Saturday, August 6, 2011

Week-end summary of HSR in California: Where we stand now

Just a brief summary of where I believe we now stand.

The importance of the Republican House of Representatives 

It would be surprising if the Republicans in the House were not successful in limiting high-speed rail funding to zero or close to zero.  When Congress reconvenes September 14, they will resume negotiations over the six year re-authorization of the Transportation Budget.  That should be resolved in the next three months and certainly by the end of the year.  However, given the remarkable recalcitrance of both parties to compromise, I wouldn't be surprised if we found a continuing resolution of the transportation budget well into 2012.

We begin with this thought because we believe it to be the basis of what happens with high-speed rail in the United States. That is, what happens in Washington over the FY 2012 budget will determine the future of HSR.

Going faster vs. true high-speed rail

But, first we need to make a critical distinction.  The press is full of articles each day about the DOT granting $300 million here, several million there, and so on.  Those grants are not for actual high-speed rail; they are for making Amtrak passenger trains go somewhat faster, such as from 79 mph to 110 mph.  That's fast, but not 200 mph high-speed train fast.  The DOT loves the high-speed rail label for its sex-appeal.  Most of what they are funding isn't real HSR.

That kind of speed, 200 mph +, is attributable only for the California high-speed rail project.  The CHSRA has already been awarded an obligated $3 billion or so. They also will have a like amount from the California treasury based on the general obligation bonds. Therefore, the rail authority will have around $ 6 billion to begin construction of such a true high-speed train.  They intend to start construction next year in the middle of the 400 mile rail corridor, in the Central Valley.  More about that in a moment.

They spend $6+ billion, and then what?

Right now, we are pretty sure that there will be no more funding of any consequence for HSR from Washington.  We also believe that there won't be any private investors loans forthcoming.  That means that the rail authority will burn through its $6 billion and then will go no further.  The rail authority intention is to begin construction later in 2012 and have "utility" capacity on the built section by 2017.
However, we can be sure they will be relentless in their lobbying of Washington for further funding.
The will need well over $100 billion to build out this rail system.

Don't count on the Governor

We venture to say that, right now, there is nothing in their way; nothing to stop them that we can see.  It would be a miracle if the Governor, Jerry Brown, said stop, we can't afford this. It's too large, too expensive and too mismanaged. That would be great, but I'm certainly not counting on it.

Our opposers and our accommodators

There are numerous groups in Northern, Southern and Central California who have raised their voices in opposition.  Or, at least some accommodation with HSR.  On the Bay Area Peninsula, where the rail line intends to join with the Caltrain commuter train on the Caltrain corridor, several organizations have formed in order to voice their objections to that route. 

And there have now been nearly two years of discussion, meetings, forming of community groups, grouping of cities in coalitions, involving, I would guess, less than one thousand individuals.  These  groups all have their own individual perception of what they want from the high-speed rail authority and how to get it. Perhaps the most effective consequence of these activities has been the growth of media attention to the rail authority's short-comings.

Some of these groups are strong believers in persuading their representatives at the local and state levels to act on their behalf.  Frankly, they have been less than successful up to now. None of the  representatives with power over the CHSRA have acted decisively to terminate the project; only to modify it. 

The Democrats are totally committed to HSR, principally because of the federal funding to be provided to a cash hungry state. Although fully aware of the litany of misbehaviors of the rail authority and staff, they have no intentions of terminating the project at this time. 

Some objectors, on the Peninsula, in the Central Valley and in Southern California are avid supporters of lawsuits, based upon the perceived legal violations of the rail authority in its pursuit of its agenda. Only one so far has been ruled upon by the court, but has had almost no consequential effect on the rail authority's inexorable progress.  Others are in the pipeline, or are only intentions, and it's too early to anticipate their effectiveness.

It is highly likely that these groups and individuals would strongly disagree with this assessment of the results of their efforts. Nonetheless, my criterion of success is the termination of the project, and I believe we are no closer to that now than we were a year ago.  And this is despite our efforts and the vast amount of critical information appearing in the press.

Reading the situation free of bias

We constantly struggle to avoid wishful thinking and "confirmation bias"; that is, letting the desire for specific goals color the interpretation of what is happening.  

One of the events that has taken place in recent months and is perceived as tremendous progress, is the desire of some of our elected officials on the Peninsula to reduce the intended tracks from four to two on the Caltrain Peninsula.  I consider that nothing more than a sneaky way for the high-speed rail authority to take access to that section of the HSR route at little or no expense. If there is future funding, there should be no doubt that they will build their elevated four tracks on this rail corridor.  That, in my mind, is no success.

Starting (and ending) in the Central Valley 

Therefore, barring some unexpected event from the Legislature or the courts, we can expect construction to begin in 2012. They will begin in the Central Valley.  

They have not yet gone out for actual construction bids because they do not yet have sufficient engineering designs completed to do so.  That will happen next Spring.  

All these efforts will, upon completion (when the funds run out), result in nothing more than building a 100 mile corridor and laying track.  That is not sufficient to operate high-speed rail.  Whether this first construction project is legal or not has yet to be determined by lawsuits.  

High-Speed rail requires, in addition to tracks, a train to run on them, electrification to power them, and signalling and positive train control to control them.  HSR also requires a maintenance yard to store them and fix them. None of those essential components are on the current rail authority shopping list.

Why the Central Valley?

The rail authority has claimed in the past that their intention to begin in the Central Valley is based on a number of "facts":

1. The per mile costs will be lower than in the Northern or Southern sections, which are population-intensive.
2. There will be less community resistance to the train's intrusion into their lives, residencies, businesses and farms.
3. They will be able to demonstrate and "test" the trains at maximum speed.

It is not clear that the per mile costs will be greater or less than elsewhere. Laying track only means, as far as the rail authority is concerned, this corridor will be usable by Amtrak for their regular passenger rail service.  Amtrak has not indicated their need for such track, however.  That, of course, guarantees lower per mile costs.

In other words, despite their promises, no "test" or "demonstration" rail corridor.  

And, the Central Valley has already raised a major ruckus, and the rail authority can expect lawsuits from the farmers whose lands will be devastated. So much for a docile and obliging community.

Nonetheless, even with a number of sources urging initiation elsewhere, including the state Legislative Analysts' Office, the FRA requires launching construction in the Central Valley, and that's where they will start.

The rail authority's gift for shooting itself in the foot

So to sum up, while we cannot count on our layers of government in the state to provide relief from the devastating threats of high-speed rail, we are certainly hopeful that at the federal level there will be a funding termination.  That will permit the California rail authority only to spend the money it now controls, but no more.  

There have been various active forces supporting or opposing this train project.  One of the most helpful forces opposing it has been the rail authority itself.  Its documented record of mismanagement, dishonesty, incompetence and fecklessness has given it more negative visibility than all our well-intended efforts put together. 

By now, HSR supporters such as elected Democratic representatives can anticipate richly deserved "guilt by association."   We look forward to that coming into play during the next election cycle.

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