California: Ground Zero in the High Speed Rail Wars

Is Bakersfield-to-Fresno a good start for HSR in California? Photo: ##

On Thursday, the California High Speed Rail Authority accepted the resignation of Ogilvy Public Relations. The PR firm was about to get axed over accusations that it billed excessively while doing little to counter a tide of anti-rail propaganda.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, at the Rosemead Community Recreation Center, east of Los Angeles, the Authority displayed maps and renderings of the rail system it’s designing to link California’s major cities. Up and down the state, in fact, the Authority is holding regular outreach meetings as it draws up detailed blueprints, including a planned initial segment from Bakersfield to north of Fresno, through the state’s agricultural Central Valley. “We hope to start construction in the fall of 2012,” said Project Manager Maj. Gen. Hans Van Winkle at a high-speed rail conference in downtown Los Angeles. So in theory, everything’s on schedule and there’s $6.3 billion in state bonds and federal funds ready to go.

The Ogilvy firing, however, was just the latest indication of the vicious brawl going on between HSR opponents and supporters nationally and in Sacramento. With Florida’s decision to abandon its project, California is now the only state with a dedicated HSR system in advanced planning. That’s put California in the cross-hairs of anti-rail politicians and petroleum-and-aviation-industry-backed groups such as the Reason Foundation.

The battled heated up May 10, when California’s Legislative Analyst Office (LAO) came out with a report attacking the decision to build the first leg in the Central Valley. Engineers prefer this long, straight section because it minimizes construction challenges. Nevertheless, the report set off a flurry of anti-rail editorials in papers ranging from the Sacramento Bee to the Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. Many echoed the Reason Foundation’s statements that the Central California segment will be a “train to nowhere.”

“This initial money, if we spent it instead in Southern California…we could use it for existing commuter rail and high-speed rail,” said Southern California State Senator Alan Lowenthal.

In 2008, voters in California approved Proposition 1A, which authorized the state to issue $10 billion in bonds to begin funding a dedicated, 220-mph high-speed line from Los Angeles to San Francisco. However, it stipulated the dollars can’t be spent unless they’re matched — in this case by the Feds.

Roelof van Ark, Chief Executive Officer of the California HSR project, requested that the Federal Railroad Administration consider “flexibility” with funds slotted for California. But it mandated the Central Valley segment because it’s the most shovel ready. And Roy Kienitz, Under Secretary for Policy, rejected changing that stipulation.

State Sen. Alan Lowenthal wants to change the HSR route. Some say a change could derail the whole project. Photo: ##

The LAO report had other criticisms, including a claim that the cost of the project was underestimated at $43 million and is more likely to run about $67 billion. But it’s the tug-of-war between the Central Valley and the ends of the state that threatens the project as politicians vie for control over the money pot.

The Republican Mayor of Fresno, Ashley Swearengin, is a staunch supporter of HSR and the decision to start in the Central Valley. She talks about how important the project will be for giving her constituents a way to reach Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Southern California’s Alan Lowenthal, however, introduced Senate Bill 517 to fix “deficiencies” — by, among other things, firing the entire HSR Authority Board. “I love the project — I just don’t feel we have the right people in place,” he said, “or that we’re getting accurate information.” High-speed rail supporters say he just wants a board that will reverse the decision to start in the Central Valley.

“He’s constantly harping and nitpicking every detail,” said Daniel Krause, executive director of Californians for High-Speed Rail, a volunteer group trying to counter the anti-HSR wave. “It’s not that there shouldn’t be critiques, but he bases all his arguments on figures from rail skeptics. He’s seriously endangering the project.”

Lowenthal concedes that without a dedicated revenue stream set up to fund construction of the entire system he can’t support starting in the Central Valley, even if the alternative is the project’s death.

Then there’s Assembly Bill 145 from another Central Valley politician, Stockton Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani. It would put the entire project under a new agency called the Department of High Speed Trains. Advocates see it as a way to give the project continuity and to protect it from Lowenthal and shifting political winds. Galgiani herself is more conciliatory. “I see the two bills as complementary,” she said. Her main beef is with the LAO, which she accuses of playing “Monday morning quarterback” by launching its critique so late in the game.

Either way, Galgiani wants 517 amended to include a grandfather clause that would allow current board members to complete their terms. That keeps the board intact until shovels start turning. Without that clause, the project could end up with an openly hostile board, predict HSR’s boosters. They could change the decision to start in the Central Valley, thereby sabotaging Federal matching funds and halting the project. In that case, California follows Florida and the project dies. “Then you won’t see true HSR in the U.S. for a generation,” said Krause.

19 thoughts on California: Ground Zero in the High Speed Rail Wars

  1. Watch out for Lowenthal, he’s dangerous for California’s future.  His bid to change the plan way too late in the game is a thinly-veiled attempt to kill the project outright. 

