Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Two Southern California Talk-Show guys really lay it on the high-speed rail project

You have to watch these talk show hosts, John and Ken, from KFI Los Angeles, tear into the high-speed rail project and the CHSRA Board.  They are over the top and I wish I could have joined them.


Here's the choice, California: High-Speed Rail or increased rate of state poverty

This is the kind of news that turns my stomach into knots.  California's poverty rate is accelerating and state poverty has grown three times as fast as the population.

There are still high-speed rail promoters, possibly on the payroll, who like to say things like, California can afford this train and everything else on the budget.  No need to slash budgets on anything. (I'm guessing that they've cancelled their newspaper and endured an unsuccessful brain transplant.)

Those high-speed rail supporters, always pointing at the anticipated massive population increase in our state as a justification for building this gold-plated Ferrari of a train, need to look at, and digest some other data as well.

What all this suggests, while the Governor and the Rail Authority advocate building this luxury train for the rich, is that the well-to-do will eventually enjoy the opportunity to ride the train. However, those people, and the legislators who made this train possible, can watch as the rest of the state sinks into massive poverty. 

It's even safe to say that all those people who hope to get employment building this train, will never be able to afford to ride on it. And, by the way, there is a close correlation between our poverty rate increases and our school drop out rate increases. Those are not going to be the high-speed rail riding sector of our population.

Do not be confused.  This high-speed train is not intended to become a public mass transit commuter train that gets a huge number of Californians to work and back. If that's what people believe, they are sadly mistaken.  

You have to ask, where are our priorities? 

Our governor and the legislature are asking all of us who are taxpayers, to support the construction of an expensive luxury train that only the affluent can afford to ride, even if we can't.  At the same time, the social conditions are deteriorating for the large middle and under classes, while our tax burden will include this wasteful train. Our middle-class is shrinking, while our population of the poor increases.

What is wrong with my Democrats to permit this bizarre and cruel joke on California?

Governor and Legislature, what is wrong with you guys?

November 29, 2011
California's poverty grows three times as fast as population

Dan Walters blog:

California's population increased by 10 percent between 2000 and 2010 but the number of Californians living in poverty grew more than three times as fast, a new U.S. Census Bureau report reveals.

The data are found in a massive compilation of poverty statistics broken down by state, county and school district. And if the Census Bureau adopts a proposed new method gauging poverty, which takes into account regional and local costs of living and other factors, the state's poverty rate may climb even higher.

In 2000, 4.3 million Californians were living in poverty but by 2010, the number had increased to 5.8 million, a 34.3 percent jump that reflected the serious recession that has gripped the state in recent years. The state's overall rate climbed from 12.7 percent in 2000 to 15.8 percent in 2010.

Virtually every region of the state was affected, from the most affluent counties in the San Francisco Bay Area to the poorest in interior agricultural areas.

San Mateo County had the state's lowest poverty rate in 2000 at 5.1 percent and was still lowest in 2010, but had seen a rise to 7 percent. Imperial County, in the state's southeastern corner, had the highest poverty rate in 2000 at 24.7 percent, nearly twice the state rate, but by 2010 had ceded that dubious title to Fresno's 26.8 percent.

Even more dramatic contrasts in poverty rates are evident in the state's school districts, a separate Census Bureau compilation reveals.

The bureau reported numbers of school children in poverty-stricken families for each school district, but did not calculate poverty rates. They can be extrapolated, however, from the data.

In Los Angeles Unified, by far the state's largest school district, for instance, 211,407 of the district's 773,749 school-age children are in poverty-stricken families for a 27.3 percent rate. At the other end of the size scale, Maple Creek Elementary in Humboldt County has just six kids and lists one in poverty.

Not surprisingly, given the county rankings, one of the state's highest rates of school district poverty is found in Fresno Unified at 44 percent. But in Clovis Unified, on Fresno's affluent northeastern flank, it's scarcely a third as much, 15.5 percent.

The very lowest rates of school district poverty are found in the state's most affluent communities, such as San Mateo County's Hillsborough Unified at just 3.9 percent. Beverly Hills Unified, however, has a 14.1 percent poverty rate, nearly as high as the state as a whole.

One of the more interesting contrasts is found in two small school districts which are next door to one another in the Census Bureau's alphabetical listing, but about 160 miles apart on the map, Marin County's Reed Union and Tehama County's Reed's Creek. The former has a poverty rate of 6.4 percent while the latter's is 43.3 percent.

Categories: California by the Numbers
Posted by Dan Walters

Our blogger friend "Drunk Engineer" tells us about the CHSRA Board members recently arrived on the job

Let's begin with some basic facts. Dan Richard, along with Michael Rossi, were recently appointed to the California High-Speed Rail Authority Board by Governor Jerry Brown.  They apparently pushed a lot of people around to get out the most recent iteration of the business plan, which all the rail supporters are jumping up and down over. They rave about how honest and transparent it is. Uh,huh!

This is the plan that came out with the most recent cost forecast of $98 billion, nearly triple the prior cost forecast.  And, it describes the construction agenda in the Central Valley over which there is a pending lawsuit pointing out that this construction plan, with an illegal Initial Construction Section, violates the authorizing legislation defining the HSR project.

