Palo Alto Weekly
Spectrum - August 5, 2011
Editorial: The slow death of high-speed rail
Loss of federal money will be the nail in the coffin of doomed project
Back in 2008, Palo Alto voters, the City Council and the Weekly liked the idea of bullet trains zooming at more than 200 miles an hour between the Bay Area and Los Angeles, providing an alternative mode of travel that was economical and more environmentally friendly.
A majority of voters around the state thought so too, passing Proposition 1A with 52 percent of the vote and setting in motion what today has become what almost everyone agrees is a colossal, mismanaged mess staying alive by just a thread.
The project's only hope is a new business plan that convincingly offers a realistic assessment of the number of riders such a train service would attract, as well as how to attract private investment to replace the federal funds that now appear all but gone in the wake of the nation's economic problems and divisive politics.
In just the last few weeks the California High-Speed Rail Authority has been hit with a series of setbacks that raise new doubts about its ability to manage what would be the largest construction project in the state's history. To have any hope of moving this project forward, it is imperative that the federal government and private industry commit to spend billions of dollars beyond the nearly $10 billion that voters approved in Prop. 1A.
But the likelihood of that happening is withering away as the economy remains stagnant and Congress appears headed toward massive cuts in federal spending. At the state level, Sen. Joe Simitian and other legislators have publicly questioned the authority's business plan as well. These and other recent developments have all put cast the death knell on this project. Consider the following:
• In a study just made public earlier this week, a highly-respected peer-review group of professors and transportation experts that report to rail authority CEO Roelof Van Ark, said the authority has been using a flawed forecasting model to predict the number of passengers that will use the high-speed trains. The report largely confirms a previous criticism from a UC Berkeley group issued last year.
• The agency's public relations firm, Ogilivy Public Relations Worldwide, resigned about a month ago after fulfilling less than two years on a four and a half-year, $9 million contract. The firm was pummeled by criticism from Peninsula residents, including members of Palo Alto-based Californians Advocating for Responsible Rail Design, when attempting to defend the rail authority board that often antagonized opponents, rather than hear their concerns.
• Another public relations faux pas was the unexpected departure of Jeffrey Barker, the rail authority's deputy director in charge of communication, who failed to provide a timely response to a public information request from CARRD that dragged on for months. The group was seeking release of the critical peer-review report, and was successful only after filing a chronology of its request with the authority last week. The report was released the following day, the same day that Barker resigned, saying he is going "to pursue other endeavors."
• On the economic front, the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives, including the budgeting process, has left little doubt that further federal support for high-speed rail will be drastically cut or eliminated altogether. None of the $917 billion in cuts promised in the debt-ceiling legislation have been identified, but whether the House would vote to spend more than a fraction of that amount on a high-speed rail project appears to be unlikely.
By any yardstick, the high-speed rail project is simply far too financially ambitious for the state to undertake at this time, when basic services have been cut to the bone and additional cuts could be on the way as a result of more federal belt-tightening. The idea of paying debt-service on nearly $10 billion in bonds makes no sense in this fiscal environment.
High-speed rail supporters have enormous obstacles to overcome in order to get this project back on track. They need a convincing business plan, a new management team, and most importantly, reliable funding sources that don't commit the taxpayers to unaffordable subsidies of construction and operation.
HSR is looking more and more like a pipe-dream. It's time for the legislature to take the initiative and either provide the leadership to unwind this project, presumably through passage of another state ballot measure that counteracts the requirements of Prop. 1A, or by finding and embracing a new financing model.
Posted by it's about time,
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 5, 2011 at 11:10 pm
from: Web Link
by Cynthia Ward
High-Speed Train Wreck
California's multi-billion-dollar bullet-train boondoggle was predictableand predicted.
3 August 2011
In October 2008, Joseph Vranich, a preeminent authority on high-speed rail in the United States, testified before a hearing of California's State Senate Transportation and Housing Committee. Vranich, the best-selling author of Supertrains and a 40-year advocate of high-speed rail, had come to offer his thoughts on the state's plan to build a high-speed rail line from Orange County to San Francisco. "This is the first time I am unable to endorse a high-speed rail plan," he told the senators, saying that he found the California High Speed Rail Authority's work to be "the poorest I have ever seen."
It's fair to say that the vast majority of California voters never heard what Vranich had to say. Instead, they relied on faulty and unverified information on their ballot statements, where high-speed rail proponents touted the environmental advantages and fiscal benefits of the state's plan. Less than a month after his testimony, voters approved Proposition 1A, authorizing Sacramento to sell a few billion dollars in bonds for a project most experts, now including the state's nonpartisan Legislative Analyst Office and the University of California, say will cost tens of billions of dollars more than the official $43 billion estimate.
