Obama Wants Extension of Current Transportation Bill, Regulatory Changes for Projects

Aug 31st, 2011 | Posted by

Two significant announcements from the White House today could have an impact on the California high speed rail project. The first is President Barack Obama’s call for a “clean” extension of the expired transportation bill:

As part of an effort to spur additional job creation, the Obama administration will push Congress to keep surface transportation spending at current levels rather than subject it to cuts, according to sources familiar with the matter.

House Republicans have demanded big cuts to transportation spending, which drew the unusual response of having the AFL-CIO join the US Chamber of Commerce to call for increasing transportation spending, rather than cutting it. House Transportation Committee chairman John Mica, a Florida Republican, said he would agree to one more extension, but it’s not clear how long that would last. With the GOP trailing in polls for the next House election, Mica likely realizes he has one shot to gut federal transportation spending, and intends to use it in 2012.

Of course, this all could have been avoided had Democrats actually done their jobs and gotten a new transportation bill done when they had majorities in both houses of Congress in 2009 and 2010. The White House preferred to do health care first, which took over a year to finalize and meant that other important legislation did not get completed. The Democratic House proposal for a new transportation bill included long-term funding for high speed rail, but this never made it to the Senate. Such funding, which is essential to building high speed rail in California, now has to wait until 2013.

Of course, California does have enough HSR money to start construction in the Central Valley. But the process of getting required environmental approvals will mean that contracts will be signed close to the stimulus deadline of September 2012 – that’s just one year away. However, another announcement made by President Obama today could mean a shorter EIR/EIS process:

Finally, in keeping with a recommendation from my Jobs Council, today I’m directing certain federal agencies to identify high-priority infrastructure projects that can put people back to work. And these projects — these are projects that are already funded, and with some focused attention, we could expedite the permitting decisions and reviews necessary to get construction underway more quickly while still protecting safety, public health, and the environment.

It’s unclear whether California high speed rail would be one of these high-priority infrastructure projects. But it would fit the profile of the type of work that the Obama Administration appears to be targeting. Obviously any expedition of the HSR permitting process would be deeply controversial in the Central Valley, where project critics and NIMBYs have been fighting to move the HSR route to the Highway 99 corridor between Fresno and Bakersfield. So it’s not at all clear whether California HSR will be included among the expedited permitting process the president envisions.

Still, the announcement about the transportation bill is itself significant. If we can survive the next 18 months without Obama caving to Republicans and accepting big cuts to federal transportation spending, we might just have a shot at getting a long-term HSR funding source in 2013. Of course, that requires Obama to get re-elected. And that’s looking more and more uncertain with each passing day. 2012 is going to be a white knuckle ride.

  1. peninsula
    Aug 31st, 2011 at 22:15

    Robert – you missed one… “No more bridges to nowhere.” Or did he mean ‘no more trains to nowhere’? He also is suggesting expediting permitting on projects that are already funded. Robert – what are you, NEW? CAHSR isn’t funded (see board materials of 8/25 for more on that.) The CV initial construction segment isn’t even funded.

    Notice that he’s not talking about doling out more money- he’s just suggesting doling out permits – and without money, its not funded. No getting around that unless he’s talking about handing out blank checks – which he’s clearly not. Not to mention, its would presumably be pretty questionable, and well fought in the courts – probably even by the State of California itself, whether the FEDs have the right or the authority to overstep California environmental laws…

    In that same quote he seems to be saying no more funding based on political string pulling, but rather putting the money where it can be used to put people to work ~now~ Remains to be seen if this is supportive of California HSR or not. Maybe he’s laying out the groundwork for abandoning CA HSR and sending his money to the northeast where they have REALISTIC prospects of making traction while Obama is still alive, on high speed rail.

    Jack Reply:

    You seem to get more vocal as more positive news comes out about the project. CAHSR completely fulfills what he’s talking about. Repeating things over and over again won’t make them true.

    Spokker Reply:

    Jack, you know as much as peninsula about this.

