Friday, March 23, 2012

Three Easy Pieces on the High-Speed Rail Scam

Three articles today, about something that should be no more than a distraction, Caltrain electrification. It looks like it's going to happen, and it's a very bad idea.

Here are the three articles:

Caltrain's hopes ride on new rail agreement 
California High-Speed Rail Authority, MTC, consider contract that would fund electrification of Caltrain
by Gennady Sheyner 
Thursday, March 22, 2012, 4:31 PM   

Friday, Mar. 23, 2012
Dan Walters: Lawmakers ready to green-light California high-speed rail

Caltrain upgrades a step toward high-speed rail
Michael Cabanatuan
Thursday, March 22, 2012

Why is this a problem and why should we care about it?  The high-speed rail project has been so roundly dissected and all its flaws exposed to the light of day, that it should be on the verge of termination.  Furthermore, further federal funding appears more and more unlikely for the foreseeable future. It makes sense to simply stop the project since there will never be available the several hundred billion dollars necessary for its construction.

That has produced a money-grabbing scramble in the Bay Area, where the proprietor of the 55 mile Caltrain commuter corridor has been seeking upgrades to its rolling stock and rail right-of-way infrastructure. Simultaneously, the California High Speed Rail Authority has lusted after access to that corridor since it would be an easy (lower cost) conclusion to their north-south rail line terminating in San Francisco. 

No groundbreaking construction necessary; a ready made rail corridor, waiting for some upgrades. Those upgrades, electrification, total grade separation and four tracks instead of two, is exactly what Caltrain, the local commuter service has wanted for decades.  And now, HSR, with its supposedly bottomless federal funding, is going to pay for all this capital development. Such a deal!

As it happens, that bottomless federal funding is not to be. What's left is $6 billion or so of already awarded federal funds and matching funds from the state's bond issue for HSR purposes. Therefore, now the scramble described in the three articles, which complement one another.  What Caltrain wants out of that much reduced pot of money is funding for electrification and brand new electric trains to replace their old Diesel clunkers.

While that, at first blush, doesn't seem like such a bad idea, it really is.  First of all, it guarantees HSR's presence on the corridor although that had until now, not been at all assured.  Indeed, some of us have fought this attempt to expand the rail corridor for about ten years.  

What that means is that, with HSR sharing the corridor with Caltrain, and having provided electrification in order to share those two tracks -- they call that the "blended system" -- HSR will be planted there forever.  And, if and when they manage to pry more federal funds from Washington, they will then proceed with their plans to build out the corridor, the least expensive way of doing that being an elevated four-track corridor for both Caltrain and high-speed rail.

And that's a disaster for each and every town along that route. So, electrification isn't really merely a hardware benefit for Caltrain, which, by the way, has tons of other mismanagement problems, its getting the HSR foot in the Caltrain door.  And once there, won't ever be removed. Where, up to now, the various towns along the way had a voice in all this, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission has stuck its nose into this process and usurped the clout these towns had painfully acquired.

It's a sneaky process that is taking place right now, with local transportation organizations getting their sticky fingers in this money pie. The individual towns are being pushed to the side-lines in these decision processes.  

It should also be pointed out that electrification solves nothing.  It won't change Caltrain's productivity, despite their claims to the contrary. Caltrains' annual structural deficits are not hardware problems.  It won't enable high-speed rail on the Caltrain corridor because that takes lots of extra funding for passing rails, signalling and PTC. And the projected total cost of $1.5 billion will quickly vaporize as new cost forecasts emerge, especially once construction begins.

Until and unless there are HSR tracks south of San Jose, there can be no HSR on the Caltrain corridor since it has nowhere to go, except to duplicate the Caltrain commuter route for those 55 miles. And, it doesn't look like there will be funding for those track extensions to the Central Valley.

We've made this point numerous times before.  Electrification of Caltrain is the Trojan Horse whereby HSR will get its foothold on this rail corridor.  I strongly suspect that if there were no HSR, Caltrain electrification, though irrelevant to their increased productivity, would not meet with much objection. 

But, under the circumstances, this is the leverage that HSR has been seeking to overcome all the obstacles to gaining a foothold for itself. Therefore, this is a scam, and we are its victims.

Thursday, March 22, 2012, 4:31 PM   
Caltrain's hopes ride on new rail agreement 
California High-Speed Rail Authority, MTC, consider contract that would fund electrification of Caltrain
by Gennady Sheyner 
Palo Alto Weekly Staff

Caltrain long-deferred dream of electrified tracks could finally become reality under a proposal between the California High-Speed Rail Authority, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) and several Bay Area transportation groups.

