Friday, August 13, 2010

Killing the Benefits of HSR

Some days I think that our city officials get it. Going to the Bicycle Advisory Committee meeting and listening to the City's plan for bikes-as-transportation was inspiring, and then to learn that they'd already started implementing that plan was downright incredible. Watching the implementation of programs like Riverside Go Transit gives me the warm fuzzies, even if the program hasn't yet been expanded to all those who could benefit. I'm always glad to see an article like this one in the local paper, pointing out just how hard City officials are fighting for a high-speed rail station in Riverside.

And then I read that their definition of "Riverside" is March Field.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the area, here's a map:

View HSR in Riverside in a larger map

The train station to the west is the current station downtown. The train station to the east is the proposed March Field station. Just by looking at it, you can tell that it's in the middle of freakin' nowhere. There is literally nothing within walking distance of those railroad tracks, unless we believe that HSR passengers are going to ride to Riverside to hike in Sycamore Canyon Wilderness Park. So let's go take a look at the benefits of the HSR project, and see just why this location is so very, very bad.

  1. HSR provides quicker trips than flying, because of the mess of airport terminal procedures.

  2. Well, this one still works. Airports haven't gotten better, and the speed of the train is going to be about the same no matter where we put the station.

  3. HSR allows for convenient downtown-to-downtown travel.

  4. Putting the HSR station at March Field completely destroys this advantage. Even on a traffic-free day, that site is 20 minutes outside of downtown in a residential development with a K-Mart. Unless business travellers need to get on the HSR for a new pair of socks and a Twinkie, the March Field site is a bad idea. By contrast, a downtown site would put riders within blocks of major state, county and city offices, as well as major business firms, a federal courthouse, and the bulk of the court apparatus of Riverside County.

  5. HSR allows for car-free travel, because it can be tied in to local transportation infrastructure.

  6. Currently, only one bus route serves the March Field site- the 20. The 20 is a relatively low-patronage hourly route that runs along Alessandro and then stops a mile short of downtown at Magnolia & Jurupa. It is so poorly-patronized because of the areas through which it runs- once it passes the Riverside Plaza, it travels through a cemetery, and then plies its way through low-density suburban housing, most of which is literally walled-off from the main street. In Moreno Valley, the route isn't much better, flying past mostly vacant lots, with the occasional suburban strip mall. Don't get me wrong, the 20 is a valuable link in the transportation system, but it will never be a frequent one. Of course, even if the 20 ran frequently, it would place a significant hardship on riders from other areas- think Corona or Perris- who want to get to the train.
    City officials posit that HSR riders can utilize the future Perris Valley Line, which will also use that station site, to get into downtown. However, the PV Line is only scheduled for six runs a day. It's not as if we're talking about a rapid transit line with departures every ten minutes or so. The PV Line will, like all Metrolink lines, be timed to serve commuters, so it is inevitable that it will not do a very good job of serving HSR travellers most of the time. The lack of real intermodal connections at the March Field site will turn it into a sea of parking lots and rental car counters, much like Ontario Airport is today.
    City officials have also argued that the presence of the HSR station will cause more frequent transportation service to call on the area. This is simply untrue. Local transit routes are not supported by single destinations along the line, but by ridership throughout the route. The old streetcar companies knew this so well that they would actually build attractions on their lines to ensure continuous ridership- many of the early amusement parks were built in this manner. The Alessandro corridor is low-density sprawl, and it will not attract enough ridership to support a route frequent enough to meet the needs of HSR riders.
    By contrast, the downtown site is directly linked to the current transportation infrastructure, with dozens of departures an hour to destinations throughout the city and county. It, too, will be a stop on the Perris Valley Line, so if riders from Perris or the Alessandro area would use the PVL to get to HSR, they would still be able to do so. It will also benefit from the extensive CommuterLink express route system, as well as local buses to the entire city and surrounding area.

