Tuesday, March 07, 2017

High-speed rail and Caltrain

On March 5th The Wall Street Journal commented on the recent decision of the Secretary of Transportation to defer action on a proposed grant to Caltrain that would set the stage for the state's High-Speed Rail Authority to take over an ownership interest in this local commuter line to transform it into a leg of the state's mismanaged and ill-planned High-Speed Rail project: 

Congratulations to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao for putting a stop to some dubious grant-making for San Francisco Democrats by a former Obama official in another imbroglio for California's bullet train.

Last month Ms. Chao said she is delaying indefinitely a $647 million federal grant for the Caltrain commuter service that former Federal Transit Administration chief Carolyn Flowers approved two days before President Obama left office. Ms. Flowers now works at an engineering company that is a contractor for the Caltrain project. 

Last week Governor Jerry Brown sent a letter to Ms. Chao begging her to release the funds pronto. "Can we discuss this on the phone?" he asked in a handwritten note.

California's 14 House Republicans have asked Ms. Chao to withhold the federal cash until an audit is completed on California's misbegotten bullet train. An internal Federal Railroad Administration analysis in December found that the train's first segment in the sparsely populated Central Valley is running 50% over budget.

How does the electrification of Caltrain connect to high-speed rail? Good question. The bullet train will supposedly link to Caltrain, though that may not be for several decades, if ever, at the current rate of construction. 

Since the choo choo may never reach the Bay Area due to litigation and funding shortfalls, Bay Area Democrats late last year wrote legislation that would make $600 million of the $10 billion in high-speed rail bonds that voters approved in 2008 available for electrifying Caltrain. This may be unconstitutional as legislators aren't allowed to amend measures passed by voters, and some taxpayers have sued.

Ms. Flowers decided to help her progressive friends in San Francisco on her way out the door by fast-tracking the federal grant for Caltrain. Now she's returned through the other door to collect a piece of the cash. Sacramento is America's western swamp.

William Grindley has also commented on the action taken by the Secretary of Transportation. Grindley is a Peninsula resident with stellar financial credentials (World Bank; Associate Division Director, SRI International; Founder and CEO, Pacific Strategies, retired, with a degree in Architecture, Clemson; and a Masters Degree in City Planning, MIT). Grindley has led a group of financial experts in studying the state's High-Speed Rail project. His reports are highly critical of what the state is doing. They are available on the CC-HSR website.

It shows the fragile position Caltrain, HSR, the Legislature and Brown have put themselves in through incompetence (Caltrain and CHSRA have known it needed the $600M of federal funds since its MOU of 2012) and arrogance (the Legislature and Governor both know they can't preempt/bypass Voter Ballot votes). 

The Governor's whining is the capstone. Does he think that California deserves any more attention for an HSR project the Feds have kept on drip feed for too many years? 

The federal HSR $ came to CA because in 2009 Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the White House. For 8 years---until AFTER the 2016 election---the DOT/FRA ignored warning signs, including a paper [written by Grindley and his team, and provided to] the DOT's Office of Inspector General in 2013. Suddenly, with a new Administration, the DOT/FRA bureaucracy finds problems. 

If the whole story were any more than political; that is if the project made transportation or financial sense, private investors would have lined up at the door nine years ago. They haven't, they won't: so the political answer from the new federal political power is not what Caltrain, HSR, the Legislature or Brown want. 

Local politicos are trying to put pressure on the federal Department of Transportation. Like Governor Jerry Brown, they are hoping they can get their calls answered. Answer the calls, maybe. Just don't capitulate! Don't fund that inappropriate grant. That's the advice of CC-HSR.

There is, in fact, a way to accomplish what Caltrain needs, and to modernize the Caltrain right of way, without tying our local commuter line to the dead (and we do mean "dead") weight of the moribund High-Speed Rail project. Secretary Chao's action is saving the Peninsula from a bad decision, and is preserving the opportunity for Caltrain to upgrade the corridor in the right way, allowing for the further commuter expansion that will surely be needed, as increasing gridlock makes that corridor ever more important for local residents and riders.

Rob's comment:
Not clear what the WSJ is referring to by electrifying Caltrain "the right way," since that will be expensive no matter who pays for it.

If the Trump administration kills the project, it would be doing a future California Governor like Gavin Newsom a favor, since it would make President Trump the bad guy. Newsom is one of the few state Democrats to express doubts about paying for the project. Steve Glazer is another.

SFStreetsblog is a die-hard supporter of the dumb high-speed rail project. It even slants descriptions of links to stories on the project, like the recent Dan Walters column in the Examiner (California bullet train suffers two big setbacks that could be fatal), which is described by Streetsblog as "Fact-Challenged Columnist Still Hates HSR." The op-ed by Walters is actually a succinct, fact-based summary of the present dire political/economic condition of the project. SF Streetsblog on Caltrain electrification.

The Chronicle's Matier & Ross give readers the bad news about when the inevitable happens and high-speed rail doesn't come to San Francisco:

San Francisco’s over-budget and oversize $2.4 billion Transbay Transit Center will open in December — but it’s going to cost an estimated $20 million a year to run the place, and no one knows where all the money will come from. The three-block-long behemoth was envisioned as the Grand Central Station of the West, a dynamic hub for buses and high-speed rail that would draw more than 100,000 visitors a day.

Come opening day, however, there will be no high-speed rail. Instead, for many years, the five-level showcase just south of Mission Street between Second and Beale streets will be little more than the world’s most expensive bus station — serving mainly the 14,000 transbay bus commuters who roll in and out daily on AC Transit.

That reality is starting to sink in and has city officials scrambling — because without the big crowds that trains were supposed to bring in, there are serious questions about where all the money needed to keep the place secure, clean and well lit will come from...

Randal O'Toole on the Caltrain electrification issue:

Secretary Chao has not killed the project but only deferred the decision to give Caltrain the money pending an audit of the high-speed rail project. Such an audit would especially look into a recent Federal Railroad Administration prediction that the short segment of high-speed rail that is currently under construction will cost around 50 percent more than claimed. Based on that, the final cost of a true high-speed rail line from Los Angeles to San Francisco will be around $150 billion, which is something like four or five times the amount promised to voters in 2008 and about ten times the cost projections in the late 1990s (emphasis added).

See this High-Speed Rail Authority 2015 document: Electrification of the Caltrain Corridor.

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