Critics of high-speed rail prepare for next chapter

Even with initial funding secured, California's embattled project faces major hurdles

California's contentious drive to build a high-speed-rail system between San Francisco and Los Angeles sped ahead last week, when state lawmakers approved funding for the first construction phase. But the $68 billion project still has to pass through a gauntlet of legal, financial and political obstacles before it becomes reality.

The most immediate threat comes from litigation, of which there has been no shortage. Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Atherton remain involved in a lawsuit against the California High-Speed Rail Authority, the agency charged with building the system. The lawsuit, which claims that the authority's environmental analysis relies on erroneous ridership projections, will be the subject of a settlement conference in Sacramento Monday morning, July 16, said Palo Alto City Councilman Larry Klein, who chairs the city's Rail Committee.

Even if the rail authority settles the Peninsula lawsuit, it will still face fierce opposition from Central Valley, where construction is set to begin. A coalition of agencies, including the Madera County and Merced County farm bureaus and the Chowchilla Water District, filed a lawsuit last month, arguing that the rail authority "due to a myriad of analytical deficiencies, failed to disclose and analyze the full scope and severity of impacts."

The litigation could continue as the rail authority unveils its "project-level" Environmental Impact Reports, which pertain to specific segments of the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line and have a higher level of engineering and design specificity. Klein said the city will consider in the coming months whether it should file or join any other lawsuits against the rail authority.

Then there are the political hurdles, including bids to have California voters weigh in a second time on the high-speed-rail project. Although a bill by State Sen. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, met a quick death on the Senate floor last week, a group of opponents led by former U.S. Rep. George Radanovich is pursuing a similar citizen initiative. In its petition, the group argues that the state "cannot afford to pay for a high-speed train system that will cost more than $100 billion at a time when teachers and police are being laid off, prisoners are being released from prisons, and taxpayers are being asked to dig deeper into their own pockets to pay for basic services."

The Palo Alto City Council, which last December adopted as its official stance a call for the project's termination, is scheduled to consider endorsing the citizen initiative on July 23. The council's Rail Committee has recommended that the full council do exactly that, even though state law bars the city from spending money on the campaign.

"Our action might be helpful to the cause symbolically," Klein said.

Meanwhile, city officials and rail watchdogs are still analyzing the text of Senate Bill 1029, which lawmakers released in the waning hours of July 3 and which the 40-member state Senate approved by a single vote on July 6. Elizabeth Alexis, co-founder of the Palo Alto-based group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design, said the group remains concerned about where the rest of the funds for the system will come from.

"When you look at full costs and benefits in Central Valley -- it's very little positive transportation value unless you spend another $30 billion dollars," Alexis said. "The concern is that this will act as a sponge for all available money that can go to other worthy projects."

The specific language of the budget-trailer bill only adds to the anxiety. For example, the bill allocates $1.1 billion for a "blended system" on the Peninsula -- a design under which high-speed rail and Caltrain can share two tracks between San Jose and San Francisco. But the bill also states that the $1.1 billion can be transferred to other items, including construction in the Central Valley (known in the bill as Item 2665-306-6043), with approval from the state Department of Finance.

"It looks like accounting minutiae, but if you translate it, it means that with one signature from a governor appointee, the money for Caltrain can be moved to the Central Valley project," Alexis said.

"The first time you read a bill it seems very clear to you," she added. "It's only on the 12th reading of the bill that you really understand all the loopholes."

Palo Alto officials have other concerns about the specific bill, including the fact that the language specifies that "any funds appropriated in this item" shall be used for a blended system and not to "expand the blended system to a dedicated four-track system." City officials argued that this language doesn't offer sufficient protection to ensure that the rail authority would pursue a blended system rather than the deeply unpopular four-track alternative. They called for language specifying that "funding in subsequent years may also not be used for a four-track system on the Peninsula."