  7. HSR is a development tool, allowing cities to encourage development and density where they are most needed.

  8. Don't get me wrong- I think that HSR will generate development wherever it is placed, be it March Field or downtown. The question is, what sort of development do we want to encourage? The City has done well in recent years by investing heavily in re-developing downtown Riverside, parking gaffes notwithstanding. The area has the potential to become a bona fide urban downtown, with jobs, restaurants, and housing all within walking distance. A high-speed rail station would be a boon to all of the new residents and employees downtown will see in the coming decades, and would spur even more dense, walkable urban development.
    A station at March Field, by contrast, is an investment in sprawl, by definition. It's a greenfield site, surrounded by single-use auto-dependent development for miles in every direction. There's no reason to build densely- there's plenty of land, and no reason not to use it. There's plenty of space for more parking lots, nice wide arterials nearby, and freeway access immediately adjacent. Density begets density, and sprawl begets sprawl. To site an HSR station in sprawl will only invite more.
    Mayor Loveridge really ought to know better. He was just reading Richard Florida's The Great Reset, in which Florida argues EXACTLY this- that HSR is a tool designed to connect dense downtowns in a larger region. The HSR blog has a great summary of that argument today.

In conclusion, I am strongly in favour of high-speed rail. California wants it, and California needs it. We've needed it for decades. I'm also strongly in favour of HSR in Riverside- the Corona alignment makes absolutely no sense, as it doesn't actually get close to the people who live in the Inland Empire. However, with a $40bn price tag, we need to be actively involved in the project and make sure that it gets built properly. We won't get another shot at this. High-speed rail, by its very nature, is a creature of dense, urban downtowns. It therefore follows that we must ensure that the Riverside station gets built in OUR dense, urban downtown, rather than a greenfield site in the middle of sprawl central.

UPDATE: I've added some lines to the map above so folks can visualize what an approach to downtown would look like, as opposed to March Field. To me, it looks like the alignment through Rubidoux and the current UP alignment would be less technically challenging than the I-215 alignment, and both of them will consist of substantial aerial structure, so they should cost in the same neighbourhoods.


Chewie said...

Not sending the train into or very near a dense downtown area would be a tragic mistake. Spend the extra money if it costs more.

JN said...

Chewie, if it were my decision and my money, the chequebook would already be open. Sadly, though, it isn't. If you and other Los Angeleno transit types have the opportunity to comment on the IE run of the CA-HSR, please tell them to put the Riverside station somewhere you might like to visit, rather than a field in the middle of nowhere.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but there is absolutely no political will available to create a station downtown. Can you imagine the sheer amount of properties that would have to be eminent domained??? Political Suicide.

The benefits of March is that there is land available to grow, to expand multi modal opportunities - include with RTA and Metrolink Perris Valley line. Plus-the ability to create developments that would bring much needed construction jobs...

JN said...


Why would we have to eminent domain property downtown? The HSR system has been imagined as following primarily existing freeway and rail right-of-ways. There is an existing rail right-of-way from the Ontario Airport station (which is practically non-negotiable) direct to the current Riverside station. HSR running in a new trench along that UP right-of-way, with a transition to either at-grade or elevated running as the line approaches downtown, should be relatively trivial to implement- certainly on the same order of difficulty that an I-215 routing will require. The train would then transition on elevated structure to the I-215 routing, generally following the existing 60-91-215 junction and therefore minimizing the aesthetic impact of new elevated structure.

Building on new land has a name- it's called sprawl. Multi-modal opportunities at that station are actually bi-modal: intercity rail and automobile. You're never going to see local transit service in that area that can support itself, because the area is not built for transit. Nor will you see walkable or bikeable development there, because the surrounding area is single-use tract-home-and-big-box-store hell.

Construction jobs can be directed to intensifying development downtown, both in the current area and in the bombed-out industrial zones surrounding the existing station. In fact, because of more complex projects, we might see even more (and almost certainly better, higher-skilled) jobs in that area. As I said above, either station will create growth- but the question is HOW we want to grow.

Anonymous said...

But you never said where a large station and the needed parking (which is a necessary evil) would be placed. Also, there are no assurances tht UP would be willing to let HSR use their right of way...

JN said...