I assume we have Dan Richard and Michael Rossi to thank for that clever scheme. Here's our friend, the "Drunk Engineer," who on his blog "Systemic Failure" points out the many charms of Mr. Richard and his contribution to the HSR Board.

His [Dan Richard's] prior experience with BART is highlighted by his dazzling success in building the BART-SFO connector which, as the article points out, was 100% over cost projections and carries only a tiny fraction of the number of people projected.

Former CHSRA Board member, Quentin Kopp -- thank God he's finally off the Board -- was also extensively involved with this BART-SFO connector, and the construction companies that raked in a fortune working on it.  Kopp here is quoted as saying it's the "most successful part of the entire BART system." The technical term for such a remark like that is Chutzpah. Judge Kopp, please acknowledge that you are the sole survivor of all those who don't know that this BART extension is a disaster. 

So, now we are confronting a $100 billion rail project that has been managed by the guys who made the BART-SFO connector such a dazzling success.  By the way, Rod Diridon is no longer on the CHSRA Board either, but he was, and for a long time.  He's been responsible for the San Jose light rail which -- surprise -- also came in millions above cost projections, and carries a fraction of the projected ridership. Sound familiar?

The expenditure of an unnecessary, wasteful, useless, over-priced high-speed train managed into existence and promoted by back-room politicians with a pathetic track record and no substantive knowledge of railroading. That's what we have here!

Is this some kind of a joke?  And our Governor, Jerry Brown, continues to promote it?

Anyhow, Drunk Engineer asks the perfect question at the end of this brief blog entry:  “Hey, is it a good idea to put these guys in charge of a $100 billion project?”

The answer to that question is obvious.

Systemic Failure
Dan Richard: High-Speed Rail “Expert”
November 26, 2011 by Drunk Engineer

Like a lot of news stories, the LA Weekly describes CHSRA Board Member Dan Richard as the smartest guy in the room:

In August, Gov. Jerry Brown set out to inject some honesty into the debate over the cost and business plan for the vast public works project — for which taxpayers are on the hook. He appointed two nonpoliticos, who also are free of longtime insider ties to big labor: rail expert Dan Richard and financial guru/banker Michael Rossi.

Richard’s “expertise” stems from his tenure on the BART Board (an elected position, making him anything but a “non-politico”). His main accomplishment during that time was the BART extension to the SFO airport. In fact, his bio on CHSRA web page boasts about this project.

As most readers know, the BART-SFO project went 100% over cost projections. And the ridership has been so dismal, it blew a huge fiscal hole in SamTrans finances. In any other circumstance, that project would have disqualified Richard from serving on a transit agency board. In assbackwards California, the opposite is true: failure is rewarded with responsibility over even larger mega-projects.

Speaking of BART-SFO, Quentin Kopp was recently interviewed on KQED public radio and had this to say:
Real high-speed rail, you get on in one place, you get off in another. Making people transfer from one train to another in my opinion is a sure recipe for discouraging ridership. That’s why I fought to have BART into SFO, not a mile and a half away, and that’s proved to be the most successful part of the entire BART system.

And when you read this quote, you have to wonder why nobody at KQED (or any other media outlet) ever looks up the BART-SFO numbers and asks, “Hey, is it a good idea to put these guys in charge of a $100 billion project?”

State Senator George Runner's position on high-speed rail in California

You learn something every day.  In the fall of 2008, before the November elections when the votes were to support Proposition 1A, I participated in writing the ballot measure opposition-response to this proposition.  One of the final, printed versions was signed by State Senator George Runner.  I had forgotten his name until today, when one of my colleagues identified him for me.

He is now saying, in the press release, below, "I told you so." Since I will never be a political candidate, I have no need to use those words.  And, we are not there yet, anyhow.

This project is not over with by a long stretch.  I say this to warn all of us who have worked to bring this nightmare to a close, that despite the recent flurry of news highlighting the deplorable state of HSR as a project in California -- see the latest LAO Report in a prior blog entry here -- "the fat lady still has to sing before this opera is over." 

The State has to take an action.  We are told by State Senator Simitian that he can take no actions until the state budget comes to his attention officially, next spring.  

The Governor cannot take unilateral steps against this project or he allies himself with the three Republican Governors who rejected the available-to-them federal funding for HSR.  Be assured that the Obama political team would give our Jerry a very hard time!  And, he certainly has no interest in losing the $3.3 billion available to him from the FRA.  

Anyhow, here is George Runner's HSR position:
For Immediate Release November 1, 2011 
Contact: Sean Wallentine 916-445-2181
Skyrocketing High Speed Rail Costs
George Runner says, "I told you so.”

As a State Senator, George Runner co-authored and signed the official ballot argument against Proposition 1A, which authorized California’s High Speed Rail project. Runner issued the following statement today in response to the revelation that California’s high speed rail project will cost more than twice as much as originally estimated.

