Monday, October 24, 2011

High-Speed Bait and Switch

Tom Elias makes what he's saying here more definitive or absolute than what the CHSRA report states.  The rail guys have not yet declared that they intend to stop building a high-speed train and will definitely build an Amtrak shortcut that provides only somewhat faster passenger rail service in the Central Valley.

Furthermore, to indicate another reservation I have with this article, Elias also suggests that those of us who are so anxious about the immanence of elevated viaducts both in the Central Valley and on the Bay Area Peninsula, can now relax.

Sorry, I respectfully disagree, because it's never over until it's over.

But, what Elias is driving at here is well taken.  Yes, the rail authority is, finally re-assessing it's options in the face of reality, which includes the clear possibility of no further funding from any source.  And they also acknowledge stunningly higher cost projections that previously. They are now seriously considering scaling back their grandiose empire building.  And, it's about time.

However (there's always a 'however'), so far, I see no cessation of effort to go ahead with the intention of commencing high-speed rail construction in the Central Valley, thereby consuming the promised funding from the FRA, $3.5 billion worth.  Indeed, there's a rush to meet federal deadlines.

In order to meet their timelines with not enough funding, the rhetoric of the rail authority has changed from what was required in the state bonding authorization, Proposition 1A; that is, to build a high-speed rail system even in the first segment that is operational.  They're now going to be building an "Initial Construction Section" instead.  Whatever that means. 

Actually, we do know what that means.  It means that they won't comply with Prop. 1A and build a high-speed rail.  They will merely build as much track on a rail corridor as they can afford, until the money runs out.  That track will be usable by Amtrak, they say.  What do you call this?  Bait-and-Switch.  Is this what the voters passed in 2008? Is it legal? That remains to be seen.

I'll tell you what else this means.  They have scammed the California voters who supported the construction of a high-speed train which would cost around $30/$35 billion, carry 117 million annual riders and for which tickets would cost $55. one way.

None of that will happen.  Will Californians accept this "lying down?" That also remains to be seen.  The number of opposition voices is still relatively small.  I suspect that most Californians still don't appreciate how much this will hit their pocket-books and how much harm it will do to each and every community through which it intends to pass.

I just hope that public outrage rises up in time and lets its collective voice be heard.

October 24, 2011 | Posted by Tom Elias
Slower track for high-speed rail?

For the first time since voters OK’d more than $9 billion worth of bonds to pay for a high-speed rail system linking all California’s major metropolitan areas, it appears the commission charged with building that system is getting realistic.

In fact, you could say the entire idea of a bullet train in California is now on a new track — call it a backtrack or a slow track.

That’s the upshot of a new report to the Legislature from the High Speed Rail Authority, which has been widely lambasted for its plan to build the first segment of its system in the San Joaquin Valley, roughly between Bakersfield and Merced.

The report, required by a new state law, puts the bullet train authority on record for the first time saying there are plausible, acceptable alternatives to 220 mph trains for spending the bond money and the billions of dollars already committed to this project by the federal government.

One possibility, the report says, would “reduce the scope or delay the next phase of system development until the performance of the existing system can generate sufficient revenues to support future expansion.” In short, wait and see what the ridership will be before spending piles more money. But you can’t know that unless you’ve built the whole system.

Later, the report adds that the new tracks it plans to build in the Central Valley could link with existing Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad tracks at its northern and southern ends, with Amtrak running its current San Joaquin train on the new tracks.

“This will reduce travel times on the San Joaquin service between Northern and Southern California — already one of Amtrak’s five busiest corridors in the nation — by approximately 45 minutes,” the HSR said.

Rather than 220 mph, this change would see trains running at speeds up to only 125 mph — which still meets the federal definition of high-speed rail.

If the HSR system hooks up with the older Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks, the links would be paid for entirely with federal dollars and not state bond money, which is reserved for truly high-speed projects only. Some federal dollars also could be used to make safety and smoothness upgrades on the BNSF system, thus allowing trains to go much faster than they do now.

It is, of course, remarkable that the until-now hidebound HSR authority so much as acknowledges there’s a possibility of building something other than what its 2008 ballot proposition called for. Yes, this does amount to a bait-and-switch on voters who were told they could get a real bullet train for about $36 billion, with the bulk of the money to come from private investors and the national government.

The precise words chosen by the HSR authority are even more interesting. It did not say “…this could reduce travel times…,” meaning it’s just one possibility among many. Rather, the report said, “…this will reduce…,” meaning the HSR now apparently expects to build the cheaper, slower version.

It remains to be seen whether the twice-delayed business plan now due to come from the authority in early November will be as definite, but the rest of the HSR report to the Legislature explains the pullback very well.

It amounts to this: As things now stand, there is no interest in the project from private investors without federal investment guarantees or proven high ridership. Those things do not now exist, nor are they likely to be forthcoming, as long as anti-high speed rail Republicans hold a majority or even a significant minority in either house of Congress.

The report contains multiple optimistic references to the possibility that an upgraded system will become self-sustaining by attracting significantly more passengers than today’s trains. Only after that happens, the HSR authority concedes, are private investors likely to dive in. But will a 45-minute improvement in the one-way Los Angeles-San Francisco riding time really entice many new customers away from airplanes or their own cars?

All of which means two things: The new members of the HSR authority appointed last summer by Gov. Jerry Brown are taking a far more practical and hard-nosed attitude toward the entire development than the people they replaced, who were named by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

And also that protesters who feared the effects of viaducts reaching as high as 40 feet while traversing suburbs of Los Angeles and San Francisco can rest a little easier now than just a month ago. For it no longer seems like anyone is dead-set any more on building a train to nowhere.

— Reach syndicated columnist Tom Elias at

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