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On Deadline blog: Will cities get a voice in high-speed-rail debate? Or just have to keep shouting?

Original post made by Jay Thorwaldson, editor emeritus, on Mar 20, 2012

The long-awaited final report giving a "new vision" for the proposed high-speed-rail system for California will become public within the next week or two, unless there is some new derailment or other delay.
That was the pledge of the president and a board member of the California High Speed Rail Authority at the state Senate subcommittee hearing March 13 in Mountain View, at least. A capacity crowd of about 600 persons jammed the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts at the hearing, chaired by state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, and attended by three other senators.
But the new vision is colliding head on with an old skepticism, and Peninsula cities are still angry about not having a direct seat at the discussion table.
No one asked for a show of hands of supporters vs. opponents, but occasional murmurs of approval indicated that a solid majority fit the opposition side -- despite a solid contingent of labor-union representatives and some individuals voicing support.
Simitian kept his pre-hearing pledge to stick it out until everyone had a chance to speak. But as 12:30 a.m. approached, the audience had dwindled to fewer than 50, and Simitian had to read out a half-dozen cards to find one or two speakers.
As the hearing progressed from presentations by two CHSRA board members to the chair of a Peer Review Group and two representatives of the state Legislative Analyst's office, it became clear that few minds were being changed.
And just about everyone remotely connected with the evolution of the rail plan is awaiting the publication, and some are already sharpening their knives and legal positions in anticipation.
For several years now Peninsula cities have led the way in a building and increasingly bitter opposition to the plan, ever since CHSRA board member Rod Diridon appeared at a Palo Alto City Council meeting and deeply angered officials by his presentation, which included a reference to NIMBYs (not in my backyard folks).
But the board members at the hearing -- President Dan Richard (no s) and member Richard Hartnett -- said the new report will signal a major switch in the authority's approach. First, it will pursue a "blended system" on the Peninsula and in Southern California, working with Caltrain and local officials and agencies -- and not rely just on a 130-mile "test bed" track in the Central Valley for its early phases.
Richard, recently named to the Authority board by Gov. Jerry Brown, disclosed that during his 12 years on the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) board he was initially deeply skeptical about high speed rail -- especially the proposed 130-mile link in the valley. The depth of his doubts escaped initial press coverage of the hearing.
"I came on as a real skeptic," Richard said at one point, in response to questions from the senators.
"The phrase 'train to nowhere' may have escaped my lips," he added of the valley link.
But he now believes that the new approach of adding "book ends" projects that provide direct, tangible benefits for both Northern and Southern California transit systems is the right one.
And, he disclosed, there is no staff work going on at the Authority other than on working out details of the "blended systems."
For the Peninsula, where opposition has been heaviest and among the earliest, that would mean helping Caltrain achieve its decades-old vision of electrification and -- perhaps most important to residents along the tracks -- eliminate the need for four tracks. A two-track system would eliminate taking a lane from Alma Street in Palo Alto and reduce the number of homes that would have to be acquired or would lose part of their properties.
It would not eliminate the debate about depressing the tracks and grade separations, and it would not answer the critics, some of whom (such as Palo Alto) have officially asked that the entire project be killed off.
But strong federal- and state-level support for high-speed rail still exists, despite it being a presidential-election year and vocal opposition from conservative Republicans.
Supporters cite creation of jobs and continuing population growth in California.
But critics tend to believe most new jobs would go to overseas companies, where high-speed rail has been around for decades. And they still question the validity of CHSRA ridership studies, which would assuredly undermine the long-term financial balance sheet and require huge subsidies from somewhere if the CHSRA projections are wrong.
As an observer who has written about the transportation challenge in the Bay Area since the 1960s, and who has watched ever more freeways being built and jammed with traffic, I can see that happening in a more massive scale statewide.
I also covered the early construction of BART, and was on the initial press ride from Union City to San Francisco -- where we sat for three hours due to glitches in the system. I climbed aboard the ribbon-breaking dedication ride (one block) of the Santa Clara County Light Rail system in San Jose, when Diridon took the controls and almost triggered a union labor action about non-union hands on the controls.
Despite shortcomings, regional transit has enabled the highways and local bus systems to survive impacts of population growth.
A huge element of the current debate over high-speed-rail plan relates to whether the north-south connection is truly needed, versus the need for improvements in local bus and traffic-management systems. Both positions seem to have valid arguments, and no wonder the public may be confused.
There is a growing push to put the matter back to a statewide vote, a repeat of the 2008 election that approved a $9.95 million bond issuance -- now that the system-wide cost estimate has ballooned from about $43 billion to $98 billion (maybe a bit less under the "blended" approach).
Meanwhile, the Authority board is still searching for a new CEO and some other key officials to help put together the system. This leaves members of the state Legislative Analyst's Office puzzled about who's supervising whom at the Authority -- raising the issue of one big consulting firm supervising another.
And Will Kempton, chair of the Peer Review Group, whose "day job" is heading up a transit agency in Orange County, remains skeptical about the 130-mile link in the valley, if it is in fact a link. He said if future financing of the whole system fails it would be a "stranded investment."
Kempton said his personal view is that closing an existing 94-mile transit gap between Bakersfield and Palmdale would make more sense, despite substantial added costs. But he expects the new plan to be a "very substantial improvement over previous plans."
Sen. Alan Lowenthal noted that because of the Bakersfield-Palmdale transit gap a rider now must "either hitchhike or take a bus."
And a sense of growing impatience came from the senators at the head table, through questions and comments, one of the most pointed from Simitian:
"It's taken us 3 to 3 1/2 years to drag a new business plan out of CHSRA."
The new plan will have to be a really really good one to convert skeptics, or win support of what surveys show is a dubious public.
NOTE: Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com with a copy to jaythor@well.com.

