Over the last year it's become quite clear that the California High Speed Rail Authority is not exactly the most beloved of state institutions. Arnold Schwarzenegger has tried to kill its funding streams, notably in the 2007-08 budget. Quentin Kopp and Rod Diridon are distrusted by some on the Peninsula and in the Santa Clara Valley. The CHSRA's ongoing financial problems, a creation of the state budget mess, make it more difficult for the Authority to effectively plan the system, and wind up reinforcing some of the negative perceptions of the agency.
I have consistently rejected most of the more conspiratorial criticisms of the CHSRA. I don't see the point in making bogeymen out of Quentin Kopp and Rod Diridon. Sometimes I agree with the Authority's decisions, sometimes I do not, but as a supporter of the project and someone who believes in evidence and reality, I think they're generally a good agency that tries to make the best of a troubled state government, and an overall lack of political leadership for the high speed rail project in California. Quentin Kopp in particular has a tendency to be rather forceful in his public statements, but given the general unwillingness of California politicians to speak out in defense of the project, can you blame him?
One of the CHSRA's more persistent critics has been Democratic State Senator Alan Lowenthal of Long Beach. Lowenthal, you may remember, was behind the flawed report put out by the Senate Transportation Committee last summer that proposed gutting the high speed rail project in favor of turning it into a glorified commuter rail. One hoped that the passage of Prop 1A - which got 55% in LA County - would have shown Sen. Lowenthal the need to support the vision of fast intercity trains connecting SF to LA. But no dice. Sen. Lowenthal is now targeting the CHSRA, but in ways that suggest he is still out to undermine the project itself.
Sen. Lowenthal recently requested an assessment of the CHSRA from the California Legislative Analyst's Office, which you can find as a PDF here. Under Elizabeth Hill, the former Legislative Analyst, the LAO was seen as one of the most respected, informed, and nonpartisan sources of information in the Capitol. Under the new head of the LAO, Mac Taylor, I have instead noticed a steady rightward drift in the work product of the LAO. Sen. Lowenthal appears to have found a willing partner in his effort to undermine the high speed rail project, by using an attack on problems with the CHSRA to mask an attack on the project itself.
Some of the recommendations make sense, including having Caltrans play a larger role in helping vet some of the CHSRA's funding requests and acquisition of federal HSR money. Some are not that useful or necessary, but aren't objectionable, such as the "more oversight and accountability!" portions. Worth noting for a moment that what HSR needs most isn't oversight and accountability, but political support from California leaders and a commitment to getting this thing built the right way. That is nowhere to be found in this report.
One of the more troubling aspects of the LAO report is their lack of context when criticizing the 2008 Business Plan. The LAO lists some specific things that were missing, and concludes:
The information provided by the revised plan is very general and does not provide specifics that are included in typical business plans. In particular, the plan does not provide any better sense of how the authority would accomplish the objective of developing, constructing, and operating a high-speed rail system.
But this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black, for the LAO report does not mention - anywhere, at all - that the 2008 Business Plan was delayed and undermined by the state budget delay, as Quentin Kopp explained last October. I wonder how the LAO would perform if it were asked to deliver their usual in-depth analyses of the state budget but were denied the funding to produce that study. It is quite dishonest of the LAO to criticize the business plan without mentioning the budget delay.
By far the most egregious portion of the LAO report is the reappearance of Sen. Lowenthal's effort to gut the HSR project - this time in the guise of a neutral analysis from the LAO. Here's the offending language:
Project Selection Criteria Should Encourage Immediate Mobility Benefits. The authority plans to commit the majority of the Proposition 1A bond funds early in the project. It is important that the funds be spent on projects that benefit the state's overall transportation system in case the high-speed train program is delayed or suspended. We recommend that the authority be required to adopt project selection criteria that prioritizes the use of bond funds to the delivery of projects with the greatest immediate mobility benefits.
Come on, admit it, until you read that you probably thought I was being overly dramatic. But there's no other way to read that section as anything other than an attack on the HSR project itself. Shouldn't the LAO be in the business of trying to carry out the will of the voters and ensure the project gets built? Sure, there's always a nonzero possibility the project will be delayed or suspended. But isn't the best way to prevent that to ensure that project funds actually go to the HSR project itself?
By prioritizing "projects that benefit the state's overall transportation system" the LAO is doing several things. First, they're saying that HSR is NOT part of the overall transportation system, which is nonsense. Second, they are saying that the long-term mobility needs of the state - which HSR is designed to serve - are irrelevant. Third, they are suggesting that the system planning be compromised in order to serve "immediate mobility benefits" even if doing so will undermine the ability of the project to be completed effectively, on-time, and on-budget.
Besides, virtually every part of the HSR proposal can provide "immediate mobility benefits" - from upgrading the Caltrain corridor to starting work on the Transbay Terminal to building track in the Central Valley or grade crossings along the Metrolink corridor in LA County.
Some readers might say I'm reading too much into this, that it's not necessarily an attack on the HSR project. But read this in the context of Sen. Lowenthal's nonsense HSR report from June 2008, which included this recommendation:
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.
It's almost exactly the same language, and clearly making the same overall point. As I wrote at the time:
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.
Unfortunately Sen. Lowenthal has gotten the LAO to join his attack on the HSR project. A shame.
I'm all for improvements to the CHSRA. I'm even open to the "Department of Railroads" concept proposed by Senator Denise Ducheny in SB 409. But not every recommendation is a good one. We must support the good ones, and fight the ones designed to gut the HSR project in the mask of "reform."
The California high speed rail system is still facing determined opposition from the usual suspects, even after the passage of Prop 1A. Passenger rail advocates need to not let up their activism at a time like this if we are to avoid becoming the third state to approve and then kill an HSR project. This project is too important to let die.
UPDATE: State Treasurer Bill Lockyer and the Pooled Money Investment Board are going to try and sell $4 billion in bonds this week - but they have not decided whether to give $29.1 million of that to the CHSRA despite Mehdi Morshed's stated concern that the CHSRA would have to shut down without it. However, things do look promising:
Tom Sheehy, who was sitting in on the investment board for Finance Director Mike Genest, said he came to the meeting prepared to support the high-speed rail loan, but decided to wait until the board meets again in two weeks. By then, he said, board members will know if next week's bond sale was successful.
Morshed said he would ask the project's engineering and environmental-review contractors to keep working, banking on the assumption that the loan will be approved in two weeks and they'll get paid.
"With the Department of Finance's strong support I think we're probably in good shape," he said.