Sunday, December 19, 2010

Digging holes in the Central Valley

They say that they don't know how far they can go in the Central Valley. Such bullshit. The rail authority claims that they are waiting on the environmental review to decide whether they will do the most expensive or the cheapest alternative way to do it. Who does that environmental review? They do. Mystery solved!

The staff "recommends" that the Board accept the $616 million from the FRA. What? There's a choice? "Sorry, we don't need the money. We have too much already."

You can count on the fact that they are going to do the cheapest and farthest, regardless. It's like licking all the silverware so that no one else can use it. No matter how far they build their corridor, it won't be usable. It won't be electrified, won't have safety PTC, and they won't have rolling stock. Doesn't matter. They'll wiggle around the language of AB3034 in order not to comply with the "usable segment" for HSR requirement. Don't like it? Try and stop them.

There are zillions of unanswered questions. Will these new tracks be usable by freight, Amtrak or high-speed rail? It can't be acceptable for HSR if it's usable by the other two. If it's used by either freight or regular train-sets, it can't be used for HSR. Will they elevate through Fresno? Will they require freight to run on that elevated section?

Simitian/Lowenthal could stop them from starting construction until they have all the costs included in their estimate (which they now don't), including electrification and rolling stock, as well as safety and signalling systems. I don't expect that to happen.

Why not? Because the whole point -- and that's what Ray LaHood says over and over -- is to spend the money, thereby creating jobs and pumping up the laggard economy. That's the real "vision." The train part is just icing for rail-smitten old-timers who still read Popular Mechanics. It doesn't really matter what the rail authority builds, just so they spend gobs of money.

Just between you and me, anyone who doesn't see this project as a huge scam is either fooling themselves, or trying to fool us.


High-speed rail board set to vote on federal money

BY JOHN COX, Californian staff writer | Sunday, Dec 19 2010 12:00 PM

Last Updated Sunday, Dec 19 2010 12:00 PM

Board members of the California High-Speed Rail Authority are scheduled to vote Monday on whether to modify their plans for the project's first leg, located entirely in the Central Valley, to accommodate additional federal money awarded recently.

Authority staff have recommended accepting the $616 million in economic stimulus money turned down by Ohio and Wisconsin, and use that sum to extend southward the Borden-to-Corcoran route approved by the board Dec. 2. The board is also expected to decide whether to ask for matching state bond money, which the U.S. Department of Transportation has requested.

It remains unclear just how far south the additional money would allow the first segment to reach. That's because a key environmental review -- a draft of which is scheduled to be released next month -- will influence where the route can run.

Maps and written materials released by the rail authority earlier this week suggest that, under the best-case scenario, the new money could allow the first leg to reach as far south as Wasco -- assuming the least expensive option is permitted by the environmental review. Under the most expensive scenario, the initial segment would end somewhere west of Earlimart, north of Kern County.

Rail authority spokeswoman Rachel Wall said staff won't have a final answer on where the segment's southern terminus would be until the environmental review goes through the public review process. That process could take until late 2011.

"I don't think it's wise to pin down an exact point right now," she said Friday.

Kern County administrative analyst Teresa Hitchcock agreed, saying the authority has a lot of engineering to do before it can say with any certainty how far south the first segment would run.

But she said Kern County officials watching the process are encouraged.

"Of course we're happy that (the rail authority) is building south, and as more funding comes along they would complete that leg into Bakersfield, so that certainly would make a more useable segment," Hitchcock said.


Debra J. Saunders

The New Pork: Trains to Nowhere

Sunday, December 19, 2010


In the last decade, the symbol for profligate federal spending was the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" - a huge proposed span that would link the town of Ketchikan, Alaska, population 7,500, to an airport on Gravina Island. Powerful Alaska Republican lawmakers tried to stick American taxpayers with a huge chunk of the tab for this dubious project.

This decade, the symbol for federal pork-barrel excess may well be Trains to Nowhere - and if Democrats get their way, those boondoggles could span the country. At least in blue states.

Last month, voters in Wisconsin and Ohio elected Republican governors. Rather than just talking about spending less, both Ohio's John Kasich and Wisconsin's Scott Walker had pledged, if elected, to reject funds earmarked for high-speed rail projects in the 2009 Obama stimulus package. Kasich said he would say no to $385 million for a train connecting Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati. Walker said he would reject $810 million for a train from Madison to Milwaukee.

Both Kasich and Walker understood: Just because Washington is throwing around money that doesn't mean taxpayers get a free ride.

There is no guarantee that if you build high-speed rail, passengers will come. As Randal O'Toole of the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute noted, "The Ohio and Wisconsin projects aren't even worthy of being called high-speed rail." The average speed for the Ohio's "3C" line is projected at 38.5 miles per hour; the speed for the Wisconsin line would average 59 mph. In short, these "high-speed" trains wouldn't even go faster than cars.

With round-trip Madison-Milwaukee fares projected to range from $44 to $66, it could be cheaper for one person to drive and certainly cheaper for two. And you can always take the bus.

Walker argued that Wisconsin, facing a $2.5 billion budget deficit next year, doesn't need to be saddled with the $7.5 million annual cost to operate the train.

Train enthusiasts argued that Walker had it all wrong. You don't say no to a free car just because you have to pay for gas and other operating costs.

But Wisconsin voters did not agree. The St. Norbert College Survey Center poll found that 55 percent of Wisconsin voters opposed taking the ostensibly free rail money.

After they were elected, Walker and Kasich asked the Obama administration to allow them to spend that $1.2 billion rail money on other projects in their states. Walker wanted to fix his state's bridges and highways. Kasich asked that, if the U.S. Department of

Transportation refused the request, Ohio's $385 million go to the U.S. Treasury to reduce the federal deficit.

Instead, on Dec. 9, before either governor-elect assumed office, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced that his department would redirect the $1.2 billion that would have gone to Wisconsin and Ohio to 14 other states. As the Weekly Standard's Stephen F. Hayes wrote, LaHood had sent the message, "if you don't want to waste our money, we'll find someone who will."

California alone stands to gain up to $624 million of the forfeited stimulus funds - on top of the more than $4.3 billion already earmarked for the planned high-speed rail project that would link San Francisco to Los Angeles/Anaheim and eventually reach Sacramento and San Diego. California voters passed a $10 billion bond measure in 2008 to help fund the $43 billion project.

In November, the California High-Speed Rail Authority approved the first segment of the project. It will start in the middle of nowhere (Borden) and go to nowhere (Corcoran). State Sen. Alan Lowenthal, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he fears the segment could turn into an "orphan" line, unusable by bullet trains.

Noting that an Obama official had announced that California would get an extra $715 billion in the San Joaquin Valley congressional district of Democrat Jim Costa, just before Costa narrowly won re-election, Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters quickly dubbed the segment the "train to nowhere."

In July, LaHood had proclaimed the Madison-Milwaukee project as unstoppable. "High-speed rail is coming to Wisconsin. There's no stopping it."

Walker wrote a letter to President Obama in which he protested, "It's outrageous for Secretary LaHood to suggest that your administration can force Wisconsin to continue building a train it doesn't want and cannot afford."

LaHood's Dec. 9 power play makes it official. It doesn't matter what voters want or whether they think their state can afford to take free federal money. As far as the Obama administration is concerned, federal transportation dollars are the Democrats' loose change.

E-mail Debra J. Saunders at You can catch her "Token Conservative" blog at

This article appeared on page E - 4 of the San Francisco Chronicle