Political Pivots by California High-Speed Rail Authority
First this way, then that way, California’s ephemeral and puzzling $64 billion bullet train projects wanders aimlessly along a curious path of yet-to-be-built track burning taxpayer dollars and Cap-and-Trade auction funds at a burn rate of $3.6 million per day.
In February’s release of its new business plan, the California High-Speed Rail Authority again demonstrated its inability to fiscally and operationally manage the largest public works project currently in progress anywhere in the United States.
In its latest spasm, the Authority switched direction — from connecting Los Angeles with the Central Valley — to an alignment that starts in an almond orchard miles north of Bakersfield and terminates in San Jose. It’s counting on CalTrain “connectivity projects” to get passengers the final 30 miles to San Francisco.
Scuttlebutt in Sacramento suggest that the change has more to do with the shifted emphasis of pleasing the political power structure of the Bay Area’s campaign funding sources than it does with serving California’s public transportation priorities.
Despite public outcry and intense media scrutiny, the Authority failed to air its reasons for changing its four-year old plan that originally built track from Merced to Los Angeles during public meetings.
Instead they chastised the public, stakeholders and the media for questioning the credibility of their planning efforts and their cost estimates to go to L.A. via Palmdale. They said that they had things handled going south.
Just this week, the L.A. Unified School District announced its intention to oppose their routing of the train through ecologically sensitive areas north of the San Fernando Valley, piling on homeowner and conservationist protests. So much for the Authority’s “We’ve got this handled” claim.
No part of their routing through the Tehachapi Mountains is without criticism. The Authority conveniently is still not explaining how the train will successfully go through the Tehachapi and San Gabriel Mountains to reach L.A.
Competent engineers and geologists question their plans to dig 30+ miles of tunnels through complex, jumbled rock formations shot through with earthquake faults. What folly!
There appears to be no fiscal, engineering or moral compass guiding this massive transportation undertaking.
On prominent display is the Authority ’s total incompetence at delivering to Californians the statewide high-speed train the voters were promised when the voters approved Proposition 1A in 2008 to fund the Authority’s project.
Completing the entire high-speed link between north and south has been estimated by the Authority to cost in the neighborhood of $100–$120 billion. The Authority said their revised route would save $4 billion off its previously estimated $68 billion construction costs for the S.F.–L.A. Phase 1 Blended route.
What it actually delivers is a much slower train trip between California’s major population centers than the one Proposition 1A promised voters as they made the critical funding decision to launch the project eight years ago.
Never in its eight-year saga has the Authority provided the public a full-cost estimate for the entire statewide system that the Prop 1A backers promised California voters and is required by law.
As a reminder, the proposition called for a $33 billion, 800-mile train system to connect L.A. and S.F., complete with spurs to Sacramento and San Diego. At $64 billion for a partial system, the project is 94 percent over budget and still going nowhere.
There also are legal and technical hurdles that seem to pose insurmountable obstacles to achieving that goal. Some of them were discussed in a public Congressional hearing in San Francisco last week.
Many recognize that the entire enterprise would long ago have ground to a halt had Governor Jerry Brown, the California Legislature and the California Air Resources Board not acted to provide a transfusion of emergency funds to replace Prop. 1A’s legally challenged bonds.
While projecting only one million pounds of carbon savings for the entire enterprise — an assumption that is highly doubtful, by the way — millions in Cap-and-Trade auction funds supposedly devoted to cleaning up our air are being squandered on administrative largesse. This fiscal life-support system also relies on President Obama’s federal stimulus funds under the questionable premise that normal freight operations will be speeded along the High-Speed Rail corridor down the Central Valley.
Read the statements from the Authority and you will find their carbon savings come from urbanization of farmland along the train’s route, not from savings due to the locomotive’s operations itself. They promise to plant a million trees in compensation for all the carbon released by their track construction projects.
This is dissembling and obfuscation intended to obtain funds clearly intended for other purposes of higher value to the public.
It is completely clear that the present High-Speed Rail project plan does not satisfy Prop 1A, and the Authority has no intention of satisfying the public’s mandated specifications. It is equally clear that it doesn’t deliver the benefits required by AB-32 climate and air legislation mandates.
When a huge public undertaking is built on a foundation so shaky and risky, it’s time to give the voters a chance to use what they have learned in the past eight years since they last opened their wallets and allow them a revote on proceeding with the project.
In short, it’s time to push politicians, appointed members of the Authority board and incompetent planners off the tracks.