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high-speed government (this is not about the budget)

By enelson
Wednesday, July 2nd, 2008 at 6:37 pm in Funding, high-speed rail, rail.

I knew as I was leaving the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee hearing yesterday, there was a good chance that I’d missed something important about AB 3034 or that I’d not fully understood the implications of the things I did catch for the story I was about to write.

I like to think that’s not because I’m clueless about the California high-speed rail saga. It’s just that the way legislation often moves in Sacramento, one can be forgiven for sitting through a two-hour hearing and still being puzzled as to what just happened.

My editor called me as I stopped off to get a latte with some of the Lost Patrol of bullet train opponents.

He asked me what had happened, and I fumbled a bit before arriving at the main news: “They approved it.”

Then I attempted to explain the changes they made, how even the bill’s sponsor, Assembly member Cathleen Galgiani of Stockton, admitted that she’d agreed to changes she’d just received upon walking into the room and may not have fully understood them.

One of the key changes came from my friends at the Professional Engineers in California Government, known affectionately as “Peg.” It appears that this being a the biggest public works project ever to come down the pike, it needed a provision stating the California High-Speed Rail Authority “shall” use state planning and engineering services.

As might be expected, groups representing firms that do those things privately objected, but the argument they used may have considerable weight: The state constitution prohibits the legislature from limiting public projects’  choice of engineers and such.

So here’s the critique that was awaiting me on that point from Gerald Cauthen, an engineer with the Train Riders Association of California:

You say that only 10% of the cost of the bond issue money can be used for “planning and engineering” and that only half of the bond issue money can be used for “stations and track”.
You’ve missed a couple of key points.
AB 3034 actually says “preliminary engineering”, not “engineering”.  There is a HUGE difference between preliminary engineering and engineering.  Preliminary engineering is conceptual and does not include construction documents.  Engineering normally include complete plans and specifications (in this case tens of thousands of plans) ready for construction as well as preliminary engineering.  It appears that under AB 3034 as currently written the State of California could end up paying for virtually all of the planning and preliminary engineering…..meaning that if the bond issue passes the consultants, and/or State engineers are going to have a field day for the next few years, regardless of whether or not the funds needed to actually build the system ever arrive.
Then there’s the issue of the half-and-half formula:
The AB 3034 restriction that only half of the bond issue can be used for stations and track is equally misleading.  How much of the total cost of the project do you think goes into stations and track?  How about right of way acquisition?  How about the cost of the vehicles?  How about electrification?  How about signaling?  How about grade separations?  How about maintenance yards?  The fact is that AB 3034’s current language could easily lead to the people of California to end up paying 85% or more of the cost of the project.
Some might say the responsible thing to do would be to make further study of these points and write more about just how these things work. But my job is to hit the points that mean the most to readers, readers who want to know, how big is it, what will it do, who’s paying for it and when will it come to my town?
OK, so maybe that’s oversimplifying things, but sometimes just laying out the background on high-speed rail, and in this case the background on the original bill altering the bond measure, can really make it difficult to get the latest developments in there, let alone give a decent explanation of why they’re important.
But as I’ve suggested all along with this entire enterprise, there’s a lot more that’s important here than meets the eye.


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17 Responses to “high-speed government (this is not about the budget)”

  1. Morris Brown Says:

    As a member of the “lost patrol” I find it interesting how others are now beginning to understand that all is not what it seems in this bill.

    As I said at the meeting the most important part of the bill with regards accountability is mandating a comprehensive business plan be presented by Oct 1st and that it must be peer reviewed.

    Two problems here. The business plan is not due until Oct 1st, hardly in time for any voter to understand before they cast their ballots this fall, and many absentee voters will surely have voted before they even know about the plan. Then the critical peer review won’t be available until after the Nov 4th election.

    Senator Lowenthal’s committee has done an excellent job, up to a point, of improving the deficiencies of the bond measure, but it still needs improvement.

    My suggestion was that an independent business plan be prepared on this same time line, so that we, as voters, will really know what this project is all about. The outlines for a peer review panel are well defined; it shoud just be changed from a peer review to a full blown business plan, prepared by a similiar panel.

  2. Martin Engel Says:

    When I was a young sprout of 18, a friend and I went to our annual state fair where a guy was demonstrating and selling a small gadget that, when attached to the cable leading to the distributor, would increase your car’s horsepower and performance by some very large percent. It was only $5. I bought it.

    I was young and didn’t at that time have what Neil Postman in his book called a “crap detector.” Needless to say, the gadget didn’t work.
    However, since then, I have become cynical and skeptical. Finally, a few people are taking a hard and critical look at what the snake oil salesmen are offering to us.

    This high-speed train project has been for over two decades, and continues to this day, to be that enhancing gadget that, when you have paid for it and take it home, doesn’t perform as advertised.

