Wednesday, July 13, 2011

When it comes to High-Speed Rail, they "get it" in Southern California as well

This article is from the Press-Enterprise, a Southern California paper from the eastern rim of the Los Angeles Basin including Riverside and San Bernadino Counties.

While the language may be different, there are no issues here that haven't been talked about and in the same way in this blog for half a year.

The one point that warrants particular attention is the skill with which the rail authority moves from "solution" to "solution" as problems are pointed out by critics such as us.  As we've often said, they are winging it; improvising from week to week, depending on which political pressures they feel obliged to respond to and what their current funding status is.

Since the rail authority was obliged to start construction in the Central Valley due to federal mandate, they quickly became identified as builders of the "train to nowhere."  They had to overcome that damaging perception by claiming that they do indeed, with very few additional billions, intend to get all the way to San Jose from Merced, the northern most town on their route in the Central Valley.  As I've said before, the CHSRA are like Alpha dogs piddling on as much territory as they can claim before all the funds are gone and they have to wait for more. 

Furthermore, while on the one hand the rail authority now claims it has suspended all engineering planning for the San Francisco to San Jose Caltrain corridor segment, they also say that they are studying a two-track, rather than four-track option for that route.  That of course will require far fewer dollars for development than the four-track elevated that they have been insisting on.  That way, they will have to have only a low cost entry fee for using the Caltrain corridor, which they can now lock down for themselves. 

Once they have a seat at the Caltrain corridor table, whatever funding the rail authority gets in the future, if any, can be spend on building out the corridor to the much desired four track elevated structure, at which time the two track option flies out the window.  They call that "phased implementation." 

It's a "Runaway rail" that needs to be derailed before it does real harm.

Runaway rail

09:29 PM PDT on Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Press-Enterprise

No train engineer who wants to keep his job would ignore repeated alarm signals. Yet plans for high-speed rail in California roll ahead despite repeated warnings that the project is on track for fiscal disaster. The Legislature should just derail the bullet train plans and protect taxpayers from a potentially massive boondoggle.

The latest warning came this month from the independent High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group. Voters created the watchdog panel as part of the 2008 bond measure that allocated $9 billion toward high-speed rail. The peer review group said the bullet train agency lacked reliable estimates of cost and ridership, and did not have a clear business plan or a realistic funding strategy. In short, the review said, "there are still significant gaps and problems with Plan A, and there is no Plan B."

The report is only the latest indication that the state's high-speed rail plans rely more on fantasy than on hard-nosed practicality. And that approach could end up draining taxpayers' wallets for a project that ranks far down on any list of public priorities for California.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority plans to start construction next year on a 120-mile stretch of track between Bakersfield and Fresno. The authority envisions a $43 billion line connecting Southern California and the Bay Area. In 2020, when the entire system starts operating, the authority projects the train will whisk 13.5 million passengers along at speeds of up to 220 mph.

But those numbers are highly suspect. The state's legislative analyst in May reported that based on the expanding cost of the first leg, the price of the entire system would be at least $67 billion -- or even higher. The peer review panel likewise noted that the rail authority's cost estimates are two years old, and the price tag is "trending upward."

The rail agency would have no clear method for funding the system even if the old cost projections were accurate, however. The financing plan calls for $17 billion to $19 billion in federal money. So far, the federal government has committed about $3.6 billion to the project. But the peer review report notes there is no guarantee of any additional federal money, and the federal government's finances do not make more funding a likely prospect. And the uncertainty of public money for the project jeopardizes the $10 billion to $12 billion in private investment the rail authority needs to build the system.

And even the already available federal funding only creates new obstacles. The existing federal allocation is tied to starting construction of the line in the low-traffic Central Valley, instead of high-traffic areas of Southern and Northern California. Given the dearth of funding, the state faces a real risk it will be saddled a partially finished line that could not possibly be self-supporting.

The peer review group recommends the state not push ahead on construction until the governor and Legislature review an updated business plan and decide how to proceed with the bullet train. But no conceivable revision could make the rail plans less risky and more realistic. Legislators should instead stop this runaway train before it crushes the taxpayers in its path.

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