“When Californians narrowly passed Proposition 1A in 2008, they were told the high speed rail project would cost $40 billion dollars to complete. They are now being told it will cost more than twice that amount. I warned in the ballot argument I co-authored against this proposition that costs could skyrocket to almost $100 billion. That’s exactly what is happening and it’s unfortunate that I am able to now say, ‘I told you so.’”

“It’s only fair that the governor and Legislature go back to the voters to see if they want to pay an additional $60 billion for this rail project. Failing to do so would be a breach of contract with California taxpayers. With chronic high unemployment and families and businesses just struggling to survive, it is unfair to assume taxpayers will want to buy the same project for more than twice the price.”

Elected in November 2010, George Runner represents more than nine million Californians as a member of the State Board of Equalization. For more information, visit

The California Legislative Analysts' Office dumps on the High-Speed Rail Project

1. What the CHSRA intends to do in the Central Valley with its initial construction violates the edicts of Prop. 1A and is illegal.

2. There will be no further funding to add to the currently available $6+ billion for Central Valley construction.

3. The rail authority will not build an operational high-speed rail in the Central Valley.  Without further funding, that will be the only construction completed; one hundred miles of tracks usable only by Amtrak.

4. The voters were misled by the Proposition 1A bond issue ballot measure in 2008. The current plans call for a very different project, with three times the cost and a construction period of 22 years, 14 years more than in the initial plan.

5. The costs of this project take funding away from far more urgent needs in the state.

These are some of the bullet points that are finally being acknowledged in high and official quarters in Sacramento and around the state.

At the federal government level, we have the Congressional Budget Office, an independent body that reviews legislation and governmental processes both to clarify the meaning in the legalistic jargon so often used, but also to ascertain the legitimacy of both the legislation and how it is being honored in practice. On all these scores, the CHSRA isn't doing so well. 

The equivalent at the state level in California is the Legislative Analysts' Office (LAO).  They have issued a highly critical report on the 2012 Business Plan of the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

We have provided the opportunity to read the nine page LAO Report here:

As an extra bonus, and at no additional cost, we provide articles about this report from two leading state newspapers, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Jose Mercury News.  It should be pointed out that both papers have a pro-HSR editorial position.  Nonetheless, both articles are highly critical of the business plan.

Apparently, even CHSRA Board members have now been put on the defensive. Perhaps, the tides are finally turning.

Top analyst warns state could waste $6 billion over high-speed rail
By Mike Rosenberg and Steve Harmon
Staff writers

Updated: 11/30/2011 09:38:09 AM PST

The state's top analyst on Tuesday not only questioned the legality of launching a high speed-train, but also warned legislators that starting construction on the rail line could be a $6 billion waste of tax funds at the expense of social services, education and other transportation projects.

In the sharpest critique yet of the state's newly revised plan to spend two decades and $99 billion building a bullet train line, the Legislative Analyst's Office bashed planners for relying on "highly speculative" funding sources.

As a result, the analyst concluded that it's "highly uncertain" the full project will ever get built. Even so, the state intends to start construction in the Central Valley next year by spending $2.7 billion in state bonds plus a $3.3 billion federal grant to build a stretch of track too short for bullet train service -- a move that has already triggered a lawsuit. But passengers won't start zipping between San Francisco and Anaheim unless Congress bankrolls more than half the project, a dubious scenario considering federal lawmakers have killed all high-speed rail funds for two straight years.

"It appears doubtful that substantial additional federal support will be forthcoming anytime soon," the report says. "This makes it increasingly likely that the (initial stretch of track) may be all that is ever built," a project that is "unlikely to justify (the) expense."

The report, unveiled at an Assembly oversight hearing, appears to give lawmakers the strongest ammunition yet to kill the project instead of starting construction, which would bury the state even deeper in debt.

"You may also have to look at making other cuts to social services programs or education," and not funding other transportation projects, report co-author Farra Bracht told the Assembly Committee on Transportation.

Even the officials backing the project conceded the review has merit.

"High-speed rail certainly faces a challenge that it does not have a dedicated revenue source like the gas tax," said Dan Richard, one of Gov. Jerry Brown's appointees to the California High-Speed Rail Authority board. "If the federal government chooses not to continue to fund high-speed rail, it's going to be very difficult to see how we can complete this."

The analyst's nine-page report also concluded that the rail authority's estimate of the cost to scrap the rail line, and instead to expand freeways and airports, was "overstated" and not realistic. Further, they say it's "unproven" that high-speed rail would really solve the state's future transportation demand, that their economic impact study is "incomplete and imbalanced" and that rail authority staffing is "inadequate."

The analyst further warned that the rail line voters approved in 2008 only allows construction to begin when officials outline committed funding and environmental clearances for a segment long enough to run service. But the rail authority has neither, the analyst said. Kings County, where construction would start, just sued to stop the project on similar grounds, though the rail authority maintained Tuesday that its plan is legal.

With Brown supporting the plan -- his appointees helped draft it -- and most legislative Republicans opposing, the decision will come down to the will of Democratic lawmakers. While they made no decisions or major pronouncements at the hearing, some officials continued to express reservations.

