Sunday, July 10, 2011

It was time to shut down the California High-Speed Rail Project 8 months ago.

This is over half a year old.  How could I have missed it?  Yet, it is still so 'hot,' so on target, so revealing that we can skip the date and really grasp the content of what is going on here.  Our good friend Tracy Wood wrote it, and she nails it.

One question, just for starters, is how Anaheim ever got on the basic High-Speed Rail route in the first place.  That 30 mile section from LA's Union Station to Anaheim (and Disneyland) is a spur line, not on the trunk line to San Francisco. In short, it's an extra.  

Why didn't the rail authority also add Oakland as a spur line from San Jose?  Any rationale that justifies the inclusion of Anaheim should also justify the inclusion of Oakland in the Bay Area.  Aren't many people saying that the two population centers, rather than the Central Valley, ought to be the starting places for construction and operation?

Oakland's population combined with the entire East Bay population, is much larger than San Francisco and the rest of the Peninsula.  Furthermore, that Oakland spur could continue north to Sacramento, which is supposed to be on the waiting list for getting connected to the main line of the high-speed train to LA.  From San Jose to San Francisco is also a dead-end spur. Please understand, I'm opposed to all of it, north and south.  The short answer to this long question is, POLITICS. And, most likely Pringle himself.

After reading the article from 8 months ago, you have to ask, yet once more, why this project hasn't already been shut down.  The dialogue between Morshed, former CEO of the project and Pringle, former Chairman of the CHSRA Board, is profoundly revealing.  And, even though Pringle became abruptly "persuaded" to change his mind and approve all the things he initially disapproved of, he was right in the first place, and politics obliged him to change his tune.

Parsons Brinckerhoff's shenanigans are mentioned in this article as they were in the prior article we posted here this morning.  Parsons has "Les Mains Sales," as the French say, dirty hands. The costs of the Boston Big Dig, referred to in the article, started at around $2 billion and ended up at $22 billion.  So, here they are, the lead constractor for the CHSRA.  The current going price for the HSR is, according to the rail authority, $43 billion.  No one believes that anymore.  If one were to multiply this entry-level cost by the same factor as the Boston Big Dig, we would end up with a train in California costing $430 billion.  Isn't that a reasonable reason not to build it?

PB has it's fingers in many HSR related projects around the US, and several of them in California. But the key issue here in this article is the politics of regional transit and high speed rail, which Pringle, former mayor of Anaheim is trying to negotiate in his own best interests. The central issue is, of course, money and the jockeying for who pays for what and how much can be squeezed out of the various funding pools.

Are things running better now, with Roelof Van Ark on board and Mehdi Morshed gone? All you have to do is read all the newspapers describing the long litany of criticism that continues to be levelled against this project to realize just how bad it really is. Perhaps that's a good enough reason to shut it down.

Pringle Blasted High-Speed Rail Engineers in Emails

Posted: Wednesday, December 1, 2010 8:29 am | Updated: 5:52 pm, Mon Dec 6, 2010.
TRACY WOOD | 2 comments
Wednesday, December 1, 2010 | California High-Speed Rail Authority Chairman Curt Pringle had no faith in the engineers responsible for designing and implementing the Anaheim-to-Los Angeles segment of the $43 billion statewide bullet train project, according to emails sent by Pringle in January that have been obtained by Voice of OC.

"I do not think that the engineers working on the Anaheim to LA segment are capable of doing the work," Pringle wrote in a January 18 email to Mehdi Morshed, who at the time was chief executive of the Rail Authority.

"They seem to be so dense ... they are not able of understanding the impacts of their words and actions. I sincerely do not know how they can work on a project of this size!"

Anti-rail activists have long complained about mismanagement of the program, which was approved by voters in 2008. And a series of government audits and reports have in large measure backed up their claims.

But the email exchanges between Pringle and Mehdi show for the first time a top official sharing grave concerns about the core competence of the project's builders and designers.

The emails also illustrate the balancing act Pringle has played between his roles as high-speed rail chairman and mayor of Anaheim. The California Attorney General is currently investigating claims that Pringle violated the state's incompatible offices statute by holding both titles.

Specifically, the emails disclosed potential construction and financial problems for the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodel Center or ARTIC, the city's planned rail and bus terminal.

Morshed reminded Pringle that the Anaheim-to-Los Angeles leg of the train project was added to the first phase of construction because the total cost was supposed to be less than $2 billion and there was a possibility of using some Orange County sales tax revenue.

