Against California High Speed Rail by Mark R. Powell

Hints of a New Path for California High Speed Rail

Senator Feinstein and Bay Area Representatives Call for Initial Construction in Bay Area.
Two high profile letters to the proponents of high-speed rail hint at a major shift in construction plans.  The most recent, a letter from Senator Diane Feinstein to Governor Brown [note 1], culled seven action items from the recent High-Speed Rail Peer Group Report and urged these “be addressed quickly with a concerted effort under your leadership”.

1. select an initial operating segment as soon as possible,
2. include a deployment plan for electrified high speed trains with positive train control systems,
3. further develop the business plan to address risk and cost issues,
4. involve the private sector in project design,
5. increase project management capacity,
6. subject demand forecasts to greater scrutiny, and
7. “reduce the risk to the state of a stranded project” by investing initial funding in the segments that currently serve significant train ridership (San Jose to San Francisco and Anaheim to Los Angeles) [emphasis added].

It is noteworthy that Senator Feinstein’s list of action items failed to address the Peer Group’s most critical finding; that the current funding plan is “not feasible” [note 2].  Perhaps the senator is in a position to know better than other Californians that no steady and reliable funding stream required to complete the currently proposed Initial Operating Segment (either to the north or to the south of the Initial Construction Segment) will be forthcoming from the federal government and because of this, immediate plans should focus on using currently available funds to quickly begin construction of an Initial Operating Segment from San Francisco to San Jose.

Beginning construction in the Central Valley with no “feasible” funding plan for completing the Initial Operating Segment goes against the wording of Proposition 1A.  At least that was the opinion of the Peer Review Group.  Using the Rail Bonds and ARRA (“Stimulus”) funds to build the Initial Operating Segment between San Francisco and San Jose might be less problematic with regards to Proposition 1A and would address the senator’s concerns about project risk, cost, and ridership.

The senator’s letter to the governor is very much in line with an April 2011 letter to the High Speed Rail Authority penned by Bay Area Democratic State Senator Joe Simitian, Bay Area Democratic Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, and Bay Area Democratic Assemblyman Rich Gordon expressing their support for “high speed rail done right” in the Bay Area [note 3].  The authors’ definition of “done right” was summarized as follows:

“Within the existing (CalTrain) right-of-way, at or below grade, a single blended system could allow high-speed rail arriving in San Jose to continue north in a seamless fashion as part of a 21st Century CalTrain (using some combination of electrification, positive train control, new rolling stock and/or other appropriate upgrades) while maintaining the currently projected speeds and travel time for high-speed rail.

The net result of such a system would be a substantially upgraded commuter service for Peninsula and South Bay residents capable of accommodating high-speed rail from San Jose to San Francisco.

Clearly these politicians’ demands are in line with those of Senator Feinstein’s for “electrified trains including positive control systems”.  The issue of cost for this roughly 50 mile long segment was addressed at the May 2011 Authority Board Meeting by a member of the Authority’s staff who suggested that CalTrain tracks could be upgraded and electrified to accommodate 1-4 high-speed trains/hour operating between San Francisco and San Jose for under $6 billion dollars.  He further explained that the 15% engineering needed to refine the cost estimate would be completed by mid-January 2012 [note 4]. 

Senator Feinstein’s call for  increased project management capacity would be addressed by reducing the scope of the near term high-speed rail project and by the recent decision to fold the Rail Authority into a Transportation Agency along with Caltrans and the California Transportation Commission.  Her remaining concern, private sector involvement, might also be addressed in a limited Bay Area project where the purchase of electrified trains and the electrification of rail on an existing right of way would lead immediately to an operating enterprise. 

A major shift in the direction of high-speed rail, from building the “backbone” in the Central Valley and then in later stages advancing toward a large population center to a new strategy of building outward from a large population center could only be made quickly and in time for use of the $3.5 billion in ARRA funds if environmental hurdles were cleared quickly.  Opponents of high-speed rail are concerned that AB 1444 recently introduced by Assemblyman Mike Feuer will in fact allow for the fast-tracking of environmental clearances similar to those previously granted under the Jobs and Economic Improvement Through Environmental Leadership Act to streamline the environmental approval process for major freeway projects and the proposed Farmers Field stadium in Los Angeles [note 5]. 

Assemblyman Feuer’s bill proposes to include “new public rail transit infrastructure projects” to those already covered by the Economic Improvement Through Environmental Leadership Act [note 6] and is scheduled to be heard in committee on February 4 [note 7].  With the loudest advocate for starting construction of the “backbone” of high speed rail in the Central Valley, Roelof van Ark, resigning his CEO position, congressional and state politicians clamoring for construction to begin in the Bay Area, a pending reorganization of the Rail Authority, the Governor saying he supports building high-speed rail “incrementally” [note 8], and now proposed legislation to fast-track its environmental approval process, the stage appears to be set for a major change construction plans.  The Rail Authority’s soon to be released Final 2012 Business Plan should make for interesting reading.

Statements of fact made in this article are supported by the footnotes shown below:

Note 1:  January 10, 2012 letter from Senator Diane Feinstein to Governor Jerry Brown

Note 2:  California High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group Report dated January 3, 2012; page 4; top paragraph; final sentence

Note 3:  Eshoo, Simitian, Gordon Statement on High-Speed Rail released April 2011

Note 4:  Video of May 5, 2011 California High-Speed Rail Authority Board Meeting; Item 5 San Francisco to San Jose Alternatives; 1 hour: 0 minutes: 0 seconds into video

Note 5:  Text of AB 1444 introduced by Assemblyman Feuer

Note 6:  Text of AB 900 Economic Improvement Through Environmental Leadership Act

Note 7:  Status of AB 1444

Note 8:  Video of ABC 7 News Interview of Governor Brown; 45 seconds into video

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