High-Speed Rail Advocate – December 2011 Issue

Message from Executive Director

Californians For High Speed Rail (CA4HSR) has been extremely busy in the last few months organizing around the five Central Valley EIR/EIS hearings that took place in September and participating in various debates and hearings. Unfortunately, this busyness has reduced the number of e-newsletters recently. We hope to resume more regular publishing in 2012.

As you probably know, the California High-Speed Rail Program Draft 2012 HSR Business Plan was released on November 1st. There has been a great deal of attention given to this business plan by lawmakers in Sacramento and in the media. Given the huge cost increases, the response has been surprisingly positive. This is a real testament to Jerry Brown’s leadership, as he has put a great deal of effort into the business plan. That said, opponents are predictably using the business plan to call for suspension and/or delay of the project. And the Legislative Analyst’s Office has already produced another ridiculously biased report about the business plan and the project in general, showing they are rapidly destroying that important office. CA4HSR plans to ramp up advocacy in Sacramento as some lawmakers are beginning to waiver.

CA4HSR is currently developing a comment letter regarding the business plan. We would like to see a set of more optimistic assumption included alongside the very conservative assumptions used in the business plan that would reduce the overall estimated cost and timeline for completion. We feel the California High-Speed Rail Authority (Authority) should be ready with an alternative plan if funding does materialize more quickly than anticipated. Following this e-newsletter, we will be sending a special e-message devoted to explaining our thoughts on the business plan.

Gary Patton, legal counsel for the Planning and Conservation League, is emerging as the point person of the statewide movement opposition to high-speed rail, linking Central Valley and Peninsula opponents. In a series of comment letters to the Authority (written for Citizens for California High Speed Rail Accountability), he has outlined his legal arguments against the EIR/EIS documents. After reviewing them, I think his arguments are weak and won’t stand up. However, the strength of the arguments may be a secondary goal of opponents. Rather, the primary goal is to throw anything and everything against at the project in an effort to create significant delay and doubt. That is their primary strategy now. So be ready for a plethora of lawsuits in coming months from Patton and his allies. In fact, Kings County has already filed one, even though the Authority has already agreed to revise and delay the EIR/EIS for the Fresno to Bakersfield section.

Recently, I had the chance to debate Mr. Patton at the annual gathering of state Sierra Club leaders. We had a very cordial but spirited debate. It became clear during the debate that one of his primary motivations in opposing HSR is that he believes that localizing our activities to reduce the need for large-scale transportation infrastructure is the best environmental strategy. While I agree that we should design our local environments to encourage access by proximity and make the places we live in a way that encourages us to travel less, the reality of the hyper-connected, highly-mobile world is that people now have contacts over larger and larger geographic areas. It is hopelessly unrealistic to think that an anti-infrastructure approach to the future is feasible for producing environmental improvement.

One would think Mr. Patton might adjust his philosophy given the transportation failure that was produced after he worked to kill a rail line from Santa Clara County to Santa Cruz County 20+ years ago. Instead of preventing growth and travel, the elimination of this rail line contributed to massive traffic jams along Highway 1. Now Highway 1 is being widened, changing the nature of the charming small towns south Santa Cruz to a place of massive automobile use. The feel of Santa Cruz County is rapidly changing from charming coastal towns to a more standard suburban environment. What a tragedy. And now he wants to take this flawed philosophy statewide. If Mr. Patton gets his way again and HSR is thwarted, massive highway and airport expansions will be the result, assuring a future of more air pollution and asthma, and massive loss of farmland due to the continuation of automobile-based sprawl. Not a future I want.

It is sad to see this level of delusion present in some long-time environmental leaders in California. Luckily, as indicated by the response from many Sierra Club members at the debate, most realize Patton’s philosophy is doomed to fail.

Daniel Krause

Executive Director, Californians For High Speed Rail

Feature Article: “Valley First” Approach Moving Forward

With the generally positive reaction to the Draft 2012 Business Plan by transit agencies such as Caltrain and LA Metro, and from Governor Brown and state lawmakers (including project critic Alan Lowenthal), it appears efforts to shift federal HSR funds from the Central Valley to the Bay Area and Los Angeles region are finally over.  However project skeptics are still claiming it is a “train to nowhere” and using this argument in attempts to convince lawmakers to send the federal HSR funds back to Washington. Fortunately, Governor Brown continues to express his strong support publicly for moving forward with construction in the Central Valley first.

Given the continued challenges to get sufficient support from stakeholders and lawmakers to move forward with the project in the Central Valley, below is a summary of CA4HSR’s views on merits of the “Valley First” approach.