"My fear is that with (an uncertain) price tag and no dedicated revenue stream, any money we do get will go to that project, to the detriment of the state's existing transportation systems," said Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, the committee chairwoman. Yet, she said high-speed rail promises "extraordinary benefits such as jobs, private investment and economic growth that has to be considered if we're to look at this honestly."

Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-San Ramon, a committee member, said voters might wonder why the money isn't being spent on infrastructure that needs work now.

"In the meantime, my constituents (are) stuck on a freeway that's like a parking lot, when we could be using the money to extend BART," Buchanan said.

Still, Assemblyman Jose Solorio, an Anaheim-area Democrat, told his colleagues that they couldn't let this opportunity slip from their grasp.

In a brief statement released after the hearing, the rail authority welcomed the critiques and vowed to meet with the analyst's office "to discuss the issues for legislative consideration raised in the report."
Bullet train funding plan faulted
The Legislative Analyst's Office says the financing plan does not fulfill key requirements of the ballot measure voters approved to authorize the project.

By Dan Weikel, Los Angeles Times
November 30, 2011

The funding plan for the California bullet train does not comply with key provisions of a ballot measure that voters approved to authorize the project and $9 billion in state bonds to help finance it, according to a report released Tuesday.

The study — by the Legislative Analyst's Office, which periodically reviews the $98-billion construction proposal — concluded that the most recent funding plan does not meet important requirements of Proposition 1A because high-speed trains cannot operate on the first stretch of track to be built next year in the Central Valley.

Before bond financing can be requested, analysts said, project officials must complete an environmental review and identify a corridor, a usable segment, all sources of committed funds and a schedule for the receipt of financing.

"Our review finds that the funding plan only identifies committed funding for the initial construction segment, which is not a usable segment, and therefore does not meet the requirements of Proposition 1A," their report said.

In addition, analysts said, the California High-Speed Rail Authority has not obtained all environmental approvals for any usable segment and probably would not receive the necessary clearances before the start of construction.

High-speed rail officials discussed the report Tuesday with the analyst's office. They contend that the funding plan complies with the 2008 ballot measure and other statutory requirements.

"We have the opinion of counsel," said Dan Richard, a rail authority board member. "We have the resources and the ideas for how one could deal with it" if the report's conclusions become "a real obstacle."

The rail authority plans to build 130 miles of track that would run from south of Merced to north of Bakersfield. It is the first part of a 520-mile system that would eventually link Los Angeles and San Francisco with trains traveling at 220 mph.

Stations, maintenance facilities and the electrical system needed to power high-speed trains are not included in the first phase, which is estimated to cost at least $6 billion. Authority officials want to run Amtrak's San Joaquin service on the line until the system can be expanded.

The analyst's conclusions may lend credence to a state lawsuit filed earlier this month by Kings County and two Central Valley residents. They are seeking a court order to halt the Central Valley segment on the grounds that Proposition 1A and related state legislation call for the construction of track that high-speed trains can use.

The report by the Legislative Analyst's Office is a review of the project's draft business and funding plans. Although researchers found that the business plan largely meets state requirements, they concluded that the funding proposals were highly speculative.

Because the availability of funding to expand beyond the Central Valley section remains uncertain, analysts questioned whether operating conventional trains on the initial segment was worth the expense to build it.

Times staff writer Ralph Vartabedian contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2011, Los Angeles Times

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Samuel K. Skinner: a seven minute talk this past November 14th, 2011

California High Speed Rail, Lipinski Symposium on Transportation 
Policy, November 14, 2011


Let's just say here that he knows quite a bit about transportation and transit, including high-speed rail.

Here's additional information on Mr. Skinner:

And this:

Transportation Chief Urges End Of Subsidies For Tri-rail

June 25, 1991|By KEN CUMMINS, Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner on Monday renewed the Bush administration`s call for elimination of federal operating subsidies for Tri-Rail and other commuter railroads nationwide.
Skinner also opposed using federal money to build high-speed rail systems, and criticized the transportation bill passed by the Senate last week for proposing to spend $750 million over the next five years to develop a new form of rail technology known as magnetic levitation transportation.

Who are these High-Speed Rail customers?

For convenience, I've put some photos from this article at the bottom.  

This article, from the Australian Business Traveller, does a review of the Eurostar Business Lounge in St. Pancras Station, London.  Perhaps some of you are familiar with such lounges at airports, especially if you are a professional frequent flyer.

Very fancy indeed.  Our point here is to illustrate just who the high-speed rail passengers from London to Brussels and Paris are. And, by inference, who all the high-speed rail travellers are, elsewhere in the world.  And, please understand, that the Los Angeles Union Station and, presumably the TransBay Terminal in San Francisco will have such lounges as well.

Then, you have to ask who paid for them?  If our California train requires subsidies to operate, wouldn't that also be true of these lounges? Aren't these an integral part of the "infrastructure?"

We have repeatedly insisted that HSR is for the affluent. That the ticket prices are the most expensive train tickets available.  Here, in this article is a kind of indirect confirmation.  And, we are all expected to support this train system with our dollars.  We are told that it's good for the economy.  Who's economy are the rail advocates talking about?

