Governor Brown Signs Two Bills That Could Reorganize Amtrak California Operations
Late last week Governor Jerry Brown signed two bills that could reorganize operations on two Amtrak California routes, allowing the creation of a Joint Powers Authority along the lines of the authority that governs the Capitol Corridor. AB 1779, pertaining to the San Joaquins route, and SB 1225 for the LOSSAN corridor where the Pacific Surfliner operates, are now law.
But what exactly does this mean? The implications for intercity passenger rail in California aren’t yet clear.
In August this blog looked at the proposed San Joaquin JPA, noting that local governments in the area, especially Kings County, were intrigued by the possibility of gaining both more local control over the train’s operations as well as having more influence in Sacramento.
Passenger rail advocates have been warier. In a very detailed look at these two bills, Dana Gabbard of Streetsblog LA cited concerns from advocates that setting up JPAs for the San Joaquins and the LOSSAN corridor could make it harder, not easier, to coordinate operations and could undermine the passenger experience:
Ed Imai, Principal Consultant to the Assembly Transportation Committee, in his analysis of the bill notes several concerns regarding statewide coordination, questions about statutory changes that seem unnecessary, uncertainty about how any funding shortfalls would be managed, criticized the narrative of the purported success of the Capitols Corridor as being worth of being emulated given that its farebox recover ratio (i.e. the extent that its fares cover the cost of operations) are below that of the Surfliner and lastly echoing Dyson about tensions over the make-up of local representation of agencies on the JPA Board Imai notes “Unlike the legislation forming the CCJPA, this bill would not codify the structure or membership of the JPA that would assume management of the LOSSAN rail corridor. This raises doubts about the capacity of the JPA to manage the corridor because if its prospective members cannot even agree on the representational makeup and structure of the JPA it is unclear that they could effectively manage the more complex task of corridor operations”.
Even the Coast Rail Coordinating Council (a coalition that has for some years been working on behalf of the Coast Daylight, a proposed daily train to run between San Francisco and Los Angeles) at its August 30th joint meeting with the LOSSAN Board in San Luis Obispo expressed worries “What will happen to state support for emerging corridors if SB 1225 and AB 1779 are implemented?” (item #3).
Noel Braymer in an e-mail to me regarding the two bills shared his concern that “The biggest potential problem with creating 3 separate JPA’s for the California Rail Corridors is coordinating connections between the different services for passengers making transfers. In particular is the question of the future of the highly successful Ambus service connecting the 3 corridor trains managed by Caltrans Division of Rail”. A local activist shared with me his travails in attempting to get a reservation via Amtrak’s reservation system for a Thruway bus from Salinas to San Jose to connect with a Capitol Corridor train that in turn would connect with a San Joaquin train. They instead offered a convoluted alternative, stating their system had a limitation of only being able to make reservations for service connecting with trains that have reserved seating (which the Capitol does not). Is this a hint a JPA spinoff could impede rider access to the Amtrak national reservation system? I am told this is an issue never raised while the Surfliner stakeholders discussed the JPA takeover.
However, there has been support for having a single agency manage the corridor. RailPAC endorsed a LOSSAN JPA, but with caveats:
Now RailPAC has consistently called for a single regional agency to operate passenger trains in Southern California. However, we have been asked by a number of elected officials to support this body’s attempt to reorganize itself into a JPA to more directly manage this corridor. Recognizing the institutional relationships and the agencies already in place, I will state that RailPAC strongly supports the creation of a LOSSAN Joint Powers Authority. However, we do so with the caveat that this has to be an interim step on the way to a unified authority. We see such a single agency as the only way to overcome the turf battles that are unacceptable to railroad passengers and taxpayers in general.
With the bill now law, we will see how this plays out in practice – and we may see sooner rather than later. Metro is planning to apply to provide management services for the LOSSAN JPA. That may help provide some improvement in passenger rail connectivity, especially at Union Station which is the hub of Metro’s rail operations. Metro’s headquarters building (next door to Union Station) already houses Metrolink, and Metro is one of the members of the Southern California Regional Rail Authority that governs Metrolink.
Some may say Metro is empire-building, but that ship sailed a long time ago. It would make sense, from a conceptual perspective, to have Metro operate the service. But I’ll be interested to hear what others think of the specific proposal.
This all matters for high speed rail since the Surfliner will play a crucial role in connecting passengers to the HSR trains at Union Station in LA. Let’s hope these bills lead to improved passenger rail service and good HSR connectivity.