Californians Want Good High Speed Rail Service

Opinion By Noel T. Braymer

Recently the Los Angeles Times ran a story about a USC Dornsife Poll it helped pay for claiming that The Majority of Californians now oppose High Speed Rail and Most people want a revote on High Speed Rail. So where are the mobs of angry citizens with their torches and pitchforks marching on Sacramento to kill High Speed Rail? Just recently an effort to get a Ballot Measure to stop the High Speed Rail project failed to get even enough signatures for this year’s ballot. In Kings County, Ground Zero for opposition to the High Speed Rail Project the local paper noted the small turnout at a California High Speed Rail Authority meeting in Hanford last month. The question that is rarely bought up is who is responsible for the USC Dornife Polls which in this case the Los Angeles Times helped pay for? The man who oversees the polling is a Professor at USC named Dan Schnur also long known as a veteran California Republican Party strategist. This Poll asked many leading questions which is a common technique in Polling to get results supporting the viewpoint of the group paying for the poll. It is common to get contradictory results between different Polls on the same issue and the differences are usually based on how the questions are asked in the Polls. You can see the questions used in this poll at USC/Los Angeles Times High-Speed Rail Poll Misleads Public .

The Board of the Orange County Transportation Authority has publicly told the High Speed Rail Authority of their opposition to the planning for the High Speed Rail Project. The OCTA has countered that what is needed is a State Wide Rail program which concentrates on closing the gaps in service such as between Bakersfield and Los Angeles and Stockton and San Jose. It is hard to argue with the OCTA Board because they are right. Much of the criticism of the planning for the High Speed Rail Project was from the high costs and unrealistic expectation that people would wait for years to see results when there was no guaranteed funding to finish the project. There was a good chance we would get an expensive railroad to and from nowhere that no one would be able to use. The planning for this HSR Project largely ignored more immediate needs of the large urban areas for improved rail service and there was a good chance the HSR project would drain all the available funding from other rail projects. This could happen at the same time badly needed connections with other rail services to the High Speed Rail Project would not be available when and if it was ever built.

The CEO of the OCTA is Will Kempton who is also the Chair of the California High Speed Rail Peer Review Group. The Peer Review Group was appointed by the Legislature to advise it on the High Speed Rail Project to insure that it was well managed. Back at the start of this year the Peer Review Group asked for major changes to the proposed 2012  High Speed Rail Business Plan before it would advise the Legislature to approve funding to start construction. Some of the changes the Peer Review Group asked for were plans to get immediate use of new construction to avoid building a railroad to nowhere, greater participation by other rail agencies,   immediate construction around the state not just in one part as well a larger staff for the HSR Authority to be better able to manage this large complex project. This forced a major rewrite of the HSR Business Plan which was released this April. The Peer Review Group has noted the major improvements of  this new Business Plan and  advised the Legislature of its conditional approval.

The High Speed Rail Authority has several major open posts to fill. The first new hire was Jeff Morales as CEO. Mr. Morales is a former head of Caltrans and recently a Vice-President of Parsons Brinckerhoff which is the consulting firm that has been doing most of the planning for the High Speed Rail project. Mr. Morales is generally credited as the main author of the latest rewrite of the improved Business Plan. Since 1996 Parsons Brinckerhoff has been working for the California High Speed Rail Authority and had 100 employees working on the HSR project compared to the 20 employees until recently working for the Authority. Mr. Morales is a good example of the revolving door between government and private industry. Many people have questioned how closely Mr. Morales will monitor his former employer to do what is best for the state as opposed what is best for Parsons Brinckerhoff. Having other agencies such as Caltrain, Caltrans,  Los Angeles Metro and San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission (ACE) as partners in construction should give more balanced management to the project.

A major part of the new Business Plan which was largely worked out between the Peer Review Group and High Speed Rail Authority was to insure a railroad to nowhere wasn’t built. This will mean San Joaquins with new equipment for speeds up to 125 miles per hour will be running on a new 130 mile railroad built in the San Joaquin Valley by 2018. In addition the revised plan would fund work to raise speeds on most of the rest of the San Joaquin route which will allow shaving an hour off the current running time. Also as part of the revised Business Plan funding would go towards expanded local rail service between Merced, San Jose and Sacramento which will connect with the San Joaquins. As part of this revised Business Plan funding would be made available to electrify and improve track capacity for Caltrain. In Southern California up to a billion dollars is proposed for track improvements between Anaheim and Palmdale. More  money would be raised by selling additional bonds now rather than wait when inflation will decrease the spending power of the bond money. Plus selling the bonds now will lock in historic low interest rates which will save the State money compared with waiting  and selling them latter at a  higher interest rate. The route between Los Angeles and Palmdale would  see improvements to run faster Metrolink and future High Speed Trains.  On a related note LA Metro and DesertXpress have signed an agreement to work together to build a connection between Palmdale and Victorville. This will open up Metrolink service from Victorville to Palmdale and Los Angeles. It will also create a link to the LA Basin for high speed rail service to Las Vegas. In July Los Angeles County Board of Supervisor, Republican Michael Antonovich will become the Chair of LA Metro which controls funding for all transportation in the County. Fast rail service to Palmdale (which is in his district) and Victorville are high priorities for him.

The Poll given by Mr. Schnur basically gave respondents the choice of a railroad to nowhere or killing the project. Given those arbitrary choices most reasonable people would say the project should be killed. But in reality thanks largely to the High Speed Rail Project Peer Review Group the railroad to nowhere is dead. Polling results change from day to day and vary depending on the questions asked by different polls. What we need is a new Poll by a different pollster of  people’s opinion of the new High Speed Rail Business Plan which would bring in five years greatly improved rail passenger service to the San Joaquin Valley, between San Jose, Sacramento and Merced as well as on Caltrain and between Orange County, Los Angeles and Palmdale. The ultimate need is for a new high speed rail connection between Southern California, the San Joaquin Valley and Northern California. Track improvements to Palmdale is a first step in that process. Funding for the next step of building a high speed rail network in California is uncertain. What is certain is with the current proposal for over 6 billion dollars in Federal and State funding to upgrade rail passenger service throughout California by 2018. That is 6 billion dollars to put thousands of people to work in the State. The other option is to oppose this project which has no alternative funding to build anything. Killing the High Speed Rail Project will not release a dime toward long overdue rail projects let alone build one foot of track between Bakersfield and Palmdale.

My personal opinion is despite all the noise about  opposition to High Speed Rail, in July the Legislature will go ahead and approve the Bonds to qualify for Federal funding for High Speed Rail. It is hard to believe many politicians will turn away over 3 billion dollars of Federal Funding for a region with high unemployment. Just as unlikely that a Legislature would defy the Governor and President from the same party which controls the Legislature. Some highly partisan politicians and the Media use the High Speed Rail Project as a favorite whipping boy to exploit for their own purposes. For the media reality is less profitable than an invented “crisis” and for some politicians seeking power at the expense of the opposition is more important than the public good.

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