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Rail News Home High-Speed Rail

12/16/2011



Rail News: High-Speed Rail

Congressional hearing on California HSR: Witnesses, committee members highlight concerns about and need for project


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On Dec. 6, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held a hearing to discuss, as committee members titled it, “mistakes and lessons learned” from the U.S. High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail program. On Dec. 15, the committee held another high-speed-related hearing — this time, to specifically discuss the project in California.

Titled “California’s High-Speed Rail Plan: Skyrocketing Costs and Project Concerns,” the hearing had a similar tone as the previous one, with Republican committee members highlighting concerns about increasing costs, the initial construction segment and project timeline, while Democratic committee members insisted the project must advance in order for California to meet its growing transportation needs. Meanwhile, officials overseeing California’s HSR program and other project supporters defended the latest cost estimates and construction plan, while project opponents urged T&I committee members to halt — or at least take a closer look at — the project before allowing it to advance.  

As with the first hearing, committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) provided opening remarks. With each passing day, the project “seems to be imploding”  and is in “dire straits,” he said. For Mica, the problems with California’s project center largely around choosing to build the initial operating segment in the Central Valley.

“They chose a location that doesn’t serve any people — it’s mostly cows and vegetables along that corridor rather than riders, and by picking the wrong location, I think they set off on the wrong foot,” he said.

Mica also expressed concern about the project’s costs, which have soared from $42.6 billion to $98.5 billion, according to the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s (CHSRA) latest business plan; the construction timeline, which has been extended 13 years and is now scheduled to be complete by 2033; and that trains will not operate at high speeds along the initial operating segment until that segment is electrified at a later date.

“So what we’ll have is another snail-speed train with extremely expensive infrastructure costs,” Mica said.

Rep. Gary Miller (R-Calif.) raised similar concerns with the project, particularly with regards to the cost and funding.

“The high-speed rail proposal has two options: It could be come a deadly drag on the California and U.S. economy, or it could lead the way to employment, fiscal responsibility and innovation,” he said. “But now we’re talking about $98.5 billion, and that’s money that California clearly doesn’t have, and projections call for using funds that Congress doesn’t have to give either.”

Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), who also chairs the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, reiterated his thoughts from the first hearing, saying he believes federal funds should be used to improve transit-rail options in southern California or the San Francisco Bay Area rather than build a high-speed rail segment in the Central Valley.

“We could spend half the amount of money to fund projects from San Diego to Los Angeles. That would probably double ridership in southern California, reduce trip times and all projects could be completed by 2017, which falls in line with the timing on the stimulus money,” he said. “If we’re going to invest money, let’s invest in places that are going to have significant benefit by that investment.”

Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) initially supported California’s high-speed rail program. While a state senator, Denham voted in favor of placing CHSRA’s $9.95 billion bond measure on the November 2008 ballot, with assurances from authority officials that the project would have safeguards in place, no ongoing subsidies, guaranteed funding and guaranteed investors, and would not impact the state’s farmland, he said. CHSRA has not followed through on those promises, according to Denham.

“I want to make sure [bonds aren’t sold] if those reassurances are not met,” he said.

However, Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Calif.) said the high-speed rail system is necessary in California, which has the ninth-highest gross domestic profit in the world. And when it comes to cost, the California project would be cheaper to build than the proposed Northeast Corridor next-generation high-speed system, which is estimated at $117 billion.

“I didn’t hear many people talking about how we were going to pay for the cost with the Northeast Corridor, so why the sudden concern and attack with California?” she asked.

Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.) also continues to support the project.

“It has been said the busiest air corridor in the nation is the Bay Area to Los Angeles,” he said. “For every four flights, one is delayed an hour. To address that, we would need 115 new airport gates, four new runways and 2,300 miles of new highways. That’s at a cost of $170 billion. The cost of this [high-speed rail project] factored with inflation over 30 years is $97 billion. Don’t look at this in a vacuum; look at the comparative analysis.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said he wants the T&I committee to examine the proposal CHSRA presented to state voters in 2008 because “what went before the voters is totally different than what it is today,” he said. McCarthy added that he has concerns about CHSRA’s ridership projections, which estimate more than twice as many Californians who use the state’s Amtrak service will ride the high-speed rail system.

“If you build it and they do not come, what are you going to give up to subsidize everyone who’s on that train?” he asked.

In October, McCarthy introduced legislation that called for freezing all unspent federal dollars for California’s high-speed rail project through September 2012 while the Government Accountability Office conducts studies on the project’s viability.

“That’s not extreme, that’s not saying we’re not going to do it — that’s saying … stop for a minute, put some accountability into this,” McCarthy said.

Following the congressional comments, a series of witnesses provided testimony either for or against the California high-speed rail project. Some of the comments follow.

Joseph Szabo, Federal Railroad Administrator
“If you want to build the project faster and cheaper, you can make it happen. The largest cause for delay on the project and escalation of cost is attributed to congressional gridlock.”

“The Central Valley will more than double in population over the next 40 years. Acquiring right of way now and building through the Central Valley is the best way to save money throughout the course of this project.”

Roelof van Ark, chief executive officer, CHSRA
“Starting construction in the Central Valley is correct. It is the backbone of the system; it is a wise and prudent decision. In the Central Valley, we can purchase more miles of track than anywhere else in the state.”

“The business plan … is a realistic approach required to construct the largest public-private partnership in the U.S. I can confirm ridership and cost estimates. The phased implementation approach … as well as the participation of the private sector are all based on solid and realistic assumptions, and real-time experiences of high-speed rail systems developed around the world.”

Ashley Swearengin, mayor of Fresno, Calif.
“High-speed rail is a profitable business model. No other transportation mode in the world makes a profit. Yes, an upfront partial investment is needed, but once those capital costs are covered, the system makes money.”

“This will provide a vast reduction in travel times. Today, Fresnoans that travel to Los Angeles can go by bus, car, air or low-speed rail. If you take your car, it will take four hours if you don’t hit traffic in L.A. With high-speed rail, travel times to the L.A. basin will be reduced by over 60 percent to about 1 hour, 20 minutes.”

“Fresno has 500,000 people — and yes, some cows and vegetables. Our distance from other urban areas has limited our economic opportunities. Unemployment rates range from 14 to 40 percent today. Our area struggles to gain mobility to the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas. High-speed rail changes that dynamic.”

Greg Gatzka, director, Kings County Community Development Agency
“[CHSRA] has not addressed specific impacts. That includes 7,000 acres of farmland that could potentially be disrupted, 11 dairies, a critical cow-rendering facility, a fire station.”

“The expedited public process they employed rushes to approve a project simply to spend federal funds at the expense of local communities.

Elizabeth Alexis, co-founder, Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design
“We believe in rail, but this project is on the wrong track. It costs too much, takes too long and delivers far, far too little.”

“Impacts have been downplayed to secure support. Critical decisions about the route were made without feedback on feasibility or consequences.”
 
“If the project moves forward as is, there is a good chance the state will be forced to spend more money trying to salvage something useful from the initial construction and in California, this means there will be little money for other infrastructure projects. The current route is so destructive to cities and agriculture, there may not be any net jobs to show for it.”

Angela Cotey



Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

More News from 12/16/2011