Cities' rail challenge: 'Build right or not at all'

Consortium calls for rail authority to step back and 'resolve troublesome issues'

"Build right or not at all," Palo Alto and four other cities in the Peninsula Cities Consortium have challenged the California High-Speed Rail Authority, urging the agency to step back and resolve issues.

The cities issued a statement Monday calling on the authority to "step back and resolve troublesome issues" with the rail project days after an independent review uncovered flaws in the ridership projections for the proposed line.

They said the authority has "an enormous credibility problem" because of recent seriously critical analyses by state officials and, most recently, a professional group commissioned by the state legislature.

The consortium, which includes Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton, Burlingame and Belmont, alleged that the authority is more focused on meeting deadlines for federal-stimulus funding than on building a system that works.

Rich Cline, mayor of Menlo Park and chair of the consortium, said in the statement issued Monfay afternoon that the cities are concerned that "key problems may not be resolved because of the intense pressure being exerted by the Authority's desire to qualify for federal stimulus funding. The rail authority has to begin construction on the San Francisco-to-San Jose line by September 2012 to qualify California for a $2.25 billion grant.

"Common sense is absent from the high-speed rail discussion," Cline said. "Right now the Authority plans to select a final alignment and release its draft environmental impact report by December of this year under an extremely rushed project schedule that is dictated solely by the desire for federal funds."

Federal funds play a prominent role in the authority's plan to fund the project, which carries an estimated price tag of about $43 billion. The authority expects to get about $17 billion in federal grants for the project, though so far only $2.25 billion has been committed.

California voters also approved $9.95 billion in state funds for high-speed rail and related improvements in 2008 when they passed Proposition 1A.

But many of the project's earliest supporters, including the Palo Alto City Council, have lashed out at the authority over the past year about what they perceive to be the agency's inadequate outreach and shoddy planning.

Two of the consortium partners, Menlo Park and Atherton, had also joined a coalition of nonprofit groups in challenging the rail authority's selection of Pacheco Pass over the Altamont Pass as the preferred route for the new line.

The authority's ridership projections took a hit last week when the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, concluded that the models these projections were based on were flawed and unreliable as a basis for decision-making. The conclusion followed similar criticisms expressed by the Palo Alto-based watchdog group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design earlier this year.

The latest review, along with critical recent reports from the Office of the State Auditor and the Legislative Analysts Office, have created a "credibility problem" for the rail authority, Cline said. He also challenged the authority's assertion that the system, once built, would be financially self-sustaining.

"The project is suffering from an enormous credibility problem, due to its widely criticized business plan, faulty ridership numbers and the absence of funding to carry out the project statewide -- let alone offer realistic alternatives for the section planned on the Peninsula," Cline said.

"There also is no stated plan for paying to operate high-speed rail once it is built, and we fear local taxpayers may be left holding the bag."

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Like this comment
Posted by Frank
a resident of Ventura
on Jul 6, 2010 at 11:34 am

HSR could be a great benefit to all of us but I have to agree that the HSR Authority needs to get it self in order.

I noticed after the bond pass some arrogance coming from the HSR Authority in the media. Initially I thought of it as exuberance on the part of the HSR Authority and over reaction on the part of the NIMBY neighbors. I hope we can get beyond this.

Like this comment
Posted by Frenchy
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 6, 2010 at 12:28 pm

If Las Vegas offered a futures bet on whether HSR would be completed and running by, let say, 2030, what do you think the line would be?

Like this comment
Posted by Marian
a resident of Professorville
on Jul 6, 2010 at 12:33 pm

High speed rail will be a great benefit. I hope our community isn't so short-sighted that we lose it.

Like this comment
Posted by Tom Jordan
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 6, 2010 at 1:28 pm

HSR was sold as a concept, and the concept, particularly to those who have seen other high speed rail in operation in Europe or Asia, is an excellent concept, BUT the flaw in HSR is in incompetence in execution. Concept good:execution terrible equals failure, which means that the project should be stopped now, before more money is wasted until it can produce believable engineering and business plans at the standard of any new business/start up. Even unions who want the jobs and HSR fanatics should prefer a project that is reworked, even at the cost of some delay, then successfully built to a failed project that will kill HSR for a long long time. You will notice that the cheerleaders for HSR all stop their comments after yelling NIMBY and that "we need it". I challenge all HSR supporters to address the many many deficiencies reported by the above stories and the plain fact that the promises made by HSR at the time it was on the ballot in Nov 2008 have proven false. Concept is not sufficient. Competence is required and it is totally lacking.

Like this comment
Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 6, 2010 at 1:37 pm

Marie is a registered user.

