Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The State of the High-Speed Rail Nation and State

Here's a quick summary of where we are.

Federal.  Both Houses, Senate and House of Representatives, have their versions of a Transportation budget re-authorization bill.  The House wants five years' worth, and the Senate wants two years' until a new re-authorization will become necessary. They are miles apart.

The Republicans in the House not only want fewer dollars spent, such as on public transit, a national trust fund, Amtrak, etc. but they are also tacking on amendments having little to do with building highways, runways or railways. They want to add oil drilling and the Keystone Pipeline to this bill as an ostensible source of revenue. I'm just wondering if those are bargaining chips.

Anyhow, it's not going to happen. The Democratic Senate won't have it. But, like the House version, the Senate bill also has its own internecine conflict over this bill. 

There is considerable confusion within each House.  Then, there is a March 31st deadline, and if not renewed, the Highway Trust Fund (gasoline taxes) will run out of money.  You do know that we are driving less and consuming far less gasoline than we used to. Raising fuel costs (due to Iranian oil embargo) will accelerate that consumption decline. 

Gas tax rates have not gone up for twenty years or so and the revenue returns are diminishing. Those are the primary fuel for the transportation budget funds. Republicans want to spend no more than the revenues they are sure of. The Democrats want to exceed those in this budget. 

We will be hearing much more noise about all of this, and my guess is that all we will have before the elections is time limited renewals of the current transportation budget. 

The budget is the underlying reality behind all the conflicting political rhetoric and hyperbole. LaHood is running around the country letting us know that high-speed rail will prevent the sky from falling.  No matter what it will cost, he suggests, it will be worth it. 

Which is to say, HSR remains an "unfunded mandate" of the Obama Administration, and its promises remain vague and exhortative. It appears as if they don't have a clue to what they are talking about. 

The Republicans in the House have been more quietly determined to cut off any further HSR funding whatsoever, with, maybe, possibly, Northeast Corridor funding for Amtrak's HSR dream.

State (California, that is). The press reveals, almost daily, more shenanigans by the rail authority, especially it's spokesman and Chairman, Dan Richard.  The former CEO who resigned (or was fired) is back. Does any of this seem indecisive to you?  Me too. Richard keeps saying preposterous things which would be hilarious if they weren't so threatening and dangerous. 

Most recently, Mr. Richard suggested that the rail authority would generate revenue with real estate ventures, "naming rights" and other questionable deals that don't pass the smell test. (Personally, I'm proposing a Casino Club Car attached to each train. High-Speed Rail is such a Gamble. Why not profit from it?)

Legislature Republicans, especially Senator LaMalfa and Assemblywoman Dianne Harkey, are adamant about bringing the sustaining power of Proposition 1A to termination by way of the Legislature and a ballot referendum.  

Also, a privately sponsored ballot proposition is making the rounds of the state for signatures seeking to put this proposition on the ballot again in order for the California voters to vote it down this time.

There is a widespread assumption, based on the recent Field Poll, that a majority of Californians now oppose this project.  Besides this poll, I see no evidence of that, no matter how much I want to believe it. 

And, here's the latest wrinkle. As you know, we have been saying almost forever, that this project is really not about building a train, it's about the money. It is obvious to everyone by now that there will never be sufficient funds from anywhere to build this train to completion and operation. 

Right now, the rail authority actually controls no more than $6 billion, and that's expressly for the purpose of starting construction in the Central Valley as required by the FRA in Washington, and they decide whether California remains eligible for the promised funds. Why would the feds. turn around and permit their funds to get spread around when it isn't for "high-speed rail?"

Everyone ridicules this Central Valley effort as the building of "a train to nowhere."  Furthermore, in his efforts to retain access to those $6 billion, the Governor, Jerry Brown, argues that it will cost far less than the rail authority itself projects, and that much money can be saved by using existing rail corridors already serviced by commuter trains such as Caltrain and Metrolink.

Governor Brown apparently opposes putting all the available dollars into the Central Valley and supports the recent noises and negotiations about spending large sums in the Bay Area as well as the LA Basin, the so-called "bookends." 

A lot of this new talk intimates an actual abandonment of the high-speed rail project (without admitting that, of course) with concerns about building something useful if there aren't further funds available.
Everyone has their own version of "independent utility" as stated in the authorizing legislation. 

That opens the door to seeking to spread those $6 billion around the state, such as enhancement of the commuter trains, as well as seeking additional funding from Prop. 1A, even if dollars cannot be matched.  That, of course, would be illegal.  But, what the hell.  No harm in trying, right Senator Feinstein?

None of this is what the voters voted for. I'm waiting for the howls of protest from all those 
HSR-supporting voters.

All the Democrats have jumped into this game, seeking a piece of what they know is for sure; those $6 billion.  The players include the State's two senators, and many legislators on both sides of the aisle, local and regional. 

To remind you, the biggest weapon in any politician's armamentarium is bringing funding into the state or district from outside, federal preferred.  And that's the game that's being played before our very eyes. For the Republicans, they wish to be known by their constituents as tax-dollar savers and deficit reducers. And in this case, boondoggle eliminators.  

As you might imagine, there are many articles and YouTube videoed speeches to back all this up.  

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