Against California High Speed Rail by Mark R. Powell

Authority’s CEO Admits Funds Lacking to Complete LA to SF High Speed Rail

To be truthful, Roelof van Ark, the Chief Executive Officer working for the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA), did not specifically state to the CHSRA Board at their meeting this past February 3 that funds were lacking.  And Mr. van Ark certainly did not state this in his press release [Note 1] issued immediately after the conclusion of the board meeting. This is what Mr. van Ark did say.  I have transcribed it verbatim from the board meeting video on the Authority’s website.

“Another issue I would recommend to the Board, and this is for clarification in particular of the two ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) Sections that did not make the funding cutoff in the first round.  That means San Francisco to San Jose and Los Angeles to Anaheim.  These two alignments are technically quite challenging and I think we all know that and the people that are involved know that as well.  Furthermore, both of these sections are sections where high speed trains are operating at very reduced speeds. And in one of the alternatives in fact it could be a shared right of way.  They offer great opportunity for phased implementation that can also bring benefits to existing services (van Ark emphasis). 

We will be working with local and regional agencies and with the communities to incorporate a phased implementation approach (van Ark emphasis) into the project environmental documents while ensuring , and this you must hear and must understand this (van Ark emphasis) , while ensuring that the environmental documents would continue to portray the full build-out of the section as well; as this is required by law.  That means although we will incorporate a way of putting a phased implementation in place, the documents and the CEQA requirements are such that we have to continue working on the full build-out of the section for CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) and NEPA (National Environmental Protection Act) clearance.  Considering this, and as these sections are no longer ARRA Sections, we recommend that the draft EIR not be issue before the end of 2011 for these two segments.  This will allow all stakeholders to participate to the full extent in further investigations and development of the alignments and some of the technical complexities and operational complexities can be further analyzed.”

So what exactly does Mr. van Ark mean by “phased implementation”?  Allow me to clarify.  A statewide Environmental Impact Report (EIR) was completed  prior to the HSR ballot initiative (Proposition 1A) detailing a statewide high speed rail system connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles with spurs connecting Sacramento, San Diego, and Anaheim.  Segments of this system were itemized in the Text of Proposed Law [Note 2] included in the Official Voter Information Guide (i.e. “San Francisco Transbay Terminal to San Jose to Fresno”, “Los Angles Union Station to Anaheim to Irvine”, etc.). 

The Text of Proposed Law does mention a Phase 1 of the HSR system.  Phase 1 is to run from San Francisco’s Transbay Terminal to Los Angeles’ Union Station and down to Anaheim.  Now with costs escalated to between 2 and 3 times the original estimate Mr. van Ark states that the LA Union Station to Anaheim and SF Transbay Terminal to San Jose segments “offer great opportunity for phased implementation”.  The Text of Proposed Law makes no provision for excluding these segments from Phase 1. Hence the need to complete the EIR’s as if there were no additional “phasing”. 

Mr. van Ark speaks of these segments as “technically challenging”.  He is charged with building a railroad.  There is not much that is “technically challenging” about building a railroad.  His problem is that he cannot do it on budget.  Furthermore, his budget is woefully lacking in funding.  Mr. van Ark hopes for $18 billion in federal funding and to date has acquired only $3 billion.  He hopes for $5 billion in local funding and to date has none.  He hopes for $12 billion from the private sector and to date also has not received one penny. 

What does Mr. van Ark mean when he says,  “Furthermore, both of these sections are sections where high speed trains are operating at very reduced speeds” ?  He means that his HSR train can operate on existing Metrolink and Caltrain track, and at conventional speeds, while traveling from LA Union Station to Anaheim and from San Francisco Transbay Terminal to San Jose and riders won’t notice much of a  difference.  Unfortunately for Mr. van Ark, the slower speed from Transbay Terminal to San Jose would mean that his train could not make it from Transbay Terminal in San Francisco to LA’s Union Station within the Proposition 1A mandated time of 2  hours and 40 minutes.   So how does Mr. van Ark plan to get around this problem?  His plan is to proceed with the EIR’s as if there will be a second phase to Phase 1 when the necessary funding [Note 3] (last estimated at $4.8 billion for Union Station to Anaheim and $5.1 billion for Transbay Terminal to San Jose) magically appears. 

Incidentally, the costs referenced above do not include electrification costs or the costs of the trains.  The high speed trains were to run on electricity.  However, if it is too “technically challenging”  to extend the project all the way to San Francisco and down to Anaheim, and if passengers are to avoid making Metrolink or Caltrain connections, then the high speed train must be powered more conventionally (i.e. fossil fuels such as oil or diesel) along the Metrolink and Caltrain track and another promise will be broken; that of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  This is probably the least of Mr. van Ark’s worries as the Federal Railroad Administration has yet to set standards of construction for any train operating in excess of 150 mph and Mr. van Ark has no money to purchase trains anyway. 

Lastly, why does he “recommend that the draft EIR not be issued before the end of 2011 for these two segments “?  I don’t believe he really wants more “stakeholder participation” as this will merely increase complexity and cost.  He needs to delay the EIR work because the EIR’s are supported by engineering work and this would lead to new cost estimates, undoubtedly leading to higher cost overruns. 

Engineering studies, detailed cost estimating, and Environmental Impact Reports should be done to determine if a project is indeed a worthwhile project.  These reports are being completed and they show California’s High Speed Rail to be a costly boondoggle.  Write to your legislators in Sacramento [Note 4] and Washington [Note 5] and tell them the results are in.  California HSR is a bad idea.  It needs to be defunded and all work stopped.  Don’t forget to include Paul Ryan (R-WI) [Note 6], chairman of the House Budget Committee in your correspondence.

Statements made in this article are supported by footnotes shown below.  Links embedded into the article allow the reader to access these sources directly.

Note 1   California High Speed Press Release February 3, 2011

Note 2   November 2008 Official Voter Information Guide
           beginning on page 10 and titled  Text of Proposed Law

Note 3   Authority’s December 2009 Report to the Legislature
           page 85 Table 1 Capital Costs by Segment

Note 4   Website to contact California Legislative Representatives

Note 5   Website to contact Congressional Representatives

Note 6    Website to contact Representative Paul Ryan, Chairman of House Budget Committee

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