I didn't say a large station was necessary at all, actually, nor has CA-HSRA as far as I know. HSR design standards call for 800 foot platforms, and the current Metrolink station has two 1,100 foot platforms. I think that an 800 foot island platform above said station is probably therefore doable. Riverside is not a terminal station, so no train storage facilities need be present. Ticketing counters take up very little space, and I don't see why they would necessarily need to be staffed- ticket vending machines seem to work fine on the Northeast Corridor, or on the Capitol Corridor to Sacramento. The need for waiting areas is minimal, and probably on par with the facilities required for existing Metrolink trains- shelters and benches on the platform. That said, the current site is slated for substantial upgrades when the bus station moves in. We could plan for HSR ticketing and passenger waiting in the transit centre design.

As far as parking, the placement of the station next to the multi-modal transit centre will reduce the amount of parking necessary, but I do agree that some is needed. I'd much rather see structured parking, with station amenities at ground level, around the current station than a sea of asphalt on Alessandro. (There is, of course, plenty of room for parking structures there, both on the west side of the station, and on the east side at 10th/Commerce. If the City finds it needs yet more parking, it could conceivably purchase one of the large warehouse buildings to the east of the station and install some there.)
Also, there is ample parking in and around Downtown Riverside- it wouldn't surprise me at all if enterprising parking lot owners provided long-term parking for HSR patrons at existing lots.

And no, it's not guaranteed that UP would let HSR use their right of way. That's why we have powers of eminent domain- so that greedy companies can't hold up vital public works projects. It's not clear that BNSF, who I believe owns the rails that would be used for the I-10 routing, would allow HSR there either.

Anonymous said...

I agree that your ideas are possible - however I like to look at the reality of things. In reality...the station will never go downtown. To be successful, there needs to be public-private partnerships. To get those partnerships, private companies are going to need space to develop, and there just isn't any of that readily available downtown - but there is at March.

And if HSR turns out to get the huge ridership as it does in Europe, then I see no reason why RTA, etc would not create additional lines to serve that area.

JN said...

Okay... why? Why is it that, to build a train station, we need public-private partnerships? HSR is a state/locally-funded project, with hopefully a big dollop of federal money. The train's getting built. I'm sure there will be some private funding for the project overall, because these projects are good investments, but why do we need PPP funding for our station when the project is funded?

Also, why do you say private developers are uninterested in downtown? It seems to me a private company is developing a huge hotel/condo/shopping complex downtown as we speak, and another private company is putting up a brand new office tower at University & Lemon. (Go take a look at the big hole they're digging for parking... it's pretty cool.) We have plenty of parking lots downtown, and small low-density buildings that could be re-developed without paving over yet more of our fragile planet, and current projects downtown demonstrate that. I also think that the area to the east of the current station is fertile ground for new, walkable development.

And yes, RTA will most definitely start new lines to serve HSR, if it's built in the middle of nowhere. The problem is, they'll be meagre little shuttle lines- bring people to the train, and back from the train, and do nothing else. That's not enough to create transit-oriented development, which means the development around the station will be more sprawl. If we tie HSR in to the downtown transit hub, RTA will benefit from increased ridership, hopefully translating into increased transit service throughout the city, and transit-oriented development at the station where people can reasonably expect to live car-free.

I also like to live in the realm of the possible. I just got done arguing with a commenter on another post why Class I bikeways throughout the city are unrealistic in the current political climate. HSR downtown is possible. Unlikely, maybe, but possible, especially if we fight for it. HSR is a powerful tool for changing urban form and travel preferences, but only if we use it properly. We have a clear choice between a Riverside dominated by the automobile, and a Riverside that comes into its own as a true city. Where we put this train station will show which vision we are committed to.

Anonymous said...

The project is most certainly not funded - no where clsoe in fact. Prop 1A gave $8B, CA got just over $2B from the feds. The project is anticipated to cost over $62B so there are BIG gaps to fill.

I didn't say they were uninterested in downtown, obviously there is alot of interest evidenced in the examples you give. However, there is simply not enough room to support the type of development that can go around a HSR station. These stations are mini airports - huge economic generators. And I agree that if we were able to bulldoze the convention center and dilapidated buildings around it and put the station there - that would be perfect, but unrealistic.

