HSR Still On Track to July Groundbreaking
Over at the Los Angeles Times our old friend Ralph Vartabedian is suggesting there are three obstacles to a July groundbreaking for the high speed rail project:
The new challenges are coming from a private railroad that controls a key right of way, a legislative committee delving into contracting issues and a powerful federal agency asserting authority over the project.
But as it turns out, none of these actually represent huge problems for the California High Speed Rail Authority.
The BNSF issue is new, and certainly the most newsworthy. Here’s the details:
But last week, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co., which operates a freight line that follows some of the 130-mile initial route in the Central Valley, warned in a blunt letter that no deal has been reached to build on or near its existing track. The company also signaled that it may not be willing to accept the project as proposed, in part because the exact route of the line is still unclear.
BNSF had been seen as one of the more accommodating organizations to the project. But the letter, addressed to the rail authority’s main consultant, Parsons Brinckerhoff, and copied to the rail authority, asserts that the rail agency’s planning process has “a great deal of ambiguity and contradictions.” The agency is sending mixed messages to different government agencies about what the construction entails, and it’s not clear who has the authority to speak and negotiate for the state, the railroad claimed.
The letter also raises concerns about the safety of future bullet train operations and construction work next to its freight corridor through the Central Valley.
If BNSF balks at finalizing a deal, it could put a roadblock in front of the project. Federal grants to the project contain language that requires the project to have necessary agreements with railroads before starting construction. A BNSF spokeswoman said the company would not elaborate on the letter.
A rail authority spokesman downplayed the BNSF letter, saying it is “not a show stopper.”
BNSF is not as insanely anti-passenger rail as Union Pacific. Clearly they have some concerns they want addressed. But the letter doesn’t indicate any problems that are impossible or even difficult to solve. They are seeking some clarity about route, construction plans, and ongoing operations. As the planning process has evolved, it’s become easier for the Authority to provide those answers. BNSF is prodding the Authority to do just that, and a letter that gets leaked to the media is always a good way to get your questions answered. But it’s not more than that and doesn’t suggest to me there’s any serious problems here.
Vartabedian then mentions that the state legislature is interested in the bidding process:
Separately, the rail agency is coming under new scrutiny from the state Senate Transportation Committee, which is looking into the bid evaluation process for the first 29-mile segment of rail bed through Fresno. The authority’s staff changed its bid evaluation criteria last year, after the agency’s board initially set up a two-step process that would have thrown out contracting teams with the two lowest technical scores….
“The committee has some concerns and we are going to look into it,” said Sen. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord), the transportation committee chairman.
This should come as no surprise, and a legislative hearing is fine, but this should not be construed as some threat to the timeline either. Assuming the Authority followed all state laws regarding the bidding process – and I have to believe that they did – then the legislature won’t have any reason to throw a monkey wrench into the works. More importantly, are legislators really going to get upset that a bid came in below original estimates? They’ll want to make sure it’s a good bid that won’t cost more on the back end, but that’s just due diligence.
Finally, Vartabedian tosses in a mention of the Surface Transportation Board ruling that they do have jurisdiction over the high speed rail project. That’s an unfortunate ruling, but they have given exemptions to other HSR projects in the recent past. Let’s hope the Obama Administration is able to get the board to do so again for California.
Overall these are some fairly routine issues that any major project will encounter on its road to construction. There’s every reason to believe they’ll be resolved quickly and not delay construction.