Saturday, July 2, 2011

High-Speed Rail: California's Continuing Chaos Concerns Citizens

This article, below, is from a web-site dedicated to fighting Liberal Bias in the media. Uh,huh. 

Nonetheless, the article illuminates a major point; this project -- the building of a high-speed train line in California -- has very little to do with the actual realities of public transit or how this project will impact California transit.  It appears to have everything to do with politics and money.  

There is an endless dance among all the stakeholders, the CHSRA Board, various members of the Assembly and the Senate, the involved federal agencies such as the DOT and FRA, and the Congress in Washington. And, our role, citizens and communities, has a far less consequential impact in this Waltz contest. We ask questions and find the answers completely unsatisfactory.

Key questions center around how much money is now available and will (or won't) be available, where it will come from, the adverse impacts on regions, communities, the state debt, how many jobs will be created, the effect on the state economy.  

The actual realities of how many people will use this train (ridership), if such a train will actually complement California's ailing transit networks, or if it will be a much greater burden, are rarely if ever discussed. Although California has Amtrak passenger service connecting north and south, it's reputation is less than savory.  The State admittedly has also neglected all the other components of the existing transportation infrastructure.

That means HSR would leap over all these decaying and neglected existing infrastructures -- that is how it is being promoted -- as if these trains could totally replace them.  By 'them' I mean our highways and runways.  Indeed, the CHSRA claim is that if we don't build this train system, we will have to spend twice as much on highways and runways.  Since we have up to now spent less than half as much on those other modalities than upkeep and maintenance require, wouldn't that factor come into play first?  

Perhaps bringing our vehicular (smart cars; smart highways) and aviation capacity (see: NextGen as an example) up to what it ought to be now may well reduce the need for high-speed rail entirely.  Even Amtrak upgrades, faster, cleaner, more convenient,  more attractive, and better schedules may well reduce the role high-speed rail would play in the California transit strategy.  We don't know because no one is asking.

Quarreling over the Central Valley -- start there or start within the north/south population regions -- is really irrelevant from a transit point of view.  The prior question that should be asked is where is the greatest transit demand and how can that be met the soonest.  If the answer is the Los Angeles to San Diego route, one of the busiest in the US, then reason and rationality would tell us that this is the segment to construct first and make it operational first. A project this vast should be developed one step at a time.  Why aren't we doing this?  Due to politics, both national and state, as well as local.  In other words, decision-making is about everything but what trains are actually for.

Friday, July 1, 2011

California: Ground Zero in the High Speed Rail Wars
by Roger Rudick on July 1, 2011

On Thursday, the California High Speed Rail Authority accepted the resignation of Ogilvy Public Relations. The PR firm was about to get axed over accusations that it billed excessively while doing little to counter a tide of anti-rail propaganda.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, at the Rosemead Community Recreation Center, east of Los Angeles, the Authority displayed maps and renderings of the rail system it’s designing to link California’s major cities. Up and down the state, in fact, the Authority is holding regular outreach meetings as it draws up detailed blueprints, including a planned initial segment from Bakersfield to north of Fresno, through the state’s agricultural Central Valley. “We hope to start construction in the fall of 2012,” said Project Manager Maj. Gen. Hans Van Winkle at a high-speed rail conference in downtown Los Angeles. So in theory, everything’s on schedule and there’s $6.3 billion in state bonds and federal funds ready to go.

The Ogilvy firing, however, was just the latest indication of the vicious brawl going on between HSR opponents and supporters nationally and in Sacramento. With Florida’s decision to abandon its project, California is now the only state with a dedicated HSR system in advanced planning. That’s put California in the cross-hairs of anti-rail politicians and petroleum-and-aviation-industry-backed groups such as the Reason Foundation.

The battled heated up May 10, when California’s Legislative Analyst Office (LAO) came out with a report attacking the decision to build the first leg in the Central Valley. Engineers prefer this long, straight section because it minimizes construction challenges. Nevertheless, the report set off a flurry of anti-rail editorials in papers ranging from the Sacramento Bee to the Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. Many echoed the Reason Foundation’s statements that the Central California segment will be a “train to nowhere.”

“This initial money, if we spent it instead in Southern California…we could use it for existing commuter rail and high-speed rail,” said Southern California State Senator Alan Lowenthal.

In 2008, voters in California approved Proposition 1A, which authorized the state to issue $10 billion in bonds to begin funding a dedicated, 220-mph high-speed line from Los Angeles to San Francisco. However, it stipulated the dollars can’t be spent unless they’re matched — in this case by the Feds.

Roelof van Ark, Chief Executive Officer of the California HSR project, requested that the Federal Railroad Administration consider “flexibility” with funds slotted for California. But it mandated the Central Valley segment because it’s the most shovel ready. And Roy Kienitz, Under Secretary for Policy, rejected changing that stipulation.

The LAO report had other criticisms, including a claim that the cost of the project was underestimated at $43 million and is more likely to run about $67 billion. But it’s the tug-of-war between the Central Valley and the ends of the state that threatens the project as politicians vie for control over the money pot.

The Republican Mayor of Fresno, Ashley Swearengin, is a staunch supporter of HSR and the decision to start in the Central Valley. She talks about how important the project will be for giving her constituents a way to reach Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Southern California’s Alan Lowenthal, however, introduced Senate Bill 517 to fix “deficiencies” — by, among other things, firing the entire HSR Authority Board. “I love the project — I just don’t feel we have the right people in place,” he said, “or that we’re getting accurate information.” High-speed rail supporters say he just wants a board that will reverse the decision to start in the Central Valley.

“He’s constantly harping and nitpicking every detail,” said Daniel Krause, executive director of Californians for High-Speed Rail, a volunteer group trying to counter the anti-HSR wave. “It’s not that there shouldn’t be critiques, but he bases all his arguments on figures from rail skeptics. He’s seriously endangering the project.”

Lowenthal concedes that without a dedicated revenue stream set up to fund construction of the entire system he can’t support starting in the Central Valley, even if the alternative is the project’s death.

Then there’s Assembly Bill 145 from another Central Valley politician, Stockton Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani. It would put the entire project under a new agency called the Department of High Speed Trains. Advocates see it as a way to give the project continuity and to protect it from Lowenthal and shifting political winds. Galgiani herself is more conciliatory. “I see the two bills as complementary,” she said. Her main beef is with the LAO, which she accuses of playing “Monday morning quarterback” by launching its critique so late in the game.

Either way, Galgiani wants 517 amended to include a grandfather clause that would allow current board members to complete their terms. That keeps the board intact until shovels start turning. Without that clause, the project could end up with an openly hostile board, predict HSR’s boosters. They could change the decision to start in the Central Valley, thereby sabotaging Federal matching funds and halting the project. In that case, California follows Florida and the project dies. “Then you won’t see true HSR in the U.S. for a generation,” said Krause.

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