    A reading of the history of the negotiations should be a red flag for all of us. All the promises made in the PowerPoint presentations, brochures and speeches of Kopp and Diridon are really awesome. The costs, the profits, the revenues, the number of passengers, the amount of energy conserved, the air cleaned, the cars taken off the road, the reduction in air travel, the jobs created, the benefits to the state economy, when assembled into one big picture, seem to good to be true. Well, they are . . . .too good to be true.

    So far, there has been very little challenge to the promises, the data, and the plausibility of this project. A major start has been the Lowenthal committee on Transportation and Housing Report, which, in its 15 findings, raises a lot of questions. The version of AB3034 that left that committee on Tuesday with an endorsing vote doesn’t come close to fulfilling the requirements of that report.

    It is perfectly acceptable to be a supporter of high-speed trains and defend all the benefits that they can actually deliver. I am one. But, it is not OK to promote a pork-barrel boondoggle that is so politically charged and will be such a financial burden on the state. If the revenues and profits that are promised are as large as promised, private investors will be standing in line to build this train. That burden must not fall upon the taxpayers.

  3. murphstahoe Says:

    Martin – why is it then that the burden of building an airport fell on the taxpayers?

    The next couple of years will be enlightening. “We crazies” have been making the point that we better plan now or we’ll be really screwed later. “You crazies” (we’re all crazy aren’t we?) push back that our pontifications about the sky falling are just a bunch of hooey.

    Now the airlines are starting to look like they could be non-viable within 5 years. Gas is about to crest $5 a gallon with legitimate alternatives further down the pike than even HSR.

    So which group of crazies really is the “chicken little”. For a long time I felt that I was just being altruistic and the real benefits would be for my children. It does not seem so far fetched that the timeline will accellerate such that the impacts will impact not only the generation to follow me, but be in time to impact the generation that preceeded me (I’m 40).

    I believe that no matter what, the project will have pork and boondoggle features that will make one cringe. I also believe that the devil we know (some waste) is better than the devil we don’t (what will happen if we don’t build *something*).

    We’ll see. May you live in interesting times.

  4. Martin Engel Says:

    I gather there is some disagreement about who pays for airports. Certainly the taxpayers who do pay for airports have been paying taxes for every air ticket that they (we) buy. Same with highways. Don’t we pay a tax with every gallon of gas? Isn’t there a highway fund? Yes, even America’s early railroads received massive government support (and made the railroad robber barons filthy rich). Today, the freight rails are profitable. Passenger “freight” never has been and isn’t now. So, if this train, unlike any other, is to be as profitable as suggested, then private investment seems perfectly appropriate. Isn’t that the American dream of free enterprise?

    Murphstahoe, you will be surprised to learn that I agree with you. However, what you say about the air carriers does not mean, I assume, that you wish the airplane to disappear. As you know, H.L. Mencken said, “There is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.” Wishing away cars and planes
    yes, I know about fuel costs, pollution, crowded highways and runways, and all the rest – will leave is with what, a north south high speed train as the only mode of transit? You can’t mean that. (I hope)

    Shall we agree that we need all modes of transportation, including cars and planes? And, in 12 years won’t cars be far more fuel efficient, and yes, even planes are experiencing evolving technology improvements. The owners of both modes of transit are looking for relief from high fuel costs. The market will need to meet that need. But, I certainly agree that rail is part of the total equation.

    Interestingly, many of the claims made by the HSR promoters is based upon a comparison with today’s SUVs and a train that will operate in 12 years. Why aren’t they comparing, say the Tesla all electric, or the Chevy VOLT as possible vehicles, their costs and their carbon footprint? Certainly today’s picture is not going to remain the same. National mileage and fuel consumption numbers are already declining due to high fuel costs. Perhaps that is the unintended consequence of greed in the oil industry.

    But, even as high speed rail supporters, that does not mean that we need to support what appears to be, more and more, a fraudulent enterprise. I can give you several citations to articles that may help at least raise some questions in your mind about the legitimacy of this project. Misrepresentation, fraud, collusion, and conflict of interest are terms that come to mind.

    I haven’t checked the math on this but someone who does mathematical modeling recently pointed out that while each SF to LA seat is promised to cost $55 (note that this is to be 12 years from now) the actual cost of that seat for one trip will be around $1000. if you do full-cost accounting. If you check train ticket costs generally, and certainly high speed train tickets in Europe, for example, the $55 seems nonsensical. If that ticket were $55 12 years ago, what would it be today?

    Finally, while I don’t think of myself as “chicken little” I do worry very much about the future for my children and their children. The last 8 years have seen too much corruption, too much of our “treasure” disappearing into the hands of a powerful few. Therefore, it can no longer be tolerated that in order to build what we believe we must, we must also endure the “waste, fraud, and abuse” that the government selectively ignores.

