California High Speed Rail – A Sustainable Transportation Solution


    Created in 1996, the California High-Speed Rail Authority (Authority) was tasked with planning and designing the nation’s first high-speed rail program. Passage of Proposition 1A in 2008 was a major program milestone, as California voters demonstrated their support of the highspeed rail system and dedicated state funds to the effort. The state secured $3.3 billion from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and other funds from federal appropriations and grants. In 2012, the Authority adopted a business plan with a new framework for statewide rail modernization — with high-speed rail at its core.

    That same year, Governor Brown signed Senate Bill 1029 into law. That law approved almost $8 billion in federal and state funds for construction of the first high-speed rail investment in the Central Valley, along with 15 bookend and connectivity projects. In 2014, the legislature and governor reaffirmed their commitment to the program by providing an ongoing funding stream through the state’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund. In 2015, the governor and supporters celebrated the historic groundbreaking of the high-speed rail program at downtown Fresno’s future high-speed rail station.

    In 2016, the Authority transitioned from the design phase to major construction near Fresno in the Central Valley. Construction on more than 100 miles is now actively underway. When completed, California’s high-speed rail system will cover 800 miles, with as many as 24 stations, and be the first true high-speed rail system in the nation. Ultimately, the system will provide service from Sacramento to San Diego, connecting all the major metropolitan regions (see Figure 1). By 2029, the system will run from San Francisco to the Los Angeles basin in less than three hours at speeds of more than 200 mph. Today, major construction is happening within the first construction section of the project near the City of Fresno in the Central Valley.

    Why is this significant? The system is vital to meet the state’s goal of a multi-modal response to escalating congestion and the need for continued growth and economic prosperity. There can be little argument that California is recognized as the reigning king of the motoring world. Nearly 40 million residents of the state travel more than 170,000 miles of roadway, and it is the nation’s busiest transportation network. Congestion is growing and accounts for nearly $19 billion in lost economic productivity and fuel waste. Travel on California’s highways is growing five times faster than the ability to add capacity. These conditions add stress to community cohesion, natural assets, air quality, and water resources.

    By mid-century, stress and cumulative effects will mount as another 20 million residents are destined to call the Golden State home. Californians asked themselves whether trying to build their way out of congestion was sustainable. There was a clear answer to the question: Enhanced levels of transportation, including a high-speed rail system, were required to solve the problem.

    Figure 1: Proposed route map for California High-Speed Rail. Image: California High-Speed Rail Authority

    Connecting and transforming California

    In the Authority’s June 2016 business plan, it reaffirmed the vision of connecting and transforming California. Such transformation is accomplished by delivering an integrated, statewide rail modernization program with high-speed rail as a central focus. Combined with concurrent investments in urban, commuter, and intercity rail systems, the result will significantly improve mobility and connectivity throughout the state. The Authority envisions the following benefits and outcomes from the high-speed rail program:

    A transformative investment in California’s future

    • connecting economic centers to enhance global competitiveness and create jobs for all citizens;
    • shaping and revitalizing communities;
    • meeting future mobility needs; and
    • protecting the environment and reducing greenhouse gases.

    Dramatically changing how people travel throughout the state

    • reducing travel times between cities;
    • having more productive and convenient travel; and
    • enhancing access through well-located stations and transit centers.

    Creating new opportunities for sustainable transit-oriented development

    • developing vibrant, compact, and walkable communities around stations and
    • integrating sustainable features into the built environment.

    Commitment to sustainability

    The Authority’s enabling legislation makes sustainability a manifest goal of the high-speed rail system. Sustainability is approached with a diverse, coordinated suite of initiatives. In March 2016, the Authority updated its Policy Directive on Sustainability that states its commitment “…to implement sustainability practices that inform the planning, siting, designing, construction, operation, and maintenance of the high-speed rail system.” A centerpiece of the policy is a set of Sustainability Priorities that include:

    • Energy — Conserve existing sources and develop new types of energy for rail operations;
    • Station communities and partnerships — Promote transit-oriented development and improve ridership;
    • Sustainable infrastructure — Confirm principles to accomplish sustainable infrastructure;
    • Natural resources — Protect environmental and ecological systems; and
    • Business and management — Coordinate leadership and sound business practices.

