HSR Facts Check Out

Nov 25th, 2015 | Posted by

Politifact has started a California version, and this week they’ve been taking a look at some claims about the California high speed rail project made by both supporters and critics. Turns out that HSR backers are “mostly true” and opponents are “mostly false.”

Let’s first take a look at a claim about cost savings made at an October 29 press conference by California High Speed Rail Authority CEO Jeff Morales, responding to the ridiculous Ralph Vartabedian article claiming that cost overruns were a sure thing:

The actual (construction) contracts that we’ve awarded to date have come in several hundred million dollars below estimates.

Politifact California did a very detailed examination of that claim and found it was…Mostly True:

After digging out the original documents, the winning bids are a combined $480 million below the authority’s cost estimates. That works out to “several hundred” million.

Still, the lower bids do nothing to wipe away the overall project’s financial uncertainty, several experts said. Its funding gap remains in the tens of billions of dollars.

The implication behind Morales’ statement about the bids is that the authority is either controlling its costs or could potentially save money. Officials probably wouldn’t talk about the bids otherwise. Even the authority’s chairman said there’s no way to safeguard against all possible higher expenses.

The phrase “to date” in the CEO’s carefully worded comment may be the most critical going forward. Every independent expert we spoke with suggested future cost overruns are likely for the project.

Even so, our fact checks evaluate the here and now, and not predictions.

We rate the claim Mostly True.

Well said. Morales didn’t say there would never be a cost overrun in the future. But what he did say is even more important: that if you look at the actual evidence, rather than speculation, that evidence shows that the CHSRA’s cost control measures have succeeded in saving taxpayers nearly half a billion dollars.

There’s no way to prove what will happen in the future and certainly no way to rate it on a fact check meter. But going on that evidence, it is reasonable to predict that the HSR project will continue to come it at or under budget. One could also find evidence from other projects around the world of rising costs and use that to predict HSR will see it too. We all know that the cost estimates have risen for HSR by 100%. So far, however, the costs are coming in below the current estimates. That’s a good sign for HSR and needs to be shouted from the rooftops.

Politifact California also took a look at another HSR claim, this one from project opponents:

“We now know these firms are unwilling to put up any private money,” for California’s high-speed rail project. -Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, in the November 3, 2015 edition of the LA Times

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that this claim was rated Mostly False:

Assemblyman Jim Patterson said this month: “We now know these firms are unwilling to put up any private money.” He was referring to the more than 30 companies that submitted financial advice to the rail authority, without offering any funding.

Many of those companies identified financial concerns, including the need to reduce the size of the project’s contracts and guarantee revenue. But Patterson does not mention that the rail authority’s request was for advice, not money. And we simply don’t “know” how willing those companies will be once a formal funding request is made.

Some of the firms that responded, along with rail authority leaders and the head of the project’s independent oversight panel, all said it’s too early to conclude the private sector has given up on the project. Patterson’s statement implies they already have.

We rate the claim Mostly False.

That’s the obvious conclusion and anything else would have not been realistic. Patterson is wishing and hoping that the private sector won’t ever be interested in funding HSR. Some companies never will. Some are waiting for the right conditions, like a revenue guarantee. And some are just waiting for the project to get further along.

But for Patterson or any other HSR opponent to say that the private sector won’t back this is just wrong, and I’m glad Politifact California called him out on it.

I’m also glad that Politifact California exists and is doing this with statements about HSR. I’ve been doing this for nearly 8 years now and it’s nice to finally have some company!

GOP Attack on HSR is an Attack on the Environment

Nov 20th, 2015 | Posted by

The LA Times’ California politics columnist George Skelton takes a look at the Republican ballot initiative to divert funding from high speed rail and Delta tunnels, and concludes it’s actually an attack on the environment:

Now two Republican state politicians are backing a proposed ballot initiative to make that a reality. Scuttle the train and store more water.

But there’s significantly more to it.

While high-speed rail certainly will draw the headline focus, the proposal’s primary purpose apparently is to reduce water for the environment and provide more for agriculture.

It would amend the state constitution to make domestic use and crop irrigation the top priorities for California water. And those would be the only listed priorities.

What this initiative would do is upend water rights and laws that in some cases date back to statehood in 1850. No more water for fish, for wetlands, for preventing further seawater intrusion in the Delta.

It’s rooted in a longstanding Republican desire to destroy the Endangered Species Act. They are happy to preside over one of the largest mass extinctions in the planet’s history in order to prevent residents and farms from having to find ways to use less water:

“We’ve made a lot of decisions to protect species that are struggling to stay alive,” says Sen. Bob Huff (R-San Dimas), who will be termed out next year and is running for Los Angeles County supervisor. Huff and George Runner, a member of the state Board of Equalization, are co-sponsoring the ballot initiative.

“The average person believes he should be high on the food chain” for water, Huff says. “The reality is he’s not. Of all the species that ever existed, 95% are now extinct. We didn’t do that. How much do we spend on nature when it has a way of adapting to the times and evolving?”

Huff is wrong; most scientists believe that humans are the cause of the Holocene mass extinction.

He’s also missing the fact that the lack of water itself is likely caused by, or at minimum made worse by, human activity.

If Huff and Runner actually cared about getting water to farmers and homes, they’d be fully backing high speed rail and every other effort the state is undertaking to reduce carbon emissions. Climate change is expected to dramatically reduce the Sierra snowpack and thus will reduce the overall amount of water available to everyone. Even if Huff and Runner succeeded in taking water away from some and giving it to others, the beneficiaries will still have less water overall thanks to declining rainfall and a smaller snowpack.