Are you angry yet?  I am.

Review: Eurostar Business Premier Lounge, London
By David Flynn     
As high-speed rail increasingly becomes a true alternative to flying for the business traveller, part of the competitive equation is a business lounge.

On a recent visit to London Australian Business Traveller checked out Eurostar’s Business Premier Lounge at St Pancras International Station, which is the London end of the dedicated Eurostar High Speed 1 line between the UK, Paris and Brussels.

Location & impressions
The Business Premier Lounge is tucked away in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it corner of St Pancras International Station: head through the premium security lane and passport control desk, then turn right. Even the welcome desk and entrance to the lounge aren't glaringly obvious.

The lounge itself is a long and relatively narrow split-level affair with just about everything you’d want to while away the time waiting for your train.

Add a bunch of business travellers and things can fill up pretty quickly.

Not that you’ll have long to wait in the lounge. Eurostar services from London generally depart every half hour in peak times and on average each hour outside that.

And with business class travellers and Eurostar Carte Blanche members able to check in as late as 10 minutes before departure (and a meagre 30 minutes for everyone else), plus far less arduous security than airports, the lounge is more for comfortably cooling your heels than killing the hours you’d have to spare at an airport.

The lower and upper levels of the Business Premier lounge are pretty much identical in their facilities – including food and drink, magazines and newspapers plus plenty of comfortable chairs, and tall tables adjacent to the bar and drinks area.

Upstairs tends to be quieter because very short-stay travellers stay on the ground level where they can easily zip out to the trains.

(Oh, and upstairs also has these decidedly funky and seemingly not-often-used chairs right down the end.)

Lounge entry is included in all Eurostar Business Premier class fares, and it’s one of the key differentiators between Business Premier and Standard Premier (in airline terms, think ‘business class’ vs ‘premium economy’).

Regular business travellers can also gain lounge access when they hit the Carte Blanche tier of the Eurostar Frequent Traveller program.

However, lounge access is also a little-known perk of holding an American Express Platinum or Centurion card, so even if you’re travelling in Standard ‘economy’ class you can still rest up in the Business Premier lounge.

Food and drink at Eurostar’s Business Premier lounge is a pretty straightforward and largely self-service affair designed for pre-travel to snacking.

After all, Business Premier passengers get a full meal on board, as well as there being a dining car on the Eurostar train and plenty of grab-and-go eateries at St Pancras Station itself.

You’ll find breakfast cereals in the morning plus fresh sandwiches and rolls, pastries, fruit, biscuits and other nibblies.

There's also an ample variety of soft drinks, wine and beer to wet the whistle.

Comfortable chairs with plentiful AC sockets plus free wi-fi and a fairly quiet environment (if you stay away from the coffee machines) set the scene for some last-minute work before your trip.

(And you can of course continue tapping away on your laptop all through the journey. That’s another point in the train-vs-plane stakes – there’s no 30+ minute period of ‘please switch of all electronic devices’).

Note the inclusion of both UK and European power sockets on the desks.

And if your gadget de jour is running low on de juice, take advantage of the handy recharge station – with lockable doors for each compartment – on the lounge's ground floor.

There are also several meeting areas where you can compare notes with colleagues.

Eurostar's St Pancras business lounge pretty much ticks every box when it comes to a relatively short-stay lounge.

In fact, as trains begin boarding 20 minutes before departure, you may well arrive at the station and head straight to your seat. (That’s one of the ways travelling by Eurostar rates so far down on the hassle-o-meter compared to flying) – so lounge access isn't a must-have for your business trip by train.

There are many other photos in the article found under the URL provided above.
High-Speed Rail is the "good life."  There should be no objection to this; the objection is when the taxpayers are paying for the well to do to live like this. And, yes, most HSR systems around the world compartmentalize classes, first class, business class, coach.
However, even the least expensive coach tickets cost more than regular train tickets.


HTNB and it's insight into the nature of public service utilities, like high-speed rail

Here is an interesting insight that has great applicability to high-speed rail. It comes from, of all places, the HNTB Corporation, which is helping the CHSRA build its high-speed trains.   

The basic premise is that transit infrastructure has tended to be funded as if it was a one time capital investment.  As we all know, when we buy a car and bring it home, it does not last forever.  Almost all eventually require repair. Often the repairs cost more than the replacement, but either way, to over-simplify the point, nothing lasts forever, especially if heavily used.

Therefore, this paragraph from HNTB is really provocative:

"There is a general tendency among the public to view assets as 'build-it-once-and-forget-it' systems, rather than as utilities that require continuing attention and investment. 

The result is a persistent shortage of appropriate funding for these assets as politicians fear voter reprisals should they raise taxes or initiate tolls. 

There is one way to break this impasse: Take the bold step of transforming our transportation assets into functioning public utilities. We need only to look at the success of our electricity, gas, and water utilities for inspiration."
--HNTB Think, "Envision Transportation Assets as Utilities," November 2011.  (pdf)

We are approaching the beginning of construction of one of the largest transportation projects ever conceived in the US, and that includes the Transcontinental Railroad of the late-19th century. Yet, all the attention is focused on the capital investment development process of building a railroad system from the ground up.  

