Barbara Boxer and Ray LaHood Talk HSR and Transit in LA
Yesterday Senator Barbara Boxer and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood were in Los Angeles to discuss transportation projects. There was a press conference, but the most interesting news came at a subsequent town hall meeting at the Metro offices.
Some of the news focused on the “30/10″ plan, LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s effort to get the Measure R projects originally planned to be done over 30 years (things like building the Subway to the Sea) built over the next 10 years, and Senator Boxer and Secretary LaHood both pledged to work toward that goal.
More relevant to us HSR supporters was Boxer’s comments on the Transportation Bill reauthorization and LaHood’s testy exchange with RailPAC president Paul Dyson. First up is the Transportation Bill, as reported by Damien Newton of Streetsblog LA:
As for reauthorization, Boxer signaled her intent to pass her MAP 21 legislation, which would replace SAFETEA-LU, by the end of the year. However, Boxer had no answers to questions about funding the new transportation trust fund, nor would she commit to any funding formula such as a guaranteed set-aside for transit. She also avoided discussing the legislation being offered by the House Transportation Committee Chair, Minnesota Democrat James Oberstar; suggesting that a bicameral plan to support reauthorization hasn’t been created yet.
What I read this to say is that they plan to reauthorize the Transportation Bill by December, before the current Democratic majority in the Senate is either weakened or entirely lost. That’s the right move, but it also matters what’s in that bill. It needs not only a guaranteed set-aside for transit, but some sort of long-term funding source for high speed rail projects. Looks like we’ll have plenty to do this year as we work to include HSR in that bill and get it reauthorized by the end of 2010.
Boxer and Metrolink chairman Kevin Milhouse sparred over funding for positive train control. Milhouse wanted Boxer and LaHood to guarantee funding; Boxer said the feds would fund it but then turned it around and attacked Milhouse and Metrolink for not having safe practices in the meantime, such as having only one engineer in the front of trains instead of two.
Next up was Paul Dyson of RailPAC, and his exchange with Boxer on Metrolink set up his even more testy exchange with LaHood on HSR:
Dyson took up for Millhouse, claiming there were many examples of crashes being caused by a pair of engineers distracting each other. Boxer asked Dyson to send along those instances, but seemed doubtful they existed.
Having riled Boxer, Dyson turned to LaHood and questioned the $2.25 billion High Speed Rail Grant given to California. Dyson pointed to the huge cost of the project to connect Anaheim to the Bay Area, nearly $40 billion and commented that the grant was too small to be useful in construction and to high to not be wasted by bureaucrats.
Pausing here for a moment – Dyson has written before of his concern that the $2.25 billion in funding won’t be enough to get HSR done, and that operating segments of the system until the whole thing is open is not a good idea. (Unfortunately, Dyson has also made some flawed statements questioning why HSR would serve passengers and communities between SF and LA.) With that as background, let’s see Ray LaHood’s response to Dyson:
This is the first time I’ve ever heard someone say they didn’t want $2.25 billion after working on high-speed rail for 10 years…Your argument is ridiculous. The reason that we gave that money to California is because you’ve done a good job. If you think it’s being mismanaged, come forward and tell us about it. We don’t find that to be the case.
I think we can expect LaHood to be flooded with comments now from NIMBYs and HSR deniers about this and that form of “mismanagement” of the HSR project, but in the absence of any hard evidence (which critics have so far been unable to produce) LaHood intends to move forward with support for California HSR – which is as it should be.
That being said, there is a legitimate debate over the issue of whether HSR funds should be spread out broadly, or concentrated in a few places. It would be interesting to hear LaHood’s comments on that matter.
Damien Newton of Streetsblog LA had this take on the Dyson-LaHood exchange:
This is a somewhat amazing claim, as there has been plenty of criticism of the High Speed Rail Authority in California covered in such small local papers as the San Francisco Chronicle and Los Angeles Times. While LaHood dismissed Dyson with a joke about sending those complaints along with his proof that engineers can distract each other along to Boxer; he managed to get a laugh and show a disconnect with the local debate all at the same time.
I’m not sure I agree with Newton here about the “local debate.” It’s not been much of a debate so far. The primary “debate” in California over HSR revolves around NIMBYs who don’t want the trains running through their neighborhood. That has spawned a series of secondary discussions – or, more often, accusations – about elements of the HSR plan, designed to weaken or stop the project so as to appease the NIMBY critics.
Foremost among these are the debates over the Authority’s ridership numbers. So far critics have totally failed in their efforts to find fault with those projections. Their most high-profile claim, that a coefficient was manipulated to produce ridership estimates favoring Pacheco over Altamont, turned out to be little more than a typo; we haven’t heard anything about the coefficient since. Even then, critics had never successfully explained what was flawed about the reported coefficient, nor had they been able to prove it led to ridership stats that didn’t hold water.
In other words, I don’t see anything wrong with LaHood’s claim that they are satisfied with the work being done on HSR here in California. There isn’t really a debate among HSR supporters over the project – there are attacks on it from people who oppose the project, and a small group of rail advocates who do not seem particularly interested in having high speed rail service connecting California’s major metropolitan areas, whose primary focus is on other forms of passenger rail and who see HSR as at best a distraction from those services.
Ultimately the event demonstrated Senator Boxer’s and Secretary LaHood’s commitment to California high speed rail. It’s good that we have both of them in Washington DC to advocate for the cause.