Will Governor or Assembly Stop Senate’s Attack on High Speed Rail?
The California State Senate today voted to pass SB 517, Senator Alan Lowenthal’s attack on the high speed rail project, by a
27-16 26-12 margin. Senator Darrell Steinberg, President Pro Tem of the Senate, backed the bill, helping ensure its passage. His spokesperson Alicia Trost hailed the bill’s passage as a way to “mend, not end” the state’s high speed rail project.
This is not a good bill. In fact, it is a very bad bill that is actually designed to destroy the project. Why Steinberg and other Democrats went along with this nonsense is a good question, because it now falls to the Assembly and Governor Jerry Brown to save the high speed rail project and stop this attack dead in its tracks.
Here’s why. Senator Alan Lowenthal has had it in for the high speed rail project for a long time. He is a concern troll at best, who has never really bought into the idea of HSR and instead seems to want to use the billions in state and federal money already approved for the project instead for commuter rail upgrades that won’t connect San Francisco to Los Angeles – which is after all what voters said they wanted when they passed Proposition 1A in November 2008.
Sen. Lowenthal knows that Californians would never vote to repeal Prop 1A and knows that Governor Jerry Brown is no Scott Walker and would never be so stupid as to reject HSR funds. So Lowenthal’s game has been to instead kill HSR by a thousand cuts. And one of the cuts is to stack its board with project critics.
There’s nothing wrong with the current California High Speed Rail Authority board. Several of its members are brand-new, and since Roelof van Ark was hired as CEO over a year ago, the project’s planning, operations, and outreach have significantly improved. Van Ark and the CHSRA board are implementing the recommendations made by the peer review group and have been responsive to legislative oversight. Under the board’s leadership the project won approval by California voters, including $10 billion in funding, and won about $4 billion in federal funding.
So there’s no reason to change the current board. Then why does Lowenthal want to do exactly that? Because the board was set up to be independent of political influence. And he wants to subject it to political influence – his influence. He can’t kill the project, he probably can’t defund it, but he might just be able to put a bunch of people on the board who share his skepticism, and who won’t feel motivated to carry out the will of the people on this project.
SB 517 would specifically undermine the project in the following ways:
1. It puts the project under the control of the Secretary for Business, Housing and Transportation. Sure, that is an appointee of Governor Jerry Brown. But that also introduces an unwieldy structure that would make oversight, planning, and project implementation much more difficult.
2. More importantly, SB 517 would specify certain categories of people be appointed to the board – and these categories have been chosen to undermine the overall project:
SEC. 3. Section 185020 of the Public Utilities Code is amended to read:
185020. (a) There is in the Business, Transportation and Housing
Agency the High-Speed Rail Authority.
(b) (1) The authority is composed of 10 members as follows:
(A) Five members appointed by the Governor, with the advice and
consent of the Senate. Of the members appointed by the Governor, one shall be an engineer with experience in the planning and design of large transportation infrastructure projects; one shall be an
economist with background and experience in the field of transportation economics; one shall have background and experience in the field of environmental protection or the study of ecosystems; one shall have expertise in project financing; and one shall be an attorney with experience in dealing with the legal issues associated with procurement strategies and construction issues associated with large infrastructure projects.
Here are the problems with each of these members:
“engineer with experience in the planning and design of large transportation infrastructure projects” – not sure what someone who has built a big freeway project can bring to this effort. This person doesn’t have to be an HSR expert. In fact, HSR expertise appears to be unwelcome on Lowenthal’s preferred board.
“an economist with background and experience in the field of transportation economics” – this one is a HUGE problem. As we’ve seen with some of the “reports” on HSR, the field of transportation economics is full of old-school freeway builders, people who do not see the value to HSR. The discipline is deeply hostile to rail. On that basis alone this provision is a threat to the project. More importantly, there’s no good reason to have such a person on the board anyway. I am guessing Lowenthal is thinking of Samer Madanat, an anti-HSR transportation economist from the UC Berkeley Institute for Transportation Studies, which published a flawed study attacking the HSR project in 2010. Madanat, or someone like him, would not be able to help the project get funded or built, as transportation economists have no experience with that work. I have no idea what they would be able to help accomplish other than undermining the very case for HSR.
“one shall have background and experience in the field of environmental protection or the study of ecosystems” – this one is the worst of them all. This is tailor-made to put Gary Patton, a virulent anti-train activist, on the board. Patton has been trying to make the argument that high speed rail is somehow bad for the environment. Of course, HSR itself is environmental protection. By taking as much as 1 million metric tons of carbon emissions out of the atmosphere, HSR will help the state meet its AB 32 goals and fight climate change. And as we know, there’s hardly a bigger threat to the environment or to ecosystems than climate change. So there’s no good reason to put someone with this kind of background on the board – unless the goal is to fuel the fire of NIMBYs and others who are making a deeply misleading argument that HSR is somehow environmentally unfriendly.
The other two categories for the board seem equally superfluous, but the above are particularly objectionable.
3. SB 517 would take away power from the governor and give it to the Senate. The Senate would have to confirm the governor’s appointments, and the Senate would even have to confirm management-level hires by the Authority. The Authority’s independence and effectiveness would be severely compromised, in order to allow Lowenthal to dictate who goes on the board and therefore what policies they will pursue.
4. By firing the current HSR board (even though they have done nothing to deserve it), Lowenthal would significantly weaken and undermine the project right at a crucial moment. A massive change like that which Lowenthal proposes would be very disruptive, and bring planning work to a halt. That would almost certainly mean California would not be able to meet the federal stimulus deadlines. That means $4 billion has to be given back, and that means the Central Valley route is dead – opening the way for Lowenthal to raid the Prop 1A money for non-HSR purposes.
Even if issues 1-3 were resolved to our satisfaction, point #4 is itself reason for SB 517 to die a quick death. It is as much an attack on high speed rail as was the rejections of HSR funds by Scott Walker, Rick Scott, John Kasich, and others. HSR supporters, environmentalists, labor unions, and legislators should come together to reject this unnecessary, dangerous, and damaging bill. Hopefully the Assembly will kill SB 517 for us. If not, Governor Jerry Brown will have to veto it. This bill cannot be allowed to pass further in its current form.