Holiday Open Thread

Dec 23rd, 2016 | Posted by

For those of you traveling between the Bay Area and Southern California – or between the Central Valley and either of those two coastal metropolises – you’re probably already thinking about how much easier your trip would be if you could take it on a high speed train. Unless of course, your idea of fun is coming to a dead stop on Interstate 5 in the middle of the empty west side of the Valley.

Feel free to use this as a holiday open thread.

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CHSRA Approves Major Prop 1A Bond Sale

Dec 14th, 2016 | Posted by

At yesterday’s board meeting the California High Speed Rail Authority voted to authorize $3.2 billion for tracks from Fresno to Madera, and for Caltrain electrification:

The high-speed rail board approved $3.2 billion in funding Tuesday for two segments: $2.6 billion for a 119-mile leg connecting Fresno to Madera and $600 million to electrify a 55-mile stretch of existing Caltrain tracks in the San Jose Peninsula that will eventually connect with high-speed rail. The money is needed so the state meets its obligation to “match” federal funding but had been tied up in litigation for several years.

As Tim Sheehan reports, the funding comes from Prop 1A and the total of $7.8 billion for the San Joaquin Valley comes a variety of other sources:

The federal government has provided California with about $3 billion in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus funds and federal railroad transportation money. About $2.6 billion is expected to come from Proposition 1A, and another $2.2 billion from the state’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund.

The federal money comes with strings that are putting some pressure on the state: the ARRA stimulus grants amounting to about $2 billion have to be spent by Sept. 30, 2017; California also has to put up a share of matching funds, expected to come from Proposition 1A. Morales said that the rail authority has spent all but about $400 million of the ARRA grants, “and we expect to spend them all” by the September 2017 deadline.

In other words, 2017 will see a flurry of construction activity on HSR. For that to be sustained over the long term, California will have to shore up the cap-and-trade system and seek other revenue sources, as the hopes of federal money have likely faded for some time to come.

Of course, it wouldn’t be California HSR if there wasn’t a group of people ready to sue once again to try and stop the project:

At the public board meeting, though, attorney Stuart Flashman announced he had submitted a new lawsuit challenging the legality of AB1889, a bill rushed through the Legislature last year that changed previous laws to allow high-speed rail bonds to be spent on electrification. That funding use fell outside the scope of what voters approved, Flashman said, and only voters can change it.

The lawsuit submitted Tuesday in Sacramento County Court on behalf of Kings County, the Town of Atherton and several residents, alleges the legislation was unconstitutional, Flashman said.

Kings County and Atherton continue to waste taxpayer dollars on lawsuits that they always lose. These people will bring a lawsuit the day HSR is scheduled to begin service to try and stop it. They’ll sue to stop a train dead in the tracks in the middle of the Central Valley. They’ll sue to stop HSR as long as they are financially able to do so.

At some point you’d think the state would seek to have these folks declared vexatious litigants. None of their suits have any merit and they’re clearly designed to reduce eight straight years of defeat in the legislature and the ballot box. HSR construction will carry on in spite of them.

Navigating a New State-Federal Relationship

Dec 6th, 2016 | Posted by

California is on an epic collision course with soon-to-be-president Donald Trump. Governor Jerry Brown, incoming AG Xavier Becerra, and the legislative leadership are determined to defend California’s people and values against the new regime in DC.

It remains to be seen what this means exactly for California’s high speed rail project. Federal funding now seems unlikely until at least the 2020s. At this point there is no basis for continuing to delay the inevitable – California needs to plan for HSR to be funded and built without any more federal financial contributions. Eventually we will see Trump and his party ejected from power, but that could take four to eight years. It’s time for California to focus on resilience and survival, and building HSR all by itself is part of that.

Before the CA-US conflict begins in earnest (a political conflict, to be clear), the federal government did offer something very helpful last week. The Federal Railroad Administration finally announced new regulations allowing operators to use trains designed to European safety standards:

The FRA expects the new rules will enable railroads to use trains that are safer, more energy efficient, and cheaper to operate. The rules will allow American passenger train operators to purchase rolling stock designed to European safety standards (but not Japanese standards), without going through an expensive waiver process….

It’s unknown why the new regulations spurned Japanese models, but Alon Levy, who blogs about transit issues at Pedestrian Observations, speculates that it’s because Japanese safety standards focus more on crash avoidance than “survivability” compared to European standards.

It remains to be see what this means for California HSR, but Siemens and Alstom clearly now have an advantage over Japan, at least in terms of trainsets.

November Cap-and-Trade Auction Goes Very Well

Nov 27th, 2016 | Posted by

Last week brought more silver linings to California amidst the gathering storm clouds of the Trumpocalypse, as demand rebounded for cap-and-trade permits:

Demand for California pollution permits rebounded in the latest carbon auction after plummeting earlier this year, state officials said Tuesday.

Still, the permits did not sell out, heightening uncertainty about the program’s future.

About 88 percent of the available credits were purchased at the quarterly auction held last week by California and its trading partner, Quebec, Canada. That’s an improvement from the 35 percent sold in August and 10 percent in May.

I don’t think that an 88% sell rate compared to 35% in August and 10% in may qualifies as “heightening uncertainty” – it’s quite the opposite. There’s still a legal case to deal with, but as Democrats now have 2/3 majorities in Sacramento, a governor absolutely determined to leave strong climate change policy as his legacy of 16 years in office, and a state ready to fight against Trump and the Republicans with everything it’s got, I’m bullish on the future of AB 32 and cap-and-trade.

Clearly, permit buyers are bullish too. And this bodes very well for the ability of California to fund high speed rail.