Technical merits of starting in the Central Valley:

  • Lowest cost to build, so initial pot of money will be stretched the farthest of anywhere in the state, greatly building momentum for the project.
  • “Train to Nowhere” claim is hogwash – Fresno and Bakersfield metropolitan areas are very large. The Hanford station will also serve the rapidly growing Kings/Tulare Counties. As a whole, the Central Valley is project to have 12 million people living there in coming decades. Twelve million people certainly deserve a $6 billion investment in improved passenger rail service, even if it turns out that it is only to speed up Amtrak in the interim until HSR is finished statewide.
  • If HSR construction is slowed for a period of time due to a slowdown in funding, Amtrak’s San Joaquin trains will still be able to utilize the HSR track and significantly speed up service in the Central Valley. Currently, travel in the Central Valley is problematic. Flying is very expensive and Highway 99 is congested and treacherous. By speeding up San Joaquin trains in the interim, travel within the Central Valley will vastly improve. Furthermore, more train travel in the Central Valley will help to reduce air pollution. Even if HSR is put on hold for an extended period of time, something we feel is unlikely to happen, speeding up Amtrak service by 45 minutes is essential for the Central Valley’s economy, environment, and quality of life.
  • Test track, which needs to be built first, must be constructed in the Central Valley because of its flat and straight terrain.

Political merits of starting in the Central Valley:

The Initial Construction Segment will take approximately five years to construct. During that five-year span, when we are spending over $6 billion, there will be  massive political impetus to find additional funds from a variety of sources (including private and public). The reason this impetus will be so strong is precisely the fact that the large urban areas (Bay Area, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Sacramento) desperately want to participate in the HSR project, as they understand the myriad of benefits. The political brilliance in starting in the Central Valley is to drive the search for more funding. Once construction starts, California will find ways to continue to construction unabated. In other words, construction will never stop until the system is complete (extensions will likely make it a 40-year process of non-stop construction).

If we start in the large urban areas, politicians will end up spending the first pot of money on commuter rail upgrades. With these projects complete, the powerful urban interests will likely be happy enough to conclude that we got what we wanted, so what is the point of fighting hard for more HSR money. Parochialism reigns in California and you can bet that Central Valley will just be forgotten once Caltrain and Metrolink are upgraded. Conclusion: HSR money gets spent on so-called “HSR preparation” project, but true HSR never shows up.

The same argument can be made (politically speaking) about  filling the gap between Palmdale and Bakersfield first. If we use the $6 billion on that project, Amtrak will be happy and we have an improved Amtrak service. Under this scenario, one can envision great pressure to use future funds to upgrade Amtrak rather than extending HSR track. Again, true HSR never materializes.

The point is, if we start either in the urban areas or fill the gap first, HSR can easily be dropped. But if we start in the Central Valley, HSR can’t be easily abandoned. Starting in the Central Valley gets us over 100 miles of true HSR track. Once that happens, there is no going back.

California HSR Project Updates

An Around-the-State Update on HSR Developments


Central Valley Report

CA4HSR Organizes Coalition to Demonstrate Wide Ranging Support for HSR at five Central Valley EIR/EIS Hearings

In September, CA4HSR worked with various partners to ensure strong pro-HSR attendance at the five Central Valley EIR/EIS hearings for the draft project-level EIR/EIS documents. We are pleased to report that we achieved a solid turnout turnoutof supporters from labor, business, students, and other stakeholder groups at all five meetings, balancing the debate with that of local opponents and ideologically-driven Tea Party activists. CA4HSR would like to thank all of our coalition partners on this effort.

As part of this effort, CA4HSR organized two press conferences prior to Fresno and Bakersfield hearings. Both press conferences featured numerous speakers from a wide range of stakeholder groups and resulted in excellent print and television coverage.

Authority Staff Recommends Moving Ahead with Hybrid Plan for Merced to Fresno Section

CA4HSR is encouraged by the Authority staff recommendation to move forward with a hybrid alignment for the Merced to Fresno Section. CA4HSR recommended this idea over a year ago to Authority engineers. The hybrid alignment involves running HSR trains along the Union Pacific alignment north of Chowchilla into downtown Merced, while running trains east of Madera along the BNSF route. This alignment is the least expensive and avoids major environmental issues. The Authority also confirmed that the first stretch of construction will be a 24-mile segment from Avenue 17 in Madera County to downtown Fresno.

Bay Area Report

Caltrain Releases Preliminary Findings from Corridor Capacity Study

Caltrain recently released preliminary findings from their Corridor Capacity Study. The findings conclude that it is feasible to run six Caltrain trains/hour and up to two HSR trains/hour on current tracks and up to four HSR trains/hour if tracks are expanded to for tracks near the middle of the corridor (between San Mateo and Redwood City).

It is our understanding that these initial conclusions do not fully take into account the CHSRA’s comments or analysis. However, since the release of the business plan, it appears the two agencies are working more closely together. Let’s hope that trend continues. The recently released business plan also emphasizes the “blended” Caltrain/HSR approach.

