This is the first of three articles about the politics of the high-speed rail project. The series will cover state politics, the peer review process, followed by national politics including Congress and actions of the Federal Railroad Administration. (FRA) The articles include facts, opinion and anonymous commentary since many will not speak on the record. The Author has written 178 articles on this topic and attended literally hundreds of meetings.
The idea of high-speed trains at first glance may not be considered a partisan topic by most. To some it might sound like a good concept and to others it might not be a good idea since it is very expensive and is not a commuter train. But the people did vote for its passage by a margin of 53% to 47% in the largely Democratic state of California in the same election that President Barack Obama won his first term in office in November 2008.
The Rail Authority expected to lose because they did not have the budget for tv commercials thought to be essential for winning. According to Judge Quentin Kopp, former board chairman of the High-Speed Rail Authority, they raised in the vicinity of a million dollars primarily from the trade unions and some consulting firms. This appeared to be an inadequate budget for a successful campaign. In addition, a field poll was conducted right before the vote and it showed they would lose by a slim margin. So when the victory was announced, the Authority in Sacramento were surprised and delighted since they expected to lose.
Obviously they had underestimated the power of the social media. Obama's campaign was the first to use social media as a key campaign strategy which attracted a heavier youth vote. In the end, it was the youth vote and the heavy voter turnout that carried the passage of the high-speed rail project.
Concept is far different than the project being built
The project moved into full swing after the vote. However, the basic route the train would travel through was determined by ballot measure. While some changes could be made later, the primary route was carved in stone. Before the vote, there had been meetings scattered through-out the state but those closest to the route point out, it seemed most meetings avoided their areas. Result: The comments in the Program level environmental document didn’t have well-represented public comment from those on the preferred route route. Politically, no doubt the Authority had something in mind.
After the passage of the bond measure, neighborhood groups, most surprised by the passage of the bond measure began to study the project. Most of those who have examined the workings of this project for the last 5 years have come to the realization, regardless of political leanings, that this isn’t such a good idea and since the project has morphed into something very different than was on the ballot. Even train enthusiasts know the project has changed and while some continue to advocate it, others such as Judge Quentin Kopp, a strong proponent of the original project, are not in favor of the project as it stands today. CNN produced a segment on the rail project in the "Keeping them honest" segment on Andersen Cooper 360 on June 14, 2013.
Judge Quentin Kopp, former HSR chairman and long-term advocate of the high-speed rail project was interviewed. He objects to “the blended system” in which some trains use current transit infrastructure, some trains go slow and others go faster, in other words, not real high-speed rail and “not what the state tax-payers voted for.” “Under this plan, we’re getting ripped off, no question about it,” said Kopp.
The new plan is devoid of the protections that were put in the bond measure both for those who voted for the project as well as for those who didn’t. The promise was to deliver high-speed rail train operation in a phased manner. It was required to be developed in a series of usable segments, each high-speed rail ready, that would result in a high-speed train system when all the pieces were connected. It was supposed to be done in such a very specific manner so that tax money would not be wasted.
The largest threat to the project is a taxpayer’s civil law suit that was heard at the end of May. It outlines some of the violations of the voters bond measure, argued as a contract with the people by the plaintiffs, and awaits a ruling from a judge for the one part of the case expected before the end of August. The pending lawsuit (Tos/Fukuda/Kings County) is found on the second half of the page of this link under Attorney Michael Brady paragraph. Both the state and the plaintiff’s documents are on the TRANSDEF site. http://transdef.org/HSR/Taxpayer.html A full article about the hearing can be found here: http://www.examiner.com/article/prop-1a-suit-begins-and-challenges-california-s-rail-project
CALIFORNIA CEO PROJECT LINKED TO DC
Jeff Morales, former executive of Parsons Brinckerhoff, the major consulting company on the California High-Speed Rail project, is conveniently now the CEO for the project. He is the third executive director or CEO since 2008. By the way, his resume includes links to Washington DC. Morales served on a committee for then President Elect President Obama. His resume says this, “His national leadership was underscored by being appointed as a member of the President Elect Barack Obama, responsible for developing a roadmap for incoming administration, including key policy recommendations and preparation of the Transportation Secretary designate. (Perhaps referring to outgoing Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood)
Morales, who has a BS degree (biology), was also the Director of California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) His resume says he had direct involvement in public-private partnerships such as the South Bay Expressway, San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, Alameda Corridor, Orange County Foothill Eastern, Orange County San Joaquin, and SR 91 express lanes.
Note: The new eastern link of the Bay Bridge has yet to open and is massively over budget and may not make its scheduled opening in September due to defective bolts. If it does open it will be more than six years later than planned and more than 6X the estimated construction costs.
Local Politics in California:
Prior to the vote for the first spending appropriation of approximately $6 billion dollars which passed without an extra vote in July 2012, every key agency or committee involved in reviewing the project had major issues with it, particularly the absence of future funding. The concern was that the state would end up with a stranded asset in the Central Valley.
The Legislative Analyst’s office, the State Inspector General’s office, the State Auditor all had major problems with the project. Even the Independent Peer Review Group (PRG) had major problems with the project until a key change was made, some might argue it was political in nature. The PRG and others in the legislature such as Senator Lou Correa from Santa Ana in Southern California wanted some of the money sprinkled on the end points (San Francisco and Los Angeles) of the project that might do some good for local transit while they “wait” for high-speed trains. Correa wanted money sprinkled specifically in his district and in fact said outright that he would not vote for the appropriation unless his district received benefit.
Neither of these bookend locations was selected as the first construction site because they were far from ready in the environmental process and could not make the Federal deadline of completion by September 2017. The Central Valley was the furthest along in environmental work and frankly was the only place with the chance to use the federal funds with the time requirements. The original start date for the Central Valley segment was supposed to be September 2012 and has yet to begin. However, sprinkling some money on the northern and southern ends was politically important to win the votes for the first appropriations, make the peer review group happy and would diffuse the danger of wasting all the money in the Central Valley on a “stranded investment.” http://www.ocregister.com/taxdollars/strong-478824-rail-high.html
Former State Senator Joseph Simitian (D) Palo Alto, who ultimately voted no on the project said this about what was going on in a Senate Hearing, "My point is the only way you get to sprinkle a little dough in the north and south if you go off and spend $6.2 billion on a conventional rail track in a low ridership area, may not be the most persuasive argument we’ve got in terms of what’s before us."