    The focus of this article is on Priority Three — Sustainable Infrastructure. Given the recognized state of the nation’s infrastructure, rated as only a D+ by the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) latest report card, the Authority’s emphasis on sustainable infrastructure is very timely. With its commitment to sustainability, standards and practices are built into the project development process and specifications.

    In addition, the Authority explored the use of Envision, a tool prepared by the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure (ISI). ISI was created by the American Public Works Association, ASCE, and American Council of Engineering Companies to develop an industryaccepted rating system applicable to all horizontal infrastructure. There are two Envision tools — a self-assessment Checklist and a Scoresheet. Regardless of the tool chosen, the project is subject to evaluation across five Categories, 14 Subcategories, and 60 Credits. The Categories, Subcategories, and Credits are:

    Quality of Life (13 credits)

    • Purpose
    • Well-being
    • Community

    Leadership (10 Credits)

    • Collaboration
    • Management
    • Planning

    Resource Allocation (14 Credits)

    • Materials
    • Energy
    • Water

    Natural World (15 Credits)

    • Siting
    • Land and Water
    • Biodiversity

    Climate and Risk (8 Credits)

    • Emissions
    • Resilience

    Envision and the first high-speed rail construction project

    The high-speed rail’s first construction project (CP 1) in California’s Central Valley is an opportunity to apply Envision. CP 1 is a 32-mile segment, estimated to cost $1.1 billion, and it requires multiple sustainability practices and standards. Required are two specific plans plus identified innovation methods for sustainability:

    • Sustainability Management Plan — Demonstrates how contractors meet/exceed regulatory and contract requirements during design and construction.
    • Construction Waste Management Plan — Demonstrates how contractors comply with regulatory and contract requirements to divert specified percentages of construction and demolition debris from landfills.
    • Innovative Project Sustainability Methods — Considers project improvements for sustainability with innovations such as low-impact development, reuse of forms, reduced chemical exposure, and paperless documentation.

    Since Envision is a third-party process, the Authority elected to conduct the self-assessment Envision Checklist to “score” its current sustainability applications. The Checklist is a “Yes,” “No,” and “Not Applicable” rating tool, so it offers a high-level view. The CP 1 summary for the Envision Checklist is expressed as the percentage of “Yes” answers, and the results are related to the five earlier Principles:

    • Quality of Life (96 percent Yes) — The Authority demonstrates a high regard for the quality of life where the high-speed rail is located. Land use and transit integration is a principal consideration. This category reflects the Principle of Station Communities and Partnerships.
    • Leadership (84 percent Yes) — The results speak to the Authority’s commitment to the Principle of Business and Management for collaborative decision-making.
    • Resource Allocation (88 percent Yes) — The score represents the Authority’s Principle of Energy conservation and utilization of renewable resources.
    • Natural World (74 percent Yes) — The score, while not quite as high as others, represents an upper-tier percentage. The Authority’s Natural Resources Principle is addressed here.
    • Climate and Risk (100 percent Yes) — No category score is more impressive than Climate and Risk. With the Authority’s goal to meet all state-mandated laws and regulations, the results demonstrate that commitment. All five Authority Principles are found in this category.

    From this Checklist exercise, the initial results illustrate a high congruence between the Authority’s leadership, CP 1 sustainability requirements, and the Envision Credits.

    Next steps

    Recognizing that the Checklist is not as robust as the Envision Scoresheet, the Authority will validate and augment the Checklist results and prepare a completed Envision Scoresheet. The Scoresheet incorporates Levels of Achievement, Innovation, and required documentation. Appropriate technical staff will work collaboratively to provide the highest quality input into the Scoresheet’s preparation. Based on the Scoresheet results, the Authority can evaluate any future sustainability enhancements.

    DAVID M. TAYLOR, ENV SP, president, Taylor | Future Solutions, LLC, is a frequent national speaker in the areas of sustainable transport and land use integration, transit-oriented community development, climate and resilience, and innovative infrastructure finance. As a consultant for more than four decades, he has a national practice with a wide variety of projects across multiple transport sectors for public- and private-sector clients.