  5. murphstahoe Says:

    Martin – I don’t wish airplanes would disappear. What I am saying is that I am extremely worried that they WILL disappear. Even if you get your electric cars, we cannot power 747’s with solar panels. Technically impossible. To me longer range transit (and freight) not in an airplane is really a matter of economic security.

    The problem with the Tesla and the VOLT is that they don’t exist! Sure, they are at concept car shows, but they are delayed and impractical. The Tesla is going to be 6 figures. We can certainly subsidize rail a lot easier than we can replace everyone’s Cherokee with a Tesla. The VOLT is being “produced” by whom? Chevrolet? GM is struggling to be a going concern, period. If this was an easy problem it would have been solved years ago.

    We CAN compare to the TGV – I have taken TGV across France and Eurostar across Italy.

    Looking at that, you are saying we are going to be saved by something that you “hope” will work, I am pointing to a solution that “does” work.

  6. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Mth, don’t mean to be a noodge, but the last time I checked the Tesla did exist and the governor was driving one.

    I think the timeline for getting electric cars on the road looks about as quick as California high-speed rail.

    The difference is, I know who will pay for the electric cars, and we won’t need an act of the legislature or a bond measure to accomplish it.

  7. murphstahoe Says:

    The Tesla has not launched yet. There is a big difference between one concept car and manufacturing tens of thousands of them.

    That difference is much bigger for a newcomer to the business than for an established company with factory lines, union contracts, etc…

    That difference is much bigger for making something fairly well established like an engine running on internal combustion of gasoline than an electric car.

    And if you are going to go to Los Angeles with the thing, where are you going to plug it in? When you “run out” of charge, how long will it take to charge vs what we currently do (filling a tank). A HSR track will be connected to the power grid.

    We lack the will for HSR. I believe we lack the technology for the electric cars.

  8. david vartanoff Says:

    Air France looking at HAR for short hops. 25% fuel differential

  9. DensityDuck Says:

    Murph: Nope. The Tesla is real, and it is here, and it is a viable solution. The Volt is on the way. I understand that you very badly want HSR to be the only solution, but you can’t deny facts.

    You’re complaining that the infrastructure doesn’t exist–well hell, which do you think is easier, installing electrical plugs near parking spaces or BUILDING AN 800-MILE TRAIN TRACK?

    You “believe” that we lack the technology for electric cars. I do believe that the facts don’t support your belief.

  10. david vartanoff Says:

    of course we have the electric car tech Say Ford Ranger three times! That does not change the inherent land waste of millions of SOV cars NO MATTER HOW GREENWASHED taking up huge multilane freeways going forty miles from home to work.

    As to HSR, the issue is similar, It is a huge energy waste to fly SFO-LAX or their subsidiaries. Beyond that the air traffic control, runway clogging, etc cry out for eliminating these short flights to use the capacity for routes where air IS the best option. As such, the undoubtedly bogus cost estimates are as irrelevant as the DOD or any other Federal pump priming ##. The real issue is the cost of not building this infrastructure.

  11. Robert Cruickshank Says:

    You have got to be joking. HSR is a “gadget”? You have to ignore over 40 years of success in Japan, nearly 30 years in France, over 15 in Spain – just to name a few examples – to call it a “gadget.” HSR is mainstream technology. Nothing gadget-like about it.

    But then the HSR deniers have to deny such realities if they are to have a chance of convincing Californians a few wealthy peninsula homeowners are more important than the transportation needs of 36 million people.

  12. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Sorry, Martin, but I’m with Robert on this one. High-speed rail is not a Bass-o-Matic.

  13. murphstahoe Says:

    Base price $109,000
    Availability – 12 months.


  14. Reedman Says:

    The reason the government builds rail lines is simple: only the government can force people to sell a 100 foot wide by 800 mile uninterrupted piece of land. The reason the government builds airports is: only the government is allowed to make that much noise. In a less litigious society like India, there are private airports. The main airport of the high tech capital of India (Bangalore) is owned by HAL (India’s equivalent to Northrop or McDonnell). The political friction of all those landing fees not going into government coffers and not to government employees caused a new public airport to be built – up to a three hour drive from parts of Bangalore notwithstanding.

  15. Capricious Commuter Says:

    So what you’re saying is what high-speed rail needs is some company from Bangalore to step in? 😉

  16. Capricious Commuter Says:

    And Martin, I’m sorry I didn’t get around to saying hi today and asking, just what was in that picture you showed the CHSRA board today? A trench?

    I was kind of surprised you didn’t use up even half of your allotted three minutes. Has it all been said already, or was this just an exercise in futility, in your opinion?

  17. Young Says:

    I ride the BART more and more often for obvious reasons. I saw a guy using a mouse(?) on his lap with a notebook the other day and am just curious if anyone knows what that may be? I would like to use my notebook during the ride, if that is convenient (for me) and not too intrusive (for others.)

    Thanks in advance.

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