High-Speed Rail Advocate – April 2011 Issue

Message from Executive Director

Support is rapidly growing all over the country for large investment in high-speed rail (HSR). It is the fact that such momentum is building that opponents are making a desperate play to kill HSR before it can really get underway. The $2.9 billion cut to Federal HSR funding in the budget negotiations demonstrates the influence of opponents. However, things could have been a lot worse. As it stands, there is still enough money to move forward with a large section of the California project in the Central Valley. Other higher-speed rail projects around the nation will also move forward. Additionally, these projects have built tremendous political support for HSR that will not go away. The most that opponents can hope for now is a slow down for the next couple of years. The HSR cat is out of the bag, and I am confident this push to kill HSR will be limited influence to the short-term.

However, to ensure this is the case, we need all HSR supporters to get involved both at the Federal and State level over the next few months. Threats still remain for additional cuts to HSR as part of the debt ceiling and FY2012 budget negotiations. At the State Capitol there are still a handful of legislators and a cadre of committed anti-HSR activists from the Peninsula who are busy trying to kill jobs and our economic recovery through proposed legislation designed to kill or severely hamper the California HSR project. We all need to work hard together to defeat the incredible shortsightedness of those trying to rob us of our future.

Daniel Krause

Executive Director, Californians For High Speed Rail

Federal/National Report

Update and Analysis of HSR Developments in Washington D.C. and Beyond

CA4HSR Appalled by $2.9 Billion Cut in HSR Funding

CA4HSR recently submitted letters to President Obama and Senators Feinstein and Boxer encouraging them to hold the line on HSR funding during the Fiscal Year (FY) 2011 budget negotiations. Unfortunately, this did not happen. The final result:

  • Elimination of FY 2011 HSR funds – $2.5 billion cut from FY 2010 (and $1 billion less than the President’s request).
  • Rescission of $400 million of FY 2010 HSR funds (i.e. a reduction from $2.5 billion to $2.1 billion).
  • $400 million cut in FY 2010 funds reduces amount available from the rejected Florida HSR money from $2.4 billion to $2 billion.

CA4HSR is bitterly disappointed that President Obama and congressional democrats did not hold the line on HSR funding given that the President recently held up HSR as one of his signature initiatives. Frankly, we have to ask how committed the President is to HSR at this point. Obviously without the President’s efforts to-date, we would not have a Federal HSR program to speak of, and we are grateful for his previous efforts. However, by letting FY 2011 funds to be completely eliminated, it will be much more difficult to re-establish HSR as an annual funding line item in the Federal budget. Furthermore, HSR was one of the biggest cuts highlighted nationally, which is frankly an embarrassment to the President given his recent high-profile commitment to HSR. It is perplexing to us why the President and congressional democrats did not insist on preserving at least a token amount in the FY 2011 budget. Now the President’s plans for $8 billion in intercity passenger rail funding in FY 2012 (including $4 billion for HSR), as part of his vision to invest $53 billion in HSR and other intercity rail, will be much more difficult to achieve.

Beyond the cuts already made, HSR advocates need to be on guard for the potential of further cuts to the Federal HSR program as part of the debt ceiling negotiations. We need to work with national groups such as National Association of Rail Passengers to communicate that any additional cuts to HSR and other passenger rail is totally unacceptable.

The President and congressional democrats need to show true commitment to HSR and other passenger rail (unfortunately republicans have abandoned all support of passenger rail nationwide). Our future is at stake and it is unacceptable to just talk about investment while at the same time be willing to sacrifice rail investment in budget negotiations. If the President and the congressional democrats are not strong enough to re-establishing HSR at significant funding levels in the FY 2012 budget, it will be a strong indication that the President’s $53 billion rail plan is essentially dead and that he and congressional democrats never really fought for it.

State Capitol Report

Spotlight on HSR Developments in Sacramento

This year has brought a plethora of state legislation related to HSR. Many bills are designed to reform the structure of the Authority as many legislators have expressed frustrations with the Authority and their ability to have influence over them.

