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Senate Transportation Committee provides realistic look at High-speed Rail

Foreground, Paul Dyson, background Professor Ibbs, UC Berkeley Engineering
Foreground, Paul Dyson, background Professor Ibbs, UC Berkeley Engineering
Kathy Hamilton

March 27th, 2014 there was a Senate Transportation Committee meeting and the subject was a review of the current business plan as well as an evaluation of the High-Speed Rail Project’s potential for success.

Some expected the meeting would be a lovefest for the train but it was anything but. It was unfortunate no other committee members showed up, only the Chair, Senator Mark DeSaulnier conducted the meeting. Even when it came time for public comments, it was devoid of the usual line up of pro-train advocates. It was as if someone put out the word, boycott the meeting, don’t attend, it’s going to be bad.

Experts from academia, a train lovers group and the Legislative Analyst Office delivered what many already knew, this train project has severe issues: Capital cost shortfalls, Operations and maintenance shortfalls, bond measure compliance challenges and route issues. Here is the Senate Transportation extensive handout and the video of the complete hearing. Go to Senate Transportation date March 27th, 2014

The surprising views of a Professor and a Rail Pac, a train lovers group:

Professor William Ibbs from UC Berkeley, Department of Civil Engineering:

Professor Ibbs has studied Mega Projects and benchmarked over 2000 large-scale construction projects around the world. He suggests that the state might “revisit the question of whether we should be devoting this much money to a high-speed rail system when we pressing problems with our highways, airports and have other infrastructure facilities.”

The Professor also revealed that “Most rail systems in the US, collect only about 2/3 of their operating cost from the fare box. If we have that kind of experience on this project, it’s going to eat future generation alive, it’s going to eat our grandchildren’s wallets alive. “

Note: This is an important point since California bond measure forbids the state to pay a subsidy for operational costs

He adds, “ A lot more people that will use highways than any railroad system, so I would urge you and your colleagues to look at transportation investment across the board and give us world class transportation system.”

He didn’t give a number but suggested that that capital investment would be substantially more than the $68 billion. Ibbs said he studied the “capital costs sky rocketed on the projects like the Big Dig and the Bay Bridge, even higher than the system critics would have ever envisioned.” He reports his data comes from real world experiences not paper exercises as Lou Thomas (peer review director) alluded to.

Ibbs also suggests that the Senate require scenario analysis on both capital costs and operations and maintenance costs. He believes they can be more problematic than the capital.

One would imagine that’s because because O & M go on forever and capital costs stop once the project is built and construction ceases.

The Future will change technology:

Professor Ibbs gives Bill Gates credit a quote which he believes, “Over a three year things change much slower than we expect, but over the course of 10 years things change much more dramatically than we can ever imagine.” He suggests that if you’re talking about a 30-year horizon, you can have multiple generations of technological changes. Kids are comfortable with technology such as Skype and “Go to Meeting.” They don’t feel the need to go to an employer to interview or go to a friend’s house. The things we might be looking at 30 years from now and should be considered in risk. (17 minutes)

Other technology innovations that may come in the near future is the self-driving car and even the Hyper Loop of Elan Musk. Professor Ibbs wasn’t sure of the cost factors of the Hyperloop and wondered if people might feel a bit claustrophobic in a tube being shot across California.

Paul Dyson, President of Rail Pac which promotes the expansion and improvement of Rail Passenger Service in California and Nevada.

Paul Dyson reported that Prop IA was completely oversold when it promised we were capable of constructing a high-speed rail system in a reasonable timeframe. It raised people’s expectation that within 5-10 years, a decade, that we would have some kind high-speed rail system in place. We’re not delivering.

He believes that the Rail Authority is building in the wrong place. Instead of Central Valley, building from Los Angeles Union Station and build north toward Bakersfield would help fill the gap that exists now. Dyson also believes rather than the current location in the Central Valley, the project needs a “big box or anchor city,” much like a shopping center does so people will see the value and it will have more ridership. They’ll be more inclined to “dig into the pockets and pay for a ticket.” 8 minutes

To hear the entire video listen to Video on Demand link. March 27, 2014 Transportation and Housing Committee hearing.

The Senate Transportation Committee put together a summary of their comments, the panel's comments if they provided written comments and submissions by the public.

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