The agreement, which the MTC publicized this week and which the various parties are scheduled to take up in the next two months, is one component of what rail authority officials referred to as the "new vision" for high-speed rail. That vision calls for the new rail system to share tracks with Caltrain on the Peninsula and for "early investment" of high-speed rail funds in the northern and southern segments of the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles rail line.

The proposed "memorandum of understanding," which the MTC board is scheduled to discuss on March 28, allocates $1.5 billion in funding for electrification and advance-signal-system elements of the blended system, MTC Executive Director Steve Heminger wrote in a memo to the board.

"The sustained level of support for the electrification project reflects the critical nature of this project as it will usher in modern passenger rail service on the Peninsula that will lead to cost savings, faster service, operational efficiencies, quieter trains and fewer emissions," Heminger wrote. "Electrification of the corridor will also pave the way for a future when California's high-speed trains can operate from downtown San Francisco to the greater Los Angeles basin."

About half of the funding for electrification would come from Proposition 1A, a $9.95 billion bond measure state voters approved in 2008 for the high-speed-rail system. The proposed funding plan calls for about $700 million to come from state funds. Caltrain would be expected to contribute close to $200 million and two regional agencies, including the MTC and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, would chip in another $31 million. The rest of the funding, roughly $500 million, is expected to come from federal sources.

Caltrain has long promoted electrification as a critical component to increasing ridership and becoming financially sustainable. The agency is facing structural budget deficits and has been relying on one-time funding sources over the past two years to avoid having to dramatically cut services. Mike Scanlon, executive director of Caltrain, called electrification an "essential improvement that is critical to the future of the system."

"This is an enormous step forward that prioritizes these improvements and delivers early benefits to the Caltrain system, its riders and surrounding communities," Scanlon said in a statement.

But even under the best-case scenario, Caltrain's long-awaited electrification project wouldn't be implemented until at least 2018. Seamus Murphy, Caltrain's manager of government affairs, told the Weekly that once the funds for the project come in, it would take about six years to complete the electrification. He also noted that future investments would be required to make the Caltrain corridor compatible with the high-speed rail system. 

Before anything happens, however, the State Legislature would have to approve the rail authority's and the transportation agencies' request for bond funding, which is far from a sure thing. The project has been heavily criticized in Sacramento, with Republicans in the state Capitol overwhelmingly opposing it.

Some cities on the Peninsula have also been viewing the new agreement with skepticism. Members of the Palo Alto City Council, which last year officially adopted a position calling for termination of the high-speed rail project, discussed the proposed document Thursday morning and expressed concern about the speed with which the agencies are proceeding with the agreement.

Murphy said Caltrain strongly supports the Memorandum of Understanding and its proposal to electrify the corridor.

"This is a huge opportunity for Caltrain to leverage the resources we have at the local and regional level for significant statewide resources that would help make this project happen," Murphy said.

The proposed agreement involves the rail authority, the MTC, the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board (which operates Caltrain), the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, the San Mateo County Transportation Authority, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, San Francisco, San Jose and the Transbay Joint Powers Authority. It specifies that the high-speed rail system will rely on the "blended approach" -- using the existing Caltrain right-of-way along the Peninsula -- as opposed to the rail authority's original but controversial four-track design. 

The "blended approach" was first proposed a year ago by three Peninsula legislators, state Sen. Joe Simitian, U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto and Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park. Though the rail authority had initially resisted the proposal to run high-speed rail and Caltrain on the same tracks, the agency has since embraced the proposal. At a public hearing in Mountain View last week, the rail authority's board Chair Dan Richard and board member Jim Hartnett said the agency's soon-to-be-released business plan will focus on the blended approach, which Richard said would bring down the cost of the $98.5 billion project.

Gordon and Eshoo both released statements Thursday applauding the rail authority and the various transportation agencies for reaching an agreement to electrify Caltrain.

"The $1.5 billion investment detailed in the MOU will drastically improve service time for the hundreds of thousands of Caltrain commuters, reduce emissions from existing diesel engines, and put in place a plan ensuring the use of the existing Caltrain right-of-way for the potential future of high-speed rail operations," Gordon said in a statement.

Eshoo also expressed enthusiasm about the new proposal and said that modernizing Caltrain "has and will continue to be one of my highest priorities for our region."

"It is the spine of our transportation system and it must be brought into the 21st century," Eshoo said in a statement. "Now the regional agreement to fully fund the electrification of Caltrain and positive train control will make this a reality."

Friday, Mar. 23, 2012
Dan Walters: Lawmakers ready to green-light California high-speed rail
By Dan Walters

Its popularity has declined sharply, many of its details have yet to emerge, and independent authorities have questioned its financial and operational viability, but California's bullet train project is very likely to get the green light from the Legislature soon.

