What I learned today about SNCF and California HSR

If you’ve been following me on Twitter, you’ll know that I spent this afternoon on the phone with folks in California, looking into the recent SNCF-CHSRA bombshell. To summarize: SNCF, the highly experienced French national high-speed rail operator, apparently had a plan for California’s HSR network, but was turned off by the highly politicized routing. Namely, they wanted to make a straight shot from LA to San Francisco by running along the flat, government-owned I-5 corridor with spurs out to the eastern Central Valley, whereas the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) and state politicians wanted the main line to go through every little town in the Central Valley, directly. Now, all of this wouldn’t be a scandal, except for the fact that nobody at SNCF ever mentioned it to the public or the media.

That’s what the LA Times reported, but David Schonbrunn, a pro-HSR, anti-CHSRA activist, says there’s more to the story – SNCF not only advocated I-5, but they actually had private investors lined up! Here’s his letter to the LAT:

Your otherwise excellent story “High-speed rail officials rebuffed proposal from French railway” was far too kind to California High-Speed Rail Authority officials. At the time of its proposal, SNCF had the investment backing to actually build the LA-SF line, in a deal that sheltered the State from the risk of subsidizing an unprofitable project.

The Authority’s 2012 Business Plan covered up this offer, instead insisting that no private capital would be willing to invest until the first high-speed line showed a profit. The $6 billion Central Valley project approved last week by the Legislature thus exposes the State to unlimited operating losses. Worse yet, before that line can be completed, it will need an additional $27 billion from the federal government–quite unlikely in today’s political climate.

I’d sure like to understand the thinking behind the rejection of the French offer.

It’s unfortunate the story didn’t run earlier. It would have informed the Legislature’s debate.

I talked to David on the phone. He stuck by the story and said there was indeed a “secret meeting” between SNCF and CHSRA where such issues were discussed, and then I spoke to someone else – someone intimately knowledgeable about the SNCF side of things, who’s been quoted in the media before, but who requested anonymity – who confirmed David’s version of events. However, he said that CHSRA was so dismissive of SNCF’s plan that no formal proposal was ever requested or made, which tells me that there unfortunately may not be any written documents to request/FOIA from the CHSRA.

As to the identity of the private backers, my source wouldn’t go into specifics, but did hint that they were major, major US banks offering to fund the venture, and that they had experience funding SNCF projects in the past. But again, no formal proposal was ever made, since the CHSRA refused to consider the only alignment – I-5 – that private backers felt was financially viable. (When I pushed him on which banks offered to finance SNCF’s California plan, he downplayed the importance of the identify of the individual would-be investor, saying that it was a plan that would have had no problem attracting private capital, given SNCF’s past expertise and proven good judgment.)

Some have been dismissive of the LAT’s SNCF story because of a PDF leaked to Yonah Freemark in 2009 in which SNCF specifically gave its approval to the CHSRA’s more circuitous route following Highway 99 through Bakersfield, Fresno, etc. In response to this, my source said that that document was very preliminary and was intended only for the FRA, and was in fact drafted before SNCF established SNCF America. In other words, it was nothing close to their ultimate proposal, and the I-5 proposal that the LAT cites was the most recent and most serious one. (Indeed, it appears that SNCF America wasn’t created until 2010, a year after that PDF leaked, lending credence to my source’s claim that it was much more preliminary than the one cited yesterday by the LAT.)

So, what does all this mean? It means that the CHSRA very well might have been offered private funding for the plan, but turned it down because it didn’t fulfill desired political objectives of going through towns in the Central Valley onto the main trunk line (again: SNCF’s I-5 proposal would have connected Bakersfield, Fresno, etc., just through spurs rather than the main line, not on every single LA-SF trip). This would be okay if the CHSRA was public about it, but they stand accused – by the LAT and by David Schonbrunn – of covering it up. (Obviously it would also have been in Parsons Brinckerhoff’s interest to ditch the SNCF plan, and of course there are many people who have been employed both at PB and CHSRA.)

I’ve reached out to SNCF America for an official comment but my call wasn’t returned today (I’ll update if I hear later). I didn’t bother to try to contact CHSRA – if they wouldn’t talk to the LA Times about a well-sourced claim, I’m sure they won’t talk to some freelance reporter about anonymously sourced accusations appearing on blogs.

But I know for a fact that there are other reporters more experienced than I am on the case, and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before the truth comes out. But so far, it ain’t lookin’ good for the CHSRA.

If you know more about any of this, even if it’s off the record, please don’t hesitate to contact me – smithsj@gmail.com, or +1-484-995-8479.

“This is the dirty secret of California’s Density Bonus law…”

Inclusionary zoning – everyone wants to talk about it! Dave Alpert at GGW started the discussion with his pro-IZ piece, and hot on the heels of Emily’s post earlier today, I got an email from a California developer who wishes to remain anonymous:

This is the dirty secret of California’s Density Bonus law: it’s primarily a way to give 100% affordable projects easy land use concessions. It has barely any effect on market-rate projects, despite all the attention it gets from affordable housing advocates.