While CA4HSR is now supportive of moving forward with a “blended” approach, we still have concerns that full grade separation may never be achieved unless all parties realize its importance. We are open to seeing electrification done as a first phase along with other elements of the blended approach minus full grade separation, but any initial phase must be done intelligently. For example, substations need to be relocated outside of the ROW to allow for track expansion in the future. Furthermore, the overhead contact system (OCS) needs to be designed to allow for track expansions where they are reasonably anticipated. It would be foolish to install the OCS infrastructure to accommodate only two tracks and then have to go back and remove and reinstall when we can easily provide the clearances in the initial construction.

Los Angeles Area Report

Grapevine Study – Significant Cost Savings Possible with Grapevine Alignment

By Stephen Bender

The July CHSR Program Monthly Progress Report indicates that building the Grapevine alignment “may save between $1B and $4B in capital costs.” The wide estimate range is further notable, as even it is hedged by the conditional “may.” Reporting on the study tends to emphasize the $4 billion number.

The report revives a debate that appeared resolved in 2005 when the Grapevine route was ruled out on the grounds that the area was too seismically unstable. Although the Grapevine alignment would cut 25 miles and 9 minutes of travel time between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the planned Tehachapi alignment would serve Antelope Valley population centers like Palmdale. In fact, the city of Palmdale filed suit to stop the Grapevine study in its tracks, arguing that the project’s own funding guidelines forbid changing the long-established route. Though that suit was dismissed, the Palmdale alignment continues to enjoy wide and deep political support in southern California.

Meanwhile, the Tejon Ranch Company, which owns the land through which the Grapevine alignment would pass, is concerned that the project will interfere with their planned $2 billion real estate development. While the Authority is under pressure to keep costs down, it can ill afford to alienate supporters in the Southland. To-date, CA4HSR has supported the Palmdale route on the grounds that it would expand ridership numbers and could one day link HSR with Las Vegas.  However, given the possibility of saving upwards of $4 billion, the grapevine route may warrant another look. The Authority board members will determine whether or not to undertake environmental analysis of the Grapevine route shortly.

Federal/National Report: Spotlight on HSR Developments in Washington D.C. and Beyond

FY 2012 Update: HSR Funding Zeroed Out

By Stephen Bender

As expected, funding for HSR was zeroed out by a House appropriations subcommittee on September 8. Two weeks later, a Senate panel approved a mere $100 million, a very tepid and disappointing effort at best by HSR supporters in the U.S. Senate. To further the disappointment, funding for HSR was completely eliminated in the final negotiations for FY 2012 budget. Further clouding matters was Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Bakersfield) October 3rd pledge to submit legislation mandating a one year freeze in funding while “Congressional auditors can review its viability.”

The last chance for funding HSR in 2012 was contained in President Obama’s American Jobs Act. However, the infrastructure portion of that bill was also defeated when it was introduced as separate legislation. While CA4HSR believes the federal funding situation will improve in coming years, the lack of “fight” by HSR supporters in Congress does hurt the California project, as it strengthens the skeptics’ argument that it is too risky to start building HSR in California due to a lack of federal commitment.

State Capitol Report: Spotlight on HSR Developments in Sacramento and Beyond

Governor Jerry Brown Takes Control of HSR Project – Delays Consideration of Authority Reform and Release of Business Plan, Appoints New Board Members

Several recent developments indicate that Gov. Jerry Brown is getting heavily involved in the HSR project and is taking a high-level of control. First, the two Authority reform bills were pulled from consideration near the end of the 2010-11 legislative session. AB 145 (Galgiani) and SB 517 (Lowenthal) were both put into the suspense file and will likely be reconsidered early next year. CA4HSR is relieved as we felt both bills were not helpful in moving the project forward, especially SB 517, which was designed to hinder the project. It appears that the Governor wants more time to formulate his own thinking on how best to create a package of reforms.

Governor Brown also delayed the release of the business plan by about two weeks to give him and his newly appointed Authority board members more time to review the important document. CA4HSR is encouraged that the Governor is taking such a direct interest in the business plan and in the project as a whole.

Finally, the Governor appointed Dan Richard and Michael Rossi to the Authority board of directors, both of whom have been very active publicly in promoting the business plan since its release.

First Public Hearing of Business Plan Conducted in Palo Alto – CA4HSR Testifies at Hearing

CA4HSR was invited to testify at a State Assembly hearing for the 2012 Draft Business Plan. Daniel Krause spoke for CA4HSR and stressed the need to include a more optimistic scenario in the business plan in the event that funding for HSR materializes faster than anticipated in the current draft of the plan. Daniel also participated in a pre-hearing press conference organized by the California Alliance for Jobs. Turnout by the labor community in support of HSR jobs was tremendous at the press conference and at the hearing.


About The High-Speed Rail Advocate

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

Contributors to this E-Newsletter: Daniel Krause and Stephen Bender

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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