CA4HSR has identified several bills that we support, but also some really bad bills that are designed to slow down, and in some cases, kill the project. We have posted our Legislative Matrix of key HSR bills on our website. This matrix provides a summary, analysis, and our position for each bill. The bills that deal most comprehensively with Authority reform are AB 145 and SB 517. This month’s feature article provides a thorough examination of these bills. Please refer to the matrix for discussion of all other bills.

California HSR Project Updates

An Around-the-State Update and Analysis on HSR Developments

Central Valley Update

While there are uncertainties in the long-term Federal funding picture, the budget deal has preserved enough funds to aggressively move forward with construction of the HSR track infrastructure in the Central Valley.

California High-Speed Rail Authority Aiming to Construct Entire Central Valley Line for Phase 1 with Existing Federal and State HSR Funds

Florida’s rejection of $2.4 billion in Federal HSR funds (now reduced to $2 billion due to cuts in the budget deal), has created a golden opportunity to complete construction of the track infrastructure (not including electrification) for all Central Valley cities included in Phase 1 of the California HSR system. The California High-Speed Rail Authority (Authority) has applied for $1.44 billion of the rejected Florida money to extend tracks to both downtown Merced and downtown Bakersfield (including both stations). Combined with a 20% match from Proposition 1A funds, a total of $1.8 billion would be added to the current $5.5 billion already secured, bringing the total investment between Merced and Bakersfield to $8.3 billion. CA4HSR recently submitted a letter to the U.S. DOT and FRA supporting the Authority’s application.

The Authority has also applied for additional funds to extend tracks toward the Bay Area (from the planned wye in the Chowchilla area) and southward from Bakersfield. However, given the stiff competition nationally for these funds, it is unlikely that the Authority will get anything for these extensions, especially now that the Florida pie has been reduced to $2 billion. In fact, one has to wonder if the Authority will get the full $1.44 billion it is requesting to complete the 180-mile section of track between the planned Merced and Bakersfield stations.

The Authority’s commitment of building to Merced is big news because there was some speculation as to whether Merced would get cut out of Phase 1 altogether. The Authority’s application solidifies its commitment to include Merced, which may have been a necessary move to keep the support of politicians from the Merced region. While this may not be the most ideal rollout in terms of applying limited funds to completing tracks from the Bay Area to Los Angeles, maintaining the support of key politicians is critical for the project as a whole, especially since there is significant opposition from powerful farm interests.

Central Valley Environmental Documents Delayed

According to the Authority’s Hans Van Winkle, the two draft Environmental Impact Reports/Environmental Impact Statements documents for the Central Valley (i.e. Merced-Fresno and Fresno-Bakersfield sections) will now be released in September of this year, with the final versions anticipated for February of 2012. The Authority is still planning to begin construction by September of 2012.

Authority Considering an At-Grade Design Through Downtown Fresno

The bombshell news from the Central Valley is that the Authority is now considering configuring HSR tracks to be at-grade through downtown Fresno. CA4HSR is supportive of exploring this option. We see this willingness to rethink major design options as another example that the Authority’s CEO Roelof Van Ark is establishing more control over the contract engineering firms. Prior to Van Ark’s arrival, there appeared to be a lack of oversight of the design work of these firms, with many questioning if the designs being produced were cost-effective. While it may still be necessary to construct elevated tracks through downtown Fresno, the willingness to be more open to other design solutions bodes well for the future of this project.

Land Use Planning and Station Design in Downtown Fresno

The City of Fresno has been busy creating the Fulton Corridor Specific Plan for the area around the planned HSR station. CA4HSR had planned to write up an analysis of the initial results from this process, which is documented in High Speed Train Station Area Concepts. However, this document is not the result of an exhaustive planning process as we originally thought. Rather, it is a representation of a one-day charrette conducted with city officials and consultants. Therefore, the concepts produced are very preliminary and likely to change dramatically. CA4HSR is glad there is more time for input as we had concerns about the understated station designs and the level of density proposed for the station area. Apparently, there is likely to be an opportunity for more input in May and into the summer. For those interested, there was a great discussion around the station designs from this document at the California HSR Blog.

