Sunday Train: Is State Sen. Simitian aiming to kill High Speed Rail in California?

(4 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

This coming week is supposed to contain an important symbolic Independence Day: the day when the California State Senate votes whether or not to proceed with one strategic element of Energy Independent Transport for the State of California, or whether to gamble the state’s future on petroleum.

It is, of course, a very sure thing as a gamble ~ on the losing side. They aren’t making more, and the butane from natural gas liquids and energy inefficient production of ethanol from corn starch that has been used to juke the states on US “liquid fuel production” doesn’t change the fact that we still depend on petroleum imports for over half of our petroleum consumption. We deplete more and more low production cost petroleum every year, shifting our consumption to higher cost petroleum.

And even if we had the petroleum that Pollyannas would like to wish into existence, we can’t afford to burn it all at an accelerating rate, due to the CO2 emissions that will result.

State Senator Simitian does not seem to see it that way, as he appears set to vote kill the effort to allow the California High Speed Rail project to break ground next year.

Now, in an wonderful display of political pretzel logic, State Senator Simitian threatens to kill the HSR project will declaring his strong support of it: it will all be someone else’s fault if he votes to refuse to break ground next year.

What’s Coming Up

The High Speed Rail project under its former CEO Judge Kopp, appointed by former Gov. Schwarzenegger, seems to have lost the Public Relations war with HSR opponents. His bulldog, “my way or the highway” style failed to discriminate between absolute opponents of HSR throwing every objection they could come up with, including the kitchen sink, and quite legitimate concerns of many along the planned corridor regarding what the impact of the project would be.

However, as discussed last Monday in Will Alan Lownethal, candidate CA-47, kill or save California HSR?, despite the PR setbacks, the current plan is the one that best advances the chances for completing an intercity rail system between San Francisco and Los Angeles that will provide an effective alternative to driving or flying.

The plan is to build 130 miles of high speed rail corridor in the Central Valley, between Madera County, California, north of Fresno, and just to the northwest of Bakersfield, California. The second planned construction segment will extend the CV corridor from Merced to Lancaster/Palmdale, and a third planned construction segment from Palmdale to the San Fernando Valley in the LA Basin, at which point the first HSR service can begin to operate.

Then a fourth segment from Madera to San Jose will allow service to extend to at least the LA Basin to the Bay Area, and finally works at the “bookends” will ensure that the HSR can run from the new SF Transbay Terminal through to LA Union Station. Additional works after the SF/LA service is operational will improve speed along the corridor and allow the service to extend through to Anaheim.

In response to criticism that the Central Valley corridor would be a “stranded corridor” until the Initial Operating Service was launched, the revised HSR Business Plan committed to running the San Joaquin service, from Sacramento and Oakland through the Central Valley to Bakersfield (with a bus connection to LA) on the first construction segment once it is completed.

In response to complaints, including from Senators Simitian and Lowenthal, that too much was being spent in the less heavily populated central valley, and not enough money was being spent in the more populous LA Basin and Bay Area, the revised Business Plan includes “early investment” in the bookends, to help prepare them for blended operation of HSR alongside more local rail services.

That early investment includes an agreement that will allow for the funding of the electrification of the Caltrain Corridor, serving Simitian’s own district, and key to the long term survival of the Caltrain service so that it is available for use when the next petroleum crisis hits.

But, going by the description of a Simitian staffer of his position, these changes may not have been enough to convince Simitian to switch to a position of support for actually building HSR.

The Courage of a Strong Supporter of High Speed Rail!

The following is from the comments section of a recent piece on the California HSR blog, and is the response of a Simitian staffer to Neil Shea, a Simitian constituent and HSR supporter who is one of the commentators at that blog. I will break it down into several pieces. The first piece of Simitan’s credentials as a strong HSR supporter:

Unfortunately Senator Simitian’s statements (and actions) about high-speed rail have become a little bit like the words of the nation’s “founding fathers”: everyone reads into them what they want to see. Here’s his position on high-speed rail, as clearly and succinctly as we can state it – which I fear may not be terribly succinct in the end, but here we go.

He has supported HSR in California from pretty much day 1. He voted to put the bond on the ballot back in 2004 and voted AGAINST delaying that ballot measure when the Legislature debated doing so a couple of years later. He supported the HSR bond when it was on the ballot in 2008. And since then, as chairman of the Senate Budget Subcommittee that oversees transportation funding, he has voted every year to appropriate to the HSR Authority every single penny in operating funds that they have requested.

He has been deeply frustrated by the people in charge of HSR in California. Also pretty much from day 1, he has tried to get the HSR Authority to handle itself the right way. The Authority has been its own worst enemy for most of the last 3.5 years, since the passage of Prop 1A. In the Bay Area and elsewhere, they squandered much of the public goodwill the project had by failing to honestly engage with people who had even minor concerns about the project. Their opinion seemed to be “get out of our way, we have a railroad to build.” In Senator Simitian’s district, the rail bond passed by a fairly wide margin. Public opinion has now reversed itself; many people who were supporters of HSR in 2008 are now against it for a variety of reasons.

