway: Measure R funds became available in 2013, with expected project completion in 2035. The construction of the first 3.9-mile segment to La Cienega began in 2014. According to this schedule, the full extension would be ultimately be opened in three segments as follows:

    2023: open to La Cienega;
    2026: open to Century City;
    2035: open to Westwood/VA”

    I was fully supportive of this project when it made sense. Unfortunately only the theory of this High Speed Rail line made sense. Now it seems like the HSR Authority is just saying whatever it takes to make officials and constituents leave them alone while this project becomes more cost prohibitive. I am one that really, really, and i mean really want this to be a reality. But they haven’t even began testing the soil, and its going to be completely operational by in less than seven years? Not by a long shot. Ever seen unfinished infrastructure projects? I have,(the greenline) and it does not do a lot for social morale. I hope they get it right.