Friday, January 13, 2012

For High-Speed Rail in California, "What Next, Batman?"

Below is a key letter from Senator Dianne Feinstein to California Governor Jerry Brown. It's a key piece of information, as is the recent firing (or resignations) of a lot of people associated with the California High-Speed Rail Authority.  Rather than linger on who's in and who's out, we need to look at why in order to understand better what to expect.

Since the Peer Review Group of the rail authority provided the Coup de Grace, the finishing assessment shot that defined the failure of the CHSRA in the development of the HRS project, there has been a great deal of confusion, but only for those among us without insider information.

Nonetheless, we can conjecture events as they transpire and make some judgements about their meaning.  First of all, the Governor's new budget called for a reorganization of the rail authority by being folded within a newly created Department of Transportation, along with Caltrans.  That hasn't happened yet, so far it's only a proposal by the Governor in his budget draft. 

However, to facilitate a smooth transition, the Governor also called in the resignations of several other Board members of the rail authority and put one of his two recent appointees, Dan Richard, in charge as Chairman. Brown is changing and reigning in the Board.

That's all clear enough.  Brown is absolutely determined to pull in the approx. $4 billion from the FRA that have already been awarded (but not yet spent) to California. He will do whatever it takes to suit the political powers that have decision control over those funds, including the White House and the Democratic Congressional Caucus. It also takes the game away from the Republicans. 

Senator Feinstein is one of those Congressional powers. Not only does she support Governor Brown's CHSRA re-organization plan, as she says in her public letter, she also approves of the recommendation of the peer review panel to re-direct the promised funds from the Central Valley as the site of the start of construction, to initiating construction where most of the people (and voters) of California live and work; that is, the Bay Area and the LA Basin.

What does this mean? Instead of connecting "Bay to Basin" as initially intended, funding now will be focused on rail upgrades to improve commuter transit.  Not only is there far greater demand for improved urban and regional public mass transit services, but these secondary rail networks are essential if there ever is to be an inter-city high-speed rail line north and south. This requires federal approval, of course, and Feinstein is doubtlessly working on that.

The activities of the rail authority were, for some time, California's business. It was up to the state Democrats to manage this project politically.  As it happened, it turned into a gross embarrassment for the Democrats, not only within the state, but nationally.  That had to be fixed.  That's what's going on now.

All of this new alternative agenda would play out without Proposition 1A state bond funds, since those don't permit such alternative rail developments. Those  Prop. 1A $10 billion are strictly for high-speed rail between SF and LA.  So, the idea is to get and use the federal funds, almost $4 billion, and somehow distribute them between the Caltrain corridor (San Francisco to San Jose), and the Metrolink system from Union Station in LA to Anaheim (and Disneyland). 

If this is indeed the intended new path, lots of questions will be raised, such as how much will it take to even electrify Caltrain, much less put in additional two tracks, grade separate all the street crossings and construct viaducts where necessary.  Will even the available $2 billion or so be enough to get started?  The project changes but lack of additional funding doesn't.

To the Democrats, that's not as important as locking in the currently available funding prior to the November elections. 

There should be no doubt, after a cursory examination of all the changes we are watching, that a different direction for the high-speed rail project is under way.  One way to look at it is as if a different foundation is going to be slid under an existing structure (High-Speed Rail), so that it doesn't look different but actually will be.  We will continue to hear about "High-Speed Rail" but it will be nothing like the prior promised 220 mph, 2:40 timed trip from SF to LA, and that's what the voters approved. 

It looks like that HSR game is over, with no winners or losers. But a new one has already started and we're just beginning to find out about it. 

Stay tuned. And remember: It's not about the train; it's about the money.

Following is the text of the letter to Governor Brown:
January 9, 2012
The Honorable Edmund G. Brown, Jr.
State of California
State Capitol, Suite 1173
Sacramento, CA 95814
Dear Governor Brown:
I am writing to express my strong support for your plan to move the California High Speed Rail Authority into a Transportation Agency under your Administration’s direction.  I encourage you to act swiftly to address the high speed rail project’s problems, which I fear will put more than $3.5 billion in Federal funding at risk if not addressed. 

Deploying the expertise and resources of CalTrans towards this effort over the next six months – in direct cooperation with the California High Speed Rail Authority – could permit a rapid reassessment of the route, decisions regarding the stages of construction, and substantial progress on acquiring right of way, in order to expedite the beginning of construction by the Federal government’s Fall 2012 deadline.

The California High Speed Rail Peer Review Group’s recent report, which failed to endorse state funds for the California High Speed Rail project until further steps to reduce project risk are taken, vividly identifies the need to act quickly.  As you know, without the Legislature’s approval of this appropriation, more than $3.5 billion in Federal funding competitively awarded to California would be at risk.  Specifically, the Group called for the Authority to:
select an initial operating segment as soon as possible,

include a deployment plan for electrified high speed trains with positive train control systems,

further develop the business plan to address risk and cost issues,

involve the private sector in project design,

increase project management capacity,

subject demand forecasts to greater scrutiny, and

“reduce the risk to the state of a stranded project” by investing initial funding in the segments that currently serve significant train ridership (San Jose to San Francisco and Anaheim to Los Angeles).

I find it very hard to debunk some of the Group’s key conclusions.  But I also believe that many of the concerns could be addressed quickly with a concerted effort under your leadership. 

As I have discussed with you previously, putting this project on a steady path to success would demonstrate that California remains capable of building big projects, putting thousands of our citizens to work, and leading the nation.  I am concerned that our state’s future would be greatly hindered if this project either failed to get off the ground, or failed to be completed.  I have spoken to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood about the importance of utilizing CalTrans’ expertise, and we both agree that your leadership in this area could improve prospects for success.

As you know, I have advocated for a high speed rail link up the spine of California since 1990, and I first experienced high speed rail in Japan more than forty years ago.  More than 150 million people a year use the bullet train service between Tokyo and Osaka – demonstrating the wisdom of Japan’s investment in infrastructure made more than a generation ago.

I appreciate your efforts to assure that California’s initiative succeeds, and that the investments we make produce jobs today and economic efficiency for future generations.  I look forward to working with you.


Dianne Feinstein
United States Senator

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