Friday, April 22, 2011

Wayne Martin's email to Bay Area Government Officials about High-Speed Rail and Caltrain

This email, sent to the Menlo Park City Council, represents a very scarce opinion -- total opposition -- about both Caltrain and High-Speed Rail.

We know that both agencies are grossly mis-managed. The collaboration of the two, the sum being greater than the parts, is a very bad omen.

Two wrongs don't make a right.  We have discussed the Caltrain issue before and will have occasion to do so again.

Thank you, Wayne Martin, for your insightful argument.

However, I must respectfully disagree with Wayne about -- not "Caltrain" -- but Peninsula commuter rail, which we do need. It's not enough to merely close down  Caltrain's management.  Indeed, we need a superior urban/regional mass transit capacity that is effective, convenient and parsimonious.  Caltrain, as we've said before, needs to be terminated and the commuter rail folded within a state-sponsored organization, such as the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Board which already includes BART. 

Bay Area Elected Government Officials:

America Is Broke–Don't Simitian/Eshoo "Get It?"

On the same day that US credit rating agency Standard & Poor's made national news by expressing concern over the credit-worthiness of the United States government--lowering its outlook on the federal debt position from 'stable' to 'negative'--because of concerns that politicians will fail to agree on a plan to reduce long-term deficits, two long-time Silicon Valley politicians, Anna Eshoo and Joe Simitian announced their proposal to somehow merge the money-losing, badly-managed, Caltrain commuter line with the poorly-managed, but yet to emerge from the cocoon, High Speed Rail Line  which could easily cost the California and US taxpayers $100B. 

Eshoo, whose votes have added $10T to the US debt, and Simitian, whose Sacramento presence has helped create a seemingly permanent deficit of $20B-$30B in the yearly California budget, are proposing somehow to combe HSR entity with the HSR entity, believing naively that two wrongs will make a right.  

Caltrain is an almost non-existent entity.  Its Board is comprised of appointed officials–only a few generally associated with the transportation industry--and not to be recalled by the electorate.  For the most part, it is a strictly a political creation, and seemingly not subject to much in the way of actual accountability, or the expectation of cost-effective operations. The HSR entity is neither recallable, and while not yet a force of nature has seemed very indifferent to public opinion most of the time.

Caltrain Costs Hard To Track

The total costs of the Caltrain operation are not clearly documented, as capital expenditures often appear hidden in the Transportation budgets of other agencies, such as VTA.  Caltrain total-life-time costs are not tracked by either Caltrain, or VTA. Total assets, while acknowledged in the yearly Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, are not generally made available to the public. And future pension obligations for Caltrain/Amtrak employees have most likely not been considered by anyone associated with Caltrain.  

It would not be that difficult to believe that a $1B surprise pension payout obligation will fall on the Joint Powers membership at some inopportune time in the future, reducing the general funds of every member to fund these promised pension obligations.  Any cost-sharing of infrastructure expenditures, such as at-grade crossings will be almost impossible to track, making Caltrain an even bigger money-pit than it already is.  Given the nature of the CHSRA, and the general failure of most big-ticket state capital projects, it is difficult to believe that there will be any realistic auditing, and that steep cost-overruns and fraud will be common place during the construction phase of this project.

Blending Caltrain and HSR?

Eshoo and Simitian are proposing spending perhaps $3B-$4B new dollars, including financing costs of borrowed money on electrification, and some poorly-specified safety upgrades, such as possibly grade separations along the line.  Grade separations could easily cost in the $6M-$100M range per intersection. Various media reporting suggests that these upgrades somehow be achieved via a blending of Caltrain and HSR.

Any belief that the Caltrain management and governance have the capabilities to design, and negotiate the $40B-$100B HSR project is beyond delusional, but it does play well on state of California politics, at least until people look seriously at the proposal, and see that it is all fluff and no substance.

To make matters worse, Caltrain's pricing of Go-Passes shifts the costs of ridership from large, institutional employers, like Stanford, directly onto the taxpayer's backs.  Currently priced at 30 cents to 50 cents a ride, the rest of the $12.00-$16.00/ride cost-to-deliver-service must be paid for by various taxes on those not riding the train. The recent proposal by Stanford to pay for 50+ years Go-Passes as a traffic mitigation for its newly-created Hospital traffic, will likely cost the taxpayers $3B-$4B over that period of time.

Also not discussed by the Simitian/Eshoo proposal is the funding of the Transbay Transit Center and Caltrain Downtown Extension Program, estimated at $4.2 billion, which, during the second phase of the project will, complete the 1.3-mile extension of the Caltrain rail line from Fourth and King streets underground into the new Transit Center. This undergrounding of the Caltrain line will doubtless add another $1B-$2B of capital costs to the line, with little hope of increasing the ridership by significant numbers.

End Of The Line

America is broke–virtually every one in the world understands that–except America's permanent politicians–who have promised everything that they believe will guarantee themselves another ticket to the seats of power in the state houses, and on DC's Capitol Hill.  Spending another penny on Caltrain is lunacy.  Merging the unsuccessful Caltrain with the failing HSR, in any way, is just lunacy squared. It would not be hard to show that it will possibly cost over $8B over the next 30 years (without electrification) to operate Caltrain.  The HSR, with unknown ridership, and unknown costs–will probably cost upwards of $100B, given the history of large systems management in California.

Motorists traveled over 176B vehicle miles on California's highway system in 2008.  The highway system is in dire need of refurbishment.  The $8+B that will be spent on Caltrain in the next thirty years would be better spent on rehabilitating the Bay Areas highways and bridges, than to move 18,000-19,000 people up and down the steel tracks of Caltrain.

Both our state, and federal, spending must be downsized, and quickly if there is any hope of avoiding the unpleasant event of sovereign default.  Terminating both of these massive boondoggles is necessary to reduce both state, and federal, government expenditures.  This is obviously not going to be pleasant–but it is absolutely necessary for the well being of our state, our country, and out children's futures.  Terminating both Caltrain, and the California HSR, are two of the bad ideas that can start our state, and our nation, on the road to sustainable government operation.

Wayne Martin
Palo Alto, CA