High Speed Rail Strategy – START to Build it and They Will Come!

The High Speed Rail project found its way into three of the five panels in the Public Policy Institute’s all-day State of Changeconference Wednesday. At the end of the day, you understood the High Speed Rail authority’s strategy to gain support  for the project – START to build it and they will come!

In an opening discussion, Nancy McFadden, Executive Secretary to Governor Jerry Brown, said that the need for High Speed Rail is more important now than when voters initially passed the bond in 2008 moving the project forward. She cited the governor’s pledge to reduce carbon emissions and the need to move people around the state that will have 50 million residents by 2025.

Acknowledging but brushing aside obstacles facing the bullet train she said litigation was going well, the Federal government came through with money and the legislature approved cap-and-trade funds to get the project started.

However, this funding is not nearly enough. It appears that Republicans controlling Congress have no interest in continuing funding for the train. No private investors have stepped up to take up a share of the costs promised voters when the High Speed Rail bond was on the ballot. While the cap-and-trade funds are a steady revenue source that can be leveraged with borrowing, there is still a big funding gap for the project.

Jeff Morales, chief executive officer of the High Speed Rail project, argued in a later panel that the funding would arrive. He said the message from the High Speed Rail authority to Washington is “leave us alone” for two years. In other words, the project has the resources to get the project started and then he expects Washington would get on board once they see progress.

Clearly, advocates for the project believe that once the project is started there will be no stopping it.

McFadden said when people see the project is being built they will support it. Morales called the project an investment in both California and its people. He noted that 30-percent of the contracts will go to small businesses in the area and that in a few years, “Everyone in the Valley will know someone involved in the program.”

He said that regional chambers of commerce and all large city mayors supported the project.

Morales argued that the two tracks being constructed would substitute for 2,500 of highway lane miles that would be needed to transport people around the state in the future. But that assumes the predictions on ridership are accurate. Experts have questioned not only the ridership projections, but also the projected ticket costs per rider and the speed in which the rail authority says it will take the bullet train to cover the distance between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Assemblyman Rocky Chavez offered a different perspective on the train in a third panel discussion. He said the train was actually in your garage. Advancing technology will see electric, driverless cars running on the roads moving along together like a train, he said. Referring to the building of the High Speed Rail, he added,  ‘and you don’t need to rip up farmland.’

Train advocates are not about to wait for that future. Not when the strategy appears to be start putting down the track and see if anyone can stop them.

This article was originally publish on Fox and Hounds Daily

High-Speed Rail Takes Two More Swipes at CEQA

In his 2013 State of the State address, Gov. Jerry Brown quoted “The Little Engine That Could”: “I think I can. I think I can.”

One thing the California High-Speed Rail Authority, which runs the project, thinks it can do is get around the California Environmental Quality Act. As noted in the first article in this series, it started with two attempts:

  • Attempt 1: During the California Legislature’s closing days in August 2012, the CHSRA tried to pass more lenient measures to comply with CEQA. The Legislature didn’t cooperate.
  • Attempt 2: In June 2013, the CHSRA filed a request with the 3rd District Court of Appeal in the city of Atherton’s suit against the project. The CHSRA wanted the court to recognize the federal pre-emption of jurisdiction, getting around state laws, such as CEQA. The court refused.

Attempt 3

Attempt 3: De-publication. Now, in its third attempt to get around CEQA, on Sept. 22 California Attorney General Kamala Harris asked the California Supreme Court for the de-publication of the 3rd District’s decision in the Atherton case. If granted, it would have meant future cases would have been restricted in using this case for precedent. Harris is representing the CHSRA.   

Basically, what Harris and the CHSRA said was that, regardless of the language in Proposition 1A in 2008, they instead wanted to put the project into federal jurisdiction. And that, any interpretation to the contrary, such as that by the 3rd District Court of Appeal, had “misinterpreted” those facts, and ought to be de-published.