Bay Area Update

Peninsula Politicians Announce Vision for a Scaled-Back “Blended” Caltrain/HSR Corridor

Searching for solutions to calm HSR opponents on the Peninsula HSR, three Peninsula politicians – Representative Anna Essho, State Senator Joe Simitian, and State Assemblymember Rich Gordon – released a statement about their vision for HSR to utilize an upgraded Caltrain corridor. This vision has three tenets: 1) No aerial viaducts; 2) No expansion of the Caltrain ROW; and 3) The abandonment of pursuing a high-speed rail EIR/EIS along the Peninsula.

Essentially, they are calling for a project of a much more limited scope to be designed by Caltrain rather than the Authority. Rather than constructing four-tracks for the entire railway corridor, they are envisioning upgrading the Caltrain corridor through electrification and the construction of additional four-track sections (beyond the three sections that already exist) to allow HSR trains to pass Caltrain trains in more locations. Additionally, by calling on the Authority to stop the environmental review of a phased full-build out, they are saying that they permanently want to limit the scale of the upgrades. What is not clear from the proposal is how they plan to accomplish grade-separation of the entire corridor, which is essential to run an efficient HSR system (as well as high-levels of Caltrain trains).

While CA4HSR has already expressed a willingness to explore options for phased, incremental implementation of HSR along the Peninsula, we find the notion of limiting design options (no viaducts, even if there are sections that are non-controversial) and stopping the environmental work on a full-build out scenario the most troubling aspects of the proposal. Our position is that the ultimate capacity must be sufficient to serve increasing levels of HSR traffic. If it is determined that only 50% or 75% of the corridor needs four-tracks to meet the long-range demand for both HSR and Caltrain, then we are agreeable with scaling back the original vision. However, this is has not been determined yet, and we feel it is premature to settle on a drastically scaled-back project that could forever hamper the HSR system.

CA4HSR plans to share our concerns and questions with the authors of this vision in hopes of furthering constructive dialogue. Our goal is to ensure the final approach to upgrading the corridor is done in a way that does not suppress ridership and reduce the legally mandated speed of the system. We are currently crafting a response to the representatives and will report back soon.

Los Angeles Area Update

Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Agency (Metro) to Buy Los Angeles Union Station

Metro has concluded negotiations to purchase Los Angeles Union Station (LAUS) for $75 million. It is unclear exactly where the funding is originating. Located within the Authority’s application for additional Federal funding (from the rejected Florida HSR money) is a request for $75 million for the purchase of LAUS. It appears that a deal has been arranged, as the sale is portrayed as a forgone conclusion, even though the Authority has not been granted the Federal funds for the purchase. Previously, there was some discussion of Metro purchasing LAUS with the Authority, but now Metro will have full ownership of the facility.

Feature Article

Authority Reform:  A Discussion of AB 145 and SB 517

CA4HSR understands the need for reform of the Authority. Our position is that any reform should be done in a way that constructively improves the performance of the project to further its momentum. Assembly Bill 145 will accomplish this. On the other hand, Senate Bill 517 is designed to radically alter the governance of the Authority, which would likely lead to chaos and a slowing of project momentum just as construction is scheduled to get underway.

AB 145, sponsored by Assemblymember Cathleen Galgiani (D-17th Dist.) and Assemblymember Bonnie Lowenthal (D-54th Dist.) would:

  • Create a Department of High Speed Trains under the Business, Transportation, and Housing Agency (BTHA), and would be governed by the existing California High-Speed Rail Authority Board.
  • Put the new department on the same level with CalTrans and the Department of Motor Vehicles and other agencies.
  • Allow the Authority to create a 6-year budget which they can present directly to the Legislature.
  • Requires the Authority to establish an eight-member Peer Group to review planning, engineering, and financing.

By creating a Department of High Speed Trains under the BTHA (which will have the same powers as CalTrans), AB 145 will raise the profile and priority of passenger rail in California. Having the same power of CalTrans will greatly enhance the ability of the Authority to implement the project construction efficiently. Additionally, being under the BTHA, additional oversight of staff and the Authority board by the Governor and the Secretary of the BTHA will be accomplished.