With his 2008 testimony now posted on YouTube, more people are listening to Vranich, who predicted just about everything that came to pass, including that the trains would be slower than promised, carry fewer people than rail authorities claimed, and cost much more than officials would admit. "I would like to see high speed rail built," Vranich told senators. "But not this boondoggle." Almost three years on, the High Speed Rail Authority has spent $630 millionand the project hasn't even broken ground yet. The vast majority of those dollars went to consultants and studies.
Vranich explained in 2008 that while high-speed rail "holds great promise in certain sections of the country," the California HSRA's work was so deficient that "if the current plan is implemented it has the potential of setting back the cause of high-speed rail throughout the United States." The Authority, Vranich argued, had learned nothing from failed projects in Texas and Florida (with another failure in the making in the Sunshine State), and aborted plans in Los Angeles and San Diego. The L.A. and San Diego projects had been undone by overly optimistic ridership estimates, pie-in-the-sky budgeting, and a callous disregard for local environmental impacts. The HSRA was repeating all of those mistakes, Vranich argued, "as if they never read a single page of history." His recommendation: dissolve the HSRA and transfer its power to a different state agency.
"High speed rail in California may be salvageable after all of this poor work, but someone else must be in charge," Vranich said. "If the authority is unable to conduct studies that have credibility, how will they ever effectively deliver a mega construction project on time and within budget?" His argument tracks closely with a May 2011 report from the Legislative Analyst's Office, which also suggests that the High-Speed Rail Authority be dismantled.
Vranich skewered every aspect of the HSRA's proposal. He insisted that passenger estimates were wildly inflated64 percent higher than those developed by the Federal Railroad Administration and by independent studies from the University of California at Berkeley's Transportation Center, as well as a thorough report by the Reason Foundation. "The authority's projection of 117 million annual intercity passengers plus commuters is so far from reality that I have to call it what it isscience fiction," Vranich wrote in his testimony. Most studies use population density to project ridership, but as a story in California Watch noted last month, "if the measure is population density, Florida and Ohio would be fertile ground as well. Both of those states rejected billions in federal aid for bullet trains, fearing they just couldn't make the projects pencil out."
The state's HSRA assumes a bullet train from Los Angeles to the Bay Area would attract vastly greater ridership among 50 million car-loving Californians than has been achieved in Spain, Germany, France and Japan, where rail travel is commonplace. Perhaps an even better example domestically is Amtrak's estimated ridership for its Northeast Corridor. "Fifty million people already inhabit the region served by Amtrak's Northeast Corridor," Albrecht Engel, Vice-President of Amtrak HSR, told an audience of high-speed rail boosters this spring. "The population is expected to grow to 70 million by 2050." Even so, Amtrak anticipates carrying just 18 million passengers annually on its high-speed line in the busiest rail-transit corridor in the United States.
Vranich three years ago also dismissed the Authority's $43 billion cost projection, predicting the real cost to be closer to $60 to $80 billion, not including bond repayment. Since then, costs for the project have escalated far beyond what voters were promised in 2008. "The claims of profitability could not conceivably be credible, under the most optimistic assumptions," Vranich said. In the unlikely event that the HSRA's projections were accurate, the trains likely wouldn't generate enough profit to pay back the bonds anywaymuch less build additional rail segments, as planned. The Legislative Analyst verified Vranich's prediction in its May report, which concluded, "If the cost of building the entire Phase 1 system were to grow as much as the revised HSRA estimate for the 100-mile segment [between Fresno and Bakersfield] construction would cost about $67 billion." However, the LAO added: "This extrapolation of costs... is based on the cost increase for a relatively straight-forward and uncomplicated segment of the proposed rail line. It is possible that some of the more urban segments could be even more significantly underestimated."
Finally, Vranich debunked the HSRA's claim that riders could make the trip from Anaheim to San Francisco in a remarkable two hours and 40 minutesnoting that the required average speed of 197 miles per hour is a feat yet to be accomplished anywhere in the world. In fact, train speeds in urban areas would be limited to around 60 miles per hour, due to safety and noise regulations. "It is unclear that any train redesigned to meet U.S. safety requirements and crashworthiness standards, which will make it heavier, can also meet the CHSRA speed and performance requirements," Vranich said.
Declaring that voters were deceived in 2008, Republican state senator Doug La Malfa sponsored Senate Bill 22, legislation that would end bond purchases on January 1, 2012thus reducing the state's indebtedness to the amount contracted by the High Speed Rail Authority before that date. La Malfa noted that the High Speed Rail Authority still hasn't submitted an acceptable business plan, despite a legislative requirement to do so before the November 2008 election. Putting an end to bond purchases would help prevent future damage to a fiscally imperiled state.
The Vranich testimony video certainly lends credence to La Malfa's effort. Sadly, Bill 22 was voted down in committee in May, but it's eligible for reconsideration. Perhaps it's time for Joseph Vranich to reprise his appearance in Sacramento.
Cynthia Ward is a writer in Anaheim, California and a regular contributor to Red County.