Opposition to San Gabriels Tunnel Stiffens

Jan 23rd, 2015 | Posted by

It’s the same old story: anytime high speed rail is proposed in a particular location, residents freak out and assume that the California High Speed Rail Authority is plotting their doom. The latest example comes from Southern California, where residents of the Lakeview Terrace area, along the Tujunga Wash, are up in arms about the Authority’s study of a tunnel under the San Gabriel Mountains.

The study was pushed onto the Authority, which was happy with their Highway 14 routing, by Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich. Antonovich’s district includes the northern half of Los Angeles County, including Santa Clarita, Palmdale, Burbank, Sunland, and Tujunga – but not Lake View Terrace.

The Antonovich tunnel has generated a lot of angst in these communities just south of the mountains. Now the LA Daily News, which has vehemently opposed HSR, is joining their fight:

As Staff Writer Dana Bartholomew quoted one of the opponents in a story last week: “These new alternatives, from the yellow banana to the East Corridor, we got blindsided by them,” said David DePinto, a board member of the Shadow Hills Property Owners Association who helped form a group called SAFE, or Save Angeles Forest for Everyone, to battle a bullet train around or beneath Valley equestrian neighborhoods. “We feel like we were attacked. This came out of nowhere.

“This area has earned a reputation as the last intact equestrian community in the city of Los Angeles. It is now under threat.”

It’s amazing that a megalopolis such as Los Angeles still does have a middle-class neighborhood with horse country and semi-rural delights. Our Angeles National Forest is an extraordinary recreational resource that simply doesn’t need another intrusion of big infrastructure. Don’t build this bullet train — but if you do, stick to the route along Highway 14.

It’s hard to be sympathetic about concerns regarding a tunnel being bored underneath you – most residents won’t notice a thing. An at-grade or elevated track would certainly have more of an impact. But would the impact be so different from the construction 40 years ago of Interstate 210, which bisects the communities of Lake View Terrace, Sunland, Tujunga, and many others?

Of course, this tunnel proposal could just be a move by Antonovich to relieve his constituents in Santa Clarita at the expense of constituents who live in Sheila Kuehl’s supervisorial district. Then again, there are people living in Sunland and Tujunga – in Antonovich’s district – who aren’t happy about this plan either.

The thing everyone needs to keep in mind is that the tunnel is a concept at best. It’s something the Authority has agreed to consider, because that’s what they do – they look at various alternatives. The folks living in the Lake View Terrace area are up arms about it – but residents in the Santa Clarita area have been raising the same concerns for years.

Ultimately, the HSR tracks are going to be built, and they’ve got to go somewhere. That means some NIMBY, somewhere in Los Angeles County, is going to be unhappy at the final result. The Authority is going to do more than they need to in order to address the mitigation needs that come from construction. But their decision on this tunnel ought to be made on the basis of what it means for the project’s overall ability to be funded, built, and provide the people of California with a bullet train.

Bakersfield Californian Asks: What’s the Alternative?

Jan 21st, 2015 | Posted by

The Bakersfield Californian newspaper has been generally supportive of high speed rail, though not uncritically. Their latest editorial on the project makes the right point – HSR opponents have no alternative plan:

Critics have long enjoyed calling the project “the train to nowhere,” and they’re right to question its expense. But if you ask some of these critics for alternatives, be prepared for silence and stammering. Few have credible solutions to solve the state’s mounting problems with traffic and transportation services….

But project opponents offer no real alternatives to our growing cross-state transportation issues. Are we going to build more freeways? How much wider can the Interstate 405 get? Clearly Interstates 15 and 5 could stand to be widened, too. Are we going to invest in smart cars, with tighter driving laws to monitor them?

A lot of questions and not a lot of answers from those in opposition.

One opposition claim is that building a train is relying on old technology, and that’s valid. However, couldn’t the same be said for building new roads to service thousands of cars? Regardless, California needs a sensible plan for its transportation future. We may have to accept that it includes very fast trains.

Of course, smart cars don’t solve the problem. A car is still a car that takes up lane space and creates traffic, whether it’s automated or not, whether it’s powered by electricity or fossil fuel. If traffic is the concern, and if there’s a recognition that widening freeways has its limits, then surely that would lead one to conclude that self-driving cars might be a neat technology but it has nothing to do with solving the state’s transportation woes.

The Bakersfield Californian is right to realize that very fast trains are an essential part of a modern 21st century transportation infrastructure. And they’re right to note that opponents don’t offer an alternative.