Incidentally, the number of affordable units in market-rate density bonus projects – 212 – over the total number of units produced in L.A. during the same period – 53,000 – is 0.4%. Vanishingly few. The number of units produced exclusively with the parking concession – the 6 condo conversion units – is 0.01%. Statistically the same as zero.

If people really want to get affordable housing built, they would do much better to find more direct ways to pay for it – like through property tax revenues or other sources where everybody pays. Trying to pay for affordable units by constraining market-rate development and trying to the capture value that is “created” when those constraints are released is not only a pretty ineffective way to create affordable housing, it’s an excellent way to make market rate housing more expensive.

I’ve got some thoughts of my own on inclusionary zoning and the anti-density sentiment it can engender among some affordable housing activists, which I’ll hopefully post tomorrow.

APA California hints (strongly) at opposition to parking minimum reform bill

Minimum parking requirement reform bills have been floating around the California legislature for a while – last year it was AB 710, and this year it’s AB 904, both authored by East Bay Asm. Nancy Skinner.

This email blast to members from the American Planning Association’s California chapter doesn’t take an official position and does ask at the end for input, but their feelings on the bill are kind of hard to miss (all emphasis theirs, edited slightly for clarity):

AB 904 [.pdf], sponsored by the Infill Builder Association and authored again by Assembly Member Skinner, is a gut and amend that is now similar to AB 710 (Skinner). This bill requires restrictive parking standards similar to those included in AB 710, which you’ll recall died on the Senate floor at the end of last year. AB 904, in a different form, already passed the Assembly, and is now awaiting hearing in the Senate.

APA California is not opposed to the concept of lower parking requirements near transit when a community decides it is right for them – the issue is that a one-sized-fits-all statewide standard is not appropriate.

AB 904, on and after January 1, 2014, would prohibit a city or county (including charter cities) from requiring minimum parking requirements in transit-intensive areas greater than the following:

• One parking space per 1000 square feet for nonresidential projects (including commercial, industrial, institutional, or any other nonresidential projects regardless of type of use).
• One parking space per unit for non-income-restricted residential projects.
• 75/100ths parking spaces per unit for projects that include both income restricted and non-income restricted units.
• 5/10ths parking spaces per unit for units that are deed restricted at least 55 years to rents or prices affordable to persons and families making less than 60% of area median income.

The definition of “transit-intensive area” means an area that is within 1/2 mile of a major transit stop or within 1/4 mile of the center line of a high-quality transit corridor included in a regional transportation plan, including a major transit stop such as a High Speed Rail transit stop) included in a regional transportation plan but not completed.

There are a few exceptions. Units with floor ratios below 0.75, deed-restricted rent control/rental replacement units, and units where the owner withdrew the units from rental are all exempt from the parking restrictions.

Local agencies can impose higher parking standards than are included in the bill if they make written findings, based on substantial evidence and “objective criteria” that all of the following apply to the specific transit-intensive area:
1. There isn’t sufficient walkability.
2. There isn’t sufficient level of transit service or bike access to provide viable alternatives to the car.
3. The lower standards undermine “existing parking standards that create effective incentives for transit-oriented development or affordable housing production, or both”.
4. The standards conflict with a station area plan in effect as of 1/1/2013 that provides reduced off-street parking compared to standard zoning required outside the transit-intensive area.

The local agency would be required to adopt an ordinance implementing any parking standards above those included in the bill. But, if the agency does not adopt such an ordinance by January 1, 2014, projects deemed complete after January 1, 2014, but before adoption of the ordinance, would be required to meet the reduced parking requirements in this bill.

The sponsors believe that builders and the market should decide how much parking to provide, and that these reduced parking standards significantly reduce the cost of development and increase the number of transit-accessible and affordable housing units, increase density and development and use of public transit, and reduce green house gas emissions and vehicle miles traveled by removing an incentive to drive.

APA California is interested in receiving your comments on this measure, and are also interested in how you believe the bill would specifically impact your jurisdiction or community. Please send your comments to Sande George, contact info below, within the next two weeks.

In addition, if you believe that this bill would create problems for you community, we urge you to write a letter to the author, with a copy to Sande, expressing opposition.

Sande George
Lobbyist, APA California
Stefan/George Associates
925 L Street, Suite 200
Sacramento, CA 95814
916-443-3494 (fax)

Thank you everyone,
Dave Snow, APA California Vice President of Policy and Legislation
Sande George, APA California Executive Director and Lobbyist
Lauren Silva, APA California Lobbyist

(Not sure if they took a position on last year’s bill – anyone know?)

And then there’s also the issue of affordable housing groups. Last go around, some opposed the legislation because they felt it would negate a specific type of affordable housing incentive where developers are allowed to build less parking than the statutory minimums require in exchange for setting aside some units for below-market rents/sales prices.

Here’s Mott Smith, a board member of the California Infill Builders Federation (which backs the bill) and a principal at LA-based Civic Enterprise, on affordable housing groups’ positions on today’s bill:

We already have the support of the California Housing Consortium, the State’s largest big-tent affordable housing builder group, the NRDC, the Nonprofit Housing Association of Northern California and some other key groups from across the political spectrum. We are working with Housing California, who we expect to take a position on June 20th, the San Diego Housing Federation and the Southern California Association of Nonprofit Housing, who we expect to take positions in the coming several days.