It is possible...there is maybe a .000005% chance it will happen. There is a much better chance your computer will short and you will electrocute while replying to me than a line being built downtown. Where would you put the lines into and out of downtown (even if the space was available currently for the station and parking structure?)

JN said...

The project isn't funded right now... but it won't be built until it is, and when it is funded, cities won't have to put up their own money for a station. Also, where are you getting $62b? The latest report showed $43b, up from $35b due to accounting changes. $19b is not chump change.

Why would we have to demolish the convention centre for this station? We don't need a facility of that size. I've ridden the TGV in France and, aside from terminal stations, there is rarely more than a small station building, ticket counter and waiting room around. In cities similar to Riverside, there is usually a parking garage and rent-a-car counter as well. None of this is too large to fit on the current Metrolink site, if we use it intelligently.

I think you need to re-think what you mean by "space available." The area around the current station is mostly used as surface parking lots and empty warehouses. We can use all of that space, re-develop and re-configure it for the station. There are numerous surface parking lots and low-density buildings downtown. Private developers can buy those properties and re-build dense developments on top of them.

The lines into and out of downtown I detailed in an earlier comment, and even added a map for your convenience above. The train would follow the present UP ROW through Rubidoux and up through Riverside, roughly parallelling Jurupa avenue, in a trench in Jurupa moving to elevated structure in the city. It would stop at a new, elevated station above the present Metrolink station, and then proceed on elevated viaduct along the BNSF ROW to roughly Spruce street, at which point the viaduct would join up with I-215 just past the 60-91-215 interchange and continue south towards Murietta.

There is plenty of opportunity in downtown and the Eastside to re-develop more densely around a new transportation hub for the region. Most of that segment of University and Mission Inn Avenues is stubbornly blighted former industrial uses, as well as low-density strip-mall shopping. All of that should be re-developed, and it will be when those land values skyrocket from proximity to HSR. The sort of development that was going on at the east end of University near UCR will continue all up and down the street, with 3 and 4 story buildings with retail on the bottom floor, and either offices or apartments above that.

jojo said...


I currently live in Glendale but I was born and raised in Riverside and a good chunk of my family and friends still reside there. I am eagerly looking forward to HSR in Riverside. 33 minutes away from my family? yes, please!

But it needs to be in downtown!

JN is right on the money with building upwards in a high-dense, high-foot traffic, pre-established community that caters to commuters going to and from work, consumers looking to shop and entertain themselves, and car-less students trying to get to school. The current downtown train station is walking distance to food, hotels, local shops, bars, local coffee shops- Essentially, downtown has a lot to offer to anyone, whether they live right in Riverside or are coming from a distant city. PLUS, you can't get downtown Riverside anywhere else! The little treasures like Back to the Grind, or Taft's chair at the Mission Inn, and the hub of beautiful decades-old buildings that surround it all adds up to what makes a place unique enough for people to want to visit it!

Putting it out by March is HSR suicide and would only continue to ruin the Riverside community with sprawl.

Let's pretend you're a traveler on HSR, the train is bound for Riverside and you got kicked off, or stepped off and didn't get back on in time, or whatever. All you have is the money in your wallet, your own two feet and a lot of time on your hands.

Would you want to be stuck by March? or in downtown? I know I'd rather be downtown.

Trains can move a lot of people in a small amount of space, unlike their car and plane counterparts. Asking to build a HSR station in downtown is not like asking to build an airport or a freeway. Looking at a Google map you can find vacant lots next to the Metrolink station, why not put those places to use?! And if I remember correctly, Riverside didn't mind tearing down a few businesses in the early 2000s if it meant they could widen the 91/60/215 interchange. So if Riverside is cool with investing in a form of transportation that's less efficient when more people use it, they should be cool with HSR, and other passenger trains, that only get more efficient when more people use it.

JN said...

Jojo- Glad I'm not crazy, or at least I'm not crazy alone.

If you get an opportunity to talk to your fellow Angelenos about this project, please spread the word about putting the train where it belongs, in downtown Riverside.

jojo said...

JN- i heard about your blog through my friends from CA4HSR. there are brainstorms happening on how to keep March from happening. thanks for keeping us all informed!!