CHSRA Fires Back At Latest Flawed LA Times Article

Jan 17th, 2017 | Posted by

Dan Richard and Jeff Morales, chair and CEO of the California High Speed Rail Authority, fired back in an open letter to the Legislature against what they describe as a “fundamentally misleading” article by Ralph Vartabedian in the LA Times that implied the high speed rail project faced massive cost overruns:

First, with regard to cost, the article ignores the fact that the original grant funding was for basic civil construction and did not include stations, electrification, systems and other features necessary to achieve high-speed rail operations. These additional features — which are not overruns but necessary additions — are being funded with available state funding, as detailed in the plan approved by the Authority’s Board of Directors in December 2016. That plan provides extensive details, estimating the cost at $7.8 billion, not $9.5 or $10 billion; further, the $7.8 billion includes $900 million in contingencies to cover increases.

As has been detailed in the Authority’s 2016 Business Plan, the capital costs for the program have decreased, not increased, something not reported in the article. While overall capital costs have declined, we also reported to the legislature risks to the schedule and costs associated with specific construction packages and we will continue to do so, with our next project update to be provided to the legislature in March 2017.

The letter goes on to debunk more of Vartabedian’s article, including pointing out that the FRA says California is “on track” to spend the stimulus funding by September 30.

The letter makes it clear that once again, Vartabedian wrote a biased article that did not provide his readers with a full picture of what is actually going on with the high speed rail project or the FRA’s review.

HSR Opponents Seize on Federal Report to Slam Project

Jan 16th, 2017 | Posted by

It’s a movie we’ve seen several times before. A government agency issues a report warning that it’s possible there could be big cost overruns on the high speed rail project. (In other news, water is wet.) HSR opponents jump all over the report, Republicans wave it around to justify another attack, all while the California High Speed Rail Authority takes further steps to actually ensure everything goes as planned.

This movie has been rebooted again here in 2017, and our old buddy Ralph Vartabedian is once again writing the story:

California’s bullet train could cost taxpayers 50% more than estimated — as much as $3.6 billion more. And that’s just for the first 118 miles through the Central Valley, which was supposed to be the easiest part of the route between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

A confidential Federal Railroad Administration risk analysis, obtained by The Times, projects that building bridges, viaducts, trenches and track from Merced to Shafter, just north of Bakersfield, could cost $9.5 billion to $10 billion, compared with the original budget of $6.4 billion.

The federal document outlines far-reaching management problems: significant delays in environmental planning, lags in processing invoices for federal grants and continuing failures to acquire needed property.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority originally anticipated completing the Central Valley track by this year, but the federal risk analysis estimates that that won’t happen until 2024, placing the project seven years behind schedule.

The report, the most critical official assessment of the project to surface so far, is labeled a “confidential-draft deliberative document for internal use only” and was presented by senior Federal Railroad Administration executives to California rail authority board Chairman Dan Richard and Chief Executive Jeff Morales on Dec. 1 in Washington.

This analysis puts the state on notice that it could face bigger cost overruns than anticipated and much longer delays than have been made public, a troubling critique by an agency that has been a stalwart supporter and longtime financier of the nation’s largest infrastructure project.

Leave it to Vartabedian to paint this in the worst possible light. He’s been convinced for years that massive cost overruns are certain, even though so far they haven’t materialized once the contracts have been signed.

He does let Jeff Morales have his say:

Morales cautioned in an interview that the numbers in the analysis are only projections and estimates that do not account for intervention by the rail authority, and he asserted that the construction in the Central Valley will cost less than the risk analysis indicates. The estimates, he said, are based on a lot of assumptions that the authority wants to ensure are correct.

“The point of doing this analysis is to identify the challenges and work through them,” he said. “They are not conclusions and not findings.”

Morales is, of course, correct. The analysis is part of good risk management and the Authority has repeatedly shown it is responsive to these warnings – to the extent they can, given that so much of their work depends on factors entirely out of their hands.

But then Vartabedian spends the rest of the article quoting Republican anti-HSR voices like Jeff Denham, as well as throwing other random attacks out at the Authority:

And an internal report obtained by The Times notes a just-completed survey in which employees complain that morale is low and has declined in each of the last three years. Employees interviewed by The Times say turnover is consistently high, leaving staff overworked. The rail authority’s senior deputy, its chief administrative officer and its top information technology executive recently left.

I have no way to know if this is true, and I’m certainly not going to take Vartabedian’s word for it. But if it is true, I’m sure the constant misleading and biased attacks from a reporter writing in the state’s largest newspaper has nothing at all to do with it.

The Authority has powered through the last ten years despite constant media attacks, constant doubts being leveled by Republicans, a persistent unwillingness by state and federal legislators to ensure the SF to LA project is fully funded, vicious personal attacks from HSR opponents (especially NIMBYs), and endless nuisance lawsuits.

