Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Ken Orski's take on the current shell game taking place with California's high-speed rail

Although these comments are at the top of this blog entry, I urge you to read Ken Orski's words first. Ken writes about the transformation of the HSR agenda in California.  Instead of only building the first section of the rail corridor in the Central Valley, and thereby using up $2.7 billion of Prop. 1A to be used as a match with the FRA's award of $3.3 billion, the new approach will be to work on the "book-ends" by using the "blended" alignment.

What does this new jargon mean?  The "book-ends" refers to the section from Merced in the northern Central Valley to San Francisco, and from Bakersfield in the southern Central Valley to Los Angeles. 

Those two end sections were supposed to wait for their construction until the Central Valley sections were built; what the jargon-happy rail authority calls the "Initial Construction Section." (ICS)  This ICS is a prelude (but only with more funding) to the IOS; that is the "Initial Operating Segment." All these terms serve as lubricant for the rail authority to wiggle out of obeying the governing laws.

The "blended" alignment means that instead of expanding existing rail corridors and building elevated viaducts with four tracks on them, the HSR would begin by sharing existing tracks with upgraded local and regional commuter trains, thereby "blending" in with them. Get it?

The Governor argued that this would save tons of money and it would also make all of us complainers happy since it would not expand or build out those rail corridors. 

(As it happens, the Governor doesn't have a clue to where the $100 billion or more will come from.  So, he says, well, we don't need them anyhow.  We can do this on the cheap.)

And, another benefit is that more voters get to see their tax dollars at work with some of this HSR money spent in their respective neighborhoods. 

So, here's an explanation of this now-you-see-it-now-you-don't game that is being played. Unless a dramatic turn around happens in Washington this coming November, it is highly unlikely that there will be more federal funding for high-speed rail in California. 

That means, "what they got is all there is." That is to say, they have an award of $3.3 billion, and they had intended to dip into the bond funds for another $2.7 billion.  But now, there's an attempt to grab more of the Prop. 1A dollars, somehow.

And, if that's all there is, a lot of the regional/local transportation agencies don't want to be left empty-handed.  They want their piece of what HSR action there is going to be.  Why should all those dollars go to the Central Valley where many fewer people live and work?  Why not get a bunch of that money for the two population centers?  Let's spread that political pork around! 

This new game of musical chairs is fraught with problems, many of them legal. HSR in California came into being and was authorized by the legislature and the people with AB3034, and Proposition 1A. These stipulate that no funds can be used for HSR unless matched by funds from other sources, such as federal, private or local.  The rail authority has been flirting with illegal readings of these legislative constraints for some time. 

Some of us in the Central Valley and on the Peninsula are contemplating lawsuits about all this.  Not trusting my government, and expecting them to do their self-serving rail project advancements for the sake of further funding, I'm anticipating the worst. I am not optimistic that reason and rationality will prevail.  The deck is stacked and the cards are marked. Welcome to Las Vegas.

While I am an advocate of upgrading urban and regional public mass transit, that's not what this is about.  These are all back-door ploys to get HSR's foot in the door where it doesn't belong.  

What all these efforts are about:

What's taking place now on the Peninsula and the Caltrain corridor with this "blended" business and the seeking of further funding from Prop.1A, is the calculation assuring HSR's place on the corridor, beginning with a two-track, interim solution. "Blended" is the solution to HSR's problem of not having the funding necessary to build their dream four-track elevated viaduct.  That will come later, when they have the funds.

It should not be misunderstood that when Senator Simitian, Congresswoman Eshoo and Assemblyman Gordon promote their vision of the "blended" two track at-grade alternative, even if they think it will be permanent, they are also at the same time advocating the presence of high-speed rail on the Caltrain corridor, if only on their terms. That's a short term political solution for them. It gets them off the hook from all us complainers, they believe.

The way HSR sees this is that by putting on this 'coat and tie', they will be admitted to the Caltrain Club so long as they behave themselves. However, once ensconced on the Caltrain corridor, they will never have to leave. And when they receive future funding, they will convert the corridor to four tracks elevated on a viaduct. And you know who will love that?  Caltrain!

