Las Vegas-to-California high-speed electric rail project gets OK for $2.5B more in bonds

LAS VEGAS (AP) — A proposed high-speed passenger train between Las Vegas and Southern California got another boost on Tuesday with Biden administration approval to issue $2.5 billion in tax-exempt bonds for the $12 billion project.

(AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)

The announcement benefiting the Brightline West project followed a $3 billion U.S. Department of Transportation grant in December and government authorization in 2020 for the company to sell $1 billion in similar bonds.

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“We appreciate the confidence placed in us by DOT and are ready to get to work,” Brightline founder and Chairman Wes Edens said in a statement. Florida-based Brightline Holdings LLC currently operates the only privately-owned intercity passenger railroad in the U.S., linking Miami and Orlando with trains reaching speeds up to 125 mph (200 kph).

The 218-mile (351-kilometer) Brightline West project aims to whisk passengers at 186 mph (300 kph) or more in electric trains on new tracks along the Interstate 15 corridor — cutting in half a four-hour freeway trip between Las Vegas and suburban San Bernardino County near Los Angeles.

Planners and politicians say the project has all the required right-of-way and environmental approvals, along with labor agreements, and should help alleviate weekend and end-of-holiday travel traffic jams that often stretch for 15 miles (25 kilometers) on I-15 near the Nevada-California line.

Click here to read the full article in AP News

Costly California Bullet Train Will Be Billions More Due to Inflation, Says Board

Inflation and supply-chain issues are combining to drive up the forecast cost of high-speed rail construction between Merced and Bakersfield by billions of dollars by the time the anticipated stretch becomes operational. The timeline for electric passenger trains to start running on the 170-mile route — most recently expected by 2030 — is also undergoing strain, with California High-Speed Rail Authority officials reporting Thursday that the “schedule envelope” now extends to somewhere between 2030 and 2033. Rail authority CEO Brian Kelly, addressing the agency’s board members Thursday, advised that an upcoming project update report due to the state Legislature on March 1 will include changes to the cost and schedule projections for the Merced-Bakersfield portion of the route. The Valley segment is planned to be the first operational portion for what is ultimately planned as a 520-mile system to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles/Anaheim by way of Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley.

“We’re updating all of those cost estimates (and) we’re doing it in a high inflationary period,” Kelly told The Fresno Bee in an interview this week. “That’s not just affecting us but affecting transportation megaprojects all over the country and certainly in California.” Kelly said state legislators, in a budget agreement last year to free up the last $4.2 billion from a 2008 bond measure for high-speed rail construction, directed the rail authority to prioritize completion of the Merced-Bakersfield section. Construction is underway on about 119 miles of the route from northwest of Madera to near Shafter, in Kern County. But extending the construction work north to downtown Merced and south to downtown Bakersfield “comes with a new scope, and we have to recognize that,” Kelly said. “It’s a little bit more than what we had before,” he added, “and it’s very clear that federal help … is going to be key to us getting this project done.” HIGHER COST ESTIMATES In the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s 2022 business plan sent to the state Legislature last year, cost estimates for the planned Merced-Bakersfield interim operating segment ranged from $22.5 billion and about $24 billion. As the agency attempts to account for inflation from the 2022 business plan, the new cost range is rising to between $29.8 billion and $32.9 billion for completion of the Valley sections, Kelly reported. “Our projections are going up a bit, and we’re going to have to deal with that,” Kelly told The Bee. “We reset our pricing to 2022. When we projected going forward, our escalation rate used to be 2%.“This year it’s 5 1/3%. The next couple of years will be over 3% using Department of Finance projections.”

