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Critics of high-speed rail take their arguments to Sacramento

Even with initial funding secured, California's embattled project faces major hurdles

California's contentious drive to build a high-speed-rail system between San Francisco and Los Angeles sped ahead last week, when state lawmakers approved funding for the first construction phase, faces new hurdles as critics go to Sacramento in new effort to block plan.

The $68 billion project still has to pass through a gauntlet of legal, financial and political obstacles before it becomes reality.

The most immediate threat comes from litigation, of which there has been no shortage. Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Atherton remain involved in a lawsuit against the California High-Speed Rail Authority, the agency charged with building the system. The lawsuit, which claims that the authority's environmental analysis relies on erroneous ridership projections, will be the subject of a settlement conference in Sacramento Monday morning, July 16, said Palo Alto City Councilman Larry Klein, who chairs the city's Rail Committee.

Even if the rail authority settles the Peninsula lawsuit, it will still face fierce opposition from Central Valley, where construction is set to begin. A coalition of agencies, including the Madera County and Merced County farm bureaus and the Chowchilla Water District, filed a lawsuit last month, arguing that the rail authority "due to a myriad of analytical deficiencies, failed to disclose and analyze the full scope and severity of impacts."

The litigation could continue as the rail authority unveils its "project-level" Environmental Impact Reports, which pertain to specific segments of the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line and have a higher level of engineering and design specificity. Klein said the city will consider in the coming months whether it should file or join any other lawsuits against the rail authority.

Then there are the political hurdles, including bids to have California voters weigh in a second time on the high-speed-rail project.

Although a bill by State Sen. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, met a quick death on the Senate floor last week, a group of opponents led by former U.S. Rep. George Radanovich is pursuing a similar citizen initiative. In its petition, the group argues that the state "cannot afford to pay for a high-speed train system that will cost more than $100 billion at a time when teachers and police are being laid off, prisoners are being released from prisons, and taxpayers are being asked to dig deeper into their own pockets to pay for basic services."

The Palo Alto City Council, which last December adopted as its official stance a call for the project's termination, is scheduled to consider endorsing the citizen initiative on July 23. The council's Rail Committee has recommended that the full council do exactly that, even though state law bars the city from spending money on the campaign.

"Our action might be helpful to the cause symbolically," Klein said.

Meanwhile, city officials and rail watchdogs are still analyzing the text of Senate Bill 1029, which lawmakers released in the waning hours of July 3 and which the 40-member state Senate approved by a single vote on July 6. Elizabeth Alexis, co-founder of the Palo Alto-based group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design, said the group remains concerned about where the rest of the funds for the system will come from.

"When you look at full costs and benefits in Central Valley -- it's very little positive transportation value unless you spend another $30 billion dollars," Alexis said. "The concern is that this will act as a sponge for all available money that can go to other worthy projects."

The specific language of the budget-trailer bill only adds to the anxiety. For example, the bill allocates $1.1 billion for a "blended system" on the Peninsula -- a design under which high-speed rail and Caltrain can share two tracks between San Jose and San Francisco. But the bill also states that the $1.1 billion can be transferred to other items, including construction in the Central Valley (known in the bill as Item 2665-306-6043), with approval from the state Department of Finance.

"It looks like accounting minutiae, but if you translate it, it means that with one signature from a governor appointee, the money for Caltrain can be moved to the Central Valley project," Alexis said.

"The first time you read a bill it seems very clear to you," she added. "It's only on the 12th reading of the bill that you really understand all the loopholes."

Palo Alto officials have other concerns about the specific bill, including the fact that the language specifies that "any funds appropriated in this item" shall be used for a blended system and not to "expand the blended system to a dedicated four-track system."

The Palo Alto argument is that this language doesn't offer sufficient protection to ensure that the rail authority would pursue a blended system rather than the deeply unpopular four-track alternative. They called for language specifying that "funding in subsequent years may also not be used for a four-track system on the Peninsula."

Despite major reservations from all Republicans and some Democrats in the Senate, the appropriation bill received 21 votes, the minimum needed for advancement. The bill allocates $2.7 billion from the Proposition 1A bond to launch construction on the system's opening segment in the Central Valley and another $1.1 billion to support the "blended system" on the Peninsula. The state Assembly had voted 51-27 on July 5 to approve the bill.

