A Whole Bunch of HSR Updates At Once

Jun 15th, 2015 | Posted by

Seems I’m posting most often early in the week…I’ll try to space these out over the week. Time to catch up on some stories:

Jeff Denham wants to “nullify” the federal HSR grant:

Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, who has tried multiple times to derail federal funding, successfully pushed a measure through the House of Representatives this week that would nullify a three-year-old agreement between the state’s high-speed rail authority and the Federal Railroad Administration. It basically calls for the state to make good on the original agreement with the rail agency that it would match federal aid dollar for dollar.

As the state didn’t keep pace with its required match, the federal government subsequently changed the agreement to allow federal dollars to continue to be spent.

Senator Barbara Boxer hit back pretty hard at this, and even with the GOP in control of the Senate I’m not sure this would survive that body. President Obama would likely issue a veto threat as well.

Right of way acquisition appears to be improving:

The State Public Works Board, on behalf of the authority, has also accelerated its approval of resolutions authorizing eminent domain or condemnation to get right-of-way property. Since December 2013, the board has adopted 230 resolutions encompassing about 625 acres of land in Fresno, Madera, Kings and Tulare counties.

As of Friday, the authority reported that of the 1,079 properties needed in its first two construction sections, it has secured legal possession of 257 and is beginning its efforts in Kern County for the third section.

Tutor said in May that he’s more optimistic as well. “I met personally with the principals of high-speed rail and we are satisfied there’s enough right of way out there that we can get a major cost-effective start and that they’ll be able to stay ahead of us so they won’t impact us any longer,” he told investment analysts.

Jeff Morales and Dan Richard also are quoted here as saying that while the pace of ROW acquisition is their biggest concern, they are confident they’ll be able to spend their federal grant money before it expires on September 30, 2017. With the new federal threat in the Denham amendment, they have even more incentive to build and spend quickly.

And speaking of construction…

Fresno River Viaduct construction is about to start with a kickoff ceremony on Tuesday:

The aerial structure — or viaduct — is part of Construction Package 1 (CP 1), the first 29-mile segment of the bullet train line that will run from Avenue 17 in Madera County to East American Avenue in Fresno County.

The aerial structure near Highway 145 is the first of three viaducts that will be erected as part of CP 1.

The 1,600-foot structure, to be built in segments, will require approximately 75 workers to complete.

The viaduct will span from Raymond Road to Watson Street in Madera County, crossing over the Fresno River and State Highway 145 parallel to the BNSF tracks.

Rail Authority officials said construction work on the Fresno River Viaduct is expected to last between nine and 12 months.

Finally, some serious steel and concrete. And jobs that Jeff Denham wants to destroy.

HSR Critics Party Like It’s 2009

Jun 10th, 2015 | Posted by

The June 2015 California High Speed Rail Authority board meeting in Los Angeles felt more than a little familiar:

During more than six hours of public comment by about 150 people, one speaker after another attacked the project as the eight-member California High-Speed Rail Authority board listened quietly. The testimony came from residents and leaders in small towns and growing suburbs along proposed routes through the mountains north of the Los Angeles basin. Many speakers said the project would devastate their quality of life or their local economy.

Residents of several low-income and predominantly minority communities, including San Fernando, Pacoima and Sylmar, complained that their neighborhoods would be divided by 20-foot-high sound walls along the high-speed train corridor. Some said their areas had been already been chopped up by three major freeways and a dozen dumps.

These concerns sound almost exactly like what some residents of Palo Alto and Menlo Park were saying back in 2009 when the first real public opposition to HSR emerged as planners began looking at the details of building out HSR and Caltrain expansion on the Peninsula rail corridor.

So turn off that episode of Lost, put some Lady Gaga on your iPhone 3G, and let’s take a closer look at yesterday’s board meeting.

The first thing to note is that while I think the criticisms of the CHSRA’s public outreach in 2009 and 2010 were overblown, the current CHSRA is doing a very good job of handling these concerns with respect and fairness:

Rail board chairman Dan Richard said the meeting was the biggest protest he could recall during his tenure.

“What you saw here was the high-water mark of all the different communities affected,” Richard said. “It’s human nature to look at this from the standpoint of the biggest negative impact.”

The SR 14 route, which generated the most outcry among speakers at yesterday’s meeting, has been on the books for over a decade. It was shown on the maps used that year to describe and promote the HSR project and Prop 1A. It would have been entirely fair for the CHSRA to say “you had your chance” and look at only minor changes to that route.

But to their immense credit, the CHSRA has instead agreed to conduct a study of a completely new alignment to connect Palmdale and Burbank that would consist of a long tunnel bored under the San Gabriel Mountains. The cost could be enormous and the technical challenges would be significant. Yet the CHSRA is giving it very serious consideration, which I take to be a genuine sign of respect for the concerns being raised by residents in places like Acton, Santa Clarita, Pacoima, and San Fernando.

While Ralph Vartabedian is still trying to spin this story as some kind of portent of doom for the project, his story – co-written by Soumya Karlamangla – does make it clear that planners and officials are fully aware that there will be a spike in vocal opposition to HSR routes once detailed planning begins in their neighborhood:

Opposition to large transportation projects, such as rail lines and freeways, often intensifies as the plans become more precise and the effects on surrounding residents and businesses more evident, experts say.

