Ralph Vartabedian Seeks to Stir the Blended Plan Pot
I was wondering when the LA Times’ anti-HSR reporter Ralph Vartabedian would swoop in to gloat over Quentin Kopp’s vehement opposition to the blended plan. Well, tonight he finally got around to the story:
In his declaration, Kopp says that the bullet train business plan approved last year by the authority violates several voter-imposed requirements, and the project “is no longer a genuine high speed rail system.”
Among the taxpayer safeguards are requirements that construction of the system occur in “usable segments” and that the state have funding in hand to complete each segment before the start of construction. Kopp said he helped craft the provision when he headed the rail authority.
He says the current plan to build 130 miles of rail in the Central Valley for $6 billion, starting this summer, will not produce a usable segment. The first truly feasible segment of passenger service in the state’s plan would connect Merced to the San Fernando Valley at an estimated cost of $31 billion, Kopp said. And the state does not have that kind of money in sight. The initial section of track is a “subset of a usable segment” and violates a fundamental mandate intended to protect the state from starting a project it can’t complete, Kopp’s declaration asserts.
Kopp also says current plans for a so-called blended system, in which bullet trains would share tracks with local commuter trains from Gilroy to San Francisco, is at odds with voter approvals. The plan was meant to quell opposition to bullet trains running through the wealthy communities of Silicon Valley. But Kopp maintains that it could slow bullet trains too much, violating a legal requirement that at least some trips between Los Angeles and San Francisco not exceed two hours and 40 minutes. And agreements to upgrade local rail systems also violate the law by diverting bullet-train bond money for other work not agreed to by voters, Kopp contends.
As I explained when I wrote about this last week, while I am not a fan of the blended plan, I don’t agree that it violates Prop 1A. The Attorney General’s office and the state Legislative Counsel have both weighed in with letters confirming that the plan conforms to Prop 1A. A court will have the final word, but the support of both of these top state legal officers is significant and will carry some weight.
There is a lot of debate about the details of the blended plan, including how much it can actually deliver on the promise of San Francisco to San José service within 30 minutes (see Clem’s blog for an argument that it can’t achieve that time in regular service). It may not provide for an ideal level of service on the Peninsula. But so far I’ve not yet seen a strong argument that it violates Prop 1A.
I get Kopp’s frustrations. I’ve always believed that HSR is best when it operates on dedicated tracks. At the same time, I don’t see another way for the political problem on the Peninsula to have been resolved. The NIMBYs are a clear minority, but they have always been better organized, and efforts by HSR advocates to counter-organize have never had the kind of resources they need to be successful. Money can make a lot of these problems go away with tunnels and trenches, but thanks to the insane Tea Party representatives in Congress, that money is a lot harder to get. So what else is to be done? Punting on the four track system is not something anyone enjoys, but it is a sound political strategy that does fit within the reality that HSR was always going to be built in phases.
And in case anyone is wondering, this unnamed HSR advocate quoted below is not me:
“It is going to get built, but it is going to get built ugly,” said one bullet-train advocate close to the state rail authority.
Not only is that not a quote from me, I don’t even agree with that statement. The blended plan is not ideal, but it is workable and Dan Richard is absolutely right that it’s quite similar to how HSR operates in many European countries.
The blended plan is best viewed as a phase of HSR development. The first operating segment will be from Merced to the San Fernando Valley. From there the system will expand to connect downtown San Francisco to downtown Los Angeles, just as the Interstate Highway System began with isolated rural segments and used surface streets to connect segments until other freeways were built in the urban core.
Eventually, soaring demand for passenger trains on the San Francisco to San José corridor will produce the political momentum to add two more tracks and provide the dedicated rails for HSR to get to and from the Transbay Terminal. So while this spat is unpleasant, I do not believe it will undermine the project or prevent it from moving forward. And in the end that’s what matters.