Is O’Toole right that California is too dense to matter?

Remember my response yesterday to Randal O’Toole’s Cato article on parking, when I said that I could easily write a three-part series? Not a joke! (Though I might spare you and leave the trilogy unfinished. Maybe.)

Today, I’d like to take on O’Toole’s comments on California, which he argues is too dense and hostile to automobiles to say anything about the real America:

While New York City is very dense, its suburbs are not, so it is not the densest, or even the second or third densest, urban area in America. Instead, that title goes to Los Angeles, followed by San Francisco-Oakland and San Jose—the locations of most of Dr. Shoup’s other examples. Thanks to urban-growth boundaries that are now mandatory for California cities, whatever happens there is hardly representative of much of the rest of America.

He also said something similar in a comment he left on a Market Urbanism post last August about an empirical paper that found that a large portion of the parking in Los Angeles County (population: 10 million) was built because of minimum parking regulations:

I’ve said it before, but Los Angeles is hardly typical of the rest of the U.S. It is the densest urban area in the country (and not just the city is dense). Beyond that, my more important point is that developers build parking lots everywhere, not just where there are parking minimums.

Average density: a misleading measure of walkability

Average density: a misleading measure of walkability

My problem here is that O’Toole is using the literal definition of “density” – that is, average density. But this is just a shorthand for what really matters when you decide whether you need a car or not (and developers decide how much parking they need to build to maximize profits): walkability and access to mass transit. We often use “density” as shorthand for auto-orientedness, but it only really serves as a good metric over very small spaces. When you start looking at metro areas, though, its utility declines.

Paul Mees and Jarrett Walker have written about this to death, and it can get a little tricky to think about, but I think the best way to grasp it is with an example. Say you have two metro areas with the same population and same area, but with one where everyone’s concentrated in one city with only few people scattered around the suburbs, and another where everyone’s the same distance from each other. They’ll both have the same average density (population divided by area), but clearly one will be walkable and one will not be. Obviously this is a stylized example, but similar dynamics inevitably play out in the real world. California’s suburbs may be dense, but they’re still built in a very suburban style and are thus largely unwalkable. Much of this effect is achieved through separation of uses and the road network: Even if you live at Manhattan densities, you’re going to need 100% parking if the road network is all cul-de-sacs and limited-access highways with low connectivity and mixed uses are not allowed.

All of this is to say, Los Angeles’ high average density seems like a flimsy reason to disregard one of the few (two, by my count – the other looks at Queens) empirical studies on the effects of parking minimums. And while it’s true that California has urban growth boundaries that make it relatively unusual among American cities, it’s also true that the same anti-growth environmental forces also put in place some pretty anti-growth policies in the already built-up areas, so it’s not at all clear that the net effect is to make the place less car-oriented. I’ve never spent any appreciable time in the state, so maybe I’ve just been deceived by Hollywood and everyone I know and everything I’ve ever read, but I’d bet that it is indeed at least of average auto-orientedness for American metropolitan areas. If density in Los Angeles County is hobbled by parking minimums, then I see no reason to think that the same wouldn’t apply for similar parking minimums in metro areas throughout the rest of America.


1. Maps of sprawl and gentrification in Detroit, St. Louis, Chicago, and Boston. At first the picture looks bleak for cities, but Jesus – even downtown Detroit is growing! (More here.)

2. A real, live Texan (just kidding – he lives in Austin) replies to O’Toole on parking.

3. Why aren’t (more) urbanists cheering on Jerry Brown’s attempt to kill sprawl-inducing California redevelopment agencies? (Streetsblog SF/LA, I’m looking at you!)

4. NY lawsuit alleges that LEED standards are meaningless, and Charlie at Old Urbanist takes the opportunity to review the case against America’s most popular “greenness” metric.

5. This is awesome: The DC Office of Zoning makes the code and all the overlays accessible on Google Maps. Is there any other city with anything like it?


1. Systemic Failure praises Gov. (again) Jerry Brown’s efforts to do away with California’s redevelopment agencies and “enterprise zones” (there’s a euphemism if I’ve ever heard one), which the author claims promote autocentric development with public funds. He then cites a few examples of redevelopment agencies pushing such plans in San Jose. If he can come up with that many in one city, I can’t even imagine how much damage they’ve done throughout the whole state. So far I’m liking Jerry Brown’s second act.

2. A very interesting Wikipedia article about a controversial Brooklyn-based developer.

3. One Staten Island councilman wants to use the dreaded environmental review against bike lanes.

4. An article about the Toronto condo boom. I’d like to know more about this:

But perhaps the biggest demographic that will continue to drive sales this year is the investor market, both local and international. Mr. Lamb says there are few developers building rental towers any longer, in part due to the city’s rent control laws, so investors hold the key to rental accommodation. He says it’s not uncommon for 40% of a building to be owned by investors, with most rentals situated below the fifteenth floor because they are less expensive than those with a brighter view. Mr. Myers estimates 50% to 60% of downtown condo units are owned by investors who rent them out.