The recent concern over AB 3034's emphasis on regional construction and the UP's resistance to sharing its ROW may not be such separate matters after all - once their combined political effect is assessed. And the final piece in this is the State Senate Transportation and Housing Committee's Final High Speed Rail Report which, in my reading, suggests that the core of the HSR project - linking SF to LA - is about to be gutted.
The report argues in its opening summary that recreational and commuter trips are going to make up the bulk of HSR trips. The most revenue is likely to come from business travelers - the folks who have flocked in huge numbers to European HSR lines, and who would dearly love a fast and convenient travel system between LA and SF that helps them avoid crowded airports in favor of wi-fi enabled trains that serve city centers. In fact, the report says that the LA-SF connection is "the most lucrative segment" of the projected route.
So what does the report conclude about how the system should be constructed?
6. Ensure that the Authority stages its construction program so that state funds are used on regional segments of the high-speed rail corridor, before developing the long distance link between the state’s major urban centers, i.e., Los Angeles and San Francisco. It is possible that the rail bond program could be approved by voters before the Authority has an approved financial plan that includes state, federal, and private resources. In that case, it is important that the first expenditures of state money should be used for improving regional travel segments where rights-of-way may be shared with commuter operators, Amtrak, freight railroads, and eventually high-speed rail.
In other words, the State Senate Transportation Committee led by Alan Lowenthal wants to turn the HSR project into commuter rail, and gut the "killer app" aspect of HSR - providing sustainable, non-oil based travel within the state of California. It flies in the face of the stats listed in the study suggesting that the long-distance link is what will make HSR financially viable.
The report raises concerns about ridership and notes that other "mega-projects" have gone over budget, naming the Chunnel, the Big Dig, and the Denver Airport as examples. But nowhere are the successful, on-budget HSR projects mentioned, and nowhere at all are fuel costs or the airline crisis mentioned. It is a document published in 2008 but that reads like something from 2003, or 1995 - almost completely failing to adequately grasp the whole context of the system.
Further, nowhere is the cost of doing nothing examined. As I argued in that post, the cost of not building HSR isn't zero - it's likely to be several times as much as the HSR project alone, once added airport and freeway capacity, fuel costs, lost jobs and lost tax revenue are added up.
Ultimately the report suggests to me that the State Senate Transportation Committee is unserious about HSR. They don't get why this project matters and have not fully assessed the overall context in which HSR would be built and operated. This leads them to head down the path of gutting the HSR project, as suggested above. I'm all for commuter rail, but HSR provided both commuter rail AND intercity rail - which we badly need. Why not do both at once?
The report is not a complete loss. It provides suggestions for risk management and oversight of the CHSRA that are useful. Regarding the UP issue, the report specifically suggests "A venue should be provided to enable the regional commuter rail agencies and the two major freight railroads operating in the state to review and comment on any of the Authority’s plans that would impact their operations," and given the UP's concerns this is a wise suggestion.
But in the report's failure to assess the oil issue, which is putting enormous stress on the state's transportation system and therefore on its economy, the committee has done a disservice to the State Senate and to Californians, particularly in its short-sighted suggestion that the intercity portion of HSR be delayed. This recommendation, when viewed in concert with AB 3034 and the UP's reluctance to share Central Valley ROW, may help create a political atmosphere where HSR's "killer app" - the link from LA to SF - is gutted.
That would be a catastrophe for the state. Californians deserve the chance to vote on the original HSR plan, as they likely have a better understanding of the project and the wider transportation context than do Senators who stunningly did not mention the fuel crisis. Hopefully wiser heads prevail in the State Senate when they debate AB 3034.