Tuesday, August 30, 2011

More Hanky-Panky with California High-Speed Rail on the Caltrain Corridor

The California High-Speed Rail Authority has been engaging in a lot of Madison Avenue double-talk lately. They've been coining new phrases which are code and highly misleading.
The latest is called the "Blended, two-track Caltrain/HSR Solution." It means they will take the existing infrastructure of Caltrain's two tracks and modify them minimally for running some high-speed trains as well. We'll get back to that in a moment.

The other phrases, like "phased implementation," "initial construction segment," and "value engineering" conceal much more about their intentions than what they reveal. When you read between these lines, what we are actually being told is the following.

a. They will do the cheapest thing possible. The lowest cost will drive the design. This ignores the requirements of mitigating environmental impact and they will double-talk their way around that.

b. They will violate the requirements of the authorizing legislation by not having all the funding in place to build a HSR-usable segment, but will go ahead anyhow by claiming that completion will take a lot longer but they will get a start regardless.

c. They will not build a required, operational segment first, but merely lay as much track in the Central Valley as they have money for. That locks up their "territory" while they lobby for more funds, regardless of how long that takes.

This project could take decades to become operational. Meanwhile, they remain in business and on the government payroll. The more they can put on the ground the soonest, the more their eternal future is assured, even if they never complete and make this train operational. As we keep insisting, it's not really about the train. It's about money and politics.

So, back to this blended business on the Caltrain corridor. "Blended" means squat! They state that they are going to accept the recommendations of Congresswoman Eshoo, State Senator Simitian and Assemblyman Gordon to use only the existing two tracks, and run both high-speed trains and Caltrain during the day. That makes for about ten trains, combined, each hour, or twenty trains north and south. Without grade separations, it will be a show-stopper! By which I mean traffic will seriously back up at intersections.

That, of course, will add to the urgency of grade separations which, in turn, will add to the urgency of elevated viaducts. And if the tracks are going to be elevated, they might as well put all four tracks up there for Caltrain and HSR. Problem solved. (Of course, nobody has asked UPRR's opinion yet, but that's another discussion.)

Ten trains per hour also means that the trains won't go faster than 110 mph (if that fast) and HSR wouldn't be able to meet the time requirements of the legislation. But, who cares?!

In order for this "phased implementation" modification to happen, the rail corridor will have to be electrified, necessary for HSR and a dream come true for Caltrain. The rail authority will also require additional tracks for passing, so it will no longer be a 'true' two track system. (They already have four short additional passing track segments along the whole corridor, but will 'blend' in a lot more.)

While our jolly three politicians stipulated that this 'blended' solution would be the final one, with no future modifications, the rail authority has not accepted that. Remember, their intention is to have four tracks elevated on a viaduct. They are agreeing to this reduced version only because they don't have an extra $6 to $10 billion right now to build the four track elevated viaduct, but they sure will when (if) they get the cash from D.C..

Once they have the funding for that, the 'blended' two track solution goes out the window. The article below tells us that they estimate a cost of around $1 billion to do this blended version. Don't believe that either. It's not as simple as they make it sound.

Oh, yes, and what has been built for the 'blended' two-track version, including electrification, will all have to get torn out once they start building the elevated viaduct.

All this is typical of how this project continues to unfold in California. Lies, deception, false promises, endless, pointless negotiations, threats, and lots of double talk in the rail authority documentation and Senate hearings, as well as their own monthly board meetings.

With all due respect to all our well-intentioned colleagues, we still don't begin to appreciate the determination and ruthlessness of Van Ark and the rail authority. They are arrogant because the know there is no one to stop them from doing whatever they damn please. "Don't like what we are doing? Sue us!"

Let me make a final point here.  Consider the rail authority as a magician with two hands.  One hand is set on building this train and we are keeping our eyes on that hand as we argue that the facts are wrong, the numbers are understated (costs) or inflated (ridership.) We quarrel about which alignment they intend and we want.  We disagree with this or that detail. We threaten lawsuits about environmental report violations.  This is the hand they want us to watch.

Meanwhile, the other hand is not about the train itself, which is merely a distraction, it's about the people and what they are doing behind the scenes to enhance their political or professional careers and enrich their bank accounts.  That's the hand of this magician we are not supposed to be looking at.  That's the hand of corruption and greed, waste, fraud and abuse, political manipulation, contract padding, conflicts of interest and croneyism.  

We've seen a lot of documentation about this (Trainor, Tolmach, Holstege), although none recently.  That warrants some serious investigative journalism.  We had our attention called to it with the State Auditor report but nothing further came of it.