It cannot be an easy job. Yet they not only continue doing it, they do it well. Construction is humming along without any major problems or overruns.

Still, these stories have their effect. And because Donald Trump is being inaugurated as president this week, we need to now start paying attention to what his administration’s Pravda – – is saying about HSR. It’s mostly a rehash of Vartabedian’s article, but this stood out to me:

The Federal Railroad Administration provided California with $3.5 billion between two federal grants for the project. President Barack Obama’s 2009 stimulus granted funds to the project; however, if the state fails to meet a September 30 deadline that requires paperwork to be submitted by June 20, the rail authority could lose up to $220 million of those funds.

I will bet money that the Trump FRA finds a way to claim that the Authority missed this deadline and must repay that $220 million. I would not be surprised if they also make a play to try and clawback much more of that stimulus money, though I doubt it can go very far.

Of all the obstacles I described above that the Authority has weathered, they may be about to encounter the largest one yet: Donald Trump. Let’s hope California’s anti-Trump resistance includes refusing to let Trump destroy the state’s future by attacking high speed rail.

Has Caltrain Ridership Hit A Ceiling?

Jan 7th, 2017 | Posted by

Yogi Berra might have something to say about the news that Caltrain ridership has dropped for the first time in six years. “Nobody rides Caltrain anymore – it’s too crowded” seems to be the story:

Caltrain’s average weekday ridership in August decreased 2.7 percent from the same month in 2015. Year-over-year ridership declined 3.3 percent in September and 3.5 percent in October. And according to data to be presented at Caltrain’s Board of Directors meeting on Thursday, average weekday ridership dropped 1.8 percent in November compared to the same month in 2015.

“We might be victims of our own success,” Reisman said.

Translation: Caltrain is now known for having very crowded trains during the morning and evening commutes. That congestion is turning some riders away.

The KQED story suggests BART is facing similar problems – “chronic commute-hour overcrowding” there as well.

Caltrain, at least, has a solution. Thanks in part to high speed rail and Proposition 1A, Caltrain electrification is finally under way and should be done by 2021. BART is further behind but Measure RR will help provide some relief, though a substantial funding infusion will be needed to build things like a second Transbay Tube.

Bay Area commuters face these problems in part because during the late 20th and early 21st centuries, not enough was done to build out transit capacity in anticipation of the future growth that everyone knew was coming. The lesson for HSR is clear: build now and build in the ability to handle higher capacities. That means not locking in HSR and Caltrain to just two tracks on the Peninsula forever.

Caltrain believes that some of their riders are switching to Lyft and Uber. But that’s not a long-term solution either, as regional freeways and roads are also quite congested. The only way forward for the Bay Area is to follow LA’s lead and pass a massive expansion of transit service in the regional core. State support would certainly help make this possible.

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2016: The Year in Review

Dec 31st, 2016 | Posted by

In retrospect, we all should have seen 2016 coming. Both the federal and the state election results were the product of trends that had begun in 2010. California voters continue to embrace a sustainable, innovative future – and continue to support high speed rail as a part of that future. The defeat of Prop 53 and the restoration of a Democratic supermajority in Sacramento are further evidence of that trend.

Outside the Golden State, however, more and more Americans continue to turn away from the future. Perhaps its because Democrats outside California are more afraid to embrace a sustainable future, or because other states are beginning to enter a kind of downward spiral in which Tea Party government further saps belief that things can ever get better. But Trump’s victory is the victory of those who would rather break everything and smash civilization than allow a sustainable, post-oil 21st century model to be built. Older Americans have decided that, rather than hand power over to the younger generations, they’re going to cling to power as long as they can, suspicious of these crazy ideas the young folks have.

Had Democrats won the White House and the U.S. Senate, as looked possible at several points in 2016, perhaps there would have been renewed hope of federal support for California high speed rail. But that would have required a reversal of the post-2010 trends, and that hasn’t yet happened.

So instead, the lesson of 2016 is that California really is on its own. For education, for health care, for immigration reform, and for high speed rail, California has to do it by itself. The federal government won’t help, and will likely be a hindrance.

Because Trump and the Republican Congress are ideologically opposed to doing anything about climate change, California will have to act alone there as well. That should bode well for the future of cap and trade. Governor Jerry Brown is determined to save it, and with a Democratic supermajority, he’ll be able to do it – even if that supermajority is hamstrung by oil-funded moderates, especially in the Assembly.

The financing plan for California HSR remains the same as it was in 2008, at least in concept: some state money, a lot of federal money, and then some private money toward the end. It’s time for the state to acknowledge that no more federal money is coming, and develop a financing plan that can be done from within California alone (with international and private partners as needed).

California’s HSR project continues to weather lawsuits and biased media articles. Now it’s going to have to weather a Trump Administration. It will be able to do that – as long as California’s leaders in Sacramento are willing to forge their own path toward building a sustainable 21st century society.