    When a public works project as large as this one actually has a chance, expect lots of greedy folks like this guy to line up and try to pilfer the funds for their own purposes.  (Such s another recent attempt to redirect CAHSR funds to the widening of highway 99.)

  2. “He’s constantly harping and nitpicking every detail,” …yeah, that finicky Lowenthal, wanting such petty details like a Business Plan! Or perhaps accountability. Yeah, that’s nitpicking alright. 

  3. Lowenthal is a phony transit advocate. He tried to block SF Muni’s plan to cite drivers who double park in front of buses, he dictated that fare evasion tickets for the LA system have fines paid into the general fund, not back to the LA MTA, and he’s kind of an ass.

    Sadly, I think HSR is going to die a death of a 1000 knifings as every jackass with an agenda forcefully blasts this thing and politicians realize they can raise money trashing it. Meanwhile advocates for HSR are almost their own worst enemy, as they never seem to mobilize LOUD support the way opponents do, and in the case of the PR agency that was supposed to promote, instead do stupid sh*t like spend $500 to have an intern cut out newspaper articles. 

  4. It should come as no surprise that the CA Legislature voted in favor of Lowenthal’s bill to purge the Board.  If there is any enemy to the project, it has been the CHSRA Board itself. It has been entirely tone-deaf to legitimate concerns over routing and budget. And even after the Legislature stripped the Board of its powers, they are still under the delusion that this is just a “PR” problem.

  5.  California
    Treasurer Bill Lockyer, the California politician responsible for selling these
    CAHSR bonds, said on March 14, 2011 to an LA news reporter that no one is
    interested in buying CA HSR bonds because the CAHSR is more interested in
    issuing bad PR, rather than coming up with a sound business plan. Until there
    is a sound business plan, or even a half-baked one, then no one will invest in
    this stinker of a project. Interviewer asks: “so are investors saying we’re
    interested, but it doesn’t look like you guys [CAHSR Authority] know what
    you’re doing” & Lockyer responds: “that’s what they’re saying”;
    Interviewer: “what do you think?” & Lockyer responds: “well, I think the
    same thing.” Lockyer also says “so far we don’t have a plan that makes sense”
    and “I don’t think the State of California can sell these bonds”, and even
    though voters authorized the bonds, the bonds don’t need to be sold and the
    project can be cancelled. – see interview here:

  6. Here is a short 11 minute video by the CEO of the United
    States HSR Assocation (a true advocate for HSR in the US) Vranich, who says
    that the CAHSR’s ridership projections, ticket costs, no operating subsidies
    promise, construction cost estimates are all “science fiction” (his
    words not mine) :

    Can some HSR proponent (and not a “nimby”) please explain how Vranich
    is wrong, and please explain your qualifications to call Vranich incorrect,
    given his title as CEO of US HSR Association. 


    The California High
    Speed Rail Authority and CEO Van Ark regularly ignore and refuse to
    consider public comment and input from members of communities through which HSR
    mandates they will bring their train – some examples:

    (CAHSR ignoring CA farmers, destroying vital farmland) –
    (Senate votes to end CAHSRA 6/1/2011)

  8. Oh please, Florez. Vranich is bought-and-paid-for by Reason, which is an oil-company propaganda firm. They got cash from Phillip Morris, and then wrote studies about how second-hand smoke isn’t dangerous. They get money from Chevron, ExxonMobile, and the aviation lobby, and they give “research grants” to anyone who will bad mouth rail. I’m sorry, but second-hand smoke is still dangerous, and high speed rail is still profitable almost everywhere it’s been built. And I’m stick of watching the big oil propaganda machine keep us addicted to gas and aviation fuel.

  9. The great lies continue. They have a business plan. In fact, they’ve written mountains of ridership studies, analysis, blueprints. But Lowenthal and others just keep repeating these lies. Okay, you don’t LIKE the business plan, but you also don’t like the project and would oppose it no matter what the biz plan said.

  10. Wow… a train through the Central Valley (which is all farmland) will use farmland. Shocking. I never imagined. Come on. HSR will take about .0001% of the farmland in the Central Valley. The voters approved this in 2008. Somehow I think they approved it with the realization that it will take some farmland.

  11. The CEO of the US HSR Association is Andy Kunz, not Vranich

    Vranich says the CaHSR end-to-end speed claims are impossible and that even the TGV can’t maintain those speeds. The TGV takes 2 hours, 36 minutes to go from Paris to Avignon, depending on a line that was designed 30 years ago for most of the trip. It does this trip every day, 365 days a year, in that time. That’s 430 miles. The route for the CaHSR system is about 417 miles. Or a bit longer depending on whether or not they hit Palmdale.

    Almost all the stats in the video link you’ve provided are like that. Complete nonsense.