I agree totally with Tom Jordan. IF BART had been more competently implemented, then it would be much more cost-effective today. Why does HSR need a separate very expensive administrative structure? Why isn't it part of Caltrain? This proposal looks like a nice retirement package for Rod Diridon and Quentin Kopp.

I fully support CARRD and any other proposal for effective high-speed and commuter rail that is not a political boondoggle. Caltrain should be electrified. Grade crossings must be eliminated. Whether HSR comes up the peninsula or not, changes need to be made. And I say that even though I, as a homeowner on Alma, will be personally affected by construction on Alma. What I do expect is clear expectations and timelines - and a cost-effective plan.

Like this comment
Posted by Jared R.
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 6, 2010 at 2:43 pm

How cool is it going to be that we can potentially get BOTH a high speed rail station and a faster, safer, and cleaner CALTRAIN!!!

Palo Alto is on the map with all the big high tech businesses moving in town - facebook, telsa, now skype!!!

All those people whinning are so short sighted that they are being completely SELFISH in having to deal with construction delays. If you own any property in palo alto, especially those near the train station this is going to be a great thing in 10 years. Imagine how desierable it will be to live close to a transit hub that can get you do sac, la, and the san diego beaches!!!

Like this comment
Posted by FS
a resident of Green Acres
on Jul 6, 2010 at 3:20 pm

Will somebody please tell me what the 'great benefit' is that the HSR brings other than getting to LA faster than by driving.
Many state it but nobody gets specific.

Like this comment
Posted by fireman
a resident of another community
on Jul 6, 2010 at 3:24 pm

like the city has any idea of what is right? about anything!

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 6, 2010 at 5:22 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Perfection is the enemy of good enough.

Like this comment
Posted by John
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 6, 2010 at 6:18 pm

It is important for the state and federal governments to know that only a minority of the residents of Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton, Burlingame and Belmont are whiners.

Like this comment
Posted by John
a resident of Meadow Park
on Jul 6, 2010 at 8:31 pm

If you read the LA news, the same problems are being brought up at the other end. Poor planning, shoddy relations. Does anyone think that the final cost is only going to be 40+ billion. For example:
How many tunnels have to be constructed ie the Grapevine?
go to the airport and take a plane to go to the San Diego beaches!

Like this comment
Posted by wary traveler
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 6, 2010 at 8:36 pm

I generally agree with John's point, if - and only if - it were true.

I've been following this project for close to 2 years now, and it's my observation that the more educated people become on the facts, the more opposed they are to the project.

The Legislative Analyst's Office blasted the CHSRA's Business Plan. Then the State Auditor gave them a scathing report. The Senate's patience is visibly wearing thin. And now Berkeley's independent review of the ridership model shows problems there, too.

HSR used to be a media darling. Two, and even 1 year ago, you'd be hard-pressed to find a news article speaking disparagingly of the High-Speed Rail Authority or their project, except for the most biased news sources. Now look. I credit the about-face to becoming educated.

Like this comment
Posted by wary traveler
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 6, 2010 at 8:37 pm

I was referring to John's assertion that only a minority of local residents are against the project.

Like this comment
Posted by Lois
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jul 7, 2010 at 5:06 am

The more I read about HSR, the more I feel their leadership is simply leveraging their political savvy by manipulating public opinion with unsupportable claims and data.

This is no way to run a railroad.

Our venture capital firm analyses start-up proposals for a living. Among our rules governing investments, when we find unsupportable data in any proposal, we reject the proposal and decline to invest. End of story.

We suspect legislators and prospective private investors in HSR are about to do the same.

Sorry to say, HSR is proving to be 'the king with no clothes.'

Like this comment
Posted by EPA Resident
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jul 7, 2010 at 6:45 am

There are already two cheap, convenient ways to get to Southern California - flying and driving. Spending $43B for a transportation "solution" to a problem that doesn't exist is ridiculous.

As an environmentalist, I think that this $43B would be much better spent on modernizing our transportation infrastructure for plug-in hybrid/electric vehicles and improving our grid to support increased demand for renewable electricity. I thank the many citizens who have stood up to NIMBY accusations and to statewide groupthink to point out the economic and environmental flaws in this project.

Like this comment
Posted by Glenn
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jul 7, 2010 at 8:37 am

HSR stands for either High Speed Ripoff or High Speed Rush to Judgment.

Lack of timely due diligence got us to this point. Now, as credible findings of 'unreliable numbers' come to light, the chickens are one by one coming home to roost.

