Saturday, January 14, 2012

For High-Speed Rail in California, new survey suggests "The End Is Near"?

Those readers of this blog not from California may wonder what all the fuss is about.  The answer is that what happens about high-speed rail in California will be a major determiner about what happens with high-speed rail in the rest of the country and for a long time into the future.

One way that the Department of Transportation and the FRA have covered themselves about all this is to focus on California as having the only true high-speed rail (220 mph) project. All the other projects being funded by the DOT are Amtrak upgrades around the US.  They are being labelled 'high-speed rail' only in order to qualify for these pork give-aways. The DOT's definition of high-speed rail includes 110 mph speeds.  That's how fast the old steam locomotives used to pull the fanciest passenger trains during passenger railroad's golden years.

The Administration continues to clutch to HSR in the US as a viable political program; mass transit, energy efficient, jobs created, economy benefitted. Those claims have been shot full of holes by now.

Here's a state-of-the-current-situation article, below.  And here's our current understanding of that situation.

We are watching a major shake-up; an effort to salvage the project, presumably in the name of the state maintaining its eligibility for the FRA ARRA funding. We're talking almost $4 billion here.

If you can accept the fundamental premise that this project is not primarily about building a railroad system (good or bad), but about using the disguise of a massive infrastructure project with a glamorous and seductive appearance to generate a cash flow for a state that is severely cash-poor -- then all these events fall into place. 

Two forces are wishing to apply triage to save a dying patient, the Governor and the DOT still aiming at the Central Valley launching, and others in the Congress (like Pelosi and Feinstein) seeking to re-direct the funds toward the Bay Area and the LA Basin and away from the Central Valley. If A. doesn't work any longer, perhaps B. will. 

The ruthlessness toward local concerns continues, not only on the part of the new power-drivers, such as Dan Richard and his take-over of the rail authority, but on the part of the Governor who is orchestrating all these changes in order not to lose the funding, even as the project becomes more hopeless each day.

These guys are all indifferent to the deleterious impact of the project on the locales through which the  rail-line is intended to pass; financial impacts, business impacts, and quality of life impacts. They are indifferent to the facts of the case, facts that have been made an integral part of the critical descriptions of this project that now permeate the press. They are confident that the vocal/noisy opposition remains a minority at election time, and that the project will survive all these challenges. 

One has to wonder what actual impact all these recent surveys have on the Legislature's and the Governor's thinking. The vocal minority has become a voter majority.  Don't they care?

The supportive political forces continue to spout the Jobs/Economy mantra as justification. These, I believe, are more election campaign driven, especially at this time, than having anything to do with transit.

It has become ever more clear that the exact routes, construction starts, alignments, etc. of the proposed project are nothing more than arbitrary political decisions that seek to preserve funding eligibility and rewards locally.  Whether its the Grapevine or Palmdale route is not a matter of efficacy or cost/benefits for the rail authority; it's a matter of politics.  Tolmach's far more cost effective alternative routing along I-5 is, of course, ignored. Such routing improvements defeat the purpose of the project, to seek and spend more dollars, not less.

Apparently, there were struggles between prime contractor Parsons Brinckerhoff and Van Ark, which PB won.  That, in itself, is remarkable. One can only conclude that Van Ark was thrown under the bus. 

Parsons Brinckerhoff has been extremely well connected politically in California for a very long time.  It shows. There are, doubtlessly, other such power struggles raging behind the scenes.  The chaos that must have been churning over the past year or so, has now come to the surface. Think volcano.  Jerry Brown wishes to cap it and keep it from eruption.  It may be too late for that.

The rail authority's PR efforts, now subject to endless ridicule, were a pathetic attempt to put a professional face on what continues to be an amateur food fight in the background.

There is now a fundamental direction change in the offing. Same label; different project.  It's the lead actor changing costumes for the second act. It was raised in previous iterations by Nancy Pelosi and numerous local Democratic electeds, seeking to peel off some of the HSR federal funding for electrifying Caltrain as a first step toward bringing HSR to the Caltrain corridor.  We now hear more about that with the proposal that the Central Valley may be abandoned as the contract start venue and the funds re-directed to the expansion of northern and southern regional rail capacity.

Feinstein's letter reflects the efforts of the senior California Democratic caucus at work, preserving the funding commitment from the FRA, but directing the hopefully salvaged federal funds closer to the two population regions with greatest Democratic voter densities.

While we continue to watch for each and every date that marks the release of a new document, a new appraisal, and a decision-point, and even the ambiguous construction start date, the only date that matters for this political/money project is the next election.  The survival of HSR in the US depends on the outcome.  While California may indeed maintain its eligibility to receive the $4 billion from the FRA, the election will determine if this California project has any future whatsoever, or if the state is the beneficiary of no more than a wasted and harmful $6 billion taxpayer dollars.

