The Cost Of Fighting Bullet Trains

FEB. 16, 2011

Sixty-five billion dollars. That’s the newest estimate of how much money it will take to run bullet trains across California. Though not an official figure – the California High-Speed Rail Authority still insists that they can pay for bullet trains, stations, maintenance facilities and 800 miles of tracks with just $43 billion, though a new cost estimate is due in October – the number comes from Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CARRD), the most credible citizens organization right now criticizing the state’s high-speed rail dreams.

“Our analysis, based solely on official and publicly available Authority documents, determines the current project costs are approximately $65 billion,” states this CARRD analysis, released Feb. 9. “The $43 billion figure was inaccurate, even at the time it was made. One of the selling points of the project was that it would parallel existing transportation corridors. From an engineering perspective, this requires expensive civil works which were unaccounted for in the 2009 number.”

Though just a handful of stay-at-home moms in Palo Alto, CARRD recently attracted the attention of The New York Times, which gave considerable ink to the new cost estimate in this Feb. 10 story. The Times story is a huge gift to CARRD, most notably because their goal of bringing rationality to the state’s bullet train project is still very much a tough slog.

Turns out bullet trains exhibit tremendous momentum before they even start running – before they’re even built, in fact. This momentum, which builds from the interplay between the government agencies and officials that approve such projects and the corporations that build them, is extremely difficult for citizens groups to overcome.

This is exemplified by the Association for California High Speed Trains (ACHST, to its friends). This group, which was established in 2005, “seeks to enhance California’s transportation system by securing funding from federal, state, local, and private sources to design and build a network of high-speed trains under the direction of the California High-Speed Rail Authority,” according to the group’s website.

“The Association also seeks to educate and inform the public, business community, and government officials about the benefits of high-speed rail for all Californians,” the ACHST website adds. “Relationships are built with groups whose agendas include environmental, quality of life, and sustainable economic growth initiatives.”

This group, which boasts an impressive 48-member Board of Directors, is for all practical purposes the state bullet train authority itself. Or rather, it’s a conglomerate of the authority’s extremely well compensated contractors and sub-contractors.

“It’s all the same companies who have high-speed rail contracts,” said Elizabeth Alexis, an economist with CARRD. “It’s very odd that the people who get paid by government are allowed to lobby on behalf of that government. It’s not appropriate for a public project, paid for with public dollars.”

Indeed, the list of ACHST’s directors is a who’s who of high-speed rail contractors: STV Incorporated, Hatch Mott MacDonald, T.Y. Lin International, Parsons Brinkerhoff Quade and Douglas, AECOM, URS Corp., Parsons, HNTB and so on. Joining the group isn’t cheap, either: dues range from $2,500 to $10,000 a year, depending on the company’s number of employees. What’s more, ACHST is headquartered at 1215 K Street, Suite 1120 in Sacramento – the same office used by Lucas Public Affairs, which enjoyed a lucrative $10,000-a-month public relations contract with one of the high-speed rail authority’s biggest contractors.

“They’re not a client of ours,” said Donna Lucas, who founded Lucas Public Affairs in 2006 after working as a strategist for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, of ACHST. “They sublet space from us.” Lucas did say she sent out a ACHST press release last week, but insisted it was just a “courtesy” for which they were “probably reimbursed.”

“My reputation is very important to me,” Lucas added. “There is no conflict of interest.”

Lucas said her firm was subcontracted by rail authority program management contractor Parsons, but said the contract ended “probably last summer.” In her October 27, 2010 report on the high-speed rail authority, then-state Inspector General Laura Chick found that the authority was wastefully paying three firms – including Lucas – to do pro-rail PR.

“Beginning February 2010, Deutschman became a subcontractor under Ogilvy and stopped charging costs to Parsons Brinckerhoff,” Chick’s report noted. “Townhsend and Lucas remained under Parsons Brinckerhoff and continued to charge $8,000 and $10,000 per month, respectively. This amounted to $90,000 in charges from February 2010 to June 2010, which were [sic] not supported by appropriate documentation. Since Ogilvy became the lead for communications and public outreach, Townsend’s and Lucas’ work should have been conducted and coordinated through them or ceased all together.”

That’s real money — clearly, the high-speed rail authority will spend pretty much whatever it takes to promote their bullet trains. And that means activists like Alexis and the rest of CARRD have a lot of work ahead of them, New York Times publicity or not.

-Anthony Pignataro

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