And, we also ask that the CHSRA consider the operation of this train, about which they know even less than the initial construction.  And, to promote their product, they project profitability from operations, and that indeed is a testimony to their ignorance about HSR operations.  All of which it to say, they think, erroneously, that they are in the railroad business and will make money at it.

All the attention in California has been paid to the "build it once and forget it" approach. The long-term future of the infrastructure receives scant attention. 

This could not be more wrong. The rail authority's charge is to be in the public transit 'business,' which is a public social service utility, just as the HTNB comments tell us. 

The CHSRA train, if ever built, will cost huge amounts of funding to operate; far more than the ticket prices would permit. (If the ticket prices were to cover the operating costs. No one, not even our now famous top 1%, would be able to afford to ride. That may be a slight exaggeration, but you get my point.)

Furthermore, what has not yet been under consideration is the life cycle of this rail utility, which requires not only maintenance and upkeep, but eventual replacement.  Where are the funds for that to come from? Should those not be an integral part of the current conversation?

For lack of such replacement investments, America's public mass transit systems are deteriorating before out eyes, they operational and maintenance costs skyrocketing, with few replacements in sight.

If we believe that Amtrak ought to be preserved, then what the DOT has being doing, investing in replacement and upgrades, is commendable. I wish we would see more of that within the urban and regional population centers, where public mass transit is critical to our economic survival.

Several people have been making the observation the CHSRA 2012 business plan, recently presented in draft form to the public, is not really a business plan at all and should not be called one. 

Clearly, unlike a real business, this high-speed rail project will be not so much a "profitable" business, as it will be a failing public utility as described here; a public service which will require a highly subsidized operating budget, like all other passenger rail transit systems in the US, and everywhere else. And obliging the public to support such massive payments for the benefit of the few riders will soon result in a vast, abandoned railroad system that should never have been built in the first place.

This is where the HNTB conjecture and analogy is wrong.  High-Speed Rail is nothing like the electric, gas, trash removal or water public utilities. All of us use those services and all of us pay for them.  HSR will certainly not be used by all of us; indeed, the users will be a very limited, wealthy cohort.  And that changes the public service utility concept completely.

Talk about "profits" are irrelevant.  There will be no stock holders other than all of California itself. There are no "investors" save for the purchasers of state municipal bond funds (and they are non-voting), which are general obligation funds (GO), not rail-specific ones.

It is indeed far more accurate to think about what would become an overpriced, underutilized public service utility for only the very affluent parts of the population. Such a utility would, of course, have continuous and major operating and replacement costs in perpetuity. Without consideration of permanent funding sufficient to maintain and replace this infrastructure complex, we have no business getting into it in the first place. 

As they say about yachts, it's not the purchase price that kills you, it's the upkeep. And therefore, the two happiest days of a yacht sailor's life are the day he buys his boat, and the day he sells it.  Keeping that in mind, the obvious path of wisdom in the case of HSR is to never buy this project in the first place, since it is the upkeep that will kill us; that is, if the construction cost doesn't kill us first. 

See also: 

High-Speed Rail. IATMS: It's About The Money, Stupid

It's an interesting article although there are a number of points and expressed opinions with which I can't concur. Although determined to show that the HSR project as currently conceived is really a bad idea, Alpern writes that the $10 billion (is that the Prop. 1A bond measure?) should be spent on other transit modes.  

Well, no, not without a serious, independently conceived multi-modal master plan for the state, in which components such as a high-speed train are contextualized within a larger transit framework. That $10 billion; it wasn't just hanging around, waiting for an interesting idea to come along.  Without HSR, we should forget about floating more bonds at a time when this state is over its head, debt-wise. 

Which is not to say that there aren't serious demands for the repair of broken and deteriorating infrastructure.  There are. And they certainly should be addressed with capital development funds from both the federal and state transportation budgets.

Totally defunded transit in the US will do no one any good.  But, please, let us be thoughtful and judicious.  And a good first step in that direction is to terminate this boondoggle before it gets started.

Mr. Alpern's suggestion for legalized gambling on the trains, and putting our excess prison population to work on the train construction chain-gang are, I surely hope, facetious.  (My thought about funding our local Caltrain commuter line was to add gambling-casino club-cars in the middle of each one. That way, passengers can get home drunk and broke.)

So, yes, Mr. Alpern, let's throw in the towel on high-speed rail.  It's good to know when to hold 'em, and when to fold 'em, as they used to say on our casino club-cars.

High-Speed Rail in a Low-Budget Era
11.28.2011 KEN ALPERN

GETTING THERE FROM HERE - Ours is an era where all of our expectations will need to be pared back, and the need to do things cheaper and more efficiently will have to take precedence over our desire to want something simply because we believe it’s a good idea.  Whether it’s education, defense, safety/security, social services or transportation, painful decisions lie ahead.
And to paraphrase Mark Twain, anyone who tells you differently is a liar, or a politician…but then again, I repeat myself.

And to paraphrase the parting address of (unfortunately) outgoing Times business columnist Tom Petruno, this current deep recession is a bit more threatening than all the other previous doom and gloom recessions because of one key element:  The Debt.