Much like in the Assembly, members of the Senate lined up largely along party lines, with Democrats supporting and Republicans opposing the bill. But some Senators, including Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, and Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, crossed the party lines and voted against the project. Both of them have been heavily involved in oversight of the project since 2008, when voters approved a $9.95 billion bond for high-speed rail.

Supporters of the appropriation bill, led by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, argued that the rail project is badly needed to create jobs and improve California's transportation infrastructure.

"In this era of term limits, how many chances do we have to vote for something this important and long-lasting?" Steinberg asked his colleagues at the beginning of the debate. "How many chances do we have to vote for something that will inject a colossal stimulus into today's economy while looking at the future far beyond our days in this house?"

Simitian rejected this logic and focused on the particulars of the bill. He cited the fact that the rail authority has a leadership structure riddled with vacancies and that the bulk of the funding in the bill would go toward a 130-mile track in the Central Valley. He also noted that the bill fails to answer the critical question of how the rest of the $68 billion system would be funded and cited criticism from a variety of nonpartisan agencies, including the Legislative Analyst's Office and the Office of the State Auditor.

Simitian also alluded to the Field Poll conducted last week, which showed that the controversial project could derail the tax measure that Gov. Jerry Brown plans to bring to the voters in November. Though 54 percent of the survey respondents said they support Brown's proposal, a third of those surveyed said they would be less likely to vote in favor of the measure if the legislature were to fund high-speed rail.

Simitian cited the souring public opinion for the project in explaining his vote. By chasing the $3.3 billion in federal funding for high-speed rail, Simitian said, the legislature is risking a $40 billion hole in the budget that lawmakers would have to fill if Brown's measure fails.

"How are we going to feel if we wake up on Wednesday after Election Day and look at the trigger cuts -- the $40 billion that will have to be pulled painfully from the budget -- from schools, colleges, universities, health, welfare and public safety?" Simitian said. "We may not think that's the way it ought to be but the hard practical reality is that that's the way the folks back home are thinking about these tradeoffs."

In the Assembly, both Jerry Hill and Rich Gordon voted to support the appropriation bill. Gordon said at the Assembly hearing that he went through a "period of doubt" on the high-speed-rail project but that his "faith has been restored" by the rail authority's embracing of the blended approach, which he had championed along with Simitian and U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo.

"I do think that this is a part and parcel of our future, and I think the projects that are defined in this legislation also stand alone on their own for the moment, as we move in the future toward full implementation of high-speed rail," Gordon said.

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Sri
a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood
on Jul 14, 2012 at 10:00 pm

This train is, and always been a fraud. It has always been about the money, and who gets the most. Who pays, you the taxpayer, was never given a second thought by Gov. Brown and his Democratic yes men.

Browns and Democrats now wailing that the schools will be whacked unless taxes are raised. The bottom line is, Brown and Democrats think that your money is far better spent on a train to nowhere than educating your kids.

Brown is driving California into the dirt.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Mr. Mittens
a resident of another community
on Jul 14, 2012 at 10:34 pm

As most of know for golly sakes, only little people take public transportation. It is so passe' in this age of modern business. Most of my friends travel on their own Lear jets.

As a businessman I can tell you, the train to nowhere will rob Americans of job opportunities around the country. We should not be promoting public transportation but instead should be urging people to purchase automobiles. This is what keeps our economy humming, such as it is with this president we have who is so far over his head it isn't even funny. If all the little people start getting comfortable riding public transportation, they'll not have any incentive to buy cars. As a businessman I can tell you, individual car purchases are much better investments than ticket sales for a train to nowhere.

Once I am in office, I assure you that I'll employ other sound pieces of conservative thinking.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Dipmit
a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood
on Jul 15, 2012 at 6:52 am

Air force one is much more efficient than those wasteful Lear jets. It sure will be nice to get on airfarce one in Livermore, fly to Sacramento to catch the choo choo and speed down to Bakersfield. Now that's progressive thinking. Good thing we have many practical, progressive union supporters in the state Capitol. What's another 69 billion when the state is already irreparably in the hole?


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Posted by Mr. Mittens
a resident of another community
on Jul 15, 2012 at 7:32 am

One of my first tasks in office will be to increase my friends' ability to buy a Lear jet or a second if they already have one. This can happen if we raise taxes on the little guys a little bit -- heck, even poor people should have to pay the 13% that I did, er, one year. And give additional tax cuts to the wealthy. As a businessman, I must say this will be money well spent. You see, the little people can't afford Lear jets; they are hardly in a position, therefore, to stimulate the economy. But my guys buying Lear jets? Whoa Nellie. Gosh don't that just beat all?