    Jack Reply:

    How So:

    – high-priority infrastructure projects that can put people back to work

    HSR was specifically mentioned in the state of the union last year and HSR will put people back to work.

    – these are projects that are already funded

    The initial section is funded, no matter how much peninsula wants it not to be true. Specifically Obama is mentioning projects funded by ARRA anyways…

    I’ll change my name to Jack in Fresno, I think your confusing me with the other Jack…

    peninsula Reply:

    They have (theoretically, at best) $6, and EIR says its will cost $10-$13.

    Which means they won’t qualify for AB3034 (which requires ALL funding sources identified for their proposed segment), which means they qualify for zero from state, which means they have no matching for the fed (= $0 from Fed). So they mostly likely have zero –

    But at VERY best, they have $6. Initial segment per EIR will cost $10 (or $13). So no, the initial segment is certainly not funded.

    And HSR puts people to work – but not now, not the CA project which is FAR from putting people to work. And not soon enough that Obama’s election campaign can benefit from it.

    JackinFresno Reply:

    I’m curious how to you get six?

    joe Reply:

    Caught between a rock and hard place.

    Dems want stimulus and infrastructure.
    GOP wants to cut regulations and halt envir-O-mental obstructionism.

    If el presidente identifies the HSR as a critical fund infrastructure and the DOT supports the project then I bet we go ahead with construction.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    They’re not building all the way from Bakersfield to Merced, so no, it’s not going to cost $10 billion.

    VBobier Reply:

    Yeah well that cause He’s acting like Bullwinkle Moose, a Know It all. $6 Bn will go for what its meant for I’d think and I think that’s 120 miles or so of track, Of course I think that could be dual tracks, unless I’m wrong and I hope I’m not. But hey speculation is ok and I have to give credit where It’s due as Repugs in Congress are making lots of enemies, seniors and disabled people, victims of Irene, unemployed people and I bet they all vote…

    Alon Levy Reply:

    It’s 120 miles of double-track, i.e. about 240 single-track miles.

    VBobier Reply:

    Thanks Alon, I knew someone would know.

    Tony d. Reply:

    Just let people like peninsula be with their thoughts. No need to get all riled up with their naysayer posting.

    wu ming Reply:

    if the central valley was a state, its 6.5 million would make it the 15th largest state, between massachusetts and arizona. some “nowhere.”

    TomW Reply:

    Where it would rank in terms of area?

    joe Reply:

    …ahead of Rhode Island. Since acreage doesn’t vote I dunno.

    Think Wisconsin, which was getting rail stimulus and Walker turned it down. Madison and Milwaukee.
    Mulwaukee Co. 953K
    Fresno Co. 909K

    Madiosn’s Dane Co. 488K
    Bakersfield’s Kern Co. 800K

    So connecting WI’s largest city to the state capital services fewer people than the CV.

    BruceMcF Reply:

    Though since it was an extension of the Hiawatha, and would therefore also necessarily connect Madison to Chicago, you should have included Cook County Illinois.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Eventually the railroad in the Central Valley is going to connect to metro San Francisco which is a bit smaller than metro Chicago and to metro Los Angeles which is a bit larger than Chicago. Connecting Milwaukee to Chicago gets you Milwaukee-St.Louis and Milwaukee-Indianapolis and Milwaukee-Columbus and Milwaukee-Cleveland and Milwaukee-Detroit and…

    joe Reply:

    No – Chicago and Cook Co should not count.

    One, the WI Gov can’t kill an IL project and Chicago isn’t next to the border so it’s a stretch to say the project did make a connection to Chicago.

    Two, Cook County residents could are less about travel to Madison via Milwaukee. I was born and grew up there and in Rockford.

    The Madison influenced corridor, if any, is I-90. A rail project would have to run down I-90 to Beliot-Rockford and connect to the commuter METRA to Chicago or run a new line to O-Hare and Chicago.

