Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Derailing politically polarized high-speed rail in Congress

While I'm not yet ready to write off the California high-speed rail project, things sure don't look good.  

If you believe that Democrats and Republicans are further apart than they have ever been, you will find confirmation for that belief in their respective attitudes about high-speed rail in general, and California's project in particular. The Democrats are defending the project at any cost, while the Republicans seek to defeat it at any cost.

And, here's the thing. It's become obvious that what's going on in California is not actually about constructing a train; many have given up on expecting that.  So, it remains a high-speed rail project in name only.  It's pretend-high-speed-rail.

What this is all about -- indeed, what it has always been all about -- is the money. Parsons Brinckerhoff, the prime contractor, received around $50 million last year and anticipates another $50 million this year.  

How do we know it's about the money? Because right now there is a mad scramble by most of the transportation organizations in both the LA Basin and the Bay Area to get their hands on some of the existing FRA award and some of the Prop. 1A bond funds. They know there won't be more and this is their last chance to grab some.

The rail authority has led us to believe that there are three regional segments of this train, the Central Valley, which is where construction is supposed to begin, the Bay Area into the Central Valley, and in southern California, from Bakersfield in the Central Valley to Los Angeles and Anaheim.  

Not that long ago, we understood that the Central Valley would receive all the federal funds and indeed, the DOT affirmed their determination for that to happen. Now, the musical chairs game is on with every local politician and transportation agency grabbing for a chair before they are all filled. 

As we said recently, there are two major fronts for this High-Speed Rail War, the federal government, wherein the Republicans are set on deep-sixing high-speed raill at the national level as well as  California in particular, and in Sacramento, where the Democrats are so desperate for those free federal Stimulus funds that they will accept any alternative route, any alignment, starting construction with any section to put some of the funds into, just so they get the funds. 

It's not a pretty picture.  So, what should our position be about all this?  My fear is that if they ever get to dig holes anywhere, they will have assured their own survival; high-speed rail will not go away in California.  They know that.  The rail authority intentions are to get as many footprints on the ground as possible, to cover as many miles of train route as they can. That is our first and highest priority target.

Mission: To expose the illegalities in the CHSRA efforts to initiate construction in the Central Valley.

The tracks in the Central Valley that they intend to build will be worthless.  They won't support high-speed rail and Amtrak passenger service doesn't need them.  The northern and southern so-called "bookends" will be no more than commuter rail upgrades, such as electrification for Caltrain. Also worthless.  It's a whole story all by itself that we will discuss in future blog entries.  These worthless efforts will cost the taxpayers of California and the rest of the United States billions and billions of dollars.  This is out of control government at its worst!

Published Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012
Obama's high-speed rail plans hit traffic in Congress
By Michael Doyle
WASHINGTON — Congress and the Obama administration are headed for another head-on collision over high-speed rail.

On Wednesday, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood reiterated President Barack Obama's strong support even as a top Republican in the House of Representatives naysayed. Neither side appears ready to steer clear this election year, particularly in differences concerning California.

"We're committed to this; there's no going back," LaHood said at a high-speed rail conference. "We need to keep the momentum going."

But congressional Republicans, even some who've backed high-speed rail in the past, are resisting with equal vehemence.
"If the president thinks his proposal is going to (fly) for high-speed rail, he's pipe-dreaming," Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told the same rail conference.

Obama has proposed spending $2.7 billion on high-speed rail in fiscal year 2013, atop more than $8 billion previously provided under a stimulus bill that passed while Democrats controlled both houses of Congress.

In part because other states, including Florida and Wisconsin, turned down federal funding, California alone has picked up some $3.6 billion for its high-speed rail plan. The state's initial plan calls for constructing a 220 mph line between Bakersfield and Merced.

Citing a recent trip to California, where he met with state farm, business and political leaders, LaHood said the state was now "well positioned" to proceed. LaHood specifically praised the work of Dan Richard, the newly appointed chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority under the administration of Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.

"He's mending a lot of fences that were broken over the past few years, and he's making progress," LaHood said.
California officials now say construction probably won't begin until at least early next year, instead of the originally scheduled start time of September.

Utterly unconvinced of the project's merits, and skeptical of a total project cost now pegged at $98 billion, congressional Republicans have taken special aim at the California proposal.

"It doesn't serve a populated area, and it's mired in controversy, delay and overruns in the cost," said Mica, who's a proponent of high-speed rail in the Northeast.

Mica is now struggling to write a new multiyear transportation bill, whose fate remains uncertain because of questions over funding and other provisions. He suggested Wednesday that another extension of the current funding program might be needed, if lawmakers fail once more to agree on money and other issues before the current transportation-bill extension ends March 31.

Underscoring the political problems facing high-speed rail, Rep. Jeff Denham, a Republican from Turlock, Calif., won GOP approval for an amendment that bans the broader transportation bill from devoting any funds to California's high-speed rail project.

In a similar vein, Rep. David Price, D-N.C., recalled that he'd offered a $1 billion amendment on another funding bill to assist high-speed rail. He lost in the powerful House Appropriations Committee, on a party-line vote. A drastically scaled-back amendment, offering $1 million merely as a placeholder, likewise failed.

"There are adverse forces out there," said Price, who's a member of the Congressional Bicameral High-Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail Caucus. "There are adverse trends."

The caucus was started last year, with only Democrats as founding members.

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