As we move toward election, I'll share many other of my conservative business principles with you.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Jason
a resident of Pleasanton Meadows
on Jul 15, 2012 at 9:27 am

The train is a great idea! High paying jobs, reduce our carbon footprint and finally provide a way for folks to get between Northern and Southern CA. Plus it's paid for with free federal money, private sector investments and rider fares.

There's no risk. As Jerry Brown said "We have plenty of money." In the highly unlikely event that it isn't self sufficient we can take the shortfall from the general fund or issue more bonds (again, free money).


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Posted by Tom Hervey
a resident of another community
on Jul 15, 2012 at 10:30 am

The train will succeed. The longer we wait, the more the cost will increase. The funds for this project are transportation funds. It has nothing to do with your children's education funds. There are those who would like you to think education will suffer because of this project, but that is completely false. Education may suffer but it will be because of the people not supporting it through other means.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Mike
a resident of Highland Oaks
on Jul 15, 2012 at 2:54 pm

Yet, cuts to education continue.

High-speed rail, nein danke!

Mike


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Brad
a resident of another community
on Jul 15, 2012 at 4:31 pm

Tom Hervey, I agree with you.

Of the total $7.8 billion assigned for high-speed rail, only $4.5 billion is money the state spends itself. $3.3 billion are Federal Stimulus funds! That's $3.3 billion, that the state does not have to pay a dime for! But that's $3.3 billion, that will create a lot of jobs in California.

And getting high-speed rail is good for Californians, an inexpensive and fast way of transportation. Look at France, there you can make cross-country trips with their high-speed trains starting at 29 Euro one-way. That's about 35 dollars. And France has about the same land mass as California, and nearly every year their French high-speed trains turn in profits!

There are so many costs Californians have to bear, because of relying nearly exclusively on car and place transportation. Unproductive hours wasted in traffic jams or waiting around because of delayed flights at airports, there are there huge health care costs from air pollution and accidents, and more and more children having conditions like asthma. A different clean and reliable transportation mode called high-speed rail is needed.


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Posted by Kathleen Ruegsegger
a resident of Vintage Hills Elementary School
on Jul 15, 2012 at 5:03 pm

Kathleen Ruegsegger is a registered user.

I looked at HSR in France from London to Paris--$207 for economy, 2 hours and 16 min.
Web Link

Air France from London (Heathrow) to Paris--$150, 1 hour 2 min. Web Link

Just wondering where the $35 fare gets you "from" and "to"?


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Posted by Nurse Shark
a resident of Bridle Creek
on Jul 15, 2012 at 5:07 pm

When does "cross-country" mean "international?" When it's a Staceleen straw-man rebuttal!

Like the song asks, "Staceleen, why cain'tcha be true? Oh Staceleen, why cain'tcha be true?"


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Joe
a resident of Ruby Hill
on Jul 15, 2012 at 5:36 pm

KR, facts are inconvenient things...you are mixing TGV (France's high speed rail) and Eurostar (cross-channel London to Paris/Brussels). I've taken Eurostar many times-none of the airport hassle, drops in Kings' Cross/St. Pancras in London. Extremely convenient, I was able to work the entire journey -actually took less time than going to CDG, arriving early, going through security, actual flight, no room to work, and landing at LHR (which then requires a trip on the tube to London). Eurostar cost was $96. TGV is convenient, fast (I took a photo when going 297km per hour) and comfortable (again, more than I can say for air travel) My ticket from Munich to Paris was $200. My trip in June -the one-way London to Paris wasn't $150 (or Paris to London) -it was 3x that unless I wanted to leave at 6:00 am.


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Posted by Nurse Shark
a resident of Bridle Creek
on Jul 15, 2012 at 5:55 pm

Joe, you're probably new here, but she has such a long history of disinformation that she almost certainly does it on purpose. You should have been here a few months ago for her "iron-clad" evidence about the unions at Gene's Fine Foods, to give one of many examples. Stick around, you'll get your fill of misdirection, evasion, and propaganda soon enough.


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Posted by Kathleen Ruegsegger
a resident of Vintage Hills Elementary School
on Jul 15, 2012 at 6:13 pm

Kathleen Ruegsegger is a registered user.

NotSo, Sorry about the mixup; unintentional. Thanks Joe.


