Commentary, Issues, Reports

High Speed Rail: The View on November 4th

Report by Bill Kerby, RailPAC Treasurer

November 4, 2010 — Public commentary opened and closed the meeting of the California High Speed Rail Authority (HSRA) held today in the State Capitol.  In his opening remarks, San Mateo’s Assemblyman Jerry Hill announced that he will introduce legislation dealing with expenditures, transparency and disclosure by the HSRA.  This proposed legislation will address possible conflict of interest matters which have arisen in a recent state audit. Details of his presentation can be found here.

Most of the other public commentary emphasized the broad support of high speed rail from Bakersfield to Merced, although only one of the two segments north and south of Fresno will be selected for the first construction phase of the HSR.  Representatives from San Joaquin Valley chambers of commerce, the farm bureau, and elected representatives echoed broad support for the project.  A recent public meeting in Fresno brought more than 800 people to hear Roelof van Ark, CEO of HSRA, and other officials present the case for High Speed Rail.  The mayor of Fresno sent a message that Fresno is particularly happy with the revised high speed alignment through Fresno.

Van Ark’s thorough discussion of the corridor selection criteria made clear that of the four possible construction phases to be placed first in line, two were out.  Only the San Joaquin Valley segments will be considered and that selection will be made at the next meeting, scheduled for December second.  The agreement between the Federal Railroad Administration and the Authority must be signed by December 31, 2010.

While the CalTrain line is not connected to the two Central Valley projects receiving more than $900 million in funding authorization last month, CalTrain’s Bob Doty modified the CalTrain’s earlier position that trenches could not be used in critical areas along the Peninsula.  With new found flexibility on the trench ban, driven by new information and reconsidered positions, engineers determined that a trench is possible at Redwood City due to a relaxed specification on maximum track grades.   Planners and engineers also found that the Whipple Road crossing in Redwood City can be constructed at a lower cost by increasing the crossing grade height by a mere three feet.  Other cities along the line, including Burlingame, expressed interest in the covered trench solution.  Addition of the Redwood City covered trench option should speed both approval and construction progress.   In an attempt to speed system-wide development, Mr. van Ark announced that a November 17th settlement meeting is scheduled with plaintiffs from the Peninsula who oppose the current four track right-of-way.

Mr. van Ark introduced Major General Hans Van Winkle (Retired), whose appointment as project manager was announced November 2nd by the HSRA.  A graduate of West Point, Van Winkle comes from the consulting firm of Parsons Brinckerhoff where he was a vice president and replaces Tony Daniels at HSRA.  CEO van Ark then explained the status of work in progress.  Discussions with freight railroads including Union Pacific have led to a “clearing of the air” and positive changes.  Community discussions have dramatically expanded; more than 84 technical and community group meetings were held over 30 days time.  The Authority commissioned an audit report October 12th where the auditor made ten generally negative notations.  After explanation by the Authority’s management, the auditor agreed that nine of the ten notations were properly executed, but that one was not.  However, van Ark asserted that no money was lost by the state and, indeed, revised contracting procedures saved the state $2.6 million through contract renegotiations.

Concluding that the HSR is the backbone of California’s transportation infrastructure, van Ark stated that the system must connect San Diego to Sacramento when built out.  The backbone is formed by connecting northern and southern California and its major cities.  This position sounds very much like RailPAC’s stand on closing the Bakersfield Gap, but gap closure at this time was not discussed.  It should be.

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