More money, problems for CA high-speed rail

More money, problems for CA high-speed rail

high-speed-rail-map-320Proponents of California’s much-ballyhooed high-speed rail got a big boost in the state’s new budget. But in every other area where the struggle for its fate is playing out, the project is facing an array of daunting roadblocks.

Thanks to Gov. Jerry Brown’s staunch support, Sacramento legislators agreed to divert $250 million of cap-and-trade revenues toward train funding this year. For each subsequent year of the train’s construction, fully 25 percent of cap-and-trade funds will be diverted. The sizable figure is actually a compromise — down from Brown’s wished-for 33 percent, up from legislators’ 15 percent.

It’s a key victory for the train’s future. To move forward in the absence of bond sales stalled in the courts, California needs to start matching federal funds to prevent even that relatively minor source of cash from drying up. Typically, state funds must be ponied up before federal dollars flow in. But since states’ share of federal stimulus money must be spent by September 2017, California secured permission from the Obama administration to allocate some $3 billion of stimulus toward high-speed rail.

Now, train planners are scrambling to demonstrate that the project can drum up enough cash flow to remain viable. From the courts to the Congress, however, opposition to their efforts is so strong that even frantic fundraising may be in vain.

Skepticism in Washington

Earlier this month, the House of Representatives voted to strip California’s train funding from its latest transportation bill. In an embarrassing development, the amendment removing the funds was advanced by Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, who is chairman of the House Transportation Committee’s Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Subconmittee. The vote is, in fact, a replay of last year’s congressional wrangling, which culminated in the Senate restoring the funding the House would have taken away.

Nevertheless, with time of the essence, even a substantial delay triggered by another round of maneuvers in Washington poses a serious threat to Brown’s favored budget item. And in an election year, it’s not just Republicans who are souring on high-speed rail. Republicans scored votes against funding the train from four California Democrats up for re-election: Julia Brownley, D-Westlake Village; Raul Ruiz, D-Palm Desert; Scott Peters, D-San Diego; and Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove.

On top of that, the new presumptive House Majority Leader is Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, a longtime train critic.

Competing objectives

Democrats’ ambivalence toward the train isn’t just rooted in the election-year imperative to play it safe with controversial issues. There are matters of principle at stake as well. The Sierra Club, among other environmentalist voices, has expressed concern over diverting cap-and-trade revenue toward an infrastructure project that won’t curb carbon emissions right away.

Rather than big-name environmental groups, it’s large engineering and construction firms who are penning letters supportive of the budget deal’s funding.

Litigation heats up

Whatever the politics, attorneys and judges are likely to wield the decisive influence over the train’s fate. For that, Californians have little to blame but the wording of Proposition 1A, the ballot measure voters approved in an effort to raise $9 billion of bonds for the train’s construction. It’s unusual for a proposition to include legalese as precise and restrictive as Prop. 1A. But key supporters of the measure deliberately used that kind of language. Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, a former state senator involved in drafting the wording, told the Los Angeles Times: “We didn’t put them in as guidelines. … It was really clear what we wanted.”

That leaves train advocates relying on high-concept legal arguments concerning the nature of voter intent. Californians, they suggest, may have simply wanted a high-speed rail system, ignoring the particulars of the measure itself. Such an interpretation of law is likely far more expansive than courts would wish to embrace.

California’s 3rd District Court of Appeal may rebuff a lawsuit designed to sink high-speed rail before any bonds authorized by Proposition 1A are offered. If Deputy Attorney General Ross Moody is correct, however, perhaps six total suits could be brought against the train’s construction.


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  1. Robert S. Allen
    Robert S. Allen 18 June, 2014, 19:29

    Prop 1A in 2008 was entitled “The Safe, Reliable High Speed Passenger Train Bond Act…” The “Blended Rail” concept – HSR on Caltrain tracks – would be NEITHER SAFE NOR RELIABLE. Grade crossings of passenger train railroads are vulnerable to accidents, vandalism, and train delays. High Speed Rail especially needs secure (grade separated, fenced) track. Hence this concept that I have sent to the planners:

    CHSRA is on the wrong track. Like their Dan Richard, I have served as an elected BART director for several terms. I worked for three railroads that are now all part of UP (C&NW, D&RGW, and SP) in engineering and operations, including about 23 years in SP Western Division. I am a life member of AREMA (American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association). I am familiar with rail operations in the SF Bay Area.

    In 1999, Amtrak’s “City of New Orleans” running on 79 mph IC track struck a truck loaded with steel at a grade crossing in Bourbonnais, Illinois, derailing two locomotives and 11 of 14 passenger cars, killing 11 passengers, and injuring 128, per Wikipedia. HSR on similar Caltrain track would likewise be vulnerable to accident, sabotage, and severe train delays, what with dozens of grade crossings and many points of public access to the trackway. While most such events leave the railroad relatively unscathed, Bourbonnais shows what can happen with a train wreck. More often it is the vehicle or mortal being that perishes. Shortly after Bourbonnais, terrorists took down the World Trade Center in New York, and HSR would make a tempting target for terrorists.

    HSR needs a secure (grade-separated, fenced) right of way, much more than a “one-seat ride” for San Francisco HSR passengers. Hence my repeated appeals to CHSRA for phasing HSR to the Bay Area:

    1) End HSR initially at San Jose, with seamless transfers there to Caltrain, Capitol Corridor, VTA Light Rail, and the planned SV BART line.

    2) Squander no more HSR money on the Caltrain “book-end”.

    3) Plan HSR north from San Jose along an upgraded UP/Amtrak East Bay Mulford route to Oakland and on to Sacramento. Include a transfer station at the BART overhead crossing in Oakland. (Running time to San Francisco’s Embarcadero station about 6 minutes, with a train about every 4 minutes.)

    This would be much better, safer, more reliable, and less costly than HSR on Caltrain as planned. (2008 Prop 1A was for “Safe, Reliable” HSR.)

    Ultimately Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties should annex to BART for a voter-approved rapid transit network serving the five major Bay Area counties, but that is a different story.

    Robert S. Allen (925) 449-1387
    BART Director, District 5, 1974-1988
    Retired, SP (now UP) Western Division, Engineering/Operations

    Reply this comment
  2. GregS
    GregS 19 June, 2014, 14:27

    That’s why in Europe you don’t see crossings, they always build a bridge for the rail to cross over the roads

    Reply this comment

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