Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - July 16, 2010

New start needed for high-speed rail

State Sen. Joe Simitian and other legislators set Feb. 1 deadline for California High Speed Rail Authority to get its rail-project act together

California's dream of high-speed rail — which to many seems more like a nightmare — is facing its greatest challenge: It must prove by Feb. 1 to increasingly skeptical state legislators and the public that the vision of a modern, high-speed rail system initially linking San Francisco to Los Angeles is more than a bad, deeply flawed dream.

That is the deadline state Sen. Joe Simitian and other key legislators have set for the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) to demonstrate that its economic and ridership projections are based on more than incorrect methods, as alleged in a recent technical review commissioned by the Legislature.

Two earlier analyses, one by the highly regarded state Legislative Analyst's office in March 2009 and one by State Auditor Elaine Howle just released in late April, raise serious questions about the rail authority's initial studies relating to economics, costs and ridership for a system currently estimated to cost more than $43 billion.

The auditor said the project suffers from poor planning, inadequate risk assessment and a poorly done business plan, and warned of potential major delays, cost overruns or even an incomplete system.

The third heavy blow to the authority's credibility was the late-June release of an analysis of ridership projections. The Legislature commissioned the analysis by the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, whose experts concluded that the authority's projections were so shaky that they couldn't predict whether the system would be profitable or run deeply in debt. The analysis said the projections, done by consultant Cambridge Systematics, were inadequate as a basis for making policy decisions.

The three critical reports are replete with technical details, but the summations are withering.

The findings confirm whatt critics, such as the Palo Alto-based Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CARRD), have been saying for months. Yet the response from the authority thus far has been weak, consisting primarily of a statement that it supports the Cambridge conclusions.

If confirmed, the purported flaws in the ridership analysis could undermine the selection of Pacheco Pass/San Jose over an Altamont Pass (East Bay) alternative route.

Simitian is blunt: "At some point, folks need to come to grips with the fact that this isn't just the case of isolated concerns or misguided complaints or rampant NIMBY-ism," he said following release of the state auditor's report. "They are real and legitimate concerns and they need to be addressed sooner rather than later." And, he warned, "We are getting very close to a point where, if there's no significant changes and improvements in the way business is done, I will no longer be able to call myself a supporter of 'high-speed-rail done right.'

"Once members (of the Legislature) start to back away in such a way, I think it puts the project in great jeopardy."

The technical criticisms are being rolled out against a broader backdrop, largely but not completely based on concerns by Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton and other Peninsula cities relating to the impact of building and operating a high-speed-rail system through the communities. Menlo Park Mayor Richard Cline, chair of the Peninsula Cities Consortium, correctly cites the authority's "enormous credibility problem."

The venerable but economically strained Caltrain system is under dire threat of becoming unable to maintain its commuter operations. It had hoped that an infusion of funds from the rail project would help it upgrade and electrify its aging trains. But there recently has been a distancing by Caltrain, which is finally asserting itself in seeking a share of $2.25 billion of federal stimulus funds for transportation upgrades despite opposition from the authority.

Like Simitian, we have been supporters of the rail project, assuming the legitimate concerns of affected communities are resolved. But time and patience are running out.

Roelof van Ark, the highly respected and brand-new CEO of the rail authority, has a mess to clean up and numerous credibility problems to solve — and he doesn't have much time.

We're with Simitian. If there aren't wholesale changes in the way the authority is operating by the beginning of next year, we'll join the chorus to put an end to this exciting but badly botched transportation initiative.

Comments

Posted by Martin Engel, a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 16, 2010 at 4:56 pm

Nice reporting summary. February 2011 is seven more months, at which time, the State Senate, particularly Senators Simitian and Lowenthal, can no longer procrastinate.

We already know, at least since 2008 -- and there have been many articles published well before that date -- that there is serious trouble in River City. The 2008 Due Diligence Report, by Cox and Vranich, issued by the Reason Foundation, is a careful and systematic refutation of each and every claim made by the CHSRA. So, it will already have been two years of bending, if not breaking the rules and laws ostensibly guiding this project. And so far, the rail authority has had its proverbial hand slapped many times. It should be apparent by now that those naughty boys can't seem to learn their lesson. It should be obvious that they need a protracted time out.

As many people have asking for quite some time, why are they continuing to spend millions of taxpayer dollars to develop routes and alignment designs that no one along the route really wants? Why isn't the new CEO putting a halt to the current proceedings and doing some serious housecleaning?

Isn't it time for Van Ark to look at the entire concept and program level plans, especially with the highly experienced eye for which they hired him, and re-assess all the decisions, both public and undisclosed? Isn't it time for him to announce that he is intent on removing all the political claptrap and self-serving decisions with which this project has been encumbered up to now? Shouldn't his role be that of the new turn-around CEO who restores logic, rationality and parsimony into this loony bin, spendthrift organization?

And, if not, must we wait seven more months until the Legislature pulls the plug?

Well, I certainly agree with the Editorial author: It's time for a new start for this project. I would, however, go one step further. It's time to bring this project to an end before far more damage is done.


Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 16, 2010 at 7:15 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Again I am puzzled. Does controversy over routing elsewhere need resolution before needed improvements can proceed on the peninsula?