De-publication would have offered a quick way to minimize the damage of the 3rd District Court of Appeal’s decision. If the Supreme Court had agreed to de-publish the decision, it would have blocked that decision from being used as a precedent for other cases.

Stuart Flashman, an attorney for Kings County and two residents who have brought suit to stop the project, filed a brief against the de-publication, arguing:

“If the Attorney General wished to press these points, her proper recourse was to petition for review, and the other agencies could have supported review….

“If the parties seeking de-publication feel that major state transportation projects should not be subject to CEQA review, that argument should be addressed to the Legislature, which clearly knows how to exempt classes of projects from CEQA review when it feels such exemption is warranted.”

On Oct. 29, the Supreme Court denied the de-publication request. Therefore, the 3rd District Court of Appeal’s decision is now final and conclusive.

Attempt 4

Attempt 4: the Surface Transportation Board. Private attorneys Nossaman LLP have a $17 million contract to represent the CHSRA. An Oct. 9 petition by Nossaman asked for declaratory relief, that is, an official declaration of the status of a matter in controversy to expedite a court case.

In this case, the CHSRA is specifically asking the STB to take off the table any request for a injunction against construction for any party suing under CEQA. The CHSRA want federal laws to preempt state laws.

(The STB is a federal agency under the Department of Transportation. A year ago, on Dec. 3, 2013, the STB declared it held federal jurisdiction because California’s tracks would also be used by Amtrak; and the tracks cross state lines.)

The CHSRA wants to prevent the chance of a construction injunction being granted for a Central Valley case represented by  Attorney Doug Carstens from Chatten-Brown & Carstens LLP. He represents  Kings County, Citizens for High Speed Rail Accountability and the Kings County Farm Bureau.

The reason his clients are suing is because of alleged CEQA improprieties in the Fresno-to-Bakersfield segment. The CHSRA said that, if the injunction was granted, it could endanger the start of building the high-speed rail system; and the CHSRA has a tight time frame on the use of $3.5 billion in federal funds.

But there is no emergency. The actual case is not expected to be heard until mid-summer 2015. Moreover, there are six other CEQA cases filed against the project and not one of them is ready to go to court this month.

A decision from the STB is expected soon. If the STB grants declaratory relief, basically preempting CEQA with a federal supremacy claim, the next step will be the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

This piece was originally published at CalWatchdog.com

Kathy Hamilton is the Ralph Nader of high-speed rail, continually uncovering hidden aspects of the project and revealing them to the public.  She started writing in order to tell local communities how the project affects them and her reach grew statewide.  She has written more than 225 articles on high-speed rail and attended hundreds of state and local meetings. She is a board member of the Community Coalition on High-Speed Rail; has testified at government hearings; has provided public testimony and court declarations on public records act requests; has given public testimony; and has provided transcripts for the validation of court cases.


Gov. Brown faces high-speed rail hurdles




high-speed rail front pageRepublicans’ triumph last week in the U.S. Congress already is rippling across the country. Does that bother Gov. Jerry Brown and his push for getting more federal funding for California’s high-speed rail project? So far, Congress allocated only $3.5 billion as part of President Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus plan.

Apparently not. The Los Angeles Times reported:

“Gov. Jerry Brown played down concerns Thursday about Republicans killing the state’s $68-billion bullet train, saying that ‘they’re going to join the chorus’ in support of high-speed rail once construction around Fresno and Bakersfield gains momentum.”

But he’s going to need all his skills to convince them.

Even with Democrats in control of the Senate, for three years no additional funding was passed for the project. That majority included California’s two powerful, high-seniority senators. Sen. Dianne Feinstein even sits in the powerful Committee on Appropriations. And Sen. Barbara Boxer sits on the Committee on Commerce Science and Transportation and on the Committee on Environment and Public Works.

In the House, if anything the situation is worse. Rep. Kevin McCarthy of the 23rd Congressional District, who became the majority leader in the House earlier this year, just was re-elected with 75 percent of the vote. He staunchly opposes the high-speed rail project.