Three points to make here are:

  • All of that wonderful support for the CHSRA operating budgets did not translate into the CHSRA actually getting the full operating budgets that they needed to properly staff up for the tasks that the State Legislature required of them. So his “support” and what it accomplished were two different things.
  • There are lots of weasel words in the description of how frustrating the CHSRA has been, since Simitian appears is building an excuse for voting against the current vote against the current proposal to break ground under the current management of the CHSRA in large part based on grievances and petty personal bickering between Senator Simitian in his August Position as Chair of the Transportation Committee and the CHSRA under previous management.
  • And while Senator Simitian of course lays all of the blame for that previous bickering with the CHSRA, some of the blame seems to lie with Senator Simitian.

Despite that reversal in public opinion, he continues to support HSR. He still thinks a high-speed rail system would be a great thing for the state (and for the nation and the global environment). Done right, it would a powerful tool for transportation, economic development, smart land-use planning, and environmental stewardship.

Note that nothing in “Transportation, economic development, smart land-use planning, and environmental stewardship” includes any commitment to the establishment of an intercity transport system that will connect all of the most populous urbanized areas in the State of California by an effective, oil-independent transport system. All of them could just as easily be used to describe a collection of unconnected local transport systems.

This doesn’t mean that he has to give the Authority carte blanche or accept every element of the project as it is currently proposed. In general, his goal has been to get the Authority to do the work it needs to do to gain public trust and legitimacy and to position itself to SUCCESSFULLY deliver a project that Senator Simitian still thinks would be a great thing for California. Locally, as you’re probably aware, he and some of his colleagues have attempted to address some of the major concerns of communities in the South Bay and Peninsula. The proposed a set of conditions that has since become known as the “blended system” proposal, and which you can read in full here:… . It seems that the HSR Authority has made motions in the direction of adopting this, though they’re wording is a little slippery.

Note that “carte blanche” or “accepting every element of the project as it is currently proposed” are red herrings. The current vote is on the Initial Construction Segment. The State Senate will have the same say on whether to appropriate Prop1a bonds for each following construction segment that California can fund, by one means or another. It can, if it wishes, force the CHSRA’s hand with respect to broad or narrow details for each of the following construction segments that are able to obtain funding.

‘Supporting’ HSR so strongly you are willing to see it killed if you don’t get your way!

The question at hand is the First Construction Segment. And it is on the First Construction Segment that the sugar coating phase gives way to time to lie about the project:

His biggest concern about the project as a whole (not just the local concerns) is the lack of any realistic source of future funding. The Authority is asking the Legislature to approve a state bond appropriation – in other words, they’re asking the state to take on a debt – of nearly $3 billion to start construction in the Central Valley. That money, coupled with available federal funds, would build 130 miles of conventional, non-high-speed, non-electrified rail disconnected from the state’s major ridership areas (SF and LA). {emphasis added

Describing the Initial Construction Segment as conventional, non-high-speed rail is a flat out, bald-faced, lie. It is a grade-separated corridor designed with curve radii allowing for 220mph operation through most of the segment, and over 125mph operation for the entirety of the section. That is not a conventional rail corridor, and anybody who says otherwise is trying to bullshit you.

Even the “non-electrified” part of the description is about as bad as you can get in grossly deceiving people short of an outright lie. Its true that it will not be electrified the corridor until it is time to run the initial Express HSR service on it. That is because there’s no point electrifying a corridor until you have electric trains to run on it. Hanging the wires up and constructing the substations only to have them be unused is creating totally unnecessary maintenance costs.

But if a corridor is designed to be electrified, its also true that the electrification itself is no big deal. Electrification is a straightforward process unless there needs to be new civil engineering to raise overpasses, drop underpasses or widen tunnels. Its the civil engineering that is the bulk of the expense of an expensive rail electrification project. And with the corridor designed to be electrified from the outset, there will be no additional civil engineering to be done whenever the times comes to put up the wires to electrify the rail corridor.

The funds necessary to electrify that railway, complete the links to the SF Bay Area and San Fernando Valley, and buy trains are not there, and no one can identify any likely source for them. There’s a lot of hand-waving around the idea that the federal government will pick up the tab, but that would take – literally – an act of Congress. HSR is not like local/regional transportation projects (like the BART extension to San Jose) that can apply for existing federal transportation funding sources like “New Starts” or “Small Starts.” There is no standing source of HSR money. Senator Simitian is worried about sinking $3 billion of state money (which would be paid back with interest over the next three decades) to create a “stranded” 130 miles of conventional rail in a low-ridership area.

This is the same excuse that seems to be given by Alan Lowenthal to kill the HSR system: there is no guarantee of funds.

The current Transport bill, recently passed, includes no dedicated HSR funding, and extends until 2014.

If the current $3.3b in Federal funding is accepted, and the $2.7b in California bond funding appropriated, the HSR system will be constructing the first Construction Segment through that entire period with no HSR funding in place. California will arrive in 2017 with the first Construction Segment completed. Four years will have been sliced off the completion timeline of the HSR system.

