The High-Speed Rail Authority inches forward despite heavy criticism. Many people, who do not follow the project closely, believe there is no High-Speed Rail project anymore and are quite surprised when they learn it is still moving forward. A recent editorial said it all, “ sheer political will is what is moving this project forward” despite no money in sight for bulk of the $68 to $80 billion project. Declining public support, funding blockages at the federal level, delays in environmental clearances and a growing controversy because of the first design/build contract award to Tutor-Perini have plagued this project and yet it lives on. If it were a cat, you’d wonder how many lives it had left.
Here’s an update by category of project happenings:
Recent Regional and National TV press coverage:
While there has been incredible press and Internet coverage of the California project for the past couple of years, in the past week, local and national TV coverage has been extensive.
CNN produced a segment this week giving national coverage to California’s high-speed rail project in the "Keeping them honest" segment on Andersen Cooper 360 on June 14, 2013. Their promo puts the focus in a nutshell, “CNN's Drew Griffin investigates plans to build a high-speed rail with billions of tax dollars pledged and no results.”
Judge Quentin Kopp, former cheerleader and long-term advocate of the high-speed rail project was interviewed on the segment. When Drew Griffin asked Kopp what happened to what was a great idea, the retired judge answered, “What happened was over the last 3 years, was the collapse of the plan to run genuine high-speed rail. I call it the Great Train Robbery.” What Quentin Kopp was referring to is “the blended system” in which some trains use current 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.
CNN attempted to interview HSR Chairman Dan Richard but Authority personnel said he would not agree to be interviewed because “they didn’t like the tone of CNN’s reports.” CNN vows to be back to check on the project’s progress later this summer.
This CNN program is part of a high-speed rail series, which shows the lack of progress with the President’s $12 billion dollar economic stimulus package created in 2009, designed to build high-speed rail and to create shovel ready jobs.
Next NBC investigative reporter, Sam Brock produced a 5-minute review about the bidding situation, which awarded Tutor-Perini the first design build contract for 24-25 miles for the Merced to Fresno segment. Not only was the process that was designed in public view violated, the worthiness of the winning bidder is in question. CEO Jeff Morales and Elizabeth Alexis, co-founder of Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design, give their opinions. Morales' point is regardless of changes to Tutor-Perini’s financial status they still are financially capable of finishing the project. He didn't answer the lack of openness about the change in formula.
See the Examiner’s complete article , which outlined the faulty selection process and the consequences because of it.
In Southern California, local channel, Fox LA, has done an incredible job of coverage over the last year. Both General Manager Kevin Hale and Investigative Director, Heidi Cuda has been leading the charge in getting the facts out about the High-Speed Rail Project in the Los Angeles area and in fact through-out this state and others. Some of their broadcasts have been picked up by other stations throughout the US. http://www.myfoxla.com/category/246048/california-high-speed-rail
Surface Transportation Board Decision:
This week the Surface Transportation Board (STB) ruled in favor of the High-Speed Rail Authority this past week and exempted the California project from its watchful eye, but only 65 miles of it, despite an incredible showing by project opponents who offered documentation as to why the project needs careful oversight.
The board accepted the FRA’s approval of the environmental work despite being offered proof that the project has major environmental issues between the Merced to Fresno segment. For the record, the Authority estimated the project would be 130 miles, give or take a few miles, when they were asked for the legislative appropriation for the Central Valley. Time will tell how much $6.2 billion dollars will build.
To date the Authority has 24-25 miles with environmental clearance and until they have more, they can’t go any further. That was acknowledged in the bid resolution in their June board meeting. The STB made the stipulation that the 65 miles was subject to environmental clearance. Here’s the link to the STB decision. Fresno to Bakersfield is not expected to have project level clearance until late 2013 or beginning of 2014.
The political reality is the STB is composed of three people who are appointed by the President and frankly he wants the project. California Governor Jerry Brown remains the key supporter regardless of project issues.
Prop 1A Suit:
In many recent reports, the public has soured on the idea of high-speed rail and has been denied a revote on the project. Unlike other environmental suits that have been filed, the Prop 1A suit, is a civil lawsuit and may be the next best thing to a revote. This is a taxpayer’s lawsuit filed to prevent wasteful state spending. The court ultimately will decide if the project is consistent with what the voters were promised back in November 2008.