One issue the authority realized last year is that the agency underestimated the cost of installing track and systems on the Merced-Bakersfield route. “We saw the supply chain impacts in the marketplace and we saw the inflationary impacts,” Kelly said. “So now we’ve upped our estimates for what track and systems will cost going forward.” RISING COSTS SINCE ‘08 Cost and schedule fluctuations are nothing new for the controversial bullet-train project since 2008, when voters approved Proposition 1A, a $9.95 billion high-speed rail bond measure. Since then, California received more than $3 billion in federal railroad and economic stimulus funds in 2010 and 2011. The San Francisco-Los Angeles/Anaheim system was once expected to cost somewhere around $43 billion; that later ballooned to almost $100 billion in late 2011 before the state rail agency sought ways to bring the costs back down. The newest figures reported Thursday by Kelly, and which will be included in the March 1 project update report to legislators, offer a base estimate of $106.1 billion, but with a possible range from as low as about $88.5 billion to a high of almost $128 billion. The variability reflects ongoing uncertainty over the cost of key construction features including tunnels through the mountains between the San Joaquin Valley and Gilroy/San Jose and through the San Gabriel Mountains between Palmdale and Burbank. TAKING LONGER TO BUILD Also uncertain is whether the state will be successful in its applications for what will likely be billions of dollars from the Biden administration under the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law — and what that will mean to the construction schedule. Slippage in the construction schedule has been a chronic concern for the rail authority because much of the money awarded to California by the federal government in 2010 and 2011 came with a requirement that the money be spent by the end of 2017. That deadline compelled the agency to rush forward with construction contracts in the San Joaquin Valley before it had acquired the vast majority of the property needed to build the route. It’s a mistake that the agency is vowing to avoid repeating on its extensions to Merced, Bakersfield and in other parts of the state. “Because construction is out of sequence, the construction delays are on us, and we’ve paid a price for that,” Kelly told the board. “We have a schedule envelope of between 2030 and 2033 for operations to begin,” he said. “The biggest risk is the availability of funding … as we make the schedule going forward.” “To be clear, all of the work outside of the 119 miles (from Madera to Shafter) will require federal help,” Kelly added. Without additional funds from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, it would not be possible for the state to shoulder the entire cost of building the extensions into Merced and Bakersfield. The 119 miles now under construction could function as a test track for trains once tracks and systems are built, and the state does have the money it needs to accomplish that. But operations will require the route to be able to serve functional stations in Merced, Fresno, Hanford and Bakersfield. “We will not have to wait a long time to know if we have a full federal partnership,” Kelly said to the board members. The rail authority has applications to the Federal Railroad Administration for $300 million for grade separations in the Shafter area, and Kelly said applications are due in April for the Federal-State Partnership for Intercity Passenger Rail — a five-year program that includes a first-year pot of about $4.5 billion. The U.S. Department of Transportation turned down an application last year from the rail authority seeking $1.2 billion from a much broader program from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The Federal-State Partnership program is more directly aimed at passenger rail. Over the next few years, the rail authority will apply for federal grants to achieve a slew of goals: Building two sets of tracks on the 119-mile Madera-Shafter stretch instead of just one. Purchasing property for the railroad right of way and completing advanced construction design for the extensions to Merced and Bakersfield. Performing the actual construction into downtown Merced and Bakersfield. Buying trainsets for testing and eventual passenger service on the Merced-Bakersfield line. “From a management perspective I’m still eyeing 2030. But I’ve got to get funding,” Kelly told The Bee. “And that’s a big risk. Because it’s not just funding; it’s also the timing of the funding because there are contracts that we’ve got to let to meet those deadlines. I’ve got to know I’ve got the money.”

Click here to read the full article in the Fresno Bee

Red Herring Alert: Comparing California and Japan High Speed Rail Falls on its Face

Japan’s high speed rail system, first begun in 1964, actually makes a lot of money

Well, it’s big in Japan.

That is what proponents of California’s high speed rail project say when asked about the whys and wherefores of the system. In other words, if it works somewhere else it will work here.

That argument, though, falls in the face of a rather basic fact: California and Japan are different.

It is true that Japan’s high speed rail system, first begun in 1964, actually makes money – a lot, in fact. The iconic first line, Shinkansen Tokaido, alone carries 90 million people a year and has an operating profit of about $4.4 billion dollars.  That does not include capital costs, but teasing that number out after 60 years of operation and the privatization of the route in the late 1980s is extremely difficult – suffice to say the deal has “worked” for the owners.

There are multiple other Shinkansen lines in Japan, most of which also realize an operating profit (the latest expansion to Hokkaido – the very large island north of the Japanese mainland – has proven to be problematic, tough.)

Focusing on the Tokaido line – the line typically referred to for comparison – shows a few similarities but many glaring differences. It’s distance is 320 miles, not terribly different from the 390 miles from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Also, it takes two and half hours – again not too dissimilar – and, in a downtown to downtown comparison, is faster and more convenient than flying (though not cheaper – it’s about $100 to fly and about $160 to take the Shinkansen) just like California’s project is supposed to be.

But that’s about it.

First, there is the issue of population. The Tokaido line (with its “Nozomi” train only stopping in the largest cities and hence the fastest) runs from Tokyo to Osaka, which alone have combined populations of 17 million, compared to 11 million for LA (including the county) and San Francisco.  

In the cities along the Tokaido route there are 9 million more people; in the space between LA and SF, there are less than 3 million. For comparison, the smallest city on the Tokaido is Shinagawa at 400,000 people; the smallest city on the California system is Gilroy, at 58,000. 