If the current $3.3b in Federal funding is rejected, as a result of the 2.7b in California bond funding not being appropriated, then there will be no work in 2013. There will be no work in 2014. It is not clear that there will be any work in 2015 or 2016. A minimum of two years and quite plausibly four years will be added to the final completion date of the project, pushing the Bay to Basin level of service into the 2030’s.

But its worse than this. If the ICS is being worked on, then the California Congressional delegations join the delegations of Washington, Oregon, Illinois, Michigan, North Carolina, Virginia, and the “NEC corridor states” of New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Delaware, Rhode Island, Maryland and New York as delegations with an incentive to support dedicated HSR funding. If the California HSR project has been successfully killed, much of that impetus drops away. That is not likely to prevent dedicated HSR funding from being appropriated in the coming decade, since the current Republican obstructionism simply because it is seen as an Obama administration priority will begin to lose its impetus starting next year, but it is likely to see a lower level of HSR funding than would be the case if California was looking to fund its next California HSR construction segments.

So “postponing” the HSR system now in California could well result in five or ten years in delays in the completion of the system, which could easily push the finish of Stage 1 and start of the Sacramento and San Diego legs into the 2040’s.

Now, if the so-called “Plan B” was passed in the State Senate, to redirect funding from the Central Valley to the “bookends”, and if the Federal Government were to go along with that redirection, in which the current Grant Agreement is torn up and the Federal Department of Transportation is expected to take the dictation of the California State Senate in composing a new one, it would be even worse. At least if the project is postponed, the Prop1a bond funding remains in place.

If the bond funding is raided for local rail projects in the Bay Area and LA Basin, there is a risk of there not being sufficient bond funding remaining to get started on the Express HSR parts of the system.

Luckily, however, there is no indication that the Federal Department of Transport will play puppet to the California State Senate’s puppet master. Instead, if the California State Senate does not vote to commit  the funds to the project that originally won the funding, then the Federal Department of Transportation has promised to rescind the funds and redirect them to states willing to spend that on the projects for which they are awarded. Given the experience of Wisconsin, Florida, and Ohio, who each decided against spending the funds on winning projects and saw their money go to other states, there is every reason to expect that the Secretary Roy LaHood and the Federal Dept. of Transport will prevent the Federal HSR funded from being diverted into commuter rail projects.

The Ray of Hope

However, the staffer opens the door to an indication that there may be room to deal. While the gross lie and deception regarding the CV corridor seems to me a clear indication of a willingness to kill the HSR project, he also seems willing to consider doing a deal:

Please note that the HSR Authority is NOT currently asking for money to start construction on the Bay Area and LA ends of the line. That’s not in this year’s funding request. Senator Simitian and his colleagues in the Legislature are being asked to approve a sizeable bond appropriation for a project in the Central Valley that may never be connected to anything else, with an entirely non-binding assurance from the Rail Authority that they’ll come back later and ask for money for the endpoints. For all I know, that could change on Monday, but that’s the deal that’s currently on the table. He very much agrees with you that Caltrain electrification and the other improvements to this corridor and Metrolink down south are needed – are vital, in fact, to the future of Caltrain. But that’s not what he’s being asked to approve funding for at this point.

So part of the willingness to kill the deal may be to strengthen his bargaining position. While the “blended operations” plan calls for early investments in the bookends, there is no legal commitment to enforce that plan.

What deal could be struck, here?

I’ll give you an example of the type of deal that could be struck. A recent trailer bill that passed as part of the state budget included a provision that no Cap and Trade funds could be spent on HSR for the next two years. However, if Cap and Trade funds are spent on grade separations, signal upgrades and electrification for regional rail service, that wouldn’t be spending “on HSR”.

If those projects were in support of the “early investment” in blended operation corridors, then the Prop1a funds could be committed to the “early investment” projects at a dollar to dollar match to Cap and Trade funding and a maximum of 20% Prop1 bond funding of those projects. That would give the HSR system a quid pro quo in return for committing to qualifying “early investment” projects as the balance of their funding is put together.


There is no possibility of writing a conclusion here, since all of this is looking ahead to see whether or not a deal can be struck to begin work in the CV next year or whether, instead, $3.3b of funds is going to head off to other states who are willing to actually construct intercity rail corridors with their federal intercity rail corridor funding.

However, anyone who is a California resident can certainly contact your State Senator and let them know your feeling about the prospect of sending the $3.3b of HSR funding that California won over to another state, including under the pretext of passing a “Plan B” that there is no reason for the Federal Dept. of Transportation to fund.

And anyone who is not a California resident but a supporter of interstate Congressional races can let Alan Lowenthal know what you feel about a “100% liberal voting record” Democrat who is happy to let Energy Independent intercity transport go by the wayside unless he can raid the funds for his own pet project.

Midnight Oil ~ The Power and the Passion


  1. … thinks they can just swap around their winning Federal HSR fund grant application to projects that did not win funding, the construction that will get funded is likely to be a lot more than 500 miles from their homes.

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