Enter the California High-Speed Rail (CAHSR) plan, initiated decades ago by the man who just got re-elected for governor.  While it’s clear his political bent and reliance on public sector labor unions pulls him to the left, it’s also clear that Governor Jerry Brown knows when to be fiscally conservative—as his past budget cuts and proposed state worker pension reforms illustrate. [Jerry was among, but by no means the most prominent of the initiating political gang in the back room.]

The argument can be made that Brown’s budget-balancing efforts are too little, too late, but he’s made some bold choices that many of his critics believed he was incapable of making, and he’s going to have to do the same for his beloved CAHSR.

The long knives are out in Washington, DC for cutting social services, defense, Medicare, education and just about everything else, so it’s not that surprising or unfair that the CAHSR is being targeted even before construction begins.  After all, now that the projected costs for CAHSR have jumped from $35 billion to $98 billion, it’s not a stretch to suggest that many Californians (including high-speed rail supporters like myself) have become disenchanted with CAHSR.

And we may have the opportunity to find out whether Californians have changed their mind on CAHSR, should current opposition lead to a proposed ballot initiative that reverses previous funding efforts.  The opposition is growing to CAHSR,
 and although the $98 billion is really “just” $65 billion in today’s dollars with inflation counted in, the cries for revisiting CAHSR are growing ever stronger.

Of course, the question of what Washington, DC is willing to spend on the Acela line from Boston to Washington (link) versus the CAHSR raises the old specter of unfair bias towards different geographies (with California always coming in last), but it should be acknowledged that the Acela line started relatively small ($5 billion) and slow…but is now being recognized as a bipartisan priority.

Similarly, the CAHSR will need to think smaller and slower, not only because of our economic and debt problems, but because CAHSR simply isn’t being successfully sold as a high priority—even to those who favor rapid transit in our state.

A very good question is whether an anti-high-speed rail ballot initiative would pass right now; I’m guessing it would, despite my support of high-speed rail.

Yet an equally good question is whether a ballot initiative to redirect the $10 billion in California voter-approved funds to critical rail corridors (even to corridors outside of the original CAHSR routing) in mega-dense regions (such as that through which the Acela traverses) would pass.  I’m guessing it would, too.

It’s hard to know what the fiscal, legal or engineering realities are for this proposed redirection of the $10 billion, but it’s easy to conclude that federal support of the CAHSR is anything but assured—it’ll pass the Senate, but the House has said “no” to the $3-4 billion that President Obama wants to spend for the CAHSR’s central Californian portion.  Meanwhile, the private sector has said it’ll show more interest if the CAHSR focuses construction first at its northern and southern portions.

The northern and southern termini are not nearly as “shovel ready” as central California is for CAHSR, but the political will to enhance higher-speed rail (if not truly “high-speed” rail of 200 or more mph) already exists with the growing Caltrain and Metrolink networks in the Bay Area and the Greater L.A. region, respectively.  

Furthermore, Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner from San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara to San Diego is Amtrak’s #2 train route nationwide with respect to ridership, and the ridership of Amtrak’s Capitol Corridor from San Jose to Sacramento ain’t too shabby, either.

I’d hate to lose the $10 billion of Californian bonds for CAHSR altogether, and if “higher speed rail” is all we can realistically do then perhaps we should follow the lead of the Acela model and recognize that the Perfect really IS the enemy of the Good.

So perhaps the right thing to do is to just have a geographically- and politically-balanced effort to reassign federal and state (and, maybe, private) funds to rail routes that are already popular in order to upgrade, speed up and increase the service and ridership of those currently-popular routes, and thereby create a better fiscal case for future rail upgrades and extensions.

But if Governor Brown and those of us who still support CAHSR of some sort really want to have any kind of high-speed rail within our lifetimes, we’ll need to really confront innovative ways to fund public works projects:

1) Make deals with various Native American tribes to allow legalized gambling on the trains for segments of rail routes that run through or near the boundaries of their tribal reservations.

2) Determine whether non-violent prison inmates can perform some of the unskilled yet necessary labor to expedite the construction and lower the labor costs of this large project.

We can always just throw in the towel on CAHSR altogether, but if we want to embark on a major public works project at a time when budgets and political will for this project are shrinking, we’ll have to do right by taxpayers and private investors alike if we’re committed to get anything done at all. 

(Ken Alpern is a former Boardmember of the Mar Vista Community Council (MVCC), previously co-chaired its Planning and Outreach Committees, and currently is Vice Chair of its MVCC Transportation/Infrastructure Committee. He is co-chair of the CD11 Transportation Advisory Committee and chairs the nonprofit Transit Coalition, and can be reached at He also co-chairs the grassroots Friends of the Green Line at The views expressed in this article are solely those of Mr. Alpern.) –cw

Vol 9 Issue 95
Pub: Nov 29, 2011 


Playing Governor Jerry Brown's high-speed rail pipe-dream while we pay for it.

About Jerry Brown. Whether he actually thinks this rail project and the way it's been put together so far is a good idea or not is really irrelevant. 