Other Central Valley Republicans also oppose it. Rep. Devin Nunes of the 22nd District branded it a “trillion-dollar boondoggle.” He just was re-elected with 62 percent of the vote.

On Nov. 7, McCarthy and Nunes were joined by two other California Republicans, Reps. David G. Valadao of the 21 District and Jeff Denham of the 10th District, in writing a letter to Daniel R. Elliott III, chairman of the Surface Transportation Board of the U.S. Department of Transportation. They wrote (full letter reproduced below):

“This project has changed drastically from what was promised to voters, and this is another attempt by the CHSRA to skirt the law.  On behalf of our constituents, we urge you to reject the CHSRA petition and require CHSR to adhere to state and federal laws, as well as any judicial determinations, as it continues to develop and construct high-speed rail in California.” 

Trouble ahead from Union Pacific Railroad

Part of the plan of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, which is constructing the train, was to use some existing infrastructure to cut the cost to the current estimate of $68 billion from $98 billion to $117 billion. It’s called the “blended plan.”

The CHSRA proposed this for the San Francisco-to-San Jose segment by using the Caltrain tracks, instead of building dedicated tracks for high-speed rail. That modification also would save billions by not having to buy pricey properties along the peninsula stretch.

The catch is, Union Pacific Railroad has vestige rights on that track and has not agreed to the blended system. They have exclusive rights to say yes or no to new interstate passenger rail systems along that corridor. As outlined in the CHSRA’s April 2014 Business Plan, it has been unable to get Union Pacific permission for the blended system.

Union Pacific Railroad filed a commentary with the STB:

“In some locationsmost notably the San Francisco Peninsula, CHSRA contemplates operating high-speed trains on the same tracks as freight and conventional passenger trains. Blended service would interfere with UP’s existing and future freight operations, including access to existing and future customers.”


In sum, no significant construction has begun for the high-speed rail project because the CHSRA doesn’t have the money, the land, the railroad approvals or the environmental clearances to go forward.

And it also doesn’t have the second funding plan mandated by the July 31 ruling of the 3rd Appellate District Court, which allowed the first segment of the project to go forward.

Such funding is not on the CHSRA’s agenda for November. And the CHSRA is not planning to meet in December.

So unless the CHSRA calls a special meeting in the waning weeks of 2014, the project is bumped into 2015, seven years after voters approved it with Proposition 1A in 2008.

Meanwhile, other priorities Brown is seeking to tackle – especially water, education and pension reform – will make increasing demands on a limited state budget.

Valadao letter


Kathy Hamilton is the Ralph Nader of high-speed rail, continually uncovering hidden aspects of the project and revealing them to the public.  She started writing in order to tell local communities how the project affects them and her reach grew statewide.  She has written more than 225 articles on high-speed rail and attended hundreds of state and local meetings. She is a board member of the Community Coalition on High-Speed Rail; has testified at government hearings; has provided public testimony and court declarations on public records act requests; has given public testimony; and has provided transcripts for the validation of court cases. 

This article was originally published on CalWatchdog.com

Could the High Speed Rail Ruling Imperil the Water Bond?

Proposition 1, the $7 billion water bond, has broad support from both Democrats and Republicans.  Unlike the previous version of the bond – which had an $11 billion cost – the updated version has less pork and a few more promises for actual water storage.  While HJTA opposed the previous version (and indeed we signed the ballot argument against it) we have taken no position on Proposition 1.  Our neutrality is compelled, at least in part, by the recognition that California does indeed have legitimate needs for improvements in our statewide water infrastructure.

But now we have a new concern.

The California Supreme Court has recently declined to hear an appeal in one of the many lawsuits challenging the California’s High Speed Rail project.  This is a case we originally won in the trial court which blocked the issuance of the High Speed Rail bonds because the project bore no relationship to the project that was promised to the voters back in 2008.  But in a ruling that stunned taxpayers, the Court of Appeal reversed the trial court which correctly found that the Constitution expressly requires the state prove that issuance of the bonds is “necessary or desirable.”   This constitutional mandate ensures that government lives up to the promises it makes to the voters.