Despite major reservations from all Republicans and some Democrats in the Senate, the appropriation bill received 21 votes, the minimum needed for advancement. The bill allocates $2.7 billion from the Proposition 1A bond to launch construction on the system's opening segment in the Central Valley and another $1.1 billion to support the "blended system" on the Peninsula. The state Assembly had voted 51-27 on July 5 to approve the bill.

Much like in the Assembly, members of the Senate lined up largely along party lines, with Democrats supporting and Republicans opposing the bill. But some Senators, including Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, and Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, crossed the party lines and voted against the project. Both of them have been heavily involved in oversight of the project since 2008, when voters approved a $9.95 billion bond for high-speed rail.

Supporters of the appropriation bill, led by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, argued that the rail project is badly needed to create jobs and improve California's transportation infrastructure.

"In this era of term limits, how many chances do we have to vote for something this important and long-lasting?" Steinberg asked his colleagues at the beginning of the debate. "How many chances do we have to vote for something that will inject a colossal stimulus into today's economy while looking at the future far beyond our days in this house?"

Simitian rejected this logic and focused on the particulars of the bill. He cited the fact that the rail authority has a leadership structure riddled with vacancies and that the bulk of the funding in the bill would go toward a 130-mile track in the Central Valley. He also noted that the bill fails to answer the critical question of how the rest of the $68 billion system would be funded and cited criticism from a variety of nonpartisan agencies, including the Legislative Analyst's Office and the Office of the State Auditor.

Simitian also alluded to the Field Poll conducted last week, which showed that the controversial project could derail the tax measure that Gov. Jerry Brown plans to bring to the voters in November. Though 54 percent of the survey respondents said they support Brown's proposal, a third of those surveyed said they would be less likely to vote in favor of the measure if the legislature were to fund high-speed rail.

Simitian cited the souring public opinion for the project in explaining his vote. By chasing the $3.3 billion in federal funding for high-speed rail, Simitian said, the legislature is risking a $40 billion hole in the budget that lawmakers would have to fill if Brown's measure fails.

"How are we going to feel if we wake up on Wednesday after Election Day and look at the trigger cuts -- the $40 billion that will have to be pulled painfully from the budget -- from schools, colleges, universities, health, welfare and public safety?" Simitian said. "We may not think that's the way it ought to be but the hard practical reality is that that's the way the folks back home are thinking about these tradeoffs."

In the Assembly, both Jerry Hill and Rich Gordon voted to support the appropriation bill. Gordon said at the Assembly hearing that he went through a "period of doubt" on the high-speed-rail project but that his "faith has been restored" by the rail authority's embracing of the blended approach, which he had championed along with Simitian and U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo.

"I do think that this is a part and parcel of our future, and I think the projects that are defined in this legislation also stand alone on their own for the moment, as we move in the future toward full implementation of high-speed rail," Gordon said.


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Posted by Ronnie
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 13, 2012 at 10:53 am

Just for clarification, can someone quickly explain in a few words the difference between the "blended system" and what this article calls the "deeply unpopular four track alternative?" I think the budgetary objections are well explained in this article, but I was a bit confused by the 2 different track systems.

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Posted by whine and stall
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 13, 2012 at 11:38 am

More whining and stalling is just going to increase costs. Now is the time to move on and make the best of it.

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Posted by Jenny
a resident of Meadow Park
on Jul 13, 2012 at 12:58 pm

Ronnie: the blended system means that HSR will run on the same two track system with Caltrains. "Deeply unpopular four track alternative" speaks for itself meaning the existing two track for Caltrains and two additional tracks, presumably taking lanes from Alma, may be built along side the existing Caltrains tracks.

So, $1 Billion will go to electrifying Caltrains but there will be no property taken by eminent domain, which means there will be no grade separation. Only with grade separation and a trench system can a third rail for electrification be built. OK, then how will the system be electrified, presumably with ugly overhead wires. Are you guys happy with that?