“When you get close to an environmental document and a decision point, that’s where concern grows,” said Mark Watts, interim executive director of Transportation California, a Sacramento advocacy group for transportation projects. As for the opposition emerging in L.A. County, he said, “I can’t even fathom what their response is going to be.”

That said, while this kind of opposition is now to be expected, it’s not necessarily any easier to handle. The situation on the Peninsula remains screwed up, as the early protests led state officials to agree to punt on the question of how to build a wider rail corridor. The result was a phased plan that would include some HSR trains using the existing tracks to get to and from San Francisco. That in turn means a longer travel time from SF to LA, and while this is merely a temporary situation, some HSR critics are seizing on that to claim that the project now violates Prop 1A.

Southern California political leaders would like to bury as much of the tracks as possible. And given that more opposition came from folks along the SR 14 route than the eastern routes, one might conclude that the outcome here might indeed be a long tunnel under the mountains.

But the LA Times article did a good job (no, really) of pointing out that there were speakers at the meeting who opposed those eastern routes as well:

But other residents were strongly opposed to the underground routes, which would be bored through the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument. Speakers from Kagel Canyon said they depend on wells that could be harmed by tunneling. Some warned that train tunnels could disrupt water supplies that are critical to both the city and county of Los Angeles.

Environmental groups have been some of the project’s biggest supporters, saying high-speed trains could reduce pollution. George Watland, director of the Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club, said his organization is still backing the route along the Antelope Valley Freeway because it has the least effect on water tables, wildlife and critical habitat. He said many of his members would object to a tunnel beneath the forest and national monument, even if it were not visible.

“The tunnels have a bigger footprint and high costs, all of which make the project less likely to happen at all,” Watland said.

Even if the CHSRA had a blank check to build whatever they wanted, a tunnel under the mountains comes with significant technical challenges – and its own share of strident local opposition.

Many speakers made personal appeals to the board:

You’ve got to be sympathetic to these concerns. Losing your home sucks, even if you’re going to be paid a fair market value for it.

At the same time, we should also have sympathy for the thousands, perhaps millions, who could lose their home to rising seas or drought. Losing a home or a view sucks, but HSR benefits millions with cheaper travel, more jobs, less pollution, and fighting climate change.

While these residents have concerns, so too does the state as a whole. And it’s worth keeping in mind that after years of bad publicity, a majority Californians continue to support high speed rail. They continue to vote for pro-HSR candidates and end the statewide ambitions of those who oppose it.

In many ways, the most challenging problem HSR faces is local opposition like this. When some locals tried to block the Expo Line, it was easier to roll over that because the line brought tangible benefits to so many neighborhoods. Sure, you might not be wild about a new overhead crossing in your neighborhood, but you’ll also get a station close to your home that can take you to, in the Expo Line’s case, the beach, Third Street, USC, the Coliseum, Staples Center, downtown LA, and so much more.

HSR’s challenge is that it’s going through these neighborhoods and not offering the benefit of a station. There had been discussion in years past of putting a station in Santa Clarita or Sylmar. That might be worth revisiting. On the other hand, Palo Alto residents and elected officials flipped out even though the CHSRA was offering them a station, so maybe this isn’t much of an answer.

The tracks have to go somewhere, and they can’t be buried the entire length of the state. Someone is going to be unhappy with the final decision. Whatever that final decision is, it needs to be made in the best interests of the state as a whole, and with as much respect to neighbors as is financially and practically possible.

June 2015 Board Meeting Open Thread

Jun 9th, 2015 | Posted by

Been a little while since I last did one of these. But today’s California High Speed Rail board meeting in Los Angeles looks to be more contentious than most. The board will be hearing from Southern Californians who have strong opinions about the proposed route from Palmdale to Burbank.

Here’s the board meeting agenda, and here is the live feed.

Note that the board will NOT be making any decisions on the Palmdale to Burbank route, but it is an informational agenda item, and they will be taking public comment on that route.

The LA Weekly predicts the meeting will be “an unholy mess”:

All those who enjoy seeing angry people yelling at government officials are invited to the California High Speed Rail Authority’s board meeting in downtown Los Angeles on Tuesday. The board will be discussing a few things, but the bone of contention will be the bullet train’s route between Burbank and Palmdale, which will either tear through the cities of San Fernando, Pacoima and Sylmar, or tunnel under the Angeles National Forest.

And of course, here’s a local elected official, San Fernando mayor pro tem Sylvia Ballin, reaching the same conclusion every other NIMBY has reached: the only good HSR project is a dead HSR project:

Anyway, to make a long story even longer: everyone is pissed, and there’s not really any plan on the table that will make most of them happy.

“I think no option is the best option,” says Ballin. “It’s just unimaginable to me that our elected officials would go forward with a train that is going to cost billions more than we approved. This is not the same plan” that voters approved in 2008.

It is absolutely the same plan, especially if the SR 14 alignment is kept. Moving to an eastern alignment, which is perfectly reasonable if it’s feasible from a practical and financial standpoint, would actually be a change from what voters approved in 2008. Of course, so would abandoning the project itself.

