Thursday, February 16, 2017

Beginning of the end for high-speed rail?

A 3,700-foot viaduct that is being built to extend over State Route 99 in Fresno County for California's high-speed rail line.
Los Angeles Times

End Times For HSR?

The end may be coming for the California High-Speed Rail project. The state's High-Speed Rail Authority is running out of the federal funding that has kept it going, and the Authority is getting pretty desperate. 

Katy Grimes, a knowledgeable observer of the project, has said the project is like the "walking dead," and renowned Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters has used the word "zombie" to describe it. This seems right on target. Despite its obvious failure to make any real progress, the project just keeps on coming! 

Maybe not for that much longer, however!

The nation's biggest boondoggle is now having to face three inconvenient truths. First, costs have spiraled totally out of control, and the project is massively behind schedule, as the Authority has vacillated on project design (first going North, then going South, now going North again, from its start in the Central Valley). Second, new federal funding is probably not on the way to bail out the Authority. Third, not only is new funding unlikely, the federal government may require the state to make the long overdue "matching fund" payments (totaling about $2 billion owing to the federal government) that should already have been paid but were deferred by the previous Administration.

In view of these financial challenges, how is the Authority trying to keep that zombie project going? Here's how. The Authority is hoping that the federal government will provide funding for HSR through a grant that seems to be for a positive project with political support; namely, the Caltrain "modernization" project. Caltrain is the official project applicant, but a grant award to Caltrain will mean high-speed rail on the Peninsula, and an actual reduction in the ability of Caltrain to provide expanded rail commuter service in the future.

As we wait to see what the new Administration is going to do, and whether the "fake 'em out" strategy just outlined is going to work, concerned residents and voters should be advised of three indisputable facts:

#1 - The "Caltrain" Grant Application Is For The High-Speed Rail Project

The High-Speed Rail Authority is hoping that the Federal Government is going to bail out its mismanaged high-speed rail project, but the Authority knows that Washington no longer believes in the high-speed rail fantasy that the Authority has used, in the past, to build public support for the proposed project. Everyone now knows that the project that the Authority keeps pretending is real is nothing but a boondoggle. In fact, the Republican Party Platform has specifically called for an end to funding for the California high-speed rail project for just that reason.

Faced with both the real failure of its project, and with the public's knowledge that the project has failed, the Authority is trying to pretend that the Caltrain "modernization" project is for local commuter service, something quite different from the state's proposed high-speed rail project. Not really!

In fact, the proposed project on the Peninsula depends on the use of $750,000,000 of High-Speed Rail, Proposition 1A Bond Funding. The upshot of the project, if it went ahead, would be a legal transfer of rights for the Caltrain right of way to the High-Speed Rail Authority. The idea is to confuse the public by portraying the Authority's zombie high-speed rail project as a Caltrain "modernization" project. It isn't.

Less costly modernization alternatives could go ahead and achieve the desired results for Caltrain commuters, but without the unsightly and unnecessary overhead catenaries demanded by the high-speed rail project. Those alternatives have all been rejected (at least for the time being), as an effort is made to get more federal money for high-speed rail in the guise of funding for local transit. Don't be fooled!

#2 - The "Modernization" Project Will Reduce Future Commuter Options

In return for the money that Caltrain would get from high-speed rail sources (money not really needed if lower cost modernization options were used), the state's High-Speed Rail Authority would get the legal right to displace future commuter expansion. Caltrain would, in fact, forfeit the ability to add up to four commuter trains per hour in each direction during peak hours. Instead, the Authority would use that capacity to provide for long-distance, high-speed rail service that does nothing to eliminate the traffic gridlock that a properly-designed Caltrain project could help correct. The way the project is currently structured, the best word to describe the traffic impacts of the proposal is paralysis.

#3 - There Has Been Apparent Bad Conduct In High Places

In view of the Authority's funding crisis, it is doing everything it can to siphon off "commuter" rail money to be used for the state's high-speed rail project. Incredible pressure is being applied to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), to get the Administration to give Caltrain a $600,000,000 "transit" grant that will in fact fund a high-speed rail project on the Peninsula.

The FTA grant application was sent forward with only two days left in the Obama Administration in an obvious effort to push it ahead before the new Administration could review it. Sending the grant notice to Congress was Carolyn Flowers, then the Acting Director of the FTA. 

Within two weeks after taking this last-minute action, Flowers left the FTA and took a job with AECOM, a Los Angeles based engineering firm that provides program management services to Caltrain for the electrification project. AECOM stands to receive major funding from the very same grant that Flowers approved and sent to Congress. This kind of ethically questionable behavior should not be rewarded [emphasis and AECOM link on Carolyn Flowers added]

If you want to do something about the push for an excessively costly high-speed rail project that smells to high heaven, and that is likely to result in diminished capacity for commuter rail service on the Peninsula in the future, let your local officials know what you think. 

You can also contact Elaine Chao, the new Secretary of Transportation, who is going to make a decision on the FTA grant application in the very near future. You can leave her a message at: 202-366-4000, or send an email to Secretary Chao by using the following email address:

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