What we fail to understand is that Job One for the CHSRA is not to build the train (since they don't have the funds anyhow). It's to assure their permanence in California with boots on the ground; that is, occupancy.  They are setting out to occupy as much of their intended route as possible as soon as possible, including the Caltrain corridor, as many miles of the Central Valley as they can, and the corridor sharing with Metrolink in LA. 

The rail authority's worst fear right now is not future funding. It is losing whatever momentum they have gained with the $3.3 billion from the FRA.

Right now, their job is not to succeed; that's impossible anyhow. Their job is to hang on, and not to fail, and therefore never, ever go away.
Vol. 23, No. 10 www.innobriefs.com

March 6, 2012

California's Bullet Train  --- A Fresh Start and a Change in Direction

A new strategy is beginning to emerge toward California's embattled high-speed rail venture. The strategy is designed to rescue the project from a possible defeat at the hands of the state legislature, gain friends and supporters among local transportation agencies, win converts among independent analysts and turn around a largely skeptical public.

The plan combines the existing commitment to proceed with construction of the first rail segment in the Central Valley with near-term actions aimed at upgrading rail facilities at both ends of the proposed LA-to-SF high-speed line. Specifically, the so-called "bookend" strategy will involve "blending" high-speed rail service with commuter rail service in existing Bay Area and Southern California rail corridors.

At the northern end of the line, between San Francisco and San Jose, bullet trains would share track with Caltrain commuter trains. Both would benefit from new investments in electrification, signaling systems, bridge replacements, passing tracks and grade crossings elimination. Similar type of improvements would be introduced at the Los Angeles/Orange County/San Diego ends of the line, benefiting LA's Metrolink and other Southern California commuter rail and transit systems.

Improving the urban "bookends" of the system will make it possible to increase the speed of local commuter trains and thus bring immediate benefits to large segments of California's urban population. It will be a good investment whether or not the overall $98 billion high-speed rail project ever goes forward, said Will Kempton, chief executive of the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) and Chairman of the independent Peer Review Group advising the High Speed Rail Authority.

The investments will be funded with a portion of Proposition 1A funds, supplemented by matching funds from local government agencies. Up to $2.3 billion in bond money and its $950 million "interconnectivity" fund would be committed to these near term improvements according to well-informed sources. This would provide approximately $1.4 billion for Southern California and $900 million for the Bay Area, assuming a 60/40 split. Another $2.7 billion has been already set aside for the 130-mile Central Valley segment, leaving roughly $4 billion of Proposition 1A money for future HSR construction.

The new strategy has evolved from discussions held by the High Speed Rail Authority's new chairman, Dan Richard with the Governor and his fellow board members. In a conversation we had with Chairman Richard several weeks ago, he was frank to admit that significant changes must be made in the Authority's way of doing business if the bullet train project is to retain the support of the state legislature, overcome the skepticism of independent critics and turn around public opinion. The Authority must find ways, in the Governor's words, to do things "better, faster and cheaper."

While supportive of the Governor's vision, Richard saw a need to show signs of near-term progress and not have to wait until 2033 to demonstrate the benefits of the investment. The dollars spent on the "bookends" could have "an immediate and dramatic effect," he told us.

Turning to the Central Valley project, Richard freely admitted the ham-handed way in which the Authority dealt with the affected property owners and local governments. He made plain his resolve to restore trust and rebuild the agency‚' credibility with the Valley constituencies. We also were struck by his refreshing willingness to reach out to the program's critics, in contrast to the Authority's often arrogant and dismissive posture of the past.

Richard's new strategy is beginning to bear fruit. Six Southern California planning and transportation agencies, including the Southern California Regional Rail Authority (Metrolink) voted as a group on March 1 to support the development of high-speed rail "while providing funding for local early investment projects in Southern California that will improve rail service immediately." The Authority hopes to stimulate similar expressions of support in Northern California by working closely with the Bay Area's Caltrain and the San Francisco County Transportation Agency. The Peer Review Group, which has long supported the "bookends" approach, can be expected to provide an additional boost to Richard's strategy.