That's the consensus of those who have been counting votes among the Legislature's dominant Democrats, who can give the California High-Speed Rail Authority authorization to sell bonds and begin construction of an initial segment in the San Joaquin Valley.

And that's true even though lawmakers still don't know, in any detail, what linking the northern and southern halves of the state via rail would entail.

They don't know how much the system would cost, who, if anyone, would put up its money, or whether it could draw enough passengers to cover costs without subsidies.

Gov. Jerry Brown assumed political control of the CHSRA last year when the project appeared doomed and appointed a trusted adviser, Dan Richard, to make it work. He and other bullet train overseers unveiled, with great ceremony, a revised plan they said was workable.

However, the new price tag, around $100 billion, was several times more than what voters said it would cost when they approved a $9.95 billion bond issue, and was catnip for the project's opponents, an eclectic lot that includes San Joaquin Valley farmers, residents of the tony San Francisco Peninsula and Republican conservatives.

The sticker shock sent Richard back to the drawing board, and he's now generating a new plan that reverses the last plan's stretched-out construction schedule in favor of quicker construction. It also will attempt to grease the political wheels by offering money to Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area for commuter rail upgrades that would accompany the San Joaquin Valley segment.

While it awaits the new revisions, a "peer review group" of transportation experts, appointed by legislators to give independent advice on the project, issued its seventh report this week, reiterating qualms about financing, ridership and other issues that "can and should be addressed before the state borrows money or the authority commences construction."

It finds the "lack of committed financing" to be especially troublesome and implies that it would be foolhardy to spend billions on the San Joaquin segment without a viable financing plan for the entire system.

The Legislature often ignores good advice from its own experts – the bollixed-up budget being one consequence – and makes decisions for expedient political reasons. This may be another sorry example.

Just because a bullet train sounds neato-keen or China has one are not sufficient reasons to saddle this already insolvent state with another burden it can't afford.


Caltrain upgrades a step toward high-speed rail
Michael Cabanatuan
Thursday, March 22, 2012

Bay Area transportation officials have agreed on a $1.5 billion plan to work with the High-Speed Rail Authority to electrify Caltrain and install advanced train-control systems to build a hybrid rail system accommodating both commuter and high-speed trains.

Under the proposal, released late Wednesday, the Bay Area would receive $706 million in state high-speed rail bond money, with the rest of the funds coming from local sales taxes, other state and federal funds, bridge tolls and air district money.

"This is a great leap forward for transportation in our region," said Jim Wunderman, president of the Bay Area Council, a regional business group. "Electrifying Caltrain is one of the top priorities of the CEOs we represent. Electrification will boost ridership, clean up our air and remove thousands of cars a day from Highway 101. At the same time, it lays the foundation for high-speed rail to come to the Bay Area."

Caltrain officials have long planned to electrify their rails, which they say will allow them to run faster, more frequent and quieter trains.

The plan, which will be considered by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission Wednesday, is part of a new strategy by the High-Speed Rail Authority to speed the arrival of fast-moving trains in the Bay Area and Los Angeles by investing in upgrades to commuter rail lines to prepare them for high-speed rail. The approach would also reduce the estimated $98 billion cost of building the system, said Dan Richard, chairman of the authority board.

The authority, which plans to start construction of the nation's first high-speed rail line late this year in the Central Valley, has invited proposals from Los Angeles and the Bay Area to use a portion of the $9.9 billion in high-speed rail bond money for regional improvements that also pave the way for fast trains. Board members also hope it will stem criticism over starting construction of the line in the Central Valley, a decision that has caused many to label the project "the train to nowhere."

The authority's board of directors is expected to consider the agreement with the Bay Area at its April 5 meeting. Earlier this month, it approved a similar pact with Southern California transportation agencies.

The Bay Area plan calls for construction of a Caltrain extension to San Francisco's new Transbay Terminal, high-speed train facilities at Diridon Station in San Jose and in Millbrae, along with improved Caltrain tunnels, bridges, passing tracks and rail crossings. 

But it puts the highest priority on electrification and train controls, which Metropolitan Transportation Commission spokesman Randy Rentschler described as "the gateway to the future of a high-speed rail system when additional funds become available. But there's also something in it today for voters to get something they've wanted for years."

While the agreement does not include the funds to take Caltrain and high-speed rail to the Transbay Terminal, Gillian Gillett, Mayor Ed Lee's transportation adviser, said that remains part of the plan and a high regional priority.

"It means we have a path forward to the downtown extension," she said. "We have momentum."

Michael Cabanatuan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. 

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