That’s because HSR opponents believe that the status quo will last forever. Gas will always be cheap – the ten year long period of high prices was just an aberration, the present oil price crash is seen as a return to normalcy rather than a temporary respite. They believe nobody will ever ride trains, despite piles of evidence to the contrary. They believe global warming isn’t real or isn’t a concern.

Once you accept that the status quo can’t be sustained, and that the state must build new transportation infrastructure, it is impossible to reach any other conclusion: HSR is necessary to California’s future.

Jeff Denham Denies HSR Funding – Then Complains About Lack of Funding

Jan 19th, 2015 | Posted by

Congressman Jeff Denham was for high speed rail before he was against it. Since taking office in Congress in 2011 he has done everything he can to stop high speed rail, including helping block any new federal funding for it. Denham’s game is to undermine HSR from Congress, then blame the Authority for having financial problems. It’s like taking food away from someone and then criticizing them for starving.

Denham is at it again, with a new op-ed in the Sacramento Bee criticizing the project for lacking funding. Let’s deconstruct this:

The authority is more than $20 billion short of completing the initial operating segment, and $55 billion short to build from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

Cost estimates have doubled, then tripled, and now settled at $68 billion for completion. That $68 billion doesn’t include segments to Sacramento or San Diego, which were promised to voters when they approved Proposition 1A in 2008. It will cost billions more to connect these two major cities and enable their residents to use the rail line.

Denham doesn’t mention the cap-and-trade funds as a source of revenue here, which drops the unfunded part of the initial operating segment by at least half, if not more. Sacramento and San Diego are non sequiturs here, as they are Phase II of the project — those cities were never promised to be connected from day one.

Denham then goes on to take a shot at the right-of-way purchase process:

Most of the spending so far has been on designing, building and consulting fees instead of land. The authority’s unwillingness to offer fair prices to farmers whose families have owned their property for generations has impeded the process.

Instead, the authority has resorted to using eminent domain to steal land it needs, which could take years. Breaking ground without acquiring the necessary land is likely to leave our Central Valley dotted with empty construction sites that have torn through farms, forced residents to move and cost us all billions.

Everyone thinks their land is worth more than it actually is. The Authority is legally bound to offer a fair market value price. Eminent domain is no more “stealing land” than is me going to the store, taking something off the shelf, and paying for it at the checkstand. It’s a constitutionally protected process.

Of course, land acquisition would proceed more quickly if the Authority hadn’t had to slow the process owing to uncertainty over funding. Which Denham could easily resolve. Similarly, it’s hypocritical to slam the Authority for not having all its money accounted for and then slam them for not offering top dollar for properties – something they can’t do if they’re not swimming in money.

On Sept. 30, 2017, the stimulus money will go away, regardless of whether the authority intends to spend it or not. To meet the deadline, the authority, which has spent $500 million in the past six years, would have to spend $2.7 billion in the next two years – 16 times its current rate of spending.

At the same time, the authority would have to come up with an additional $2.7 billion in state matching dollars. This seems impossible. The stipulations of the stimulus funding are written into federal law and cannot be renegotiated by the Federal Railroad Administration and the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

The thing that Denham leaves out about that $2.7 billion figure is that the spending will come in the form of actual steel-in-the-ground construction. The Authority has already approved two construction contracts that add up to about $2.7 billion. One is just getting started and the other will be under way shortly. And once construction gets going, that money will be flying out the door – spending on construction happens much faster than spending on studies and consultants. So yeah, spending 16 times its current rate is not only possible but certain.

I don’t understand the source of Denham’s second point here, that the state doesn’t have extra money to give. My understanding is that there’s more than enough left in Prop 1A bond funds to meet that goal. If not, there’s hundreds of millions of dollars coming from cap-and-trade this year alone. Denham’s claims here don’t stack up.

Republicans in Congress will not, under any circumstance, provide more funding for this failed project. We are six years into the authority’s efforts to harangue, cajole, extort, bribe or otherwise bamboozle California and the private sector for additional financing.

This is just ideological commentary designed to appease the far right. However, it’s nice that Denham is being honest here: even if the Authority addressed every single one of his complaints in this op-ed, it would never be enough, the Republicans will never give another dime to HSR no matter what.

The best the authority could do was to convince Brown to commit $250 million a year via the controversial cap-and-trade scheme on carbon emitters – a drop in the bucket that will be paid for by our state’s highway users. No private financing has emerged, irrespective of the authority’s comments that financiers are coming out of the woodwork.

