Does the Blended Plan Conform to Prop 1A?
As news spreads of both the blended plan and the upcoming business plan’s efforts to distribute more of the Prop 1A money to urban areas sooner (including Caltrain electrification), some HSR opponents as well as longtime supporters are raising questions about whether those proposals conform to Proposition 1A, the voter-approved initiative from 2008 that authorized construction of the high speed rail system and $10 billion in bond money to build it as well as improve other connecting rail services.
The Los Angeles Times examines the issue but is seriously compromised by Ralph Vartabedian’s typical anti-HSR bias (seriously, what is is going to take for the LA Times to fire his biased ass?).
The mandates in the law are considerable. They require that any initial segment has to use high-speed trains. Money for each operating segment needs to be in hand before construction starts. Passengers must be able to board in Los Angeles and arrive in San Francisco without changing trains. As many as 12 trains per hour are supposed to run in each direction and the system has to operate without taxpayer subsidies.
Instead, the rail authority has agreed to run fewer trains at slower speeds on tracks shared with commuter rail systems, Amtrak and freight trains. In the early years, passengers will probably have to transfer trains to get from one end of the system to the other. The concept, known as the blended approach, was pushed last year by Bay Area politicians, who fought the original plan to run high-speed trains through the region on 60-foot high viaducts over local neighborhoods. The idea has attracted support in Southern California as well.
The problem is that, as I understand it, the California High Speed Rail Authority has NOT neutered the project forever, which is what Vartabedian implies. The Authority still plans to run up to 12 trains per hour from SF to LA without transfers. The difference is that may not necessarily be the schedule on the very first day of revenue service.
I’ve expressed my own concerns with compromising the project on many occasions over the past four years on this blog. In fact, the very first post on this blog back in March 2008 was a post expressing concern that the project not be built in pieces. I’m no fan of transferring at San José and I am very much supportive of the original goal of true bullet train service from downtown SF to downtown LA.
Of course, that won’t happen all at once. The project will be built in phases. And the blended plan is, to me, acceptable as one of the phases in the project’s development. Joe Simitian and the Peninsula NIMBYs would like it to be the last phase, but that will not and should not be the case.
The question that will almost certainly wind up before the courts is whether Prop 1A prevents bond money from being spent on phased construction. Opinions clearly differ, but I don’t believe it does. As long as the ultimate goal is the kind of SF to LA single seat bullet train service promised voters in 2008, then Prop 1A seems to allow phased construction.
But it’s not an open and shut case. As is becoming clear, Prop 1A was a poorly written law that contained too many compromises to appease the right. Its supposed safeguards are now threatening a sensible approach to a phased project.
There are other issues. Quentin Kopp, former chairman of the CHSRA board and the man who helped get the project through the 2008 vote, has raised a series of concerns about the new business plan and the blended plan in particular. First, from the LA Times article linked above:
Quentin Kopp, an architect of the project when he was a state senator and chairman of the rail authority, believes the design changes do not meet the law and is not what was envisioned by the Legislature.
“These guys at the rail authority have been pretty clever,” said Kopp, who is also a former state judge. “I saw it coming.”
Mehdi Morshed, former executive director of the CHSRA under Kopp, echoed the concerns:
Mehdi Morshed, a former chief executive of the rail project, said the reduction in the number of trains represents a major setback. The blended approach may reduce the number of train departures to as few as two per hour at peak times, while the law calls for up to 12 trains per hour.
“Why would we spend billions of dollars to get two trains per hour?” Morshed said. “We were telling people the system would have essentially unlimited capacity. If you don’t have frequent service, you are not going to have a profitable system.”
Again, if the CHSRA is still working toward the same goal that Kopp and Morshed were working toward, just using a different path, then I think the Blended Plan is workable. After all, that plan should be a temporary compromise designed to help wait out the Peninsula NIMBYs as Father Time thins their ranks and as soaring gas prices eventually destroy NIMBYism as a political force there. Still, Morshed’s and Kopp’s concerns here are serious and deserve to be addressed.
Kopp has also raised other concerns about parts of the Blended Plan, as Steven T. Jones reports in the SF Bay Guardian:
But Quentin Kopp, who launched the high-speed rail project as a state legislator in the ’90s and until recently served on the project’s board, said this latest agreement doesn’t help Transbay Terminal (which he has derided as little more than a real-estate deal) and it represents a violation of Prop. 1A and other high-speed rail provisions.
“Here’s a pot of money and everybody wants to steal from it,” said Kopp, who has criticized recent changes in the high-speed rail plan, such as San Francisco-bound passengers having to transfer to Caltrain in San Jose rather than coming directly into San Francisco and how Caltrain’s tracks limit how many trains can run per hour, hurting the overall project’s financials. “It’s hardly the project that was envisioned.”
Kopp is referring to the Caltrain electrification proposal, which Jones also reports would be partly funded by federal New Starts grants. Some of Kopp’s concerns likely stem from his ongoing battle with the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, but those concerns still deserve serious consideration as do the others he raised above.
Vartabedian reports that the Attorney General’s office was asked to issue an advisory opinion on some of these issues, but it is not yet available (which leads him to make baseless conspiratorial innuendos). Even once that is produced, it seems likely that this dispute will wind up in court. Kings County is already using the Prop 1A argument as a basis for a suit against the project.
Personally, I am hoping for big Democratic wins on the federal level this November so that significant levels of federal funding will be delivered to the project, helping ease some of these issues. And once trains are operating between the Bay Area and LA via the Central Valley, the rest of the state will stop having any tolerance for remaining Peninsula NIMBYs who want to throttle service and speeds.