HSR: A Pathway Out of Poverty

Dec 17th, 2014 | Posted by

California’s statewide unemployment rate is 7.3%, as of October 2014. That’s driven by low unemployment on the coasts – Orange County is at 5.4% – but many places, including the Central Valley, are still facing higher rates. Fresno County had a 9.5% unemployment rate as of September 2014 – and that was the first time in six years the rate had been below 10%.

So the high speed rail project will provide a welcome boost to job creation in a place that desperately needs it. The Bay Area’s KQED recently traveled to Fresno and talked to job seekers getting ready to build the rails:

More than 100 people, most of them out of work, packed a community center in the rural farming town of Orange Cove recently for a workshop on how to get jobs building the nation’s first high-speed rail train.

When the California High-Speed Rail Authority project — which breaks ground Jan. 6 in Fresno — starts laying down track, it will need ironworkers, laborers, cement masons, carpenters and more….

But some Central Valley residents see the promise of rail construction jobs as a pathway out of poverty. The idea of building something that will last appeals to Ruben Galvez, an unemployed farmworker who is at the Fresno County workshop.

“There’s not too much work here in the Central Valley,” he says. “It’s a lot of agriculture base, so maybe this will take people out of the fields and maybe give them a steadier job. Instead of working six months out of the year, they’ll be able to work, you know, the whole year.”

That’s a key point that Galvez makes. Fresno County’s unemployment fluctuates seasonally, following the schedule of the farms, and that makes life more difficult for anyone living in the region. A more stable employment pattern benefits not only workers, but businesses too.

The California High Speed Rail Authority has been working hard to get those jobs to the people who need it the most:

“We have the single-largest public infrastructure project in the history of the state of California coming through the poorest parts of our state,” says Blake Konczal, director of the Fresno Regional Workforce Investment Board. He lobbied hard for the agreement and estimates that, at the peak of construction, it will help a minimum of 5,000 workers get hired — and these jobs pay well for the Central Valley. But first, people have to be trained.

“This is the sheet metal workers union hall and classroom. We’re sort of turning it into a working university here,” says Pat Barr. She runs the workforce’s pre-apprenticeship program, which introduces candidates to different trades and tutors them in math and communication skills….

Patrick McCarthy, 33, recently finished the program and now has an apprenticeship with the laborers union, making $22 an hour plus benefits. Before this training, he couldn’t find a decent-paying job because of a prison record for burglary. But now he’s busy prepping the ground for the rail line.

“I’m working on the potholing for them right now,” says McCarthy. “That’s where we find the utilities buried in the ground, so excavators don’t hit them.”

$22/hr plus benefits is fantastic, and will provide a big boost to Fresno County – while providing people like McCarthy with a steady income that can prevent him from going back to prison. The region gets jobs and growth, California gets a train, and everyone is safer as well.

The KQED story ends by noting that a lot of workers are waiting for groundbreaking, now scheduled for January, when jobs will start picking up in a big way. Fresno County is about to get a shot in the arm economically, one it desperately needs.

Of course, the Valley’s Republican legislators oppose all of this. They don’t want these workers to have jobs. They don’t want businesses to have customers. They don’t want new economic growth. They would rather keep the Valley in poverty just to please their extremist base and their right-wing funders by killing high speed rail.

Thankfully for the working people of the Central Valley, the state government is moving ahead with high speed rail.

Surface Transportation Board Says It Preempts CEQA

Dec 15th, 2014 | Posted by

Late last Friday the federal Surface Transportation Board voted 2-1 that its approval of the high speed rail project between Fresno and Bakersfield “categorically preempts” lawsuits filed against the project based on the California Environmental Quality Act:

Applying the well-established preemption principles here, the Board concludes that CEQA is categorically preempted by § 10501(b) in connection with the Line. As the Board has previously found, CEQA is a state preclearance requirement that, by its very nature, could be used to deny or significantly delay an entity’s right to construct a line that the Board has specifically authorized, thus impinging upon the Board’s exclusive jurisdiction over rail transportation.

