Meeting Report and Commentary, May 23, 2007
By Russ Jackson, RailPAC
The California High Speed Rail Authority, with four RailPAC members in attendance, met at the State Capitol on Wednesday, May 23, to adopt a definitive “Phase 1” of its project, “taking into consideration the cost, ridership, and revenue data presented to the Board on April 18, 2007.” The adopted Phase 1 is also based on “early utilization of some segments, some degree of local and regional participation in the early construction and funding, serving many regions, significant operating surplus to include a private partner in the construction and operation, development of a high-speed segment of around 100 miles, for building, testing, and commissioning the high-speed trainsets, equipment and systems, and completion in less than 10 years from today.”
This first phase, passed by the HSRA Board on a vote of 5-2, extends from Anaheim, through Los Angeles, Palmdale, and up the Central Valley including Bakersfield, Fresno, and Merced. From there the “route” goes into the Bay Area either by Altamont Pass or Pacheco Pass. What else is new, you say? Well, it’s what is NOT there that raises the question of whether it is a real “Phase.” Left out is the selected route into San Francisco which is “still under study,” plus the route to the Inland Empire, Riverside and San Diego, and the extension into Sacramento.
Arguments were made during the meeting by Commissioner Lynn Schenk that leaving out San Diego would cripple the potential for the project goals stated above, and probably bury that extension for a very long time. She “could not vote for the plan as proposed if San Diego were left out.” Executive Director Mehdi Morshed replied that any plans for the eastward extension from Los Angeles Union Station are tied up by SCAG, the Southern California Association of Governments, who are determined to build a Maglev system on that route and do not want the CAHSRA with its “steel wheels on steel track” project to “interfere” with that plan. Whether Maglev is realistic or not is immaterial at this point in the political process.
Another objection came from the newest member of the Board, David Crane, a special advisor to the Governor who spoke that it would be better for the Authority to know definitively what it could expect financially from the identified funding sources. “Are the Feds on board?” he asked, “Will Speaker Pelosi and Senators Boxer and Feinstein work to secure it? What can be definitely counted on from the state, partners, and local agencies?” It was estimated that this first Phase would require $27.5 to $39.5 Billion. Many “could be’s” are included in the estimates presented for approval.
But, Chairman Quentin Kopp, Commissioners Curt Pringle (Mayor of Anaheim), and Rod Diridon spoke of the need for a decision to be made, and in Mr. Kopp’s words, “We must keep moving!” Mr. Diridon said, “this plan generates the largest possible cash flow,” and in addressing serving San Diego, said, “Amtrak Surfliners now serve that market, and they’re not going away.” Ms. Schenk remembered the ill-fated “Bullet train” project of the early 80’s which was to be built down the San Diego coast line, but which “was not built due to extensive NIMBY opposition.” It should be noted here that the defeat of that project also included many organizations that found the project to be financially wrong, and by the U.S. Marine Corps which would not grant access to its property. Many current RailPAC members, including this writer, were involved in that 1980’s controversy, which brought us into the rail advocacy movement looking for projects that were “doable.” We note that early-on the current CAHSRA chose not to make the same mistake of trying to run down the San Diego coast.
RailPAC members have been interested observers in the progress of the High Speed Rail Authority plan. We have had speakers at our meetings explaining its progress. At the March 17 meeting in Los Angeles the Authority’s Dan Leavitt presented the latest video show explaining the expectations of the project. Several members present were disappointed in the disparaging remarks about the quality of current Amtrak service in that video, a theme that was also heard at this meeting. Amtrak California will continue to serve the LOSSAN market, plus the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys and other areas of the state that will not be served by high-speed rail for ten years or more even if the project is approved by the voters, whenever that will be. The Capitol Corridor will continue to serve Bay Area to Sacramento perhaps forever, as that segment, a major one, is not included in the CAHSRA plan.
In this writer’s opinion, by eliminating San Diego and not resolving the issue over Maglev with SCAG, not serving the Riverside area, without defining its route into the Bay Area, not serving Sacramento in the initial phase, and not serving the Bay Area to Sacramento segment, the CAHSRA has doomed itself to losing large blocks of votes for the $9 billion bond issue (if it ever gets on the ballot). As desirable as high-speed rail is for the state, it’s what the local folks think they want to approve for other areas to benefit from that will determine the project’s future.