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Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 13, 2012 at 3:16 pm

Ronnie and Jenny, it's more complicated than that. "Blended" means blending both HSR trains and Caltrain trains on the same two tracks. That's practically impossible. Will HSR's trains go no faster than Caltrain's trains on these two tracks? Will HSR fit into the Caltrain schedule? Since they will never stop there, won't HSR need passing tracks at each and every train station?

The fact is, "blended" is a smoke-screen to shut up all us NIMBYs. And, it's one of the fake cost reductions in the total tab for this monstrosity. Once there's more money, there'll be four tracks (if not more) on the Caltrain corridor. That's what both Caltrain and HSR want.

And, when will those HSR trains start running? Will they, for the time being, go only between SF and SJ? There can be no connection from San Jose to the Central Valley tracks (electrified or not) until there are far more funds available. So, there's no point in putting HSR trains on the Caltrain tracks until then. And once there's funding to connect San Jose to the Central Valley, there will also be funding to build out the Caltrain corridor with a four-track elevated viaduct.

Last point. Blended supposedly means two tracks. In fact, that won't be enough even for the anticipated faster operation of Caltrain. The issue of grade separations will come up again if there is an increase in Caltrain's number of trains, as expected. Therefore, the question of elevated viaducts will surface again because these solve the grade crossing problem at the least cost, especially in cities like Menlo Park and Palo Alto.

If and when HSR gets more funding to continue the project beyond the current plan for the token rails for the Central Valley, they will surely revisit Caltrain's corridor with the four elevated track design that they have not abandoned. At best, "blended" is an interim, low cost band-aid for what both Caltrain and HSR wish. It's only a matter of time and money.

Whether they know it or not, admit it or not, friends who seek to "improve" Caltrain with electrification are promoting the arrival of high-speed rail on the corridor. And you know what that will bring.

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Posted by morris brown
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 13, 2012 at 3:50 pm

The leadership in the State Assembly and Senate, taking their lead from Gov Brown, used all their power to push through this appropriation.

The bill was written behind closed doors, with no Republican representation and only delivered to the State Legislature late on July 3rd. With the 4th being a holiday, the members of the Legislature and their staff really had no time to see what they were voting for, and just took the advice of their leaders. In the Senate that was Senator Mark Leno and Senator Darrell Steinberg. They didn't want their Democratic Senators to know what really was in the bill.

They had added $2 billion in PORK to fund "bookend" projects, to make sure Senators in the Bay Area and LA area would sign on.

The question of this PORK being legal under Prop 1A was not even examined and is surely questioned by the just released Legislative Counsel ruling / opinion that itself was just released on Tuesday July 2sd.

So by 1 vote in the State Senate, the Democratic Senators, like sheep, followed their leader and passed the bill.

What they didn't understand is that contained in the bill is language tha allows the Department of Finance, which controlled by the Governor, to with a stroke of a pen move these "bookend funds" elsewhere. Typical of how Pelosi ran through bills in the Federal House when she was Speaker.

Certainly where this all ends is not yet clear. I will certainly have to be played out in the courts.

Assembly men Jerry Hill and Rich Gordon certainly don't deserve to be re-elected to any position in the State legislature after their YES votes on this issue.

Senator Simitian, along with Senator Lowenthal, and Senator DeSaulnier, the three Senators who led committee work on the HSR project and really know what it is all about, all voted no.

Senator Simitian was particularly elegant in a 17 minute made on the State Senate floor. You can view his statement at:

Web Link

Morris Brown
Menlo Park

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Posted by Jenny
a resident of Meadow Park
on Jul 13, 2012 at 6:29 pm

This is no longer a HSR there are now so many stops along the way both on the Peninsula and in the Central Valley that a sustained 210 MPH will be impossible. All these stops are to please the legislators who gave their "Yes" vote for the Billions appropriated. Now the farming community is up in arms because land will be taken away from them for the building of the rail lines.

Meanwhile, a little known committee was set up by Governator Arnold to assess how development and construction could be substantially increased along the farming belt in the Central Velley and over the Pacheco Pass, to increase the population to ride the HSR!!!

