More delays may be in the California high-speed rail’s future. According to the February 26 Transportation Weekly, a private subscription newsletter out of DC, letters were sent by Congressman Jeff Denham to the Surface Transportation Board, (STB) the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) advising them of a possible violation of the Interstate Commerce Act. Apparently the CHSRA failed to apply for permission to build or ask for an exemption to build their rail project. This regulatory board’s job is to approve new railroads.
Denham is the Chair of the sub-committee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials for the House Transportation Committee.
"Under 49 U.S.C. 10901(a) persons who are, or intend to become, rail common carriers must obtain authorization from the [Surface Transportation] Board before constructing or operating a new or extended railroad line."
"The Board has jurisdiction over 'transportation by rail carrier' that is conducted over any 'part of the interstate rail network.' 49 U.S.C. 1050(a)(1), 10501(a)(2)(A). The term 'rail carrier' is defined, in pertinent part, as 'a person providing common carrier railroad transportation for compensation.' 49 U.S.C. 10102(5)."
In Denham’s letter to the Surface Transportation Board, he pointed out that under the Interstate Commerce Act, as amended, the Surface Transportation Board must approve the construction and operation of rail lines. He is careful to say, “I understand that whether the Board has jurisdiction over construction and operation of an intrastate passenger rail line is a fact-specific determination.” Denham closes by saying, “I pass no judgment on whether the board has jurisdiction over construction of the project---indeed, that is a determination properly left to the board---I believe it’s imperative that the authorities set forth in the Interstate Commerce Act, including the requirement for construction authority, be followed.”
On the surface it would appear the California project might not be under the jurisdiction of the STB since the Rail Authority is not building an interstate railroad. Example, in a recent case in Florida, the STB ruled it was unnecessary for them to go through the board because it did not have interstate operations but they did ask for a ruling. It appears however California has a complication which makes their case different. Denham points to California’s project connecting with Amtrak which will “provide coordinated ticketing and marketing.”
About the California Project:
Amtrak is an interstate railroad which will use the tracks constructed in the Central Valley if funding for the project does not materialize for the rest of the Initial Operating Segment. At this time the project is at least $25 billion short to complete the segment to the San Fernando Valley.
What is under construction now is called Initial Construction Section (ICS). The ICS is only a small part of the larger segment required by Proposition IA. The FRA determined that having Amtrak shift over and operate on new tracks built was the project’s independent utility, sort of a back-up plan. Some kind of independent utility is a requirement in order to receive the federal grants for this project to insure federal funds are not wasted.
There appears to be no money in sight to continue the project beyond a small construction segment so it seems likely that the independent utility requirement will be exercised, that is having Amtrak use the new tracks built in the Central Valley.
Last April, Senator Joe Simitian who was then head of the Senate Budget sub-committee, didn't think much about the use of Amtrak as the independent utility. “If we don’t have additional funds forthcoming, if we don’t have no more money from the feds, private investment or another bond measure at the end of $6.2 billion we have 130 miles of conventional rail that investment that gives us forty-five minutes off the commute time and the value is $15 million a year which is not a great return on investment for $6.2 billion. Absent of additional investment we’re left with a stranded investment with modest value.”
Authority Chairman confirmed at the Senate High-Speed Rail Meeting on February 26th that there “wasn’t going to be a silver bullet” [in regard to finding capital] “only a series of 10% solutions. “ He also said the Federal model was changing from direct grants to one of a financing model. http://youtu.be/AXWSusdxn6w See 7:26 mm. The entire you-tube is only 20 minutes and quite interesting since many aspects of the financing are discussed.
The CEO of the Rail Authority, Jeff Morales, stated in Senate hearings last week that they would award contracts and break ground this summer …on what is the question. Much has to be accomplished by the Authority before ground breaking occurs on the primary ICS project. One wonders if is there is time to award building contracts for all the small segments that make up the ICS route, finish the design of the route by the winner of the first piece of the segment since it is a design/build contract, finish environmental work, buy the properties in the right of way and still complete the building of the proposed segment by spring of 2017, when the FRA says they have to turn in their receipts? If you like humor, granted this source could be a bit bias, the expression that there is truth in humor is very true in this case. They do quote the LA Times as to the huge job in front of the Authority. http://www.redstate.com/2013/01/27/california-high-speed-rail/
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WWhDk04_2bU&list=UULpiKaBjaacPw7g5K1nkRXw&index=1 The Authority’s own documents show a March 2014 start date and environmental work and purchase of properties along the right of way has to be completed at least on the section they are building. See the last page- page 5- start civil construction: http://www.calhsr.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/ICS_Schedule_Level3_CP1.pdf
Time is not on the project’s side as they race toward a 2017 finish date. The deadline is supposedly set in concrete by law, unchangeable by the FRA, for the first construction section of the California project, in order to take full advantage of the American Recovery and Investment Act funding (ARRA).
Bottom line will this newest twist with the Surface Transportation Board, even just applying for an exemption from the STB, add more delays and complications to the already very delayed and troubled project? Only time will tell.