The $9B and $2.25B earmarked for HSR have strings attached, strings that HSR is rapidly loosing its grip on.

Watch as the HSR bird gets its wings clipped, first by legislators, then by 'public-private' investors.

A bird that can't fly will not merit the flow of funds it needs to sustain its charade.

It is not just the peninsula that is questioning the HSR folly, Southern California voices of dissent are growing ever louder. Plans for a fitting memorial service are now being developed by folks all over the state.

Like this comment
Posted by Me Too
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 7, 2010 at 8:56 am

EPA resident makes an interesting point. We are talking investing big dollars in a 50 year old approach that will last 100 years into the future, just as transportation and energy technology are dramatically changing. That's not great. If we invested instead in large scale electric car infrastructure, like Better World for instance, we could end up with a better solution that is a better fit for California.

I like that way of framing it, since it is not "for or against HSR" - instead, it is "how can we best invest for alt-energy transportation solutions?"

Like this comment
Posted by Paul C
a resident of Professorville
on Jul 7, 2010 at 8:58 am

Go to the News & Facts section of the HSR site and you will find one PR piece after the next lauding Quentin Kopp and singing the praises of HSR. Web Link

You will find no mention of the financial land mines littering HSR's path, just platitudes. Nary a mention of the credible UC Berkeley findings of flawed data...surprise, surprise.

HSR is proving to be all PR all the time.

Like this comment
Posted by Stepheny
a resident of Southgate
on Jul 7, 2010 at 9:11 am

HSR is a great example of 19th century thinking being inappropriately applied by politicians in the 21st century.

The new roads being blazed are on the Internet, stupid.

That's how people and ideas will be experiencing the world in the future, not by burning fossil fuels and creating green house gases.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 7, 2010 at 9:28 am

Until such time as we can all be "beam me up, Scotty", people will still want and need to travel.

I agree that we need to do it right, but we do need to do this.

Individual car ownership is diminishing, particularly for city dwellers. Companies like ZipCar are growing rapidly. Flying is becoming more onerous, particularly if you want to travel with anything more than a change of clothes. Business travel for individual face to face meetings are not as important, but trade shows and large conferences are definitely becoming more important particularly for networking and jobseeking. Trying to find a job without personal intros through contacts is becoming increasingly difficult. On top of that, college students and individual recreational travel with lots of gear means that an alternative to flying and single occupancy car travel between north and south of the state is necessary.

Whereas there may be some commuter travel, the likelihood is that the market for this service will be for less frequent travel. Looking at the Eurostar model between London and Paris, city to city fast service without the hassle of having to arrive a couple of hours early and being flexible up to the last minute on when to travel shows that rail travel is a viable option for the enlightened traveler.

Yes, do it right, but do it.

Like this comment
Posted by nancy hubbell
a resident of Community Center
on Jul 7, 2010 at 11:54 am

palo alto backed itself into a corner long ago when it refused to let bart traverse the peninsula, big mistake. so now we have a noisy enormous train that is outdated technology and we still dont want to change it even though many smarter options are available including the high speed train. get rid of the behemoth and bring in bart or the san jose light rail and incorporate high speed rail at the same time and this city and its peninsula friends will move into the 21st century a little.

Like this comment
Posted by Gordon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 7, 2010 at 12:00 pm

Atherton would shut down Caltrain too if they could. This project also includes electrification and improvements to Caltrain which will get us to San Francisco and San Jose faster, not to mention (eventually) LA and San Diego. It will also bring needed and safer off-grade crossings all down the line. The opponents on the Penninsula use bogus environmental review lawsuits when they really just want the route moved to the East Bay. Forget that! I consider it a huge benefit to have this valuable transportation infrastructure conveniently close by. They are even planning an HSR station in Palo Alto or Redwood City. Palo Alto citizens overall voted overwhelmingly in favor of prop 1A, so I'd hate to see our council become too obstructionist. Let's get this thing built *right*, but also *on the Penninsula* as currently planned!

Like this comment
Posted by KTB
a resident of another community
on Aug 7, 2010 at 12:55 pm

Gordon, the measure barely passed.

I agree with the author who stated that a flawed business plan submitted for financing is quickly dismissed. Given all of the flaws in the HSR business plan, the current project should be dismissed. Create a viable, proven set of projections and visible decisions around the physical impact of the project and THEN put it on the ballot. With the facts in place and the numbers made accurate, I doubt a clear, fact-based measure would pass.

Our energy needs are rapidly changing. But our habits are not. Supporting electric vehicles, charging stations, car-share programs and other energy efficient alternatives that map to our preferences is a better use of funds. This project is ridiculous.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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