Monday, March 7, 2011

Fumbling and Fraud in Fresno for HSR

With Florida stepping out of the national HSR picture, California steps into the spotlight and a harsh light it must be.  Because here the shenanigans never stop.  The rail authority changes its mind on the fly and continuously.  'Can't build this section at grade, must elevate it.  Wait, that was wrong.  Must build it at grade, elevated track not feasible.'  They sometimes talk about having to work around technical constraints and problems.  That's PR BS.  They can build whatever they want, however they want it, if they only had the money.  But, they don't. So, fudging decisions is the order of the day.  

The Brits. call their HSR project a "white elephant." We call it a "boondoggle."  It's a hugely costly waste of dollars here since it isn't needed and won't serve but a small, well-to-do part of the population.  The only people who actually need high speed rail in California are the politicians who have been promoting it for decades, and the CHSRA Board plus their staff as well, and also the contractors and consultants who are the suckling pigs on this super-porker. 

What's going on now in the Central Valley is the the effort to design and then build the cheapest track right of way possible. It won't be usable; it will be useless!  If and when completed, it will just sit there, 120 miles of it, maybe more maybe less.  

It can't be used by high-speed rail. There will be no rolling stock purchased.  It won't be electrified, a HSR requirement.  It won't have signalling systems or all the other support capacity essential for railroad safe operations.  And, if they do lay track intended for 220 mph trains, those certainly can't be used by heavy rail, such as used by freight carriers or Amtrak.

What's the real agenda here? It's not to build a high-speed train system.  It's to get their shovels in the ground, lay a bunch of track and establish themselves as a permanent fixture on the California landscape.  They are determined to get started in such a way that we can't make them go away. . .ever.

Umberg of the rail authority board and the CEO Van Ark,  are masters of rationalization. "Over the past couple of months, van Ark said, engineers have been looking at route options to identify opportunities to minimize environmental impacts and also to take a hard look to see if there are reasonable ways to reduce project costs."  More BS.  Elevated costs more than at-grade.  It's all about the money; it's not about the train!  And it's certainly not about environmental impacts, about which they could care less!

Until recently, organizational speed was essential for the HSR authority to meet critical federal deadlines.  Now, delay is essential.  They need to stay around as long as possible in order to be able to lobby for more federal funding.  We will see stalling tactics repeated frequently.  They are postponing this environmental review and that design development effort.  And the DOT in Washington is obviously encouraging them to do that. It gives LaHood more time to push more dollars at the rail authority, such as those now available from Florida. 

More and more it looks like the only high-speed rail "proof of concept" available to Sect. Ray LaHood will be the California HSR project. If LaHood knows what a house of mismanagement the CHSRA is, he doesn't give a damn.  His job is to implement the Obama vision of "winning the future" with this project. His ruthless determination is matched only by Van Ark, the European "turn-around" artist hired to build something, anything, with as much funding as they can scrape together, improvise what they can get away with, and make the process all look intentional.

What a scam!  It's really a pity that more Californians don't yet understand how they are being taken for a ride by this train project. And even many who do still believe that a miraculous train system can be salvaged ("done right"). That's either political posturing or naivete.

High-speed rail line environmental data delayed
Posted at 08:21 PM on Friday, Mar. 04, 2011
By Tim Sheehan / The Fresno Bee

Reports on the environmental effects of high-speed trains in the Valley will be delayed for several months as engineers seek less costly ways to build the project.

The delay will not postpone the anticipated start of construction in late 2012, the California High-Speed Rail Authority said. But it will push the environmental assessments beyond a fall deadline in the state's agreement for billions in federal dollars.

"Only the estimated schedule for environmental milestones has changed," authority CEO Roelof van Ark said this week. "The schedule for construction has not."

A 120-mile stretch of high-speed tracks between Fresno and Bakersfield is tabbed to be the first portion built for California's high-speed train system.

The project is ultimately planned as an 800-mile system connecting the state's major cities with trains carrying passengers at speeds up to 220 mph.

Draft environmental reports originally were expected to be published in January for two Valley sections of the line, Merced-Fresno and Fresno-Bakersfield. Now, engineers don't expect to release those draft reports until June for public comment.

"There's a bit of a delay, five to six months on each of the segments, that's the bad news," authority Vice Chairman Tom Umberg said at the board's meeting Thursday in Los Angeles.

But the good news, Umberg said, is that the delay will give engineers time to reconsider miles of track that were proposed to be elevated high above the landscape, including about seven to eight miles of track rising about 60 feet over the heart of Fresno.

A ground-level track originally was among the options being considered, but was abandoned because engineers believed it would not be feasible, a state official said.

"A number of the aerial structures that were proposed in the Central Valley now can be eliminated," Umberg said. "That track can be at grade rather than on aerial structures."

Over the past couple of months, van Ark said, engineers have been looking at route options "to identify opportunities to minimize environmental impacts and also to take a hard look to see if there are reasonable ways to reduce project costs."

The exact savings aren't known, but reducing the amount of elevated tracks could shave tens of millions from the price of the Fresno-Bakersfield section, estimated at about $5.5 billion.

The Federal Railroad Administration has committed nearly $3 billion to California for initial construction of high-speed rail in the Valley. A December grant agreement required that environmental studies be completed and certified by September for the sections from Merced to Bakersfield.

The revised schedule now calls for environmental certification and selection of a final route in February 2012.

The new timeline won't jeopardize the federal funds because the state has the blessing of the Federal Railroad Administration, said Rachel Wall, the state authority's press secretary.
"Everything we do is in partnership with FRA," Wall said. "They're aware and they're involved in planning progress."