In a spirited op-ed piece in the Modesto Bee, Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach, pictured left) defends himself against earlier accusations ("Quit playing high-speed politics") that he was engaged in a "power grab" to prevent the use of prop 1A(2008) funds to construct a central maintenance facility for the HSR network somewhere in the Central Valley.
Lowenthal's claims his beef is not with the location of the maintenance site but something more profound: CHSRA's 2008 Business Plan, which he considers unsound. He notes that prop 1A(2008) only provides $9 billion of the $34 billion price tag he estimates for the entire starter line and that CHSRA has not yet actually secured the balance from non-state sources, i.e. Congress, local counties and cities and private investors. It also does not spell out contingency plans for coping with the possibility that the required funding will never materialize in full.
While claiming to be an ardent supporter of the HSR project, the State Senator has in fact taken a fiscally conservative stance: the state contribution should not be used for component projects such as a dedicated high-speed test track and maintenance facility that will only prove useful if and when HSR actually enters service in California - an outcome that is obviously contingent on securing all necessary funds for constructing the starter line. The whole public-private partnership concept allows CHSRA to remain rather more independent of financial oversight by the state legislature than is typical for a major public works project. Encouraging noises from Congress and the Administration are not enough to get this railroad built and as for private investors, those will come to the party late if at all. In other words, Lowenthal is a risk-averse pessimist who sees the glass as currently 3/4 empty.
Perhaps not as coincidentally as he would have us believe, spending the state funds conservatively implies priority for component projects at either end of the starter line. Orange County politicians, including Anaheim mayor Curt Pringle, insisted on tacking the LA Union Station to Anaheim ARTIC section onto the starter line to ensure at least a section of the BNSF Transcon line along highway 91 gets fully grade separated sooner rather than later. The ports of LA and Long Beach provide roughly one in seven jobs in the LA basin, so freight rail is a big deal both locally and at the state and federal levels. Note that the state-sponsored ACE project to eliminate or improve UPRR's grade crossings in the San Gabriel Valley is already underway.
Note that the Fullerton-Anaheim section is too narrow for quad tracking, so no more than 2-3 HSR trains per hour (each way, PDF p14) will actually serve Anaheim station.
By contrast, CHSRA has thus far taken an approach long favored by planners: build broad political support for the concept, accumulate funding contributions and proceed on the assumption that the balance will be forthcoming. Eventually, the sum already invested becomes so large that it makes more sense to finish the project than to scale back its ambitions or cancel it altogether. Once that tipping point is firmly on the horizon, negotiations with private investors will get down to brass tacks. In other words, the CHSRA board is a group of optimists who see the glass as already 1/4 full, with prospects for more brighter than ever.
This also explains why CHSRA want to prioritize not just the contentious SF peninsula but also the Central Valley test track and associated central maintenance facility: it anticipates these will be needed to secure the all-important "rule of special applicability" required before its engineering staff can pre-qualify vendors of proven, specialized HSR equipment and draw up a shortlist. If the history of HSR projects elsewhere in the world (e.g. Taiwan) is any guide, there will be significant political wrangling over manufacturing jobs etc. that CHSRA may want to stay out of.
On a related note, Susan A. Fleming, Director of Infrastructure Issues at the non-partisan Government Accountability Office released a statement to Congress yesterday underlining that FRA has a vision for HSR but not yet have a well-defined strategic plan or organization for developing it nationwide, beyond the disbursement of already-approved ARRA funds. In particular, she pointed out that $8 billion ($9.5 billion if you include the earlier PRIIA act) represents just a fraction of the federal funds needed to build the California network's starter line, never mind anything else. Implicitly, she questioned the wisdom of using short-term stimulus funds on HSR before Congress has decided to reorganize USDOT and allocate tens of billions in additional funds. To create lasting value for federal taxpayers, HSR must be elevated to a strategic shift in policy. Currently, the numbers suggest merely a make-work effort in the short term.
Fortunately, the next surface transportation bill outlined earlier this week would address the concerns GAO has raised. The snag is that this bill is still quite far from the President's desk.
Wednesday, June 24, 2009