As for the initial Central Valley segment, its construction, initially planned to begin in September, has been pushed back. The slowdown is due to the need to revisit the environmental report whose initial version has run into a storm of objections concerning the proposed route. The revised draft report will be subject to another round of public hearings before the route through the valley is finalized. Assuming the state legislature authorizes the bond funding, construction in the Central Valley is now expected to begin in early 2013, although court challenges may cause further delays. Critics are expected to continue questioning the value of that investment, fueling continued controversy and increasing the project's vulnerability.

A New Perception

Regardless of what ultimately becomes of the Central Valley project, the new urban "bookends" strategy is bound to profoundly modify the public perception of the bullet train venture. While the Governor and Chairman Richard maintain that the ultimate year 2033 goal of a 2 hour 40 minute train trip from LA to San Francisco has not changed, the practical effect of the new strategy will be to shift the focus from achieving that distant vision to effecting concrete near-term improvements˜ investments designed to benefit millions of present-day commuters in California's two largest metropolitan rail corridors.

Given California's budget deficit, given the uncertainty of further federal support for high-speed rail in general and for California's HSR project in particular (see below), and given a lack of any evidence of private investor interest, the"bookend" program of investments may indeed end up as the key accomplishment of the Proposition 1A initiative. While bullet train visionaries will regret this shift in the focus, pragmatists will welcome it as a prudent and realistic response to the growing skepticism. From an economist standpoint, the bookend strategy will be viewed as the best use of scarce financial resources. The public will see it as a victory for common sense: a decision that wisely  places greater value on satisfying present-day needs than on the promise of distant-in-time benefits.

Could Washington come to the rescue?

Meanwhile, in Washington, the Administration continues pursuing its fantasy-land rhetoric. "We envision an America in which 80 percent of people have access to high-speed rail," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood reiterated in a recent blog. "We‚re committed to this program... there's no going back... we will keep the momentum going" he stated at a February 29 high-speed rail conference sponsored by the U.S. High Speed Rail Association.

Except that this momentum, if there ever was one, has long since vanished. No funds for high-speed rail have been provided two years in a row, including the current (FY 2012) year. Nor are any HSR funds likely to be appropriated  in the next year's budget. Congressional reaction to the Administration's $2.5 billion HSR request in its FY 2013 budget submission has ranged from cool to dismissive. The President's high-speed rail program is "a vision disconnected from reality" members of the Senate Budget Committee told Sec. LaHood at a recent hearing on the Administration's transportation budget.

Rep. John Mica (R-FL), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee was even more blunt. "If the president thinks his proposal for high-speed rail is going to fly, he's pipe-dreaming," he told participants at the February 29 rail conference. In short, all signs point to continued congressional unwillingness to support a federal high-speed rail program. This sentiment seems to cross party lines: neither the Republican-controlled House nor the Democratic-led Senate have included HSR funds in their re-authorization bills. Rep. Jeff Denham's (R-CA) bill would specifically prohibit new federal funds from going to California's bullet train project during the entire life of the bill.

For California, the implications are grave. Without further federal funds, the State of California will be obliged to seek a fresh infusion of public and private funds by 2014 if it is to continue pursuing its $98 billion bullet train vision. Will a new bond initiative or a public-private partnership succeed? Time alone will tell.

Kenneth Orski, Editor/Publisher


Note: the NewsBriefs can also be accessed at www.infrastructureUSA.org ;   They are occasionally posted  on www.newgeography.com; www.cascadiaprospectus.org;  heartland.org; and the National Journal Transportation Experts Blog (http://transportation.nationaljournal.com).  A listing of all recent NewsBriefs can be found at www.innobriefs.com

Please feel free to forward or reprint this item with appropriate citation. All correspondence, including requests to unsubscribe, should be addressed to: C. Kenneth Orski, Editor/Publisher, email: korski@verizon.net. tel: 301.299.1996;  fax: 301.299.4425. Please make sure that your email account is set up to accept incoming mail from korski@verizon.net 

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