Will High-Speed Rail Kill All Rail?

MARCH 30, 2011

The promise of California’s proposed high-speed rail network is unambiguous: the 800 miles of bullet trains across the state will run clean, make money, put people to work and get people out of their cars. “California’s high-speed rail system will be profitable, will attract private investment, and will create tens of thousands of jobs in the state at a time when they are needed most,” high-speed rail authority executive director Roelof van Ark said in a March 11, 2011 press release.

But think again if you believe rail advocates are united behind van Ark’s dream. In fact, a number of long-time rail activists feel that California’s bullet-train fixation is actually harming other trains across the state that are already carrying passengers.

This fear is especially acute considering the $2.4 billion in Federal Railroad Administration funds that are currently up for grabs. Earlier this month, Florida decided to ditch its high-speed rail dream and give back the above funds, which Washington announced was now available to other states that applied before a new April 4 deadline. Wasting no time, van Ark announced his intention to grab as much as he could.

Today’s federal funding announcement is another opportunity for California to aggressively compete to make true high-speed rail a reality in the United States,” he said on March 11. “Additional funding may allow California to extend next year’s construction segment and operate initial high-speed rail passenger service.”

Not so fast, says Paul Dyson, president the volunteer group RailPAC, which has advocated for rail since 1977. On March 22, he wrote to Governor Jerry Brown, asking that he divide up the grant application among various rail car and track and signal improvement projects across the state.

It is a mistake to direct all available resources to the High-Speed Rail program alone,” Dyson wrote. “The infusion of funds to the state corridors will provide immediate employment to construction workers as well as laying important building blocks upon which the state rail system will thrive whether true high-speed rail is built or not.”

Chatting over the phone a week after he wrote his letter (he still hasn’t heard back from Brown’s office), Dyson elaborated on various intercity rail needs that are suffering from lack of funds. Most notably, he said there’s just a single track at the rail station in Van Nuys.

It’s 2011!” Dyson said. “That is completely absurd. These projects are not headline catchers, but they are desperately needed upgrades.”

Matt Rocco, a Caltrans spokesman, said his agency did submit various intercity rail projects for the state’s grant application. Of course, officials have neglected such projects in favor of high-speed rail before. In late 2009, when $1.1 billion in federal rail funds were at stake, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger ignored intercity rail improvements and chose instead to apply only for bullet-train money.

Dyson finds this appalling for a number of reasons, most notably the fact that the California High-Speed Rail Authority has evolved into an utterly feckless waste of money.

Given the gross incompetence of the High-Speed Rail Authority and its Board, given the incredible waste of public funds such as the over-engineering of the Los Angeles to Anaheim branch line, given the extraordinary propensity of the CHSRA’s consultants to alienate every community with which it comes into contact, and given the current political and financial climate wherein it will be very difficult to obtain the large amounts of public funds needed to complete the HSR project, we have to design our policy for passenger rail on the assumption that whatever High-Speed infrastructure we build may be the last that is ever built,” Dyson wrote to Brown. “Therefore, for the time being at least, we should put our funds into existing lines that connect with a future HSR system.”

Dyson is hardly alone in his criticism of the high-speed rail authority. “The California High-Speed Rail Authority has consistently demonstrated that it cannot properly implement and manage the project,” wrote Santa Cruz attorney Gary A. Patton — on behalf of the San Francisco-based Community Coalition on High-Speed Rail — to Brown on March 18. “There shouldn’t be any surprise about this. The Authority is structurally and institutionally incapable of managing what is the biggest public works project in the history of the state.”

Metropolitan Transportation Authority CEO Arthur Leahy apparently disagrees. On March 25, he wrote to van Ark outlining $544.6 million worth of Los Angeles-area intercity rail projects in the High-Speed Rail Authority’s grant application. Whether it makes a difference will be known soon enough: the rail authority board takes up the grant application at its March 30 hearing.

— Anthony Pignataro

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