    I could see building a HSR loop but the route you suggest and economic links/demand are not there.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Chicagolanders may not care about visiting Madison, but UW students care about visiting Chicago. Although Walker (why the hell is his name Walker, anyway? He doesn’t really like pedestrianism…) killed only the Milwaukee-Madison segment, by doing so he also killed through-service to Chicago from points west of Milwaukee.

    The advantage of following I-94 to Madison rather than I-90 is that you get both Milwaukee and Madison on the same line to Chicago, which concentrates rather than splits frequency. It’s exactly the same argument used to justify Pacheco over Altamont, except that here there isn’t even the option of a timed transfer, since all proposed Midwest networks are star-shaped.

    Peter Reply:

    Then you should have included Minneapolis-St. Paul, too, since the Milwaukee-Madison line was meant as a step on extending the Hiawatha to MN.

  2. Paulus Magnus
    Aug 31st, 2011 at 22:29

    If we can survive the next 18 months without Obama caving to Republicans and accepting big cuts to federal transportation spending, we might just have a shot at getting a long-term HSR funding source in 2013

    Welp, we’re screwed.

    JackinFresno Reply:

    Getting tired of him caving all the time and calling it “compromise.”

    VBobier Reply:


  3. morris brown
    Sep 1st, 2011 at 08:17

    CalTrain, today, 8-01-2011, to choose a new operator to replace Amtrak. Always claiming they are going broke, CalTrain nevertheless chooses an operator which will cost $24 million more over 5 years than a competitive bid.

    I copy this article from the PA Daily News, which is on the internet, but which can’t be linked directly.

    (PA Daily News page A2 8-01-2011)

    Caltrain chooses new rail operator


    Bay Area News Group

    As Caltrain readies for another financial crisis that could strip riders of their favorite service or lead to tax hikes, the railroad is turning down an offer from a massive transit company to operate the commuter line at a savings of $24 million over the next five years.

    The reason? Caltrain executives say they are getting “the best bang for their buck” by picking the secondcheapest operator a firm they say was so impressive it “blew their socks off” and will still do the job for less money than what they had budgeted for future years.

    The Caltrain board today is expected to sign a new five-year, $398.6 million deal with Missouri-based TransitAmerica to operate Caltrain service at the start of 2012, taking over the expiring contract from longtime partner Amtrak.

    The contract makes up more than 60 percent of Caltrain spending. The winning firm must hire conductors and engineers, maintain the railroad and handle most other nonadministrative duties.

    But Veolia which claims to be North America’s largest private transportation provider and operates commuter rail lines in Boston, Miami and Austin submitted an offer for the same job that was 12 percent cheaper than TransitAmerica’s plan. Veolia’s five-year estimate totaled $374.5 million and was the only proposal Caltrain received that would cut cost from the current Amtrak deal.

    The difference between the two firms’ offers, some $4.8 million annually, is enough to keep weekend service, night trains and other endangered service intact. Facing a historic budget crunch, Caltrain raised fares and cobbled together enough bailout cash from local counties to maintain service this year but is expected to ask voters to approve some sort of tax increase next year to save service over the long term.

    Despite the financial crisis, the agency decided cost would account for one-fourth of its decision on which operator was best. The remaining threefourths had to do with Caltrain executives’ interpretations of the firms’ quality, including everything from experience and qualifications to management and maintenance plans.

    “It’s not like we’re walking away from a chunk of money; we had to look at the whole picture,” Caltrain spokesman Mark Simon said. TransitAmerica “presented us with a plan that basically just blew our socks off. We thought this proposal by TransitAmerica was really a creative and intelligent and thoughtful way to go about it, within a budget that made sense to us.”

    The winning firm is smaller, has fewer years of experience and not as many clients as the cheaper one.

    TransitAmerica’s parent company, Herzog, is 42 years old; Veolia has 150 years of experience. TransitAmerica does business only in the United States; Veolia operates 200 transit contracts and has deals in 30 countries. In 2009, TransitAmerica’s parent had revenue of $401 million; Veolia’s had $8.5 billion.