A proper interpretation of the California Constitution would require voter approval of, not just the amount of the debt, but specification of the project to be funded.  In our lawsuit, we argued that the current HSR plan so deviates from the proposal presented to voters in 2008 that voter approval of the former proposal should not be deemed approval of today’s plan.  We presented evidence showing that today’s plan is not the true high-speed train that voters were promised.  The HSR bond measure promised that the project would be built with federal and private matching funds.  But today’s plan calls for a system that is not truly “high speed” and is funded primarily by California taxpayers.  (And, by the way, the projected costs have now tripled).

So how does the high court’s inaction impact today’s Proposition 1, the Water Bond?  The fact that the judiciary will not uphold expressed requirements in a bond proposal raises the specter that, no matter what a bond proposal promises about what will be built with the bond proceeds, those promises are meaningless.  In other words, when California voters are asked to approve a bond, are they just approving debt for any purpose at all?  This is the very definition of a blank check.

As the result of California Courts refusing to uphold the language of the High Speed Rail bonds, the opponents of any bond proposal, at either the state or local level, need only point to High-Speed Rail to remind voters that promises in a voter approved bond proposal are meaningless and unenforceable.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.

This article originally appeared on HJTA.org

Californians Should Get Another Vote on High Speed Rail

Imagine you found the house of your dreams. The price is $450,000. You sign papers only to later learn the sellers made a mistake. The price for the house is actually $1 million. Fortunately, under California real estate law, you can back out of the deal. But if you were a California voter buying a train instead of a house, you might be out of luck.

In November 2008 California voters narrowly approved—by a vote of 52.7% to 47.3%— Proposition 1A. The measure authorizes nearly $20 billion in state spending to establish high-speed train service linking Southern California counties, the Sacramento/San Joaquin Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area.

At the time, the entire project was expected to cost about $45 billion. Proponents claimed funds from other public and private sources would cover the project’s remaining costs.

Tom McClintock, Jon Coupal and I co-authored the opposition ballot argument. We called the measure a “boondoggle” that “could cost $90 billion—the most expensive railroad in history.” We warned that no one really knew how much the project would ultimately cost.

After years of waste and mismanagement, California’s High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) has finally admitted what critics like us warned all along: “Building the entire system will take longer and cost more than previously estimated.”

In fact, the price tag for this risky transit gamble is now nearly $100 billion—more than twice the original estimate. The new number is greater than California’s entire annual state budget. To fund the entire project today, every Californian, including men, women and children, would need to write a check for more than $2500.

Without those checks, existing funding will only be enough to cover the first phase of the project connecting Fresno and Bakersfield. Should additional funding materialize, Merced and San Jose will be the next stops.

Despite the uncertainty, the folks at CHSRA claim California voters still want to buy this train. At a recent press conference, CHSRA chair and former Democrat Assemblyman Tom Umberg said, “There are some things that do change—development changes, cost changes. But the will of the California voter, I believe, remains the same today…”

Mr. Umberg might believe California voters are still on board, but I’m not so sure. Much has changed since 2008. California’s unemployment rate has risen from single to double digits, the state’s budget has become much, much tighter, and our credit rating has been downgraded to the worst of any state in the nation.

Further, the deadly collision of two high speed trains in China earlier this year has prompted new worries about the safety of high speed rail and led to the recall of 54 trains, reduced speed limits and a moratorium on new projects in that country.

Finally, renewed concerns about our nation’s debt and overall government spending make the outlook for federal funding far less certain. Congressman Kevin McCarthy has introduced a measure that would freeze federal funding and require a thorough audit of the project. The measure, introduced last month, is being co-sponsored by nine other California congressmen.