AB 145 preserves the Authority board, which will continue to make policy, while the new Department of High Speed Trains will implement this policy. CA4HSR believes this provision is critical because it will provide continuity and stability as we move toward construction in 2012. A major reshuffling of the leadership at this juncture would likely create chaos and that could significantly slow the implementation of the project.

SB 517, sponsored by State Senator Alan Lowenthal (D-27th Dist.) would:

  • Place the HSR Authority under the Business, Transportation and Housing Agency (BTHA).
  • Require the Secretary of the BTHA to become a non-voting ex officio member of the HSR Authority board.
  • Require the Secretary to propose a budget for the authority.
  • Require all HSRA board members appointed by the Governor to be approved by the Senate.
  • Remove all current board members and restructure the board with different expertise.
  • Reconstitute the board to include: one engineer with planning and design of large transportation projects; one transportation economist; one environmental protection expert or the study of ecosystems; one expert in project financing; one attorney with experience in procurement strategies and construction issues in “one of a kind transportation projects;” and one representative of labor.

While SB 517 has some good provisions that should be considered, several provisions cause this bill to be detrimental to the HSR project. Entirely removing the existing Authority board will lead to more confusion of leadership and direction at a time when the project is entering into construction. Also, CA4HSR has serious concerns about requiring all Authority board members appointed by the Governor be approved by the Senate.  It is understandable that the Legislature is frustrated about their limited power over the composition of the CHSRA board , but this solution gives too much power to the Senate by requiring that the Senate “consent” to all five Governor appointees (in addition to the 2 appointees they already have). We also have concerns about the mix of proposed board members being proposed by this legislation.

CA4HSR urges the legislature to adopted intelligent reform by supporting the framework of reform represented in AB 145.

HSR Blurbs:

California Rail Advocacy Groups Talk High Speed Rail

By Ryan Stern, CA4HSR Board Member

High-speed rail was a major topic at the March 19th “Steel Wheels in California” combined meeting of the Rail Passengers Association of California (RailPAC) and the Southwest Division of the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP).  The Authority was represented by Project Manager Hans Van Winkle, who provided an update on new alternatives currently being considered by the project team.  Eugene Skoropowski, a consultant with HNTB and former Managing Director of the Capitol Corridor Joint-Powers Authority, related valuable insight on his recent experience with the politics of Florida’s HSR project. CA4HSR Executive Director Daniel Krause joined RailPAC President Paul Dyson, Friends4Expo Co-Chair Darrel Clarke, and NARP Council Member and CA4HSR Board Member Ryan Stern to discuss the role High Speed Rail plays in the Passenger Rail advocacy community.

In the face of increasing politicization, the impact of California’s HSR project will depend, in no small part, our ability to leverage the successes (while acknowledging and addressing the limitations) of our state’s network of passenger trains.  CA4HSR is committed to working with the members RailPAC, NARP, and others to urge our representatives in Sacramento and Washington to prioritize investment in HSR as a way to promote the overall improvement of passenger rail.

Contributors to this E-Newsletter: Daniel Krause, Nick Cromwell, and Ryan Stern.

Editor: Daniel Krause

About Californians For High Speed Rail

Californians For High Speed Rail (CA4HSR) is a grassroots, statewide coalition of HSR supporters advocating for the HSR project approved by California voters in November 2008. Founded in 2005, we exist to educate, inform, and organize Californians about ways they can help make high-speed rail a reality in the Golden State.

As a non-profit group united by our passion to bring high-speed rail to California, we rely on the help of like-minded volunteers to carry out our mission. We welcome article ideas, submissions and donations from our members and supporters. Contact Sharon Sim-Krause at sharon@ca4hsr.org or 415.658.5322 on ways you can make a difference.

Become a Member of CA4HSR today!

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About The High-Speed Rail Advocate

The High-Speed Rail Advocate is the official e-newsletter of Californians For High Speed Rail (CA4HSR).

Californians For High Speed Rail
(415) 658-5322