    But Caltrain officials say TransitAmerica distanced itself from the pack during a grueling, yearlong process that began when 30 Caltrain executives, outside consultants and area experts vetted the proposals.

    Later, Caltrain spent days interviewing the four finalists, called references and made unannounced visits to rail lines operated by the firms. As a surprise, they even presented the firms with a crisis scenario and asked them on the spot how they’d fix it.

    When factoring in cost estimates and quality scores from Caltrain executives, TransitAmerica beat out second- place finisher Amtrak/Bombardier, while Veolia finished third and another firm, Keolis, came in last.

    Caltrain has a history of spending more money to keep what it considers top talent.

    It pays CEO Mike Scanlon a higher salary than any other transit boss in the state and in recent years raised its payroll for administrative employees and paid raises to its Amtrak contractors. This year, executives revised their initial budget upward in order to keep service intact.

    Andre Peretti Reply:

    French firm Veolia is the world’s largest private transit operator. French left-wing union leaders accuse the firm of getting its good financial results by exploiting its workers and ignoring legacy union gains.
    Maybe Californian union leaders got a phone call from their French colleagues…

    Joey Reply:

    Veolia has a rather patchy safety record, does it not?

    Richard Mlynarik Reply:


    swing hanger Reply:

    Safety no, but a poor reputation for providing service- see Melbourne’s experience. Melbourne sacked Veolia (Connex) and gave the franchise to Hong Kong’s MTR.

    joe Reply:

    CalTrain, today, 8-01-2011, to choose a new operator to replace Amtrak. Always claiming they are going broke, CalTrain nevertheless chooses an operator which will cost $24 million more over 5 years than a competitive bid.

    But Morris, the bid Caltrain selected is under what was budgeted.

    VBobier Reply:

    Morris doesn’t care, He’s infected Elmer Fudditis don’t Ya know… ;)

    VBobier Reply:

    That should be:

    Morris doesn’t care, He’s infected with Elmer Fudditis don’t Ya know… ;)

    joe Reply:


    Your city Menlo Park needs Caltrain. I assure you Menlo Park will continue with Facebook expansion – they need the tax revenue. You’ll just have more traffic congestion with a unimproved or scaled back Caltrain.

    Justin Murphy, development services manager for Menlo Park, told Mercury News that Facebook has notified the city that it could hit 3,600 employees by mid-2012. Sun was prohibited from having more than 3,600 employees in the building because of traffic concerns, but Facebook said it will incorporate a strict commuting policy and add buses to accommodate the city and its expanding workforce.

    Eventually, Facebook hopes up to 6,600 workers will occupy the nine-building East Campus (57 acres) and as many as 2,800 workers will be in the five-building West Campus (22 acres). A tunnel under Highway 84 (bottom right in the picture above) will connect the two Facebook campuses. Facebook has already renamed the ring road around the East Campus “Hacker Way” from Sun’s previous “Network Circle.”

  4. trentbridge
    Sep 1st, 2011 at 08:27

    Of course, Veolia has had its mishaps:

    July 2011 LA Times

    LOS ANGELES (CBS/AP) — The company that employed the engineer blamed for the deadly 2008 crash of a Metrolink train in Los Angeles won’t add more money to a $200 million victim’s compensation fund.

    Metrolink and French-based Veolia Environment settled lawsuits by setting up the fund for family and survivors of the Chatsworth crash, which killed 24 people and injured nearly 100. A Veolia subsidiary, Connex, employed the engineer who was texting when the commuter train hit a freight train.

    Of course,this couldn’t happen again.

    joe Reply:

    There’s an attempt to reduce the chance of a reoccurance.

    Rail Safety Act of 2008:

    wikipedia says” In September 2008, Congress considered a new rail safety law that sets a deadline of 2015 for implementation of positive train control (PTC) technology across most of the U.S. rail network.