Comments (7)

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Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 20, 2012 at 12:50 pm

Jay -

You state: "But strong federal- and state-level support for high-speed rail still exists, despite it being a presidential-election year and vocal opposition from conservative Republicans."

The only "strong" support are by officials who got elected with special interest support. The polls that I've seen is around 60% of Californian's want the project killed, and since Republicans are only around 30% of the electorate, the other 30% are Democrats & Independents.

You did not mention that HSR Board President Dan Richard, who while on the BART Board of Directors presided over the huge cost overrun of the BART extension to SFO; and that the ridership projections for this segment were grossly overestimated.

You also failed to mentioned that the HSR Bond measure 1A passed in 2008 with the following: No State subsidies for operation, total system cost of $43 billion, and completion by 2021, that the extensions to Sacramento & San Diego would be funded by operational profits, and NONE of the bond money would be paid out, until the rest of the money to build the system was lined up. Each of those restrictions have not been met.

Another part of the debate is that to pay off the $10 billion in bonds will cost the general fund of the State around $750 million/year. So we are funding High Speed Rail at the cost of education and the social safety net.


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Posted by Steve Ly
a resident of Los Altos
on Mar 20, 2012 at 2:33 pm

Whatever business plan finally comes out of CHSRA, it needs to go back to the voters because the project that voters approved in 2008 is not the plan on the table now. This is a total bait & switch, so the voters need to be consulted again.


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Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Mar 20, 2012 at 3:53 pm

Let's be honest here—before most "cities" were opposed to the HSR, they were for it. It might take a little work, but if we were to look through the public record for most California cities, how many would City councils voted resolutions supporting Prop.1A, and the HSR in general? And what was the city-by-city breakdown of Yes/No/Didn't Vote counts of all of the jurisdictions in the state?

Let's suppose that there really is a lot of "buyer's remorse" going on here. The City governments really ought to use the mechanisms available to them to determine the mindset of the people in their jurisdictions, and once that information is known, and validated, then use that information to press the Legislature, and any groups that represent the "will of the people" to advance the agenda of the majority.

For those towns which seem to be leaning towards "opposing" HSR, there are a number of activities in which local governments can engage--

What Cities Can Do To Help Stop HSR:

Councils Can Pass Yearly Resolutions Expressing Opposition To HSR.
Councils Can Pass Yearly Resolutions Calling For Another Vote on the HSR
Council Members Can Sign the Petition To End the HSR
Web Link

Councils Can Make Copy of Petition Available On Each City's web-site For Public To Gather Signatures.
Councils Can dedicate money (legally) to groups opposing HSR via analysis of HSR Business Plans, Route

Councils can ask the voters in their jurisdictions to vote Yes/No on the HSR in upcoming elections.
Councils can join together to show greater support for opposition to HSR.
Councils can investigate legal options to stop HSR for failing to comply with the Prop.1A restraints.

Councils can invite the County/State officials to workshops, and Council meetings, where they can face the electorate, and be forced to go on record for their support/opposition of HSR.

Councils can make certain that all HSR communications are clearly posted on City web-sites.
Councils can make certain that all HSR funding documentation is on a central web-site with links to this web-site on each City's web-site.