Perhaps California voters support high speed rail regardless of the cost. If so, high speed rail proponents shouldn’t fear a new vote on their new plan. If not, it would be a breach of contract—or as liberal columnist Tom Elias puts it—“a bait and switch”—to move forward with a costly plan that is little like the one Californians voted for three years ago.

As even Mr. Umberg admits, there are other options for improving California’s crumbling transportation infrastructure. One hundred billion dollars—or even a smaller portion of that number—could do much to improve the roads, freeways, ports and airports Californians use every day. The taxpayers who will foot the bill should make this call.

To that end, Senator Doug LaMalfa plans to introduce legislation putting the project back on the ballot. California taxpayers should support his effort and urge Governor Jerry Brown, the Legislature and the CHSRA board to do the same.

(George Runner represents more than nine million Californians as a member of the State Board of Equalization. For more information, visit www.boe.ca.gov/Runner. This article was first published in Fox & Hounds.)

Bullet train ridership projections down in latest plan

From the SD Tribune:

The new business plan for building California’s $98 billion high-speed rail project estimates that between 23 million and 34 million passengers will use the system by the time bullet trains traverse the state two decades from now.

If those numbers fail to pan out, taxpayers could be on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars a year in operating expenses.

Getting the number right is crucial to avoid public subsidies in the future, but predicting ridership is complicated and in some ways a guessing game. It relies on unknowns such as future gas prices and airline taxes, population growth, traffic patterns and even technology that has yet to be invented.

(Read Full Article)

High-speed rail dependent on $55 billion in federal funds

From California Watch:

Although planners of California’s bullet train won praise last week for candor about the train’s cost, an analysis of their 230-page plan shows they are still making highly speculative assumptions about funding and ridership.

Despite hostility toward the project from Republicans in Congress, the California High-Speed Rail Authority expects to receive $55 billion in federal grants – including $13 billion in the next 10 years.

The planners are also counting on Congress to approve a new form of infrastructure bonds – and to get 27 percent, or $13 billion, of all those bonds issued nationwide.

(Read Full Article)

High Speed Financial Train Wreck

From CalWatchdog:

The news that the California High-Speed Rail Authority finallyrevealed its long-awaited business plan only made the state’s residents more suspicious of the monster rail system. With a $99 billion price tag, a 300 percent cost increase since the 2008 voter-approved measure, and a claim of more than 1 million jobs created, High-Speed Rail appears to be taking over as the WPA project of California’s future.

But many say that $99 million is not the final figure. The the plan, originally billed as a $9.9 billion bond measure for a $40 billion train system, now has unlimited borrowing and spending, as well as a yearly $5.3 billion cost for upkeep.

(Read Full Article)

Rail plan splits GOP leaders; Huff is for it, Dutton opposed

From the Daily Bulletin:

From boondoggle to significant?

The man who many believe will be the next Republican leader in the state Senate has a completely different viewpoint on the state’s proposed high-speed rail plan than the current holder of that position.

Sen. Bob Huff, R-Walnut, sees the plan as critical to improving the California economy. The man he may replace as GOP leader, Sen. Bob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga, sees the San Francisco-to-Anaheim line as simply a waste of money.

Dutton’s opposition didn’t change this week following the release of a business plan that gave a detailed look at the project and pegged its cost at nearly $100 billion over 20 years.

(Read Full Article)

High-Speed Rail Board Votes to Seek $2.7 Billion of State Bond Money

From Voice of OC:

The California High-Speed Rail Authority board voted unanimously Thursday to seek the Legislature’s permission to use $2.7 billion in state bond money to help start construction of the planned $98.5-billion train system.

The 6-0 vote came after more than two hours of public testimony in Sacramento from dozens of critics of the troubled plan, which would connect Anaheim and San Francisco with 220-mph bullet trains. The board voted without discussion.

The Rail Authority needs the state funds to qualify for $3.3 billion in federal stimulus money that can’t be spent unless most of it is matched. The plan is to start construction in mid-to-late 2012 in the Central Valley.

(Read Full Article)