    The bill, ushered through the legislative process by the Senate Commerce Committee and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, was developed in response to the collision of a Metrolink passenger train and a Union Pacific freight train September 12, 2008 in California, which resulted in the deaths of 25 and injuries to more than 135 passengers.

  5. synonymouse
    Sep 1st, 2011 at 10:44

    What if they built a train and nobody came:


    Point being traffic projections are a shot in the dark, especially against a background of an American economy that is profoundly troubled. We’ve blown thru the bubbles; the euphoria is always temporal and the hangover persistent; our global sphere of influence is clearly in retrenchment.

    What to do? Rationalize and cut costs. What exactly is the price of eminent-domaining a new ROW out of private property paralleling 99? And all to build a gold-plated BART for the Valley?

    Fill the Tejon gap and use hybrids to extend the San Joaquins and ACE’s. And forget harassing PAMPA and the Peninsula in general, one of the few regions in the Golden State that is actually doing comparatively well.

    Jack Reply:

    I tried to change my name but comments are in moderation…

    No other statement you have put down has made me more angry than this one. “BART for the valley” shows a gross misunderstanding of the entire nature of CAHSR. I know I am being /trolled but this one is just too much…

    Richard Mlynarik Reply:

    “BART for the valley” shows a gross misunderstanding of the entire nature of CAHSR

    Actually, Mr Mouse has this one thing down.

    The exact same rent-seeking systematically defrauding cast of characters are behind BART’s massive costs and technical stupidities as are turning HSR in California into a third-world embarrassment of corrupt self-enrichment.

    If anything, the analogy is kind: with BART we’re generally “only” talking nine digits of public dollars at a whack, not the tens of digits of pure unaccountable pork our PB and allied pals are slurping down to build their own Special Olympics version of HSR.

    Tom McNamara Reply:

    Richard, if you haven’t read this book I strongly encourage you to do so: http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/183797-1

    Robert’s holding back here: The reason the Democrats have not proposed a six-year re-authorization is that the highway trust fund is scheduled to be insolvent around 2013 if it continues at current levels adjusted for inflation. The obvious solution is to raise the gas tax but NOBODY [wind blows through grass] is suggesting that.

    PB, for all the aspersions you cast upon it, cannot spend money it never gets. If the funding pie (or public appetite for concrete) shrinks, there’s no way for them to avoid taking a hit. They have invested a lot of political capital on CAHSR and if it fails, they will suffer.

    StevieB Reply:

    Synonymouse posts are usually laughable but this one takes the prize. Citing an article about Dodger stadium being empty during a midday game during a losing season as a reason for the usual diatribe about High Speed Rail in California is ridiculous.

    joe Reply:

    Synonymouse, is one step removed from an Eliza for HSR, two steps from Magic 8-ball.

    “I see a BART in your future”

  6. synonymouse
    Sep 1st, 2011 at 14:13

    The picture of the empty stands in Chavez Ravine was meant to reflect on the really dicey state of the economy. Really too weak to support the halcyon spending required for the current PB-CHSRA version of hsr. It isn’t just McCourt or crime in LA but a public running low on dough and ticket prices too high.

    Same rough times realities apply to hsr. Re-think;re-cost. I can’t prove this with my paltry resources but I conjecture that I-5 could be accomplished for half the price of an eminent-domained neo-99 ROW. I-5 is not perfect, but pretty damn good for a proof of concept starter and such a deal, thanks to the Division of Highways doing the dirty deed decades ago.

    Brown, if his common sense is still accessible, should instruct Van Ark to undertake a cost-benefit analysis of the alternatives. That would not be necessary at this late date if the PB scheme out of the gate were not such a cobbled-together blatant piece of dreck.

    William Reply:

    I don’t know why you refuse to see CAHSR is not just to serve Bay Area-LA market, but also Bay Area-Central Valley and LA-Central Valley.