Councils can ensure that video/audio recordings of HSR Board Meetings Are on-line, and provide links to that on-line location for public review/comment.
Councils can research voting records for County/State Representatives, where HSR is concerned. These voting records could be make available on each City's web-site.

And the list goes on ..

Cities need to establish a clear, unified voice that they do not want this project to continue—if that is their wish. If they do want it to go forward, then they need to adjust this list to focus their energies in a way that they are invited to the HSR table


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Posted by Morris Brown
a resident of Menlo Park
on Mar 21, 2012 at 2:49 pm

Jay wrote in his posting

"But strong federal- and state-level support for high-speed rail still exists, despite it being a presidential-election year and vocal opposition from conservative Republicans. "

Wrong!

Sorry Jay just not true at the Federal level, not true at all. Yes, Obama can express support and so does LaHood, but the support pretty much ends there.


Note even the Senate just passed Transportation bill, led by Senator Boxer, has no provision for High Speed Rail funding. It doesn't look like it will ever become law, and very much stronger anti-HSR sentiment lies in the House, which thus far has even refused to take up the bill.

All funding at the Federal level for CA HSR was removed from both FY 2011 and FY 2012 funding. And just today we read:

---------
ARTBA Washington Newsline Plus for March 20, 2012
FY 2013 House Budget Resolution and HSR

The narrative accompanying the proposed FY 2013 House Budget Resolution contains the following commentary concerning high-speed rail:

"The mechanisms of federal highway and transit spending have become distorted, leading to imprudent, irresponsible, and often downright wasteful spending. Further, however worthy some highway projects might be, their capacity as job creators has been vastly oversold, as demonstrated by the extravagant but unfulfilled promises that accompanied the 2009 stimulus bill, particularly with regard to high-speed rail.

"In the wake of these failures, and with the federal government's fiscal challenges making long-term subsidization infeasible, high-speed rail and other new intercity rail projects should be pursued only if they can be established as self-supporting commercial services. The threat of large, endless subsidies is precisely the reason governors across the country are rejecting federally-funded high-speed rail projects. This budget eliminates these projects, which have failed numerous and clear cost-benefit analyses."

---------

So forget about any funds for FY 2013 as well.

State support is led by Governor Brown, who is using all his vast powers to try and get the legislature to approve funding for the start of construction in the Central Valley. What a waste of precious funds!

Here the Governor is out pushing for higher taxes, while at the same time pushing to spend $3 billion of state bond funds ( which will cost that State over the 30 year life time of the bond plus interest more than twice that amount)

The time to stop this project is now.


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Posted by Paul
a resident of Professorville
on Mar 21, 2012 at 5:21 pm

Joe Simitian lost my support by his dithering on HSR.

Three and a half years is three years too many to wait for a plan from a completely discredited agency, the High-Speed Rail Authority. Why would anyone believe a word HSR said? Charles Manson has more credibility.

This is an expensive squandering of time and money, politicians and taxpayers alike.

Joe, beating a dead horse is not the answer.


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Posted by Jay Thorwaldson
editor emeritus
on Mar 22, 2012 at 3:19 pm

Jay Thorwaldson is a registered user.

Morris has a good point, but I haven't heard any softening of support on the part of Governor Brown, Barbara Boxer or President Obama, despite the series of critical reports and analyses, the criticisms of Republicans and opposition of cities and organizations. Time, of course, will tell whether this is the "slow train wreck" predicted some time ago or a successful project. It is becoming more difficult to understand why today's iteration of the project can still ride the coat-tails of the 2008 voter approval, however. The questions of the state Senate members at the hearing showed a definite skepticism about the "new vision" of the rail authority board members, it seemed to me.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Evan
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 27, 2012 at 11:36 pm

I'll preface this statement by saying that I remain aghast at the way BART-to-SFO was built and sold to the public. It was horribly design, and really screwed the Peninsula and future transit projects. It takes 15 mins to go from 4th/King to Millbrae on Caltrain. It takes 30+ to from Powell (the closest BART station to 4th and King) to SFO.

Anyway, I'd like to point out that while it's 2 years later than projected, BART is actually coming pretty close to hitting the projected ridership numbers (17.7k/day) -- it's at 16,800 as of Feb 2012.

My point is that the demand for transit is there. It should be well designed though, and BART to SFO certainly was not. Caltrain and HSR seem to be much more well thought out, though.


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