Friday, July 1, 2011

The High-Speed Rail Wisdom of Judge Quentin Kopp

Another slow news day for high-speed rail.  One item that's been in the papers over the past 24 hours is the departure of the Ogilvy Corporation, the Public Relations company that the CHSRA hired (for an overall contract of $9 million). They resigned, knowing that they were about to be canned.

The public relations history of the California High-Speed Rail Authority is sordid and seamy.  To begin with, this organization is nothing if its not a public relations group itself. It certainly isn't a professional railroad development organization.  The Board consists of minor local politicians who got rewarded with this junket-rich job.  They've been promoting HSR for decades.  Not that they understand California's transportation needs.  They don't seem to know and don't seem to care.  There's been nothing systematic about any of this concept development. We need this train because they keep saying so.

Anyhow, the Board was searching for a public relations contractor.  Why?  Because they own attempts at "reaching out" to the public were a self-perpetuating disaster. They lied about everything.  The public didn't believe them.  They tried to fix that. It made things worse.  And so on.  

So, they went looking for a PR firm.  Well, a bunch of Schwarzenegger insiders quickly assembled themselves into the "Mercury" public relations company.  As it was about to receive a sole-source contract, the lid got blown off.  A minor scandal. (Welcome to California politics!)  It was a rigged situation from the start. Oops. That was bad public relations right there.  So, the Board went after bids competitively and Ogilvy won.  How competitive it actually was we'll never know.  Nothing the HSR Board does appears to be straight forward.

So, now, having screwed up everything and overcharged the Board for it, and having consumed about $2.5 million, Ogilvy was about to be let go.  In anticipation, they left several weeks early.  

One of the people who had been criticizing them was former State Senator and Judge Quentin Kopp. He pushed the legislation that got the CHSRA formed in the first place.  Then, he was chairman of the Board.  Mr. Insider.

The record is full of his fairy tales about the train and how it would walk on water. He hasn't stopped yet.  He says that the HSR project will survive its mistakes.  He has to say that; many are his mistakes.

Kopp says that about half the problem is "poor communication." Sorry Quentin. That's a cop-out.  It's a 'poor' problem no matter how you explain it.  Indeed, one has to grasp the reality of their communications agenda.  They have said, and they act as if they mean it, that what all the communities care about, want and object to will be taken under full consideration by the rail authority.  That is transparent nonsense. They have done no such thing.  

It should be obvious to anyone by now that they don't give a damn what any of the citizens of California want or don't want. Their presentations at "open houses," which they have held frequently, are an attempt to create the illusion of collegial listening.  Those gatherings are a charade.  These guys actually are tone deaf. 

Surviving mistakes can be overlooked up to a point.  But, the rail authority has overstepped that point by far too much. And that's been carefully and systematically documented by many government agencies. There is no reason for them to survive.

Which brings me to one of Kopp's favorite logical constructions.  "He contends that building high-speed rail will be far cheaper than paying for the transportation infrastructure that would otherwise be needed to serve California's burgeoning population, which some say will reach 50 million in 25 years.
"Building 3,000 new lanes of freeways and five new airport runways" would cost twice what high-speed rail will cost, he said."

It's a threat.  He is saying that no matter what this project will cost, and they don't have a clue to what that is, whatever we have to do if we don't build it will cost far more.  Actually, that's not true.  We are under no obligation to build anything.  Any infrastructure project ought to be conceived and developed on its merits, which includes "the greatest good for the greatest number." If demand exists that we need more highway lanes, we must build them. Same with airports.

By the way, there should be some skepticism about population growth.  It's a prediction, not a fact. That population, if it does attain those numbers, may not constitute a high-speed rail market (due to extremely high ticket costs.) In that case, we must build more highways since they are not income selective.

Airport expansion is far, far less expensive than building the most expensive mega-infrastructure project in California's history. Even if the rail system, once operational, drains off short-haul air carrier business, the long-haul business may require airport expansion nonetheless.

Of course, one of the reasons for projected enormous costs for highway and runway development is the decades-old neglect of those transit infrastuctures.  We've been underspending on infrastructure maintenance, including our railways.

It could also be that even with the HSR in operation, and the limited ridership forecasts, those other expansions will be necessary nonetheless.  But, saying all that is not as fetching as Kopp's simple-minded and false equation.  He wishes to us to see that high-speed rail (not all rail, mind you), automobile travel and air travel are equivalent; more of one means less of the others. That's a false comparison. Different modalities perform different functions for different demographics.

Kopp is also the guy who never tires of saying that all HSR trains are profitable and none have even had a fatal accident.  That sounds like a used-car salesman pitch.

All the PR efforts in the world will not conceal the realities behind this loser project.  It must be terminated now, before it does real harm to the state economy and the urban/rural environments through which it threatens to pass.

Oh, one more thing.  Kopp justifies the start of the rail project in the Central Valley by claiming it's the only place for the necessary test runs to prove the safety of the train going 220 mph.  The problem with that is, that they have no intention to electrify the rail corridor they intend to build, or buy the rolling stock to run on it.  So, Judge Kopp, what exactly will you be testing out there?

