Saturday, July 5, 2008

Ashburn vs. Yee

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

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.


Pantograph Trolleypole said...

It would certainly piss me off if a Bakersfield rep killed the project. Since my sister lives there, that would be my main destination. I drive there about 3 times a year and I despise it. I hate that drive and would rather take rail.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Many folks who live in the Central Valley have family and friends in other parts of the state. It's not practical or even possible to fly for those trips, so it's a drive. HSR would provide a faster, cheaper trip. It would be a godsend to Bakersfield residents and businesses.

Plus it would help bring tourists to the southern Sierra in a much more sustainable and affordable way. HSR to Merced, bus to Yosemite. Makes sense to me!

Anonymous said...

Is Parsons Brinckerhoff signed as the general manager of the project for sure? I hadn't realized the CHSRA had given out any contracts other than for preparing documents related to studying the feasibility (EIR, business plan, etc). What will their role be in the construction of the project? Aren't their ways for the state to word the contract so that the price is guaranteed for the system as designed (excluding materials costs)? Parsons Brinckerhoff definitely doesn't have the best track record, but does this need to be as large of a concern as the media is making it out to be?

Robert Cruickshank said...

I don't believe they have been given any such permanent contract, Michael. The media is blowing it out of proportion because too many reporters share Ashburn's instinctive belief that big projects always become financial disasters, despite a mound of evidence to the contrary.

Anonymous said...

Indeed, Parsons Brinckerhoff has been signed a general manager, and taxpayers have every reason to be concerned. This no-bid arrangement is very similar to what was done with the BART system (which has had 100% cost overruns going back to construction of original core system), indicating that the Authority is not going to control costs. There are lots of firms out there specializing in high-speed rail construction; PB is not one of them so we can expect a steep learning curve.

The lack of a business plan cannot be explained away due to lack of funds. In any project, you FIRST do the business plan, then work out the implementation -- not the other way around.

Rob Dawg said...

Since Bakersfield is required to provide free infrastructure, transit links, rights of way and other participation under the existing funding structure I would certainly expect their representatives to defend their interests.

Anonymous said...

@ Bikerider,

PB has no high-speed rail construction, except for the entire Taiwanese high speed rail system that was recently opened. I'm not exactly thrilled about them being on the project, but at the same time the CHSRA didn't blindly give out the contract. It wasn't no-bid - they interviewed three firms, and selected PB based on a technical evaluation.

Anonymous said...

PB has no high-speed rail construction, except for the entire Taiwanese high speed rail system that was recently opened

Yes, PB is listed as one of the companies in the consortium. Unless you have some other info, I believe the heavy lifting was done by Japanese firms, for example:

Taiwan High Speed Rail Corporation has awarded a Yen 100 billion contract to a consortium of seven Japanese companies to lay track along a 153km section of the Taipei-Kaohsiung high-speed line

Tony D. said...

Great article on the front page of todays SJ Mercury News (7/6, 1A) regarding the airline crisis and whether the expansion of Mineta/SJC should continue. Again, the stars are certainly aligning for passage of Prop. 1 this November. As for what this Bakersfield rep has to say, the only problem would be is if a large amount of voters actually believe what he says. That's why the campaign, and your excellent rebuttal to Ashburn, has to get out loud and strong come November. Airlines taking a dive, fuel prices going through the roof, economic boost to Bakersfield and many other communities...Mr. Ashburn and HSR naysayers, get the hell out of the way of progress!

Robert Cruickshank said...

Thanks so much for the link, Tony D. Glad to hear more in the state media are beginning to take notice of the airline crisis.

I've flown out of SJC a number of times in the last two years since I moved to Monterey. I don't see how it can possibly expand much further. Diridon Station is already a major node in the Bay Area transportation network; this should be augmented and expanded via HSR, Caltrain/Amtrak to Monterey, etc.

Anonymous said...

Many of the arguments made by Ashburn are foolhardy, and just doesn't seem to make sense from a rep with so much to gain from HSR going through Bakersfield. It seems strange to me.

Anyway, I am in full support of HSR, but I do have to say that given that the CA HSR program is given about $10MM a year, and close to $70MM overall and does not have an updated biz plan is outrageous. This close to the biggest event in U.S. HSR history, and a simple biz plan is not updated? You cant really say that is not a good point, and makes me a little nervous about waste in the project.

Where has the previous money gone?

Brian Stankievich said...

I met with Ashburn a couple of years ago in Sacramento. He literally told me not to reason with him. He opposed the train and no reason or logical argument would change his mind. His words.

He also said that downtown SF and LA were "dying" and that rail is inflexible in that you can't move the tracks, but interstates are flexible. When was the last time we picked up and moved an interstate?!?!?