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Posted by Mr. Mittens
a resident of another community
on Jul 15, 2012 at 8:06 pm

On matters such as these I suppose it's best if we not get information from someone who hasn't ever been east of Chicago in their lifetime. Having one of the local yokels attempting to tell us sophisticated types how transportation works in France and England is about as bad as having them try to express a coherent political thought. Surely they must have some other witch hunt calling them?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Kathleen Ruegsegger
a resident of Vintage Hills Elementary School
on Jul 15, 2012 at 8:27 pm

Kathleen Ruegsegger is a registered user.

Been overseas often. Honest mistake. Get over yourself.


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Posted by john
a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood
on Jul 15, 2012 at 10:27 pm

I voted in favor of HSR in California for a lot of the reasons that Joe pointed out with his experiences in Europe. The government subsidizes the airlines heavily and gives them a near monopoly. The level of service we get from the airlines stinks. If we already subsidize airlines why not subsidize rail to give the airlines some competition?

However, if the vote were held today, I would vote against because the economy has turned out to be way worse than many of us thought, and I don't think we can afford it at this time.


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Posted by Too much transportation competition
a resident of Canyon Meadows
on Jul 15, 2012 at 10:46 pm

If true that europe subsidizes air travel, and you can fly cheap in europe, what does that have to do with US airlines. And we already have rail service in CA. If the HSR is allowed to continue will we be subsidizing the HSR (it will surely happen), air travel, and current rail service? What will happen to bus service?

Is it possible we will end up with fully sibsidized transportantion because none of them can stand on their own given the increased competition, and 100's of billions in bond debt?


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Posted by john
a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood
on Jul 16, 2012 at 6:54 am

" Too much transportation competition",

It is the United States that subsidizes air travel by giving all sorts of favorable treatment to the airlines, including infrastructure, R&D, tax breaks, and bailouts. This is already the case, and always has been.

"none of them can stand on their own"

That is already the case, and always has been. Air, bus, and rail service have always been government subsidized.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by liberalism is a disease
a resident of Birdland
on Jul 16, 2012 at 9:07 am

liberalism is a disease is a registered user.

Air travel will always be faster and will continue to be a better bargain than HSR. Even with security lines, etc. a non-stop flight to LA is about an hour, traveling at 500 mph.
How many stops will the 200mph choo choo be making? And once you get to the end of the line, how will you get to your final destination, say 50 miles from the nearest station?
I'm sure our govt planners have thought this all out already and that the additional infrastructure required for feeder lines to populated areas won't add any cost to the project. I'm sure you HSR supporters aren't worried about how people will practically get around...after all, it's all about the union jobs and 'free' money.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Mr. Mittens
a resident of another community
on Jul 16, 2012 at 9:18 am

Air travel will always be better. Forget the flight delays, the long security lines, the extra luggage fees, the occasional plummet from sky into a neighborhood. These are small potatoes. Planes are faster than trains. Faster than trucks, too.

Now, I should point out that the air industry is getting better and better at transporting tractor trailer containers. If private investors invested in building more airplanes that transport containers -- I envision a Boeing 797 with perhaps as many as a thousand containers strapped atop its body -- we can do away altogether with railroads. Trains are not cost efficient. Because of them our taxes are higher. Mine have been ridiculously high. What? Oh, you'll just have to take my word for it!

Mitt. With conservative ideas comes more money in your pocket!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Bill
a resident of Amberwood/Wood Meadows
on Jul 16, 2012 at 1:06 pm

One thing that politicians and the high speed rail authority keep side-stepping is....how do you get a 200mph railroad built over the Tehachapi Mountain range?

Do people realize that at 200mph you have to build curve sections with a 4 mile radii? Where are you going to do that in a mountain range? How about going up the Grapevine section which is at a 6% grade. Cannot be done with today's technology. You cannot use elevated track because this whole area is prone to earthquakes. The track has to be laid at ground elevation which means mountains will have to be literally moved. Building tunnels into the rock that form the Tehachapi will also be tricky since nobody knows what to expect.

The cost alone for this section of the HSR project has risen 3X from what it was initially budgeted for. And nobody still has an actual plan in place on how to conquer this portion of the railway.

I think that is pretty terrible that today's politicians want to build a straight track on level ground that amounts to an upgraded version of the Disneyland Monorail ride, take all the credit for CA HSR but leave the really hard stuff for future generations to tackle.

John F Kennedy said of America " we do things not because they are easy, but because they are hard". Except if you are a California politician or a union thug, you take the money and run.


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