Column by Loretta Redd
What happens to grown men when they put on one of those railroad conductor’s hats? Roger Horton and Grant House, among others, got brain melt back in 2008 as they were shoved down the tracks by the Coalition for Sustainable Transportation into the station of commuter rail for Santa Barbara.
It appears now that “choo choo fever” has infected our Governor on an even more massive scale of political insanity. The apparent malady preys on those eager to leave a legacy, or those who have derailed from reality.
Our once-suffering local representatives sincerely believed they could solve the traffic problems on the 101, cleanse the air of auto emissions, and actually co-opt the use of the existing Amtrak and freight rails so that a hundred or so Venturians could be transported to Santa Barbara each day…on schedule of course, and with their briefcases (or more likely, their weed whackers and garden rakes) in tow.
As certain as our COAST and Council members were that the freight cars would happily scooch over for the heavily subsidized, money losing commuter rail, Governor Brown seems equally determined to make Statewide zoom-zoom trains his reality. Only this time, the Professional Politicians are in charge of the purse strings, and they’ve stacked the California High Speed Rail Board with plenty of cronies.
Clear the tracks if you think there is any hope of cost containment or planning based on logic, expertise or efficiency.
A brief history, before I introduce you to some of the past and present cast of California’s “High Speed Fail.” In 2008, voters narrowly approved $10 billion for the conceptual train from Los Angeles to the Bay Area. At that time, promoters placed the cost of the project at $33.6 billion.
By 2009, that magical price tag had blossomed to $42.6 billion, and as we chug along today, the Little Engine That Could has grown to $68 billion. Not only has the price tag more than doubled, the projected ridership, convenience, and speed have been deemed by Jon Coupal of the Jarvis Taxpayers Association as “…epitomizing the abject failure of California governance,” and a “work of sheer fantasy.”
Take a peek at some of the past principles in charge of this statewide fiasco: Will Kempton, former Caltrans director of District 7, who was quoted as saying, “Caltrans is a ‘can-do’ organization. but “we haven’t done a good job of selling our image.”
Mr. Kempton is currently chairman of the rail authority’s peer review panel. First of all, anyone who thinks of Caltrans as a “can-do organization” is smoking something other than diesel fuel…but then to say the rail can’t live up to Caltrans standards should have stopped the project in its tracks.
We’ve also seen Dan Richards, former partner of Heritage Oak Capital Partners, come and go. Mr. Richards heads the infrastructure finance firm, and served as vice-president of public policy and governance relations for PG&E. At least he has experience as a professional land grabber.
There have been some good guys on the CHSRA board, but they don’t seem to stay for long. One was Quentin Kopp, who had the audacity to criticize the board for not getting their business plan done in time.
The 82 year old Mr. Kopp is quoted as saying, “I wrote California Senate President pro tem Darrell Steinberg and asked that I not be reappointed to the nine member board. It just isn’t as much fun as it used to be.”
One of Kopp’s last official acts was to push for the termination of the High Speed Rail Authority’s contract for Public Relations with Ogilvy, whose $9 million cost included a line item of $1500 for three hours of reading news clippings. Wait- it gets better. Mr. Kopp was replaced by Bob Balgenorth- President of the California Building and Construction Trades Council. Guess now the union can get paid $1500 for three hours work, though that may actually comprise a pay cut.
Since no one in California, or any other state in the US, has ever constructed high speed rail, it might make sense to consult with countries that have. And they did!
The SNCF of France and the Central Japan Railway Company actually were asked to weigh in on the plans and to make suggestions about the route and construction. But what do they know? SNCF has only laid 1,100 miles of track servicing 800 trains a day for 114 million passengers while making an operating profit. The Japanese Tokaido Shinkasen rail, began in 1964, operates with 0.6 minutes delay, has 323 services per day at 270 kilometers/hour and no fatal accidents in its history of service.
But what do those French and Japanese know, when compared with the engineering and construction management firm of Parsons Brinkerhoff, based in New York City? Quoting an LA Times article of July 9, 2012, “Although they (Parsons-Brinkerhoff) have occasionally consulted with high-speed railways, officials decided that hiring an experienced operator and seeking private investors would have to wait until after the system was partially built.”
A civil engineer with SNCF’s U.S. affiliate stated what is already as obvious as the headlight of an oncoming train in the tunnel of Statewide stupidity, “The capital costs are way too high, and the route has been politically gerrymandered.”
Both the European and Asian choices for a route would have been to follow the I-5, because the State already owns the land, the route is fairly direct, and would be the fastest and cheapest way from LA to the Bay. But noooooo, the current plan, which zig-zags more than Joe Armendariz’s last car ride, is going through the Central Valley. According to the Times, none other than U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi had a hand in the design back in 1995, making sure that Fresno somehow got connected.
So while Governor Brown continues to shovel coal, or whatever else politicians shovel these days, into the engine of growth for California, the voters actually have an opportunity to vote on the initiative if its proponents can gather enough signatures (504,760) to appear on the ballot.
Initiative number 12-0010, filed with the Secretary of State on March 20 of this year, is not-so-subtly titled: “Stop the $100 Billion Bullet Train to Nowhere Act.”
It effectively terminates the project in its “tracks” by preventing the issuance of future bonds. But so far, neither legal, financial or political obstacles have deterred our elected officials. This month, they passed Senate bill 1029 by a majority of one vote, authorizing the continuance of this debacle of unforeseen consequences.
Looks like our High-Speed gravy train, running on political favor and taxpayer money, is at least stopping at someone’s door.