Update on the Grapevine (Hoisted from Comments)

Put a fork in the idea of saving a few billions of dollars on California High-Speed Rail by switching from the Palmdale alignment to the I-5 alignment through the Grapevine. The HSR Authority conducted a new study and found that, after fiddling with the parameters to create the maximally bad result for the Grapevine alignment, the Grapevine alignment does not save money. Go to page 39-40 to see how convoluted the studied Grapevine option is. This is driven not by geotechnical considerations, but by political ones: the owners of Tejon Ranch, which covers much of the area of study, oppose HSR through their property. Even so, the base cost of the Grapevine is $13.5 billion, versus $15 billion for Palmdale; this difference was papered over by fudging a risk adjustment factor. As commenter Jon explains,

Having skimmed through the study, a few points come to mind:

1) The length of the I-5 route has increased largely due to the requirement to diverge from the current route east of Bakersfield rather than bypass Bakersfield to the west. I’m sure this requirement is driven by a desire to get the Frseno – Bakersfield EIR/EIS certified in time to start construction on the ICS. What would the effect of a west Bakersfield bypass be on the cost and travel time of an I-5 route?

2) The cheapest and fastest I-5 route bisected the proposed Tejon Ranch, but the study didn’t take this route forward to detailed analysis. Instead they analyzed a ‘considerably more expensive and slower’ route which cuts right through Lebec, in order to avoid the ‘significant cost and schedule risk’ involved in bisecting the Tejon Ranch. How fast and expensive would the I-5 route through the Tejon Ranch have been? How difficult would it be to permit this route?

3) Also the risk adjustment to account for the 5% design- this seems to be an obvious fudge. You can see everything they changed in Appendix B. What is the justification for increasing the risk allocation for real estate from 20% to 40%, for example?

Despite the potentially large cost difference, the HSR Authority is loathe to use eminent domain, even when the cost is much smaller than the alternative. Something similar happened in the Central Valley, when the initial plan to hew to existing transportation corridors became untenable as it became clear it would require many viaducts and grade separations, and only after value engineering has the cost overrun been limited by running around unserved cities. With a less positive result, it’s happened repeatedly on the Peninsula, for example with the substandard San Bruno grade separation project.

The problem here is that no value engineering is possible unless the I-5 option is kept open. Thus it’s important for us as good transit activists to demand that the HSR Authority engineer both options to learn more about the risk, allowing eventually for the cheapest and most reliable option to be picked.


  1. Michael D. Setty

    They don’t want to do real “value engineering” because it would upset the preconceived way they want to be doing things. Certainly buying out the Tejon Ranch would save enough money to justify a $500 million~ purchase several times over. But it might also delay the “train to nowhere.”

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah. What I’m getting from this is that they want to avoid high-profile takings (the kind that look obvious before engineering is done, as opposed to e.g. taking a building when a tunnel is built nearby), on the idea that takings make the project more difficult to implement. My problem here is that rejecting the Grapevine out of hand means no opportunity to come to their senses later, as with the Central Valley.

      The part about delays is even more frustrating, because the cost range of this is roughly the range of amounts of money in federal funding that can be reasonably assumed over the next few years. If they can get it down from $13.5 billion to $11.5 billion, for example by taking a more rational route through Tejon Ranch, then it requires just under $6 billion in federal funding. At $15.5 billion, they’d need $9.5 billion, since Prop 1A funds would be exhausted. This is toward the upper end of the range of funding numbers that could come after Obama is reelected (fairly likely), at least if the Democrats keep the Senate and retake the House (plausible, but less than even odds). At this stage, keeping costs under control literally makes the difference between HSR and no HSR.

    • Adirondacker12800

      The market capiltalitzation of Union Pacific is roughly 55 billion. They have a nice straigtht ROW through the Central Valley that they don’t want to share. Buy ’em out, take the parts the state needs for HSR and spit out the remnants into a private company that has an IPO…. for 50 billion.
      Last time I looked the four Class I railroads have a market cap. of 150 billion….

      • orulz

        UP may have a route through the CV but they do not have a satisfactory (for HSR) route to get from there into the Bay Area or SoCal. Regardless of the route through the CV there will still have to be a greenfield HSR route built through (Altamont|Pacheo) and (Tehachapi|Tejon).

      • JJJ

        Absolutely. UP are assholes. Buy them out, fire the asshole execs, and then run the company as a friendly one. Then sell it off while requiring future owners to be passenger friendly.

  2. JJJ

    Even if the grapevine is cheaper, you need to factor in the cost of not serving the palmdale market + losing the dessert express connection.

    Also, grapevine is less weather friendly than the alternative. Trains don’t handle blizzards so well, just as the NEC.

    • Alon Levy

      Trains handle blizzards when they’re constructed to handle blizzards. It might cost a bit more, but it’s feasible: the Joetsu Shinkansen runs punctually to one of the snowiest cities in the world. Given the altitude of the Tehachapis, it might be a good idea to weatherize trains anyway.

      You’re right that losing the Desert Xpress connection is a problem, but given that the project is stalled for now for lack of funding, I don’t think they should plan everything around it. Given the precarious funding situation – basically, the transportation bill likely to come out of Pelosi’s House in 2013 for President Obama’s signature will probably contain an amount for HSR such that California’s share will be within a few billion of the cost of completing the IOS – Nevada should offer to pay the extra cost if it wants the connection.

      More in general, the long-term question, assuming ample funding, is whether the difference in cost is smaller or larger than the difference in cost between Victorville-Palmdale or Mojave-Barstow and getting DX over Cajon Pass to Riverside. It’s basically a wash in terms of California-Vegas ridership – if you apply a pure gravity model, Cajon’s reduced ridership from Bakersfield and points north is almost exactly equal to the increased ridership from San Diego, the Inland Empire, and Phoenix. (This assumes LA-SD goes through the Inland Empire, rather than along the coast as some are suggesting.)

      • JJJ

        I know nothing about the Joetsu Shinkansen, but besides snow, the biggest grapevine issue is actually extremely high winds. Im not sure if thats a problem in Japan. Many times, when the grapevine is closed, it’s so trucks dont topple over. The Tehachapis have weather issues as well, but I can’t remember the last time the highway route over there was closed. It has happened, but it is super-rare.

    • Alon Levy

      Well, multiple heavyweights want to roll the entire thing into Caltrans – Brown and now Feinstein. Slowly, adults are being put in charge; this already happened in the Central Valley, and the reason I’m constantly harping on this is that dropping the Grapevine now means it’s harder to do so for LA-Bakersfield in the near future.

        • Alon Levy

          Better people than me have tried. Richard can tell you some harrowing stories of trying to interact with the local Bay Area planners.

          • Richard Mlynarik

            Not harrowing, exactly. Just soul-crushing, if you’re a sensitive type.

            There’s no harm at all in firing off a few letters. Just don’t let it get to you and don’t have any expectations.

  3. Michael John

    I’m writing another letter to Feinstein and Brown, showing the TRAC suggestions for cutting the route costs, and reasons for disbanding the CAHSRA and shifting project management to another entity in CALTRANS! Gonna send you the letter for your pleasure when I am done with it. Please feel free to add information and edit it if necessary.

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