    As it stands, Phase 1 connects the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 9th biggest cities in California, much like the original Tōkaidō Shinkansen between Tokyo and Osaka.

    Tom McNamara Reply:

    Because if you put the train in the Valley, there will be more sprawl there and more pressure on water supplies for agriculture and cities in the Bay Area that usurp Sierra Nevada runoff. The I-5 runs along the most god-forsaken, cursed, and barren part of the nation’s food basket. More sprawl means more roads and more money that can acquired by the “transportation industry complex”.

    As great a theory as it is for post-war America in the 20th century (when zee mouse was probably born)…the country is already in a completely different place.

    This is no longer about turning Fresno into Los Angeles…it’s about building the type of infrastructure in California and the US that will allow us to remain competitive. This is the space shuttle of domestic policy. We can either go to the moon and put the Soviets on notice, or we can start practicing our Russian. God forbid we do anything as visionary as Vannevar Bush or James Bryant Conant in our time….

    joe Reply:


    It makes more sense to cut the coasts off from central valley resources than it does to deny the CV basic infrastructure.

    It’s about people, quality of life and basic fairness. The new congressional districts shift representation away from the coast and towards the CV.

    Stephen Smith Reply:

    That may have been what the Japanese did, but it’s not what they’re doing anymore – the next Shinkansen, the Tokyo-Osaka maglev, is going to be built by JR Central, a private company, and is not going to get government subsidies.

    William Reply:

    I think this is different case. The coastal cities are well served by Tōkaidō Shinkansen, but it is also at capacity. The Chūō Shinkansen is therefor to relieve Tōkaidō Shinkansen of Tokyo-Osaka, Tokyo-Nagoya, and Nagoya-Osaka.

    The Chūō Shinkansen still goes through big cities such as Tokyo, Nogoya, and Osaka. Its higher speed make sense to skip more cities.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    I think Stephen’s main point is about government vs. private funding for HSR, rather than about alignments.

    Andre Peretti Reply:

    That’s more or less what is happening in France, too. Build-and-operate contracts will be the rule as is already the case for French intercity autoroutes (freeways). Not everybody is happy with abandoning rail to private interests, but the fact is banks have money and the government doesn’t.
    There is currently a debate about PPP, triggered by the publication of the 1010 yearly results of highway companies. They show a 25% pre-tax profit. They broke even much earlier than planned, showing that the 50-year concessions were giveaways.
    I don’t think the same will happen for rail. The private highways actually have a captive market as free public highways attract all the big trucks and are a nightmare for the ordinary driver.
    Rail will have to compete and a 25% profit is very unlikely for the companies which will operate the lines. I personally don’t find it shocking if a fraction of my fare goes to pay dividends to shareholders.

  7. synonymouse
    Sep 1st, 2011 at 15:18

    Using the UP at 110mph, according to their position statement on passenger speeds, down to Bako and connecting there to the new link via Tejon to LA is plenty good enough for the present. LOts of stops along the 99 corridor – you don’t need 200mph.

    Peter Reply:

    Because the UP is so willing to let new passenger rail service (or any for that matter) to run at 110 mph using its tracks.

    VBobier Reply:

    Syno, do You think Yer going to stop HSR or drum support here to do that? If so, Yer nuts, It isn’t happening, HSR will be built, You and others will not be able to stop It. Ya lost as Yer arguments are worthless.

  8. synonymouse
    Sep 1st, 2011 at 15:22

    “stimulus” creating jobs:


    elportonative77 Reply:

    Fox News huh? That says a lot.

    Brandi Reply:

    Faux News.

    Stephen Smith Reply:

    Fox isn’t accusing the government of malfeansance – they’re reporting on the city’s own investigation.

  9. D. P. Lubic
    Sep 2nd, 2011 at 04:49

    Off topic, but fun for former and current East Coast fans here; vintage NYC subway train in operation:


    Alon Levy Reply:

    NYCT does this once in a while. For a few weeks in November and December, it runs a vintage 1930s train every Sunday.

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