Monday, December 12, 2011

Tracy Wood's discussion of the Orange County letter to the California High-Speed Rail Authority

Tracy Wood continues to be one of the best critical analysts of the high-speed rail project.  And, Orange County, in Southern California, where Tracy sits at her computer, has been no friend of high-speed rail either.

Therefore, I'm puzzled at the proposed agenda or, letter, the Orange County Transportation Authority intends to send to the CHSRA.  It sounds like that they are not basically opposed to such a project. It's just that they want this one cleaned up; that is, to fix all the confused and conflicted financial issues and problems besetting this project.  My quick response is, they can't.  It's a structural problem, not a decision choice. There can be no If. . . . Then. 

The letter states that the  "project has the potential to provide significant improvements to California's transportation infrastructure."  That would have to be explained in great detail; this has been endlessly claimed but has been not been demonstrated and remains nothing more than marketing exhortation. HSR is putting the cart before the horse; the solution before an understanding of the problem. 

The problem is that there has been no overarching analysis of the current transportation picture in California.  We don't know what the needs are and what they will be.  Perhaps high-speed rail has no place in any future plans, but we don't know that.  And to begin with the highly questionable premise that HSR is going to be an integral part of any future California transportation system begs so many questions that it's hard to know where to begin.  

Independent strategic planning can't come from HSR promoters such as Siemens, or Parsons Brinckerhoff, or the CHSRA which exists for the sole purpose of building this train, needed or not. 

Tracy's article points out that,  "The draft added that the high-speed rail's funding plan puts it in direct competition with local rail agencies, including OCTA, for "scarce" federal rail and other transportation money."  Of course it does.  It puts HSR in competition for all sorts of funding, not only for other passenger rail upgrades, but all other transit alternatives and other infrastructure domains in the state begging for restoration, repair, and upgrades as well.

And that musical chairs of funds, where HSR gets all the chairs, touches on the prior larger problem of a lack of a major analysis, an overarching policy and a development of strategies. Both the state and the Administration decided to "Fire-ready-aim", in that order. I can't emphasize this enough. HSR is being dumped on California with out any consideration of context. There is no situational awareness.

The letter also states that "the funding plan is largely speculative and lacks any firm commitment of funding beyond the initial construction section." 

Therefore, I would ask, why start it at all?  

Look, this project in California began as a concept.  The rail authority has said this many times.  Now that they have over three years of detailed planning under their belt, and are confronting a whole, new political landscape, the facts and the details at the project level conflict with the initial vision, so, it's time for a fundamental re-assessment.  

While we do not believe this is a desirable project even if all the dollars were already in the bank, at least the project should be put on hold, suspended.  That will be the time for a great deal more "soul searching" of whether we actually need or want such a train and, more importantly, prioritizing this project along with a long list of other needs and demands that are not being addressed, or are being ruthlessly slashed for lack of funding. HSR has become the worthless bully in the room, pushing more important, but less assertive priorities out of the way.

It certainly is time to re-visit the voters, who, we believe, were bamboozled in 2008, but are far more aware of the harsh realities and circumstances surrounding the project today. 

OCTA: No State Money Until Fixes Made to High-Speed Rail Plan
Posted: Monday, December 12, 2011 12:00 am

The Orange County Transportation Authority is set Monday to urge leaders of California's proposed $98-billion high-speed rail project to slow down and fix the project's financing problems before tapping into billions in state taxpayers dollars.

A draft letter scheduled for a vote by the OCTA's 17-member board states it has "grave concern over what appears to be missing elements and unrealistic components of the [newest business] plan."

"We urge the CHSRA [California High-Speed Rail Authority] to address the serious concerns regarding the Plan raised by the Legislative Analyst's Office prior to submission of this plan to the Legislature."

The Analyst's Office is a nonpartisan advisor to the Legislature. Last month it issued a report that concluded the Anaheim-to-San Francisco high-speed rail project isn't ready to ask the Legislature to approve spending $3 billion to lay the first 130 miles of track.

The Analyst's report is the latest in a series of reports that have criticized the management and finances of the bullet-style train system. It led at least six of the OCTA board members last month to call for the full board to consider a no-confidence vote.

The High-Speed Rail Authority is trying to move ahead despite criticisms and concerted efforts in both California and Washington D.C. to kill the program. In addition, the nonpartisan Field Poll reported earlier this month that a majority of California voters no longer support the rail project and want a chance to vote on it again.

State rail officials have said they believe they are in compliance with state laws.

They're taking public comment on the disputed draft business plan through December 31 and are supposed to present a final version to the Legislature in January.

After that, it's up to members of the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown to decide whether to grant the initial construction money.

A lawsuit filed by the Kings County Board of Supervisors seeks to stop state officials from delivering the money until the rail authority has binding funding commitments from federal authorities and private investors.

Proposition 1A, which California voters approved in 2008, authorized about $9 billion for the project. The measure set stringent requirements for leaders to meet to ensure the project doesn't become a financial burden to taxpayers.

According to the legislative analyst's report, the rail project's funding plan doesn't meet the requirements of Proposition 1A at this point because, among other things, the segment it plans to start building in the Central Valley is too short to be used for high-speed trains. The law requires the project to identify all funding to complete a useable section, the report states.

The project has identified the $6 billion to build the short stretch of track but can't say where it will get the total of $30 billion to build enough of a system to run high-speed trains. The $6 billion would come from state Proposition 1A and federal stimulus funds.

The High-Speed Rail Authority won't have environmental impact studies completed by the planned start of construction in September 2012, another requirement of state law, according to the analyst.

Those studies are important because of issues like earthquake safety and the impact on communities and agriculture along the planned route.

The draft letter by OCTA states the "project has the potential to provide significant improvements to California's transportation infrastructure, but must be done with prudent planning and judicious use of public funds."

It urged the High-Speed Rail Authority to abandon its plan to begin construction in the Central Valley and instead use a "bookend" approach, starting in the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas and moving toward the Valley.

That approach would ensure more riders would immediately begin using the trains, the draft letter said. It also commended state high-speed rail officials for switching to a "blended" approach, which initially integrates the system with existing commuter lines in the large urban areas of Northern and Southern California, including the Anaheim-to-Los Angeles corridor.

The draft noted that "the funding plan is largely speculative and lacks any firm commitment of funding beyond the initial construction section."

The draft added that the high-speed rail's funding plan puts it in direct competition with local rail agencies, including OCTA, for "scarce" federal rail and other transportation money.

In related issues, Will Kempton, chief executive officer of the Orange County Transportation Authority, also is chairman of the outside Peer Review Committee, which must report to the Legislature this month on its opinion of the project's funding plan.

And in Washington D.C., the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is scheduled to hold a special hearing Thursday devoted solely to the California high-speed rail project. House Republicans have opposed additional financing for high-speed rail.

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