May 31st, part one was presented. It’s called the Writ portion. This looks at basic principles of civil law and the reasons why the project implementation does not pass the test. The opponents of the project, called plaintiffs, offered Judge Michael Kenny, case law that defended the idea that a bond measure is a contract with the voters. The legislature role was extensive but after it’s voted on, their role was to enforce the bond measure promises per plaintiff’s attorney, Stuart Flashman.
The funding plan developed in November 2011, was examined in detail at the hearing. Prop 1A stated before the HSRA could ask for funding to build, they must have completed the environmental work and identified the funds to build a useable segment. The state chose Merced to the San Fernando Valley.
Neither has been accomplished. The environmental work is not complete even today, just 24-25 miles out of 300 miles. And second most widely known and the biggest risk, there is no funding in hand for the completion of that segment. The US General Accounting Office (GAO), the State Legislative Analyst’s office, the Independent Peer Review Group and in the State Auditors reports all agree, funding is a major risk. Lou Thompson director of the Independent Peer Review Group made the point at a Congressional Hearing end of May, that dedicated funding must be found for a project of this size and scope. See his written comments on the PRG’s website. See page two, sources of complete project funding. http://www.cahsrprg.com/files/22_version_of_lst_statement_for_may_28_2013_submitted_version.pdf
These restrictions for completed environmental work and funding were put in the bond measure as an assurance to the taxpayer and the state that they would have a segment of rail built that was ready for high-speed rail and not left with both a stranded and unusable segment. They did not authorize a new track for Amtrak to be built. It’s only in the grant agreement that the federal government stipulated this Amtrak segment as the backup plan but this same requirement is not state law.
In order to reach from Merced to the San Fernando Valley the cost is estimated at approximately $31 billion and the state has at its disposal now about $6.2 billion, combining state and federal funds for the Central Valley segment. To access any remaining state funds of the $9 billion allocated for high-speed rail, a match must be found either through private, local or federal sources.
The state’s argument, presented by Deputy Attorney General, Michele Inan, was that the funding plan is a report for the legislature, not a promise to the voters. She also said there was no degree of feasibility required in the bond measure as to where future funding “might” come from. The state identified the federal government and cap and trade funds as possible funding sources and that met the requirements of the bond measure. In fact, while the legislators wanted more, it won the vote to appropriate funds for the project. She added it was political decision and not for her to comment on. In the end, AG representative Inan said it was for the legislature ‘s job to decide, not the court.
If you want to listen to the full arguments lasting 90 minutes or just different segments, separated out for their relevance, the audio links are provided.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iHbUJtcXtB0 is 13 minutes where the AG presents its defense and Judge Kenny asks several very pointed questions.
Next at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nbe3LvIsWp8 Stuart Flashman replies to the AG defense (14 minutes)
Here are the audio links for the entire 90 minutes. Part one , is basically the plaintiffs case and about 30 minutes long: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NneuCcEWBW4
Part 2 is about 60 minutes long and starts with the rebuttal between Stuart Flashman, co-counsel for the plaintiffs and Michele Inan, Deputy AG. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9aoJo22qmmI about 60 minutes and starts with the rebuttal by the state.
Here’s an article summarizing of the first phase of the lawsuit: http://www.examiner.com/article/prop-1a-suit-begins-and-challenges-california-s-rail-project
Regardless of the judge’s decision, part 2 of the lawsuit will continue. Next to be discussed will be the promises within Proposition IA, such as the travel time of the train and the subsidy issues forbidden by law. These require a lower burden of proof. The plaintiffs’ attorneys have asked the judge to consider an advisory jury which if allowed will offer their opinion to the judge at the end of the trial but it would be the judge who ultimately decides. This part of the case includes examination of declarations such as from former Chairman of the High-Speed Rail Authority, Quentin Kopp, who says the project is not being conducted in a lawful way, the way it was intended and should not go forward as it is planned.
Even if the judge’s ruling indicates that the state violated the bond measure promises, he has a wide range of remedies available to him. It doesn’t mean it’s the end of the project. He could simply say slow down, go back and do the funding plan over after all environmental work is completed and funding is found. Or he could offer something less consequential or perhaps he could seek input from both sides as to possible remedies. A ruling is expected by the end of August.
For all the pertinent court filings and witness declarations see: Kings County website. They are one of the litigants in addition to John Tos and Aaron Fukuda. http://www.countyofkings.com/main/2013/hsra/index.html