Even if he has finally learned, and does think it's a stinker, he won't oppose it; he'll defend it. And, unless I'm  mistaken, it's for one reason and one reason only;  $3.5 billion free dollars from the Federal Railroad Administration.

That's a lot of money for a desperately cash-poor state.  Even if Jerry knows that the train will never be completed, and even if what the rail authority builds is  -- let me be very blunt here -- 100 miles of useless crap, and even if it does hurt the farmers, businesses and residents of the Central Valley in the process, those billions are a lot of money for a state in such a desperate financial condition.

So let's, just for a moment, go along with Jerry on this.  How will those billions be spent?  First of all, they have to be matched by several more billions from the Prop. 1A bonds (whether they are actually sold or not).  Those will cost the state two dollars for every dollar borrowed.  

Then, companies like Parsons Brinckerhoff or T.Y.Lin have their headquarters either overseas, or certainly not in California.  And they are the ones going to reap the fat profits from this flow of dollars.  As will the many, many, many other consulting contractors on the CHSRA payroll. 600 at last count.

For this first go-around in the Central Valley, they are not going to be buying any rolling stock or all the necessary hardware and electronics essential for running a high-speed train, so we don't have to worry on that score that US dollars (that is, California dollars) are headed overseas. (Wait a minute; wasn't this supposed to be a high-speed rail project of which the voters approved?)

However, as we've been making this point previously, these dollars will hire far fewer people, and certainly far fewer Californians than the Unions now believe.   My point here is that there will be far less "bang for the buck" in this state than our Governor probably believes.

As the article by Tom Barnidge points out, the governor will have to go to the Legislature for those funds.  I have no basis for thinking that the Legislature will deny him his request and the $6 billion will be approved.

Again I have to say I have little to no hope for California legislators doing the right thing; that is, terminating this project by de-funding it.  The water has to be cut off at the source, in Washington. 

Barnidge: Can governor railroad through his $6 billion request?
By Tom Barnidge 
Contra Costa Times columnist
Posted: 11/28/2011 11:47:58 AM PST
Updated: 11/29/2011 04:59:35 AM PST

Gov. Jerry Brown said he will make an ill-advised request when the Legislature reconvenes after Christmas. OK, he didn't call it ill-advised, but a lot of people think it is.

He will ask for $6 billion ($2.7 billion in state bonds, $3.3 billion in federal grants) to begin work next fall on the first phase of a high-speed rail project that eventually will link (a) San Francisco to San Diego and (b) California to a mountain of debt.

This first stretch, connecting travel hot spots Bakersfield and Chowchilla (motto: "Great place for a women's prison"), says something about the rationale behind this undertaking.

Those destinations were not chosen because of customer demand or population density but because environmental permitting will be simpler, residential opposition should be modest and level terrain will make for easier construction. [That, by the way, turned out not to be the case. The people of the Central Valley are raising holy hell!!!]

In other words, it's the path of least resistance to get-it-while-you-can federal stimulus funding.

The $6 billion pays for only the rail system, by the way -- not the electrification, train cars or operating personnel -- just 130 miles of track. The U.S. House Budget Committee, which specializes in mismanagement, gave "the train to nowhere" its Boondoggle Award. Not coincidentally, more federal funding for high-speed rail is in jeopardy.

Like many government projects, of course, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. The governor sees this as a bold first step to address California's future growth, its need for jobs, its passion for a clean environment and rising energy costs.

State Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, agrees in principle: "The state's going to look dramatically different in 25 years. I'm a big believer that you have to change. You cannot continue to rely on single-occupancy vehicles or just aviation capacity."

But, he acknowledged, "This is a huge project. It's hard not to be concerned about the costs and the risks."

The famously frugal Brown seems oblivious to the mushrooming projections.

In 2008, when voters approved $9 billion in bonds, the California High-Speed Rail Authority estimated the project's total cost at $35.6 billion. Later, the figure was revised to $45.7 billion. Most recently -- are you sitting down? -- the estimate grew to $98.5 billion.

We told you to sit down.

This, remember, is before the first spike is driven into the ground. What's to guarantee the cost estimate won't increase again?
"Nothing," DeSaulnier conceded. "The other argument is if you don't build it, and the all the growth that's projected does happen, it's going to cost a lot more later."

That logic provides little comfort to budget pragmatists who have watched education and social services funding slashed and pension obligations spiral while the state bathes in red ink.

This hardly seems the time to assume added debt. It's like a man who can't keep up with payments on his Honda borrowing to buy a Tesla because it will save on fuel costs and help the planet. [I liked this analogy so much I highlighted it.]

DeSaulnier understands the skepticism. He admits to his own misgivings, especially regarding the project's first phase: "If I were doing it, I'd build it in the capital corridor and from San Diego to Los Angeles, to show that it works and to get ridership numbers."

If the vote were taken now, he says it would be close.

"The costs are huge," DeSaulnier said. "There's no way it doesn't give you a little lump in your breast."

When you're up to your assets in fiscal problems is a strange time to be financing a dream.

Contact Tom Barnidge at