All told, the average “stop population” between Los Angeles and San Francisco is about 250,000 – on the Tokaido/Nozomi it is 2,250,000.

It is these concentrations and the economies of scale they allow that drive the success of the Tokaido line – California’s system is simply not in the same league.

The Nozomi train operates 32 1,300-seat trains each way every day; pretty much on the half-hour with fewer overnight, while the two other slower (but still high speed) trains on the same system operate much more frequently and make many more stops. 

Note on the following information– when dealing with California High Speed Rail (CHSR) Authority numbers – time or money – it is a good idea to remind oneself that they have never been right before, so really really big grain – meet salt.

The CHSR system will – in its “horizon year” of 2040, operate 105 southbound and 103 northbound trains per day over the system.  Southbound, 64 trains will start in San Francisco, 20 in San Jose, and 21 in Merced.  Northbound, 42 trains will start in Anaheim, 44 in Los Angeles, and 17 will start in Merced (note – that means 86 trains will pass through LA northbound every day.)

The system will operate 18 hours per day, with six hours designated “peak;” about half of the trains will operate during those six hours, the other half during the 12 “off peak” hours.

That means LA’s Union Station will – during the morning commute – see a train going north about every eight minutes, every day.

At 1,200 (could be a bit lower, could be a bit higher as the final design is not yet set) seats per train, about 10,000 people could leave LA between 7 and 8 a.m.  For the system to hit its ridership (and therefore revenue) goals, about 5,000 have to.

Six trains will run non-stop from LA to SF and 10 will run with only stops at San Jose and Burbank – the non-stops are expected to meet the 2 hour and 40 minute time limit set by original bond; the other trains will not.

Like the Tokaido, California’s system will charge different fares for different distances traveled … sort of.

The 2020 ridership estimate report shows a ticket price (one way) of $100 from San Francisco to Bakersfield. The cost to travel to LA or even Anaheim? Also $100. It appears planners simply worked – in accordance with the original bond measure – backwards from a typical Southwest fare to set the cap.

For those traveling to/from smaller cities, the fares are obviously less. For example, San Francisco to San Jose is $26, San Francisco to Merced is $66, Los Angeles to Anaheim is $34, etc..  

While the high-speed rail has been touted as a way to make lower cost Central Valley housing more accessible, the fare rates could significantly impact that desire as it would cost about $30,000 a year to commute from Merced into the city (admittedly, it can most likely be assumed there will be some sort of farepass/frequent user program will cut that price.)

But at numbers in the thousands per month, the incentive to move out of more expensive cities becomes far less – why spend the money on train fare rather than on a more expensive, more central home if it’s going to be a wash, unless you were going to move anyway to raise a family and mow the lawn?

As to overall finances, the most the CHSR says the LA to SF system will cost is $113 billion and it will be done in 2033, four years after the Central Valley “starter kit” is done.

Exactly where the money will come from remains a bit of a puzzle, but the CHSR is hoping the Cap and Trade money it gets will be extended to 2050 (an extra $10-20 billion,) that they will find more federal funds including non-transportation grants for things such as renewable energy and “social equity.”

As to a private investor, the CHSR admits they are not quite ready for that but that once the system is running and turning an operational profit businesses will come knocking to invest.

Speaking of operational profit, the CHSR projects there is a “99.4%” likelihood it make an operational profit by 2040. It should be noted “operational profit” is just that – how much more money you bring in than you have to spend every day and is not related to the capital cost.

If – IF – the system makes the $1.4 billion it expects to in 2040, that would give it a return on capital investment of 1.4% percent.  That’s not terribly good and may make private companies think again and again and again about investing.  

In other words, if (not accounting for inflation) the CHSR simply saved its money to build the rest of the system – the San Diego, Sacramento extensions – it would take about 40 years of “profit” to cover the cost.

And those revenues figures are based on having about 1 million riders a week, about 140,000 a day, about 6,000 an hour, 100 a minute. 

Click here to read the full article in the California Globe

Derailing the Bullet Train

A decade ago, shortly after California voters narrowly approved a $9.95 billion bond issue to finance a statewide bullet train system, an official involved in early planning for the project confided a dirty little secret.

While a 200-mile-per-hour bullet train was the sizzle sold to voters, he told me, the unspoken motive was getting more money to expand commuter transit services in the San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California without having to directly ask voters.

The bond issue set aside $950 million for such auxiliary transit systems on the theory that they would feed passengers into a bullet train system.

By and by, as construction of the initial bullet train segment in the San Joaquin Valley stalled due to mismanagement, cost overruns and stiff local opposition, advocates of the regional urban transit projects began to chip off pieces of the other $9 billion in bonds that voters had approved.