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Posted by Charles
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jul 13, 2012 at 9:10 pm

Good points, Jenny.

There are two things that are not addressed in any statements by the HSR Authority. The first is that Prop 1A said there must be private funding - there hasn't been a whiff of this funding ever appearing. No profit, no private funding.

The second is ridership. With only a handful of stops, people will have to drive some distance to get to one. Then huge parking structures rear their heads as it did with BART. Of course to increase ridership there must be more stops, and there goes the 200 mph average out the window.

Smoke and mirrors.

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Posted by morris brown
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 14, 2012 at 12:49 pm

The language mentioned in the article

"The specific language of the budget-trailer bill only adds to the anxiety. For example, the bill allocates $1.1 billion for a "blended system" on the Peninsula -- a design under which high-speed rail and Caltrain can share two tracks between San Jose and San Francisco. But the bill also states that the $1.1 billion can be transferred to other items, including construction in the Central Valley (known in the bill as Item 2665-306-6043), with approval from the state Department of Finance. "

has apparently been miss-interperted. I and others were under the impression that the funds could be moved, but the issue was addressed in the Leno Committee hearing of July 5.

State Senator Alquist brought up this exact issue and at least to the satisfaction of her and others on the committee it seems that such a moving of funds is not legal under the appropriation bill language that was passed.

View the 4 minute discussion at:

Web Link

However, other Stte agencies in the past have moved funds from one area to another without authoriztion, and who knows what the CHSRA might do, legal or not.

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Posted by Parent
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jul 14, 2012 at 1:42 pm

The Peninsula lawsuit is going to SETTLE? Settle for what? If its anything less than HSR moving off the Caltrain row, then its no good.

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Posted by Feed up
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 15, 2012 at 3:31 pm

Blended vs dedicated 4 track, bait and switch. And what leadership have you seen, thus far, from the heads of either high speed rail or Caltrain?  When we suffered an unacceptable level of death in our community by persons on the rails, what was Caltrain's answer? The silence was deafening. 

Yes, we got lip service by Mike Scanlon and his shill communications director, Mark Simon, but did they offer any real substantive solutions or resource any?  No.  This is the same executive who drove Caltrain into the financial hole with the pipe-dream Milbrae station. And have you ever seen him at meetings, the same old repetitive line. 

And now they would have us trust him with monies from high speed rail.  He'll only use them to bail out Caltrain and, if history is any indicator of future performance, botch that as well. 

And who will be left with holding the bag?  We the residents, both in terms of carnage, diminished quality of life, and financial burden suffered.  

Where did they get this guy anyway?  He's paid an outrageous salary ($400 k) and receives an executive benefit package for what? Lip service by his taxpayer funded shill, mediocre performance, and spending our money on what can only be described as a modern day Edsel. And what about the tangle of wires, electric pollution, and nonstop cost overrunning construction that will be brought to our communities?

Wake up, he'll be just as responsive to the community as he was to rail deaths on his watch. Pathetic!

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Posted by Jordan DeStaebler
a resident of another community
on Jul 18, 2012 at 12:25 pm

I live in the East Bay (Berkeley) and earlier in the planning process there was supposed to be a HSR line up the East Bay, which already has a substantial rail right-of-way to Oakland. I think that if this line was constructed, it would eliminate the need for a 4-track right-of-way up the Peninsula. A terminus in West Oakland at/next to the W. Oakland BART station would enable passengers from both San Francisco and the East Bay to board HS trains going down the East Bay corridor instead of the Peninsula. With both the Peninsula blended line and the East Bay line, the Bay Area would be well served.

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Posted by NONIMBYS
a resident of another community
on Jul 19, 2012 at 11:40 pm

NIMBYS from MenloPark are still at it ..WHINNING selfish things..start PAYING your share of property taxes..old prop13 WELFARE QUEENS..then we can talk..I pay you way..

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

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