Tuesday, July 19, 2011

State Senator Lowenthal gets it wrong.

With all due respect, State Senator Lowenthal, I believe that you are wrong.  No, the problem is not the lack of, or the rail authority's inability to engage in, adequate communication.

"At the heart of the rail problems, according to Lowenthal and others, is a basic inability of rail authority leaders to communicate with both the general public and state lawmakers."

Indeed, many of us know quite clearly what the rail authority has in mind, what it intends to do, and how it wants to do it. We get it, but we strenuously object to it.

The rail authority has never had any intention of listening to or accommodating the people along or near the intended rail corridor.  They have never intended to be forthright and honest about what the various projections are, such as costs, ridership, revenues, etc. More or "better" "communication" would not solve anything.

The HSR problem is far more basic than mere communication.   The problem is that this train has no business whatsoever being built in California.  And that belief goes against Senator Lowenthal's wishes and the wishes of every other Democratic politician in this state.   They want the train; they just want it their way.  However, there is no "right" way to build this train.  They see the train as an economic engine for the state. They don't understand -- or refuse to acknowledge -- that the train will be an underutilized, devastating drain on the state's economy and serve -- if it ever operates -- a mere handful of the affluent.

The CHSRA has no business existing. Financial analysis has borne that out. The Board members have no competence and they each have far too many irons in this fire. The Board consists of politicians generating a political project. The Board is under fire from various sources, including new legislation intended to terminate their role and transfer the project to another state agency.  That's no fix either.

This state does not need a high-speed train from San Francisco to Los Angeles.  There are nowhere near enough funds to build this train.  And, there will be no funds to subsidize the operation of this train if it is ever built.

This train will cost each taxpayer very dearly, and at the expense of other desperately needed investments that the state, near bankruptcy, is unable to make.   This train will be a luxury train for the affluent costing the most expensive train tickets available.

This train is wrong on economic, cost-benefit, political, transportation and moral grounds.  This train has not been planned for within a larger transportation framework, which this state lacks. There is no inter-modal transit strategy or agenda for California of which HSR might or might not be a part. This project is not a transit solution; it's a political process from bringing funds into the state. This train is a whim that has been obsessively pursued by a hand-full of back-room politicians.

Senator Lowenthal's high-speed rail has a moving "political crossroads" that was reached well before the 2008 elections.  It should be terminated now, before a single shovel of dirt is moved.

Senator: High-Speed Rail at Political Crossroads

Posted: Monday, July 18, 2011 10:16 pm | Updated: 10:33 pm, Mon Jul 18, 2011.
Tuesday, July 19, 2011

California's proposed high-speed rail project, battered by an uncommonly long series of very critical state audits and analyses, is reaching a political crossroads, says one influential state senator on the issue.

"We can all come together on it," said state Sen. Alan Lowenthal, chairman of the Senate's Select Committee on High-Speed Rail, "or it can all disintegrate."

In less than three months, the nine-member High-Speed Rail authority board must come up with "plans B and C," as Lowenthal puts it, for raising more than $43 billion to build the train system if the federal government backs out.

The Rail Authority also must decide who will run the trains and how. And, with groundbreaking scheduled for the Central Valley just a year away, it must present an environmental impact plan that won't wind up in a prolonged court fight.

All of this must be accomplished against a backdrop of ongoing debate over whether the Central Valley is, in fact, the best place to begin the train system or whether it makes more economic sense to create an express train system in the urban hubs at either end and work toward connecting them later.

Gov. Jerry Brown, who dealt with the issue of a failed high-speed rail proposal the last time he was governor, was pulled directly into the fracas Monday. Former Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle resigned from the Rail Authority and pointedly said his departure was an opportunity for Brown to demonstrate how he felt about the project with whomever he chose to fill the vacancy.

Last week Voice of OC asked the governor's office if staff members would discuss Brown's views on the current project, but there was no response.

At the heart of the rail problems, according to Lowenthal and others, is a basic inability of rail authority leaders to communicate with both the general public and state lawmakers.
"California wants high-speed rail but there are many difficult questions that must be asked," said Lowenthal, who supports a high-speed rail system but has been critical of the way the current project is managed. "If we can pull it off, that would be great."

But among other things, he's concerned that those planning the 800-mile train system are ignoring the lessons of the past when it comes to garnering public support.

California has a rich history of being in the forefront with huge, innovative engineering projects, like the Owens Valley aqueduct which, 100 years ago, was created to bring water from the eastern side of the Sierra to the San Fernando Valley. The project was an engineering marvel that enriched its backers, but it devastated farmland in the Owens Valley.

Similarly, the very earliest freeways in the 1950s plowed straight lines through communities, causing civic outrage and even leading to decades-long efforts to stop them, as in Pasadena or communities east of the end of the 105 freeway in Norwalk.

The Army Corps of Engineers, likewise, Lowenthal recalled, paved the sides and bottoms of rivers, creating smooth channels for water, but obliterating wildlife habitats and recreational open space.

None of those things would be allowed to happen today, he notes.

"You don't come in and impose things on communities," he said. "We have learned time and time again, you have to develop support in communities. You can't impose" mega projects on them.

Failure to listen and a refusal to work with local elected leaders and those most adversely affected has been a constant criticism of the rail project by local elected officials and residents from the San Francisco Bay area to Buena Park.

At a joint meeting Friday of the Senate Agriculture and Transportation and Housing Committees, Rail Authority CEO Roelof van Ark said "obviously, we're not going to satisfy everybody's wishes always."

But he said the Rail Authority has held more than 700 meetings in the Central Valley. However, it's not the number of meetings, but the lack of substance that has upset farmers who have testified at earlier hearings.

They and local elected officials have complained they can't get answers to questions or are left out of meetings altogether when the sessions are aimed at those who already support the rail project.

Another meeting is scheduled for Thursday in Kings County, according to the Hanford Sentinel, where farmers are expected to voice concerns about routes that run through prime farm land and lack of information from the rail authority.

"They've (high-speed rail) got to do a much better job on outreach," said Lowenthal. "It's just outrageous. Anybody who's done any work at all in California knows a project makes it or breaks it by outreach. This (outreach) was designed by non-Californians."

The Rail Authority has allowed construction contractors to manage outreach to those most affected, but according to numerous complaints from farmers and local elected officials, the contractors only wanted to work with groups and individuals who supported the project. Those whose property might be harmed, were ignored, according to the complaints.

In addition, the overall "outreach" effort has been criticized as being nothing more than a PR program, not serious government communications.

When voters approved the high-speed rail plan in 2008, the nation was in much better shape, financially, Lowenthal noted. But, he said, the Rail Authority is moving forward as if it is a typical transit project in typical times

Project leaders, Lowenthal said, need to learn how to work with the Legislature, provide solid information and "then come together and figure out: where are we?"

If it's not on the right course, he said, "let's fix it now. It will be much more difficult to fix it later."

Please contact Tracy Wood directly at twood@voiceofoc.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/tracyVOC. And add your voice with a letter to the editor.


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