The background is this: in the late 1800s, the federal government began to preempt state laws regulating railroad construction and railroad operations. This was done through massive corruption, as railroads bribed Senators (or, in Leland Stanford’s case, railroad barons themselves became Senators) to help overcome state and local efforts to regulate and tax the railroads. As a result, cities and states have hardly any power to affect the construction or operations of railroads in their communities. That power is reserved for the federal government.

The STB’s ruling is that third parties cannot sue using CEQA to block HSR, because that would represent a use of state law to trump federal authority. The Fresno Bee’s Tim Sheehan reports that at least seven lawsuits against HSR are likely to be affected by this, including suits brought by Kings County, Kern County, Shafter, Bakersfield, and others. All those lawsuits that rely on CEQA are, presumably, going to be thrown out of court.

This is a big, big win for high speed rail. I’m not at all a fan of these Gilded Age federal preemption rules, but they exist, and it’s absolutely clear that they do indeed prevent these kinds of CEQA lawsuits.

The California HSR project was already prevailing in these suits, especially on appeal. But the suits themselves have taken up a lot of time and money that are better used to get people to working building the bullet train. Hopefully this ruling will quickly wind up the remaining CEQA suits, prevent new ones, and help construction proceed more quickly.

Dragados-led Bid Selected for Second HSR Construction Segment

Dec 12th, 2014 | Posted by

Tutor Perini won the bid for the first segment of HSR construction – but they didn’t wind the second bid. That went to a team led by Spain’s Dragados, alongside Flatiron West of San Marcos and Shimmick of Oakland:

Dragados/Flatiron/Shimmick submitted a bid of $1.23 billion to design and build the 65-mile stretch from the south end of Fresno to near the Tulare-Kings county line and was deemed the “apparent best value” bidder by the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

The consortium includes Dragados USA Inc., a subsidiary of Grupo ACS and Dragados S.A. of Spain; Flatiron West Inc. of San Marcos; and Shimmick Construction Co. of Oakland. Their bid came well below the range of $1.5 billion to $2 billion that was forecast by engineers and consultants working for the rail authority.

Three bids were received, and here’s how they came out in cost and scoring, according to a California High Speed Rail Authority press release:

Dragados/Flatiron/Shimmick

Cost: $1,234,567,890 (that’s not a joke, that’s actually what it says)
Price score: 70
Technical score: 26.67
Total score: 96.67

Tutor Perini/Zachry/Parsons

Cost: $1,739,700,000
Price score: 49.68
Technical score: 26.61
Total score: 76.29

Golden State Rail Partnership

Cost: $2,065,644,000
Price score: 41.84
Technical score: 25.47
Total score: 67.31

Tutor’s winning bid for the first segment generated a lot of controversy. We’ll see if this one does too. I just want to see construction get under way quickly – that money’s gotta be spent by September 30, 2017. The clock is ticking!

China Opens 32 HSR Lines In One Day

Dec 11th, 2014 | Posted by

No big deal, just China massively expanding high speed rail service once again:

A total of 32 new high-speed routes will be launched December 10, Shanghai’s railway authority announced. The trip between Shanghai and Guangzhou, Guangdong province has been shaved down from 16 hours to six hours and 51 minutes, and travelers looking to go from Shanghai to scenic Guilin, Guangxi province will now be able to make the trip in about nine hours, versus the previous 19 hours.

The new routes will depart from Shanghai’s Hongqiao Railway Station. The railway authority also announced that fast trains to Harbin, Shenzhen and Lhasa will be upgraded to direct trains starting December 10 as well. Celebrate!

The distance from Shanghai to Guangzhou by rail is 1780 km, or a little more than 1100 miles. For comparison’s sake, that’s about the distance from Seattle to Los Angeles.

China continues to excel at building 21st century infrastructure, while the USA – outside of California, at least – is content to fall further and further behind.

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