While I understand San Fernando’s concerns, they are exactly as overblown as those concerns were when Palo Alto and other Peninsula cities made them. These Valley cities are welcome to suggest building a tunnel under the mountains, but I hope they will also help find ways to pay for it.

Kuehl, Antonovich Call For Lots of Tunnels

Jun 8th, 2015 | Posted by

Los Angeles County Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Michael Antonovich don’t agree on much. Kuehl was one of the most progressive leaders in the state legislature, including the author and longtime champion of bills to create a Canadian-style single-payer health care system. Antonovich has been a leading Southern California conservative for many decades.

Despite those basic differences, they do agree, along with Los Angeles City Councilmember Felipe Fuentes, that the decision on how to connect Palmdale to Burbank with high speed rail needs to be made quickly – and preferably with a lot of tunnels.

Such is their argument in a joint letter to the California High Speed Rail Authority:

In a joint letter issued to the California High-Speed Rail Authority in advance of its June 9th Board meeting, Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, County Mayor Michael D. Antonovich, and Los Angeles City Councilmember Felipe Fuentes called on the Authority to recognize the significant impacts to many communities along the proposed rail alignments and to develop a clear timeline for conducting the technical analyses requested by local communities that will allow the Authority to remove as soon as possible alternatives with the greatest community impacts.

“The High-Speed Rail study of routes between Palmdale and Burbank is moving in the right direction, but several route alternatives still pose great impacts to residences, businesses, churches, and recreation facilities for our communities,” said Mayor Antonovich. “Supervisor Kuehl, Councilmember Fuentes, and I represent every community impacted by every route still under consideration, and we have come together with one voice to ask the Authority to expedite the process by which it will be able to remove or put underground alternatives that are causing our communities great concern for their homes, businesses, equestrian facilities, churches, and quality of life.”

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl concurred with the joint request. “I strongly agree with my colleagues, Mayor Antonovich and Council Member Fuentes, that we need to work with our partners at the High-Speed Rail Authority to find the safest route from Palmdale to Burbank with the least disruptive impact on our surrounding communities,” Kuehl said.

“Investment in mobility and reduction of greenhouse gases are critical to California’s future – that’s why it’s imperative to make sound and thoughtful decisions about the routes and impacts to residents in the San Fernando Valley,” said Los Angeles City Councilmember Felipe Fuentes, 7th District. “The CHSRA must be mindful of the impacts to the quality of life as it proceeds in this environmental review process. Working with our local leaders and residents we must ensure that the CHSRA delivers a project that minimizes the impacts and maximizes the benefits,” said the councilmember.

The bolding above is mine, and it highlights what appears to be the key purpose of the letter: they want tunnels. Tunnels through Santa Clarita? Tunnels under the San Gabriel Mountains? Tunnels under Lake View Terrace? It sounds to me like they’re open to any of those options, so long as they ease the concerns of people living near the proposed route.

Kuehl represents the portion of the proposed route that would pass through Pacoima, San Fernando, and Sylmar, and Antonovich represents the rest of the area along the proposed alternatives, including Burbank, Sunland, Tujunga, Santa Clarita, and Palmdale. (Seriously, LA County Supervisor Districts are enormous – Kuehl’s website notes her district is larger than 14 states.)

Their letter, then, is welcome in that it represents a united front. They’re not trying to dump the tracks onto the other person’s district – they’re trying to reach a solution that they believe works for everyone.

Of course, the more tunnels you build, the higher the cost. And as much as it might ease neighbors’ concerns, it’s just not possible to build HSR in a tunnel from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Some sort of accommodation will have to be reached, but it’s not possible to satisfy everybody.

These three aren’t the only local elected officials looking to influence the route ahead of this week’s board meeting. San Fernando mayor Joel Fajardo published an op-ed calling for elimination of the SR 14 route via Santa Clarita and San Fernando:

SR 14, a proposed route from Palmdale to Santa Clarita to San Fernando to Burbank, would be a fatal blow to our city. It would divide San Fernando in half with a 20-foot-high wall, delay first responder times, eliminate dozens of businesses and our bike bath, impede access to our historic Cesar Chavez monument, and devastate the city financially.

If SR 14 levels key sections of our flourishing downtown, San Fernando could lose upwards of 7 percent of its annual budget, shed hundreds of jobs, and even face bankruptcy, resulting in an unprecedented reduction to all public services.

I have a hard time believing it would actually cause this level of damage. But this sounds a lot like the issues that were raised on the Peninsula several years ago – very similar arguments were made by Palo Alto, Menlo Park, San Mateo, and other cities that were suddenly concerned about the impact of HSR on their communities.

I would not be surprised to see some sort of tunnel under the San Gabriels emerge as the preferred option, despite the enormous technical and financial challenges it would pose. I’d love to see an SR 14 route of some kind remain on the table, especially with a station added in Santa Clarita. But these are political decisions, and pressure is building on the Authority to pick one of the eastern alignments (even if the Kuehl/Antonovich/Fuentes letter is careful to not call for any particular choice).