We need to keep our eye on the people, not just the train.

‘Blended’ rail gets boost
August 30, 2011, 04:02 AM By Bill Silverfarb Daily Journal staff

Constructing a high-speed rail system in the Central Valley with nowhere for the trains to go is pointless unless the California High-Speed Rail Authority shifts some funds into the system’s two end points in San Francisco and Los Angeles, according to the rail authority’s Peer Review Group.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has also indicated it may be willing to consider a request by the state to “reprogram” some of the billions committed to the Central Valley section of the project to the system’s two end points, according to a letter from Will Kempton, chair of the California High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group to state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, dated Aug. 22.

The Peer Review Group has offered near full support for a “blended” rail proposal for the Peninsula that would limit high-speed trains to essentially Caltrain’s current right-of-way, minimizing property takings and greatly reducing the cost of the project.

Simitian, Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, and U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, introduced the blended rail proposal back in April.

“There is momentum behind the idea,” Gordon said yesterday. “It is a practical approach, cost effective and responsive to local communities.”

Shifting the funds out of the Central Valley to the end points, however, will require substantial debate and discussion, Gordon said yesterday.

Since much of the federal investment into high-speed rail comes from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, much of the funds to get the projects under way will have to be committed toward “shovel-ready” projects by the end of this federal fiscal year in September 2012, Kempton told the Daily Journal yesterday. Kempton is also chief executive officer of the Orange County Transportation Authority.

“There is a quick time frame to make use of the funds but it doesn’t mean all of the money has to go to the Central Valley,” Kempton said.

The governor and rail authority would have to make the request for the diversion of the funds, he said. The Central Valley plans for the project were well developed and thus supported with stimulus funds unlike the segments in Los Angeles and San Francisco, he said.

Caltrain has recently indicated it can accommodate up to two high-speed rail trains an hour in both directions on its tracks and four trains an hour in both directions if about nine miles of passing tracks are constructed somewhere between San Mateo and San Jose.

Initially, the California High-Speed Rail Authority said it wanted to get at least 10 to 12 of its trains into the Transbay Terminal in San Francisco every hour.

But the high cost of the project and a lack of consensus on the Peninsula as to how the system should look has caused the rail authority to suspend a study of the full buildout of the system as it begins work on the project in the Central Valley. Designs for the full buildout of the system locally showed a four-track system running mostly on an aerial viaduct, an idea met with great opposition up and down the corridor.

Residents in Southern California have also greatly opposed building a similar structure between Los Angeles and Anaheim, according to Kempton’s letter.

“If the project is not completed beyond the Central Valley plans, the state would be left with a segment providing marginal service improvement to 1 million passengers per year whereas shifting some investment into a blended approach at both ends would improve service to 28 million passengers as well as those in the Valley,” Kempton wrote in the letter.

A full buildout locally will cost in excess of $6 billion to complete while simply electrifying the Caltrain corridor to accommodate high-speed trains is estimated to cost about $1 billion.

The blended rail idea has gained steam since the three lawmakers first proposed the idea back in April.

Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani, D-Livingston, who wrote the language in Proposition 1A, a voter-approved $9 billion bond measure that passed in 2008, told the Daily Journal yesterday that getting high-speed trains from Bakersfield to Gilroy and then to San Francisco on Caltrain’s right-of-way would be a good sign for private investors to prove the state is serious about building the project.

“We need to take advantage of existing infrastructure,” Galgiani said. “The segment from Bakersfield to San Francisco can be up and running, providing service while the rest of the system is being built.”

She said a blended approach would allow the authority to build up its ridership and then gauge at a later time whether the full buildout would be necessary.

Caltrain’s goal is to modernize and electrify its system and is hoping to get the rail authority to foot much of the bill.

Limiting high-speed rail to the Caltrain corridor could save taxpayers billions in construction costs and greatly limit the need for property takings through eminent domain.

“There is a growing chorus that the only way that makes sense for the project to move forward” is to have high-speed trains share the corridor with Caltrain, Simitian said. “The conversation will never be constructive if there are not sensible parameters.”

Simitian called the Peer Review Group’s comments “particularly compelling given the professional expertise and experience” of the group’s membership.

Assembly Bill 3034 established the Peer Review Group to evaluate the High-Speed Rail Authority’s funding plans and prepare its independent judgment as to the feasibility and the reasonableness of it plans.

The rail authority plans to build a system that will take passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles in about 2 hours and 40 minutes.

Bill Silverfarb can be reached by email: silverfarb@smdailyjournal.com or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 106.

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