Did I mention that he and I went to the same high-school at about the same time? We must have had different teachers.

Bullet train will survive mistakes, advocate says
9:07 AM, Jul 1, 2011  |   comments

by Lance Williams, California Watch

SAN FRANCISCO -- California's $45 billion bullet train "is in trouble because of mistakes," says the former San Francisco lawmaker who has been a driving force for the project for nearly two decades.

But the mistakes are "not uncorrectable" and are not "particularly surprising mistakes," either, says Quentin Kopp, a retired legislator and judge and longtime advocate for this ambitious public works project.

And in the end, despite intense criticism over everything from financial projections to route selection, he says the 800-mile rail link between Northern and Southern California is likely to be built pretty much as planned.

As chairman of the state Senate Transportation Committee, Kopp helped shape the bullet train from the beginning: In 1992, he was co-author of the measure authorizing the first study of the concept.

Then, 14 years later, after leaving the Legislature and serving on the San Mateo County bench, Kopp was named chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, the board in charge of the project. He served during a critical period - the ramp-up to the 2008 election, when state voters approved $9.95 billion in rail construction bonds. He left earlier this year.

As California Watch and the Orange County Register recently reported, the project is the target of intense criticism, with the state Legislative Analyst's Office and other officials warning that the state may be billions of dollars short of the money needed to build it.

Kopp says the bullet train also gets buffeted because the rail authority hasn't done a good job of explaining the rationale underlying key decisions.

Poor communication is "about half the problem," Kopp said in a recent interview.

For example, the rail authority has come under withering criticism for deciding to begin construction next year with a $4.7 billion, 140-mile line from near Fresno to Bakersfield. Critics have mocked the route as "the train to nowhere." State Treasurer Bill Lockyer recently told California Watch that starting in either the Bay Area or the Los Angeles basin would have been a better choice.

"One of the mistakes was the failure to explain the reasons for selecting that section, which are entirely rational," Kopp said.
"First of all, you must test the trains at maximum speed. Maximum speed is about 220 miles per hour. You cannot operate at that speed from Los Angeles to Anaheim or San Francisco to San Jose."

Needing a "test section" where trains can run at full throttle, the rail authority decided to start in the open spaces of the Central Valley, Kopp said. But that rationale isn't well understood, he said.

Kopp also disputed the contention that the valley line will fail as a stand-alone route if funding stalls and the entire system cannot immediately be built. That issue was raised in May in the legislative analyst's tough report.

"That 140 miles, if the high-speed project is not consummated, can be used for the San Joaquin corridor train and Amtrak and possibly even in some way with the Capitol Corridor" line that links the Bay Area with Sacramento, Kopp contended. But he said the point wasn't getting across.

He said another compelling rationale for beginning construction in the valley is the terrible battering the region has taken in the recession.

"Unemployment in that portion of California is the highest in the state, about 20 percent, maybe more in some towns between Chowchilla and the Bakersfield city line," he said. The rail project will create thousands of construction jobs where they are desperately needed, but that also seems to get lost in the debate, he said.

Kopp said poor communication was part of the dynamic in another hotly contested rail issue: the route of the rail link between San Francisco and the Central Valley. The rail authority has opted to run the line south for the length of the San Francisco Peninsula, then cross the Diablo Range via the Pacheco Pass, south of San Jose.

A rejected alternative route would cross the bay south of San Francisco International Airport and enter the valley via the Altamont Pass - the route of the I-580 freeway.

Fearing the bullet train project will bring traffic, noise and blight, opponents -- including several peninsula cities - twice have sued the rail authority on environmental grounds. But Kopp contends the Altamont route would raise many more environmental concerns because trains would have to cross the bay.

"There is no way that another bridge or tube will be built across San Francisco Bay, and such a bridge or tube is necessary to bring high-speed rail through the Altamont Pass to San Francisco," he said.

"I tried some 20 years ago as a state senator to lay the legislative foundation for another bridge or a tube connecting (San Francisco International Airport) to Oakland airport," he said.

It became apparent that another bay crossing "can't be done politically, for the environmental objections," he said.
One proposal for the Altamont route would run bullet trains through the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, a stopping point for the Pacific Flyway. That will never work, he said.

Kopp said he chafes at criticism of the bullet train. He was galled by the legislative analyst's report, which recommended that lawmakers consider pulling the plug on the project because billions in needed federal funding may never materialize.

The report was "devoid of data, devoid of informational fact, embarrassing," he said. Worse, he said it seemed to ignore the benefits that a completed rail system would bring to California and the costs of other transportation options.

He contends that building high-speed rail will be far cheaper than paying for the transportation infrastructure that would otherwise be needed to serve California's burgeoning population, which some say will reach 50 million in 25 years.

"Building 3,000 new lanes of freeways and five new airport runways" would cost twice what high-speed rail will cost, he said.

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