But the costs have gone up in the past two years as plans for ARTIC became more complicated, in part because of faulty CalTrans plans relied on by rail engineers. The track into Anaheim's ARTIC station originally was planned to cross over the 57 Freeway, but according to Morshed, expensive tunnels now must be constructed.

All of this, Morshed warned in emails to Pringle, could jeopardize the ARTIC project.

"At some point," Morshed wrote in response to Pringle's first email, "the [rail] board or your private partner may ask if the cost is justified by the benefits. I raise this as a reminder that just taking the easy option of building tunnels here and there may in fact jeopardize the entire project."

Private Concerns Go Public

The Pringle-Morshed emails (available as a PDF attached to this report) were released by the High-Speed Rail Authority following a Voice of OC request under the California Public Records Act.

Pringle said "the private email that I sent that clearly isn't private now" was intended to ensure that "this [project] was done right."

The ire Pringle expressed in his email echoed similar complaints from community leaders up and down the planned 800-mile train route; they accuse rail engineers of riding roughshod over community interests, refusing to listen to local leaders and lacking strong oversight over the quality of their work.

San Francisco Bay Area leaders have complained about proposed routes damaging communities, and Buena Park is threatened with the loss of its new train station.

"I am preparing for the FIRST community meeting in my city on Wednesday," Pringle wrote on Jan. 18. "How a project of this size could ever move this far without EVER talking to the public is inconceivable!"

And later in his email he said, "How can I demonstrate any degree of confidence in this team? I can not represent to ANY person from any region in this state that I have confidence in this team.

"I am very angry. ... I am NOT KIDDING!"

The overall project manager is British-owned Parsons Brinckerhoff Inc., which holds a $199 million contract to oversee the planned system through 2013. Parsons Brinckerhoff has subcontracted with a series of other engineering firms to work on regions throughout the state.

Parsons Brinckerhoff has come under fire in other parts of the country, most notably Massachusetts, where the firm, along with its engineering partners, paid $458.2 million to avoid criminal charges and civil liability stemming from Boston's ill-fated Big Dig tunnel which was plagued by cost overruns, leaks, and a 2006 ceiling collapse that killed a woman.

The Big Dig debacle so angered members of the Massachusetts Legislature that some of its leaders tried, unsuccessfully, to have Parsons Brinckerhoff permanently banned from doing business in the state.

In California, a series of government audits and reports have found the Rail Authority paid millions in bills without invoices, lacks a sound business plan and is using unreliable ridership statistics to show financial support for the rail project.

In a telephone interview Tuesday, Pringle said operations of the High-Speed Rail Authority have improved since he wrote the emails.

"I feel very good about where Parsons Brinckerhoff is at this time," he said, noting that it was subcontractors that caused the problems in Anaheim.

But, he said, all participants in the project must be well-managed and "that oversight needs to be coordinated. You always can do better."
He said that since he wrote the emails the rail authority has a new chief executive, a new public outreach approach and a new Parsons Brinckerhoff project director, among other changes.

But the construction issues for ARTIC that Pringle outlined in January, still remain.

Problems With ARTIC

In his first email, Pringle wrote that plans by rail engineers to move the ARTIC station from the south side of the 57 to the north side were a "stupid idea" that, "if presented, will cause a whirlwind of anger from the Angels toward the city!"

And, he warned, "my entire city council will come unglued and will oppose high speed rail if this is forced on us -- but in fact your engineers don't live in the real world. The land that they have designs on is not available. They have been told that. And yet they make a proposal -- out of thin air -- that is impossible, inconceivable and unable to be accomplished."

In reply, Morshed wrote that if the station wasn't moved, the alternative "is a potentially costly tunnel about 3 levels below the surface connected by a pedestrian tunnel to the ARTIC station."

Ultimately, Anaheim asked the High-Speed Rail Authority for $200 million to allow the ARTIC station handle high-speed trains. That request is on hold.

The emails also raised a conflict-of-interest issue that the California Attorney General's Office is expected to address soon. In his response to Pringle, Morshed began his email by writing, "in reading your email I had difficulty separating the message from the Mayor with that of the Chairman of the Authority."

State law prohibits officials from holding "incompatible offices" in which their duties to one agency conflict with their duties to the other. Pringle's term as mayor ends Dec. 7, but the Attorney General is expected to offer its opinion on whether he had a conflict by trying to serve both the city and the rail authority.

Please contact Tracy Wood directly at, and follow her on Twitter: And add your voice with a letter to the editor.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This article sums up what everybody, the state LAO, UB Berkeley ITS and all the people quote in this blog have been saying, yet nobody in Sacramento is willing to pull the plug on this project. I'm afraid that it will take someone with deep pockets to pursue this in the courts.