Friday, March 4, 2011

"Our credibility here is on the line." Curt Pringle, Chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority

The California High-Speed Rail Authority held a monthly meeting in Los Angeles yesterday.  The summary wisdom emerging from the meeting was the usual rationalizations and improvizations about the endless confusion surrounding what the rail authority will and won't do.

What's going on is this:  They are desperate to get the project started. They don't really care where, just so they can dig holes in the ground and put down some track. The thinking is that once it's started, it's locked in forever. Unless the Republicans are able to rescind the ARRA Stimulus awards for California, those are funds that were awarded but not yet spent, construction is scheduled to start in late 2012.  Where? In the low-population farmlands of the Central Valley.

Well, the rest of California is asking, what about where most Californians live, like in the LA Basin, or in the Bay Area.  Those will come later, we are promised.  Or as CEO Van Ark puts it, "The time pressure is off this particular section." Meaning Orange County and all the other segments for which there is no funding available. 

But, the rest of his statement is even more interesting. Van Ark says, "We have to be sure we do not build too many things that have to be replaced afterwards." Given the potential time frame for construction, even for the initial work in the Central Valley -- which will not, by the way, be a usable section (no electrification, no electronics, no rolling stock, etc.) -- one might reasonably suppose that ALL OF IT will have to be replaced by the time it's all completed.

Is this what President Obama means when he calls for a "winning of the future?"  It sounds more like Back to the Future!

But, to the rail authority finishing is not really important. You have to understand that building high-speed rail in California could very well be a  project and occupation that lasts forever.  It can be a life-time career.  It need never be finished or operational. Parsons Brinckerhoff can have a permanent contract.  It will just be added to as funds become available, year after year, decade after decade.  Because that will be the reality of funding.

When CEO Curt Pringle says, "Our credibility here is also on the line," I don't understand what he means, inasmuch as that credibility has been thrown into the dumpster some time ago, along with all their business plans, ridership data, risk assessments, etc.

The last point here was made by Will Kempton, former head of Caltrans and now chair of the CHSRA Peer Review Committee, suggesting that this project will grind on inexorably since it was approved by the voters with the passage of Proposition 1A in 2008.  He intimates that this can change only if the voters have another opportunity to reconsider their support for this project.

Well, California, what are you waiting for? 

Orange County Is Now at Back of High-Speed Rail Line

Posted: Thursday, March 3, 2011 7:59 pm | Updated: 8:13 pm, Thu Mar 3, 2011.
Friday, March 3, 2011 | The wording was subtle, but the message was clear: It will be years, if ever, before high-speed rail reaches Orange County.

Originally, the Los Angeles-to-Anaheim leg was part of the first section of the $43-billion state project to be built. But federal officials last year said the logical place to start was in the Central Valley where the train can reach its maximum 220 miles an hour.

And now the Orange County section is at the back of the line for financing, and with plans to share tracks with existing commuter trains, none of the staff or contractors responsible for the rail project would say for sure that it would be high-speed.

In an update given at Thursday's High-Speed Rail Authority meeting, staff and contractors described the Orange County leg as a route that will be "phased in."

"The time pressure ... is off this particular section," California High Speed Rail Authority chief executive officer Roelof van Ark told the nine-member board. "We have to be sure we do not build too many things that have to be replaced afterwards. This particular section, we know speeds are limited."

The required environmental impact report for the L.A.-to-Anaheim section has been delayed a year to the end of 2012, and officials are talking about the leg in terms of meeting a 2020 deadline for overall work.

A separate Los Angeles-to-San Diego section by-passes Orange County and goes to Ontario Airport and then south through Riverside County into San Diego County

However, the terms of a 2008 ballot initiative require high-speed rail to reach Anaheim. So, even if it won't really be high-speed, the line still is part of the rail system, down the road.

High-Speed Rail Authority chairman Curt Pringle, the former mayor of Anaheim, cautioned fellow board members about using words like "slippage" which, he said, give the impression the work is being delayed.

"Our credibility here is also on the line," he said, adding those outside the rail project may not understand the reasons for the delays.

David L. Borger, senior vice president of STV Inc., the contractor for that section of the project, described the Anaheim-to-Los Angeles rail corridor as "unique" and "one of the most densely populated in the U.S." with existing rail passenger and freight service.

Outside of the board meeting, he said "I think we're looking at what's realistic" by phasing the work in over a period of years.

He said the 2008 ballot proposition requires passengers to be able to travel from San Francisco to Anaheim without changing trains.

Will Kempton, chief executive officer of the Orange County Transportation Authority, said the phased approach helps ensure only necessary work will be done and will save money.

"The key is to be sure you're not building any throwaway projects," he said.

"Ultimately," he said after the meeting, "if the system gets going, over time, they'd have the ability to bring high-speed rail to Anaheim.

Asked about the requirements of the 2008 ballot proposition, Kempton said the wishes of the voters have to be followed and "until that's changed, you have to work to deliver what the voters want."
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