We can only hope that our fellow optimists are right and that "The End is Near."

CA poll: High-speed rail should be … derailed
posted at 12:00 pm on January 14, 2012 by Ed Morrissey

Governor Jerry Brown has insisted that he will go forward on the plan to sell billions of dollars of bonds to start the high-speed rail project that would eventually join San Francisco and Los Angeles, despite the fact that the estimated costs have tripled to $100 billion since voters first approved the project in 2008 — and that’s before ground even gets broken.  Californians will try to put a referendum on the ballot blocking the sale of bonds in the already debt-strapped Golden State.  How would such a measure fare?  According to a new Survey USA poll, it would derail Brown’s folly.

In a survey of 500 adults taken on Thursday, 53% say they want the sale of bonds stopped, and 51% believe the project will never be built at all.  Only 33% want it to move ahead, a very low figure especially for California, and especially for the sampling type of this survey.  General-population surveys, as opposed to registered or likely voter polls, tend to produce outcomes more favorable to liberal policies.

Of course, it’s hard to determine by the internal demos just what would be the liberal position if one goes just by the party affiliation demos.  It comes as no surprise that Republicans want the bond sales stopped by a margin of 71/19, but a plurality of Democrats also want a halt to the project, 46/41, as well as a plurality of independents at 48/39.  In fact, the only demographic that still wants the bond sales to take place is self-described liberals, 33/62.  Moderates are opposed 2-1 to the bond sales, 54/27.

Regionally, it’s a clean sweep.  Two of the three areas most impacted by the project, Central California and Greater LA, have solid majorities in opposition to bond sales (52/37 and 58/31, respectively).  The Bay Area’s respondents are in a statistical dead head, with opposition having a one-point edge, 43/42.  Every age demo has a majority opposed to the bond sales, and every ethnic demo has a majority or plurality opposed to it.

It probably doesn’t help that the route changed yet again this week to make the proposed route even longer and more circuitous (via Andrew Malcolm):

    Planners of California’s high-speed rail project want to discard a more direct route from Los Angeles to Bakersfield over the Grapevine and continue development of a sweeping dogleg through Palmdale and Lancaster.

    Though the option was ruled out in 2005, the Interstate 5-Grapevine corridor was revived for further study last May after state officials and some transportation experts thought it would save billions in construction costs and up to 12 minutes of travel time between Los Angeles and the train’s ultimate destination: the Bay Area.

    But a new study by the California High Speed Rail Authority now indicates that the longer, more tunnel-heavy route that turns east from the Central Valley through the Tehachapi Mountains to the Antelope Valley is the better option.

    Though the Grapevine route would be slightly less expensive, researchers said the $15-billion-plus Palmdale alignment would serve one of the fastest-growing areas in Los Angeles County, have fewer environmental effects and allow planners more flexibility in route selection through the mountains.

Yes, I’m just certain that the best way to fix a public works high-speed rail project that has ballooned in costs is to make decisions that add to the cost and make it less direct.  Here’s a better, less expensive way to serve one of the “fastest-growing areas in Los Angeles County”: build an airport.  Let’s say it would cost a billion dollars for a decent regional airport.  That would be 1/100th the cost of the high-speed rail system proposed (at least in the current estimate) and it would allow more than one operator to compete for the demand to take passengers from the Antelope Valley to San Francisco … and San Diego, and Sacramento, and Phoenix, and Lake Tahoe, and Las Vegas, and any number of other destinations.  Since airplanes don’t have to rely on fixed rail, especially a fixed rail that runs along the same course as one of the most potentially powerful faults in the continent, one facility can serve many destinations, just as LAX, Burbank, Ontario, Long Beach, San Francisco, San Jose, and San Luis Obispo do now.

Heck, even Bakersfield and Fresno — the two areas that the high-speed rail will connect first, more or less — have airports that serviced 111,000 and 570,000 commercial service boardings in 2008, respectively.  I guarantee that the number of people who want to move just between those two destinations on a train will be a fraction of a fraction of those amounts.

Californians have finally figured out that the $100 billion high-speed rail project is nothing but a public-works sinkhole that will financially cripple the state for no good reason other than to allow a few politicians a great photo op in front of the choo-choo.  If Brown persists in pushing the bond sales, perhaps Californians will finally start considering different options for their elected representatives than the fools who have pushed them well past the brink of fiscal disaster, and who now want to bury them in debt forever.

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