Cap-and-trade is only controversial on the right. It is popular with the state as a whole, whose voters approved it when oil companies tried to repeal it in 2010. And the state’s highway users are, it turns out, not actually paying for this at all. Gas prices have fallen by an average of 20 cents per gallon since the beginning of the month, wiping out the temporary increase of about 3 cents a gallon that occurred when cap-and-trade was extended to gasoline on January 1. I’m guessing Denham has not even seen a gas station in California in weeks.

Despite breaking ground recently, the authority’s gamble has failed. The authority wagered that if only it could get a shovel in the ground, the inertia behind the project would be too great to turn back. And yet the opposite has occurred. Public opposition is at an all time high, no doubt due to the private citizens who are having their land removed from their possession by a state government blinded by a pipe dream and the allure of “free” federal tax dollars.

Denham is simply wrong to say “public opposition is at an all time high” – the most recent poll on HSR, PPIC’s March 2014 poll, found that 53% supported HSR – that’s greater than the 52% who voted for Prop 1A in 2008. The Republican candidate for governor, who made opposition to HSR a centerpiece of his campaign, lost to the HSR Governor by 20 points. All the evidence is crystal clear: Californians support high speed rail and want this project to be built. Maybe that’s why Denham’s party lost seats in the California Congressional delegation in 2014.

This isn’t a conversation about whether or not opponents of the project support the concept of high-speed rail. Personally, I would love to see high-speed rail in this country, where and when it makes sense.

And yet he has opposed the only HSR project currently under way.

This is a conversation about priorities. Here are a few things you could pay for with $100 billion, the total cost of building to Sacramento and San Diego:

▪ 10 years of the state’s entire infrastructure budget, including all the money spent maintaining or constructing highways, bridges and roads.

▪ 800 million-plus plane tickets from LAX to SFO.

▪ 34 years of free tuition for every UC student.

If anyone seriously proposed spending $100 billion on any of that, Denham would be first in line to oppose it. Republicans believe that this $100 billion should not be spent on anything at all – except maybe more tax cuts for the rich.

The only sensible thing to do is to take the project, and its new estimates and costs, back to the voters to seek their approval. The authority must be honest with us about the challenges ahead, and what the true costs and deliverables of the project will be. The high-speed rail proposal no longer resembles what California voters were promised in shovel-ready jobs, ridership numbers, speeds or costs, and cap-and-trade funding is uncertain at best.

So why have all the past efforts to put this back on the ballot fizzled? I’m willing to go back to the ballot, with an ask for more HSR money. I am confident it would pass. I am also confident that a revote of the project as a whole would pass. Denham knows that, and therefore knows no such revote will be offered since his side would lose.

The United States has led the world in rail infrastructure for generations. Now we have an opportunity to move into the 21st century with safe and efficient high-speed rail systems. California’s high-speed rail, with no viable funding plan, little support from the voters and a “don’t worry about it” attitude toward the future, is no way to set an example.

Years from now – but hopefully just a few years – people will look back at the Republican Congress and its absolute refusal to spend any new money on modern infrastructure and see it as an example of something that must never be repeated in this country again.

Adam Schiff Opposes HSR Tunnel Under the San Gabriels

Jan 16th, 2015 | Posted by

Congressman Adam Schiff represents Burbank, Glendale, Sunland, Tujunga, and more – all areas within the path of a proposed high speed rail tunnel from Pasadena to Burbank that would bypass Santa Clarita. Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich has asked the California High Speed Rail Authority to study such a tunnel. They are doing that, and hearing criticism from residents along the new path.

As a result, Congressman Schiff made it clear this week he opposes the HSR tunnel:

California’s High-Speed Rail Authority plans to study having a section of the rail pass through the southwestern part of the forest — known as the East Corridor — but Schiff said in a statement on Thursday the group should stick to the plan of having rails running alongside the 14 Freeway, an option that he believes would come with a lower price tag….

Schiff has worked to preserve the forest and plans to introduce legislation that would preserve the Rim of the Valley and San Gabriel Mountains as part of a new or expanded national recreation area.

“I think the environmental consequences, the public opposition and added cost to the line all makes this a very implausible alternative,” Schiff said in a phone interview on Thursday.

Schiff’s opposition is going to make it very difficult for such a tunnel to be built. Other Democrats in the state’s Congressional delegation will likely defer to Schiff on this, leaving the CHSRA with even fewer allies for a tunnel in the unlikely event they chose that alternative. Add in the high cost of a long tunnel under the mountains and it would seem that such a tunnel is not very likely to be chosen by the CHSRA.

Which is fine with me. Personally I think there should be a station in Santa Clarita, especially if as seems likely the tracks follow the Highway 14 alignment. I’d rather see that than a long tunnel under the mountains that bypasses the 200,000+ residents of the Santa Clarita Valley.