The California Chronicle has two short articles about the State Senate's approach to high speed rail, focusing on Democrat Leland Yee of San Francisco and Republican Roy Ashburn, whose district sprawls across eastern California but is based in Bakersfield. The articles help explain the politics surrounding HSR in our state capital, and may give us a preview of what we can expect to unfold Monday morning at 10 at the Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on AB 3034.
The Yee article focuses on his work to restore the "spine" of the HSR corridor, from SF to LA and Anaheim, which as you all know was threatened by AB 3034's provision for building smaller, potentially disconnected HSR corridors instead. The article quotes my comments from Tuesday in support of Yee's position, and includes this portion from a Yee press release:
"The high speed rail bond has always been about finding ways to get millions of people out of cars and airplanes and into a cost-saving and environmentally-sound transportation portal," said Yee. "A piecemeal approach is not what is best for commuters, visitors, or the economy, and is certainly not what is best for our environment. As an advocate for high speed rail, I will continue to be steadfast in securing the San Francisco to Los Angeles corridor of the bullet train and then branching out to other cities."
Yee and I are in full agreement on this. For HSR to have maximal impact on our state's transportation habits, and to provide a badly-needed link between two cities currently connected by an airline industry in crisis, we need to link SF to LA first. I recognize that this can cause worry to those in Sacramento, Stockton, and San Diego who won't get HSR at the outset - but they ought to be reassured that once Californians see this system in operation, and see its value, they will not hesitate to support the extensions to Sacramento and SD, extensions that remain part of the overall state HSR plan.
The article on Ashburn provides some more details on his opposition to the HSR project:
Senator Ashburn asked tough questions, noting several problems with the measure. The Authority has failed to develop a business plan and lacks real experience in constructing such a large-scale project.
Actually, the CHSRA does have a Business Plan. Of course, it was finalized in June 2000, and desperately needs to be updated - which AB 3034 would direct the Authority to do. The frequent postponement of the bond and the low levels of funding for the Authority are the culprits here. The 2000 study was still of value in 2004, but should have been updated for 2006 and surely for 2008. But the CHSRA has not had the level of funding to both prepare a business plan AND continue with the necessary EIR statement preparation and other important studies and planning that voters also needed to see before a vote. And since AB 3034 will produce that updated business plan, it doesn't make sense for Ashburn to oppose it on those grounds.
The project manager is the same contractor that was responsible for many of the problems associated with the "Big Dig" in Boston, recognized as one of the worst transportation planning boondoggles in recent memory.
He is referring to Parsons Brinckerhoff, which surely did screw up the Big Dig. But this is also a deeply misleading statement in several respects. One of the key problems with the Big Dig was poor oversight by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, which often turned a blind eye to reports about bad contracting practices in order to speed up construction only to have to spend money correcting those problems. Sound oversight of PB has produced good results in other major projects, and is a necessity no matter who ultimately designs, builds, and operates the system.
Unfortunately Ashburn and many other critics use "the Big Dig" as a kind of bogeyman, assuming that every large public works project will inevitably meet with the same problems as that project. That view ignores the details that caused the Big Dig to experience problems, and more importantly ignores the scores of public transportation projects that have been delivered on or close to the original budget. Seattle's Central Link light rail project will open next summer on budget. Same with the Metro Gold Line extension to East LA.
More importantly, the Big Dig was an unusually complex project, one that had rarely been attempted here in the US or abroad. HSR, on the other hand, is a familiar project to global engineers and builders. It's so common as to become routine. The most complex engineering will be the tunnels in the Tehachapis - but tunnelling through mountains is by no means new or difficult, especially here in California where Caltrans, PB and others have much experience with this; and the tunnel from Fourth and King to the new Transbay Terminal in San Francisco. There will be some cost overruns on the HSR project, no doubt about it - but I do not expect them to be large, and they will be due to factors outside of our control, such as the global inflation in construction materials and the declining value of the dollar.
To use the Big Dig as a reason to not ever build any ambitious project is therefore absurd and ignorant. It's a high profile screw up - but it's also an outlier, not representative of the whole.
Ashburn goes on:
Public employee unions successfully inserted language preventing competition by the private sector.
This refers to the controversial language the Senate Transportation Committee included in AB 3034 last week regarding Caltrans being given project design work. As Erik Nelson explained that provision was not given a final adoption by the committee. Even if this change is adopted, it does not speak to the quality of the project - Caltrans has one of the world's most successful project design records - but to politics. Ashburn and the Senate Republicans are ideologically opposed to public entities doing this kind of work. Such dogma should not be construed as a legitimate criticism of the HSR project.
The article notes that though "some of Ashburn's concerns" were addressed, presumably meaning the business plan, he still believes that the project is flawed:
"After six years and $58 million spent, the full-time Rail Authority still has yet to come up with a viable business plan, but they want the voters to trust them with 10 billion more of their hard-earned dollars," noted Ashburn.
As I discussed above, this is a weak argument at best. Ashburn knows perfectly well why such an update wasn't done and he knows that it will indeed be done in time for voters to assess it before they vote in November.
It would be a shame for Ashburn to oppose a project that would provide such enormous benefits to his constituents, especially those in Bakersfield. Bakersfield is poised to reap significant economic benefits from high speed rail. As permanently high gas prices might make it an uncompetitive location for business, HSR will provide Bakersfield residents with a fast connection to the state's major economic centers, as well as to their airports. It will position Bakersfield to become a bedroom community for Southern California workers, and with the station located downtown Bakersfield can construct a lot of transit-oriented high-density development to serve those workers.
Bakersfield has been hot extremely hard by the foreclosure crisis, with one of the highest foreclosure rates in the nation. The city's growth depends on reliable transportation, and Highway 99 and Interstate 5 aren't going to do the job if fuel prices remain high. The new residents and the subsequent job growth HSR would provide will provide a stable and growing economy for the city for some time to come.
It is a shame Ashburn would toss all that away because the Authority didn't have the time or money to update their business plan. Ashburn's objections are grasping at straws, and he knows it. Let's hope he comes around this week and supports this vital project.