  12. Openforum, here’s to you:
    1. 6/2/2011 Public Comment to the CAHSR because they ignore public comment, desecrate vital prime farmland, and Olivera says “We are good stewards of the land, but we feel betrayed by what you are intending to do to this land”:
    2. 6/2/2011 – CA Senate Votes to end, eliminate, extinguish the CA HSR Board:
    3. CA Senator Simitian calling out CAHSR and CEO Van Ark for their repeated lies, lies, lies to the CA Legislature regarding lack of funding, overbloated ridership projections, lack of business plan, etc., etc. etc.: and
    4. Slide show showing how costs have inflated grossly to at least $100 billion now, and will likely exceed $250 billion: and

  13. Well all the antiHSR/rep/reason trolls are here..florea/waed  only thinf missing is that MenloPark Nimby Hamilton and her lame lies

  14. Your such a Reason/oil sucking keep changing your name  and posting all over ..lame reason troll/florez

  15. On June 15, 2011, the United
    State House of Representatives Budget Committee awarded the coveted “Budget
    Boondoggle of the Year Award” to California’s “Train to Nowhere” due to the
    huge multi-billion dollar cost, inadequate ridership projections, insufficient
    funding, requirements for operating subsidies, fiscal infeasibility, inability
    to find any private investors or federal funding, the fact that no high speed rail lines in the world make a profit and
    require ongoing operating subsidieis, that the Central Valley segment in
    California will be non-operational with no trains, electrification for $6.9
    billion.   Way to go California taxpayers!  Really, you can’t
    make up this kind of crap.  Sad but true.  See Award here:

  16. Here’s another change:  Job #1 in Southern California intercity rail is  expanding/enhance track capacity at the Bakerfield- Mojave/Palmdale segment.   That reach speaks for itself, as freight rail traffic is too constricted over Tejon Pass in the Tehachapis to permit through runs for Capitol Corridor train riders.   

     Most likely, a very speedy partnership could be had with BNSF & UP to accomplish this Tehachapi work, and build rail passenger constituency by orders of magnitude.   What’s broken should be fixed first!

  17. Yes, the CHSR Authority has a business plan, but it’s a joke:

    Check out page 94, which is where they tell us where they’re going to get the money just to build the system: $19 billion from the federal government; $5 billion from cities and counties in the state; and $10 billion in private investment. Can anyone really think the feds can possibly come up with $19 billion? Can anyone really think that the cities and counties of the state have $5 billion to invest in this project? There’s been no private investment more than two years after Prop. 1A passed because investors understand that Prop. 1A forbids any taxpayers’ subsidy, which means no guarantee of a return for investors! We need to pull the plug on this project now.

  18. The California High Speed Rail is a wanted and needed project. It is the Interstate Highway Project of the 21st Century. Yet will cost so much less and inflict so much less damage to cities it passes through. We could have survived without the Interstate Highways and we can survive without HSR. But just look at what an improvement to live and commerce the Interstates did and is doing and we can expect the same from HSR. Just how many trips are there between Northern, Southern and   Central Valley cities now and imagine how many there are going to be in 10 to 20 years. Can our highway and airport system support them? If HSR is not built just how much money will be needed to expand highways and airports. All of this new traffic will also make us even more dependent on imported oil.    
    The HRS start up in the Central Valley is the right way to go. The Interstate System also started in rural areas. There are now 6 trains running full between Bakersfield, Sacramento and Bay Area Cities with no more capacity to expand service without huge plant improvements to the freight railroads.
    As said earlier the Reason Foundation is a bought and paid for PR lobby who will give “facts” to support whatever they are paid to support. They have a long history of “supporting” the highway and oil lobby for many years. I live in Long Beach and my reprehensive Lowenthal (who I do not support and would love to see retire, no doubt to an oil lobbyist)  also has a record of being strongly anti-transit and especially anti-rail. Where do you think his support comes from?  
    We need to design and build this right, hopefully free from political pressure as soon as possible. Removing the long detour to Palmdale is a great start, now we need to have the line end in Los Angeles, not build a dead end stub to Anaheim. And get real engineers with HSR experience instead of politicians and people with personal agendas.  

  19. It’s not $19 billion in one fiscal year. It’s over decades. And that’s a drop in the bucket. The Feds are already offering $2.5 billion which, do the math, is more than $19 billion over the term of the project. And YES there has been private investment. Siemens, for example, has spent millions with ZERO promise of return on ads and promoting this thing. But it’s called “3p,” right? Public private partnership. But PUBLIC comes first. If the public doesn’t start the project, the private investors don’t step up. That’s how it works. Meanwhile, Chinese and Japanese investors, with the backing of their governments, have already said they’ll invest once they see us turning shovels–and what’s so far fetched about that? They already buy hundreds of billions in debt from the US. Why not invest directly in a project they can reap rewards from by selling technology for it? The US has never built a highway with anywhere near this much fiscal responsibility. Let’s drop the double standard. Let’s end corporate welfare for oil companies and car companies and airlines.

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