It remains to be seen whether their proposal makes it to the ballot. Even if it did, it raises significant constitutional issues, as existing water rights are guaranteed by the state constitution, other state laws, federal laws, treaties, interstate compacts, and more.

Will HSR Be on the 2016 Ballot?

Nov 16th, 2015 | Posted by

Thanks to low voter turnout in the 2014 election, the signature requirements for California ballot initiatives are unusually low. It only takes 585,000 signatures to get a constitutional amendment on the 2016 or 2018 ballot. That’s 25% less than it took prior to the 2014 election – and it’s a lower bar than at any time since 1982.

The result is that California’s 2016 ballot could have more ballot measures than we’ve seen since the 1990s. And two of them could directly affect high speed rail.

One of them has already qualified for the November 2016 ballot. Its official title is the California Public Vote on Bonds Initiative, though proponents call it the “No Blank Checks” initiative. It would require a public vote on any bond issue above $2 billion, even if the bond is backed by revenues.

Under current rules, the only bonds that have to be approved by voters are “general obligation” bonds, which are repaid out of the state’s general tax receipts. Since revenue bonds are backed by a specific identified source of funds, such as a fee on those who use the project that the revenue bond builds, there’s usually no reason for the general public to have to approve it – since the general public will probably not have to directly pay those costs.

But a Stockton farmer who opposes the state’s plan for Delta bypass tunnels was able to use the newly low signature requirements to get the initiative on the ballot. And so it will appear in November 2016, probably as Proposition 52.

Here’s the thing about this initiative: it applies even to existing bond authorizations, such as Proposition 1A, as long as there’s more than $2 billion of authorization remaining. And it would apply to any efforts to bond against cap and trade revenues, including for high speed rail.

There’s going to be a big push to try and kill this initiative, with business and labor united against it. Right now, it’s unclear how much money will be spent to support the initiative. We can expect above $10 million will be spent to kill it.

That’s not the only 2016 ballot initiative that could affect HSR. As Bay Area reporter Josh Richman explains, Republicans are going to try again to get an initiative on the ballot that would kill HSR outright:

The measure proposed late last week by former state Senate GOP leader Bob Huff and Board of Equalization Vice Chairman George Runner would siphon away what remains from Proposition 1A to build new surface water and groundwater storage. It also would re-appropriate about $2.7 billion not yet spent from last year’s Proposition 1 water bond — the product of a deal laboriously brokered by Brown and legislative leaders, including Huff.

It’s become an annual ritual for some random Republican in Sacramento to propose an initiative to kill high speed rail, and so I guess this time it’s Huff and Runner’s turn (was Doug LaMalfa busy?). My response here is the same as before: I’ll believe this when I see them put up the $3 million or so that it takes to get an initiative on the ballot.

Of course, this time it might be a bit easier to get something on the ballot, given the absurdly low requirements. But so far I still have not seen any movement by anyone with money to fund this initiative. And all the deep pocketed folks on the right are busy with other things in 2016, whether it’s the presidential election or other initiatives, such as a possible attack on pensions.

So who knows whether we’ll see such a direct attack on HSR materialize for the 2016 ballot. It’s possible that if there’s a strong El Niño this winter that public urgency about the drought will fade, even though we already know that HSR actually helps fight the drought better than a new dam ever could.

The False Choice Republicans Pose on Trains and Water

Nov 11th, 2015 | Posted by

Republicans, such as Congressman Kevin McCarthy, love to argue that the state is wasting money on high speed rail when they should be spending it on addressing the drought. Of course, building high speed rail is addressing the drought, as HSR will help reduce the carbon emissions that threaten to make California’s drought a permanent feature of life.

We’re starting to see more pushback to this, including this article from Laura Bliss at Citylab:

Having spent time in the struggling region, I’m sympathetic to this viewpoint. But “dams versus trains” is a false choice.

Yes, high-speed rail, like so many mega-projects, may come in overdue and over-budget. But it’s critical to the long-term development needs of the state—including, and especially, the Central Valley, which is seeing some of the fastest population growth in the country. That’s partly why construction is starting there rather than in one of the state’s major metropolises. The rail system will reduce emissions in the smog-plagued region, connect the Valley’s cities, spur transit-oriented growth, and create jobs in a region that desperately needs them—especially as it stares down the job losses in agriculture spurred by the drought.

Does the state—including the Central Valley—stand to benefit from more dams, as McCarthy suggests? The question isn’t as easy as it seems. Dams carry a harsh environmental impact and immense upfront costs that some experts believe offer diminishing returns. Furthermore, the best spots are already taken, as every major river in the state is dammed.

The bigger point Bliss could have made is that you can’t dam water that isn’t there. Many reservoirs in the state are dry and groundwater storage is being depleted rapidly not because there wasn’t enough storage, but because the drought has lasted so long that the state has already gone through what they had saved up. Dams aren’t a solution to the drought because they provide only a small amount of treatment for a symptom. One has to address the deeper ailment: a warming climate that is causing a drier state.

Farmers ought to welcome the bullet train. They should be some of the strongest advocates in the state for bold and transformative action to reduce carbon emissions. California agriculture cannot survive a prolonged drought, yet that is exactly what’s going to happen if CO2 emissions aren’t cut. And those cuts won’t be possible without addressing transportation. That means high speed rail, among many other things.

High speed rail is going to be built, and carbon emissions are going to be reduced, and hopefully, the worst impacts of climate change will be avoided. Future farmers will thank us for it, even if today’s farmers won’t.