Posted by Bad Idea, a resident of Community Center
on Jul 17, 2010 at 6:12 am

There does not need to be a new start to HSR, it needs to be dropped completely. HSR is an economic disaster waiting to happen, why, because ridership estimates have been thoroughly exaggerated.

It will always be cheaper to drive a family to Disneyland than ride the train and guess what, you'll have your car with you when you get there!!

Stop HSR now before it bankrupts the State!!


Posted by Steve Ly, a resident of Los Altos
on Jul 17, 2010 at 8:45 am

For some reason, with the CAHSRA, it's full speed ahead, damn the critics. It's too bad that the High Speed Rail Authority is circling the wagons instead of dealing with criticism that must have some basis in fact. Too many independent sources are finding fault with the methodology that CAHSRA is using to justify this project. If the HSRA is just going to continue that there's nothing wrong, we should pull the plug on high speed rail. But to save time and money, we need to sort this out before February.


Posted by What Action?, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jul 17, 2010 at 9:48 pm

Is there anyone working to get an initiative on a ballot sometime to pull the plug? I'm fairly sure the vote now would be against HSR. Or, if not an initiative to kill it, perhaps to at least assert that the project can only move forward while there is a guarantee (and plan to meet that guarantee) that the state will absolutely limit both direct and indirect state spending related to HSR to some single digit billions?

While HSR may be an impressive or fun gimmick, it is not what it claims to be for either green or economic benefit to the state. It's economic benefit will only appear if trickle down economics works, because those who can afford it will be rich.


Posted by Take your choice, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jul 18, 2010 at 11:13 am

Meg Whitman has already said she is opposed to HSR. Jerry Brown is for it and wants to spend even more of the States budget to build it.

Take your choice on whom to vote for, but remember Meg Whitman is in favor of the new water bill and the peripheral canal.


Posted by Alex Haselden, a resident of Mountain View
on Jul 18, 2010 at 12:44 pm

Cutting government waste is a worthy cause, but many on this forum seem intent on stopping any improvements to California's transport. I often hear calls to kill HSR and let Caltrain die. Meanwhile in the thread about Stanford's hospital expansion many are complaining about traffic on various Palo Alto roads. If only everyone else would stop driving!


Posted by RR, a menlo park resident, a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 19, 2010 at 12:42 pm

Given California's other problems, this seems like a very strong candidate for the chopping block. How can this possibly be justified when the funds cannot be found for absolute necessities?

HSR sounded like a great idea - I even voted for the bond issue...much to my regret!
Now I think the whole project should be cancelled as a boondoggle.
If it cannot be cancelled entirely, force them to DO IT RIGHT.
That means no fudging of the numbers: if the ridership isn't there at a reasonable ticket price, KILL IT!
If the Altamont Pass isn't feasible, you'd better budget for tunneling up much of the Peninsula and/or budget for long delays due to myriad lawsuits that will make the cost/benefit ratio even tougher to justify.

I know Van Ark signed on to this new position in order to get the project done, but has he given any thought to "the path of least resistance"? That is, why push in the communities that are most likely to give him a hard time, drive up costs, delay the project? Go for a demonstration project between LA and San Diego or something which will start to generate real numbers like costs and ridership. If I'm right, they could limit the losses. If they're right, they will have a better case to make.
Right now, all the evidence points to them being wrong and a mistake is going to cost us billions!


Posted by Observer, a resident of South of Midtown
on Jul 19, 2010 at 12:48 pm

They have to circle the wagons as they've been under fire ever since the process began from all you NIMBYS. It would be great to take a train to Disneyland and leave the car at home. Has any of you ever heard of global warming, traffic congestion, alternative energy, green transportation? Rather than be a naysayer from your armchair or behind the wheel of you car, why are none of you involved in working together for a better solution? This makes me sick.


Posted by Person, a resident of Gunn High School
on Jul 19, 2010 at 5:31 pm

The most important thing we must do, is insure that the construction starts in Southern Calif., not in San Francisco. By the time they get half way up to the Bay Area, the project will have run out of money.

Does anyone know the proper channels we must work through to convince the CHSRA people to start down there?

If the citizens of Calif. have no say in where they start, then we should concentrate our efforts on killing the portion from S.F. to San Jose, rather than trying to kill the whole project, since I'm guessing the former would be easier than the latter.


Posted by Mr Opportunity, a resident of Community Center
on Jul 19, 2010 at 8:38 pm

Interesting how the proponents of the train have masked themselves. First, when the community backlash started, they said they were in favor of the train "done right." It was a way of saying, we'll overcome your objections, just let us build the train. Now, they're saying it's time to "re-start" the process. They still won't say it's time to drop the train, once and for all. Instead, they want to keep it going in some manner. So now it's "let's re-start the process."


Posted by Opportunity lost, a resident of Santa Rita (Los Altos)
on Jul 19, 2010 at 9:34 pm

Interesting how staunch project opponents like Mr. Engle own property directly across the street from the Caltrain tracks.


Posted by resident, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jul 20, 2010 at 9:40 am

There is no need for new study. We have enough proof to stop HSR project.More study more west of money on this flawed and disasters project. That money can be used for important projects.


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