The most aggressive raids were led by sponsors of upgrading the Caltrain service between San Francisco and San Jose from diesel-powered trains to electrification – especially after bullet train officials stopped trying to build a separate line down the San Francisco Peninsula due to adamant local opposition and agreed to “blend” with Caltrain.

An amendment to the 2012 state budget allowed bond money to be used for “bookend” projects, meaning Caltrain and Southern California’s Metrolink service, and a 2016 bill, patched together in the final days of that year’s legislative session, legitimized the raid on bullet train funds even further.

Now, as the bullet train project gasps for air, more diversions of voter-approved bullet train bonds may be in the offing.

Gov. Gavin Newsom says he wants to concentrate on finishing the San Joaquin Valley segment, with extensions to Bakersfield and Merced, which would cost about $20 billion, and then connect it to the Bay Area via conventional rail service. A train that now runs between San Jose and Stockton, known as the Altamont Express, would be extended to Merced.

However, the Los Angeles Times reported last week, “Key California lawmakers have devised a plan to shift billions of dollars from the Central Valley bullet train to rail projects in Southern California and the Bay Area, a strategy that could crush the dreams of high-speed rail purists.

“Assembly Democrats see greater public value in improving passenger rail from Burbank to Anaheim, relieving congestion on the busy Interstate 5 corridor before the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and putting additional money into San Francisco commuter rail.”

Improving transit in the state’s most congested urban areas, advocates of the new scheme contend, is more important than the patched-together system that Newsom has proposed.

“I like the concept,” Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon told The Times. “Any project that doesn’t have a significant amount of service to the largest areas in the state doesn’t make much sense.”

It’s difficult to argue with that logic, especially since the bullet train project has utterly failed to attract the many tens of billions of dollars needed to become a reality.

Were the new legislative proposal to prevail, one presumes that the current construction, running from Chowchilla to an orchard near Shafter, would be completed and used for regular-speed Amtrak service. But it would leave Fresno and other San Joaquin Valley cities without the high-speed service they had once been promised.

The plan now gaining traction in the Legislature would acknowledge reality and could hasten an end for the ill-conceived, mismanaged bullet train, even Newsom’s much-abbreviated version.

It’s about time.

This article was originally published by CalMatters.org

Feds Unexpectedly Give California Bullet Train a Helping Hand

Three months after canceling a $929 million federal grant to the troubled California bullet train project, the Trump administration has unexpectedly given its go-ahead to the state to approve environmental documents that are needed to complete planning for the long-delayed project.

In May, after the funding was canceled, the relationship between the federal and state government seemed so bumpy that bullet train officials worried that Washington would try to sabotage the project by delaying approval of necessary paperwork. Instead, on Monday, the Federal Railroad Administration fulfilled a long-standing state request and moved environmental reviews of pending plans for the project’s full Los Angeles to San Francisco route from the federal to the state level. According to the Los Angeles Times, previously the agency had only approved segments from Bakersfield to Fresno and from Fresno to Merced.

“This action is an important milestone for the high-speed program,” said Brian Kelly, chief executive of the California High-Speed Rail Authority. “We’ve lost valuable time waiting with the FRA’s disengagement, so I am very thankful for this action and I am hopeful this step is the beginning of a more collaborative and cooperative relationship prospectively.”

But while state officials were relieved by the federal decision, funding obstacles still remain. The state only has about one-quarter of the $80 billion-plus it would take to link Los Angeles and San Francisco – and that’s for a plan that doesn’t use high-speed rail for segments from San Francisco to San Jose or from Los Angeles to its northern exurbs. This downscaling has led some longtime backers of the project, such as former state Sen. Quentin Kopp, to renounce it as a betrayal of promises made to state voters in 2008 when they approved $9.95 billion in bond seed money for what was then envisioned as a $43 billion statewide train system.

The lack of funding was behind Gov. Gavin Newsom’s February decision to pull back from predecessor Jerry Brown’s commitment to building a statewide system. Instead, Newsom said all $20.5 billion in available funding should be used to build a high-speed route between Bakersfield and Merced in the Central Valley. 

Speaker wants changes to Newsom’s focus on Central Valley

But it now appears that even that scaled-back plan will face opposition from some key Democrats in the Legislature. On Thuesday, the Times reported that Democratic Assembly members from the Los Angeles and Bay areas – including Speaker Anthony Rendon – have for weeks discussed shifting the state’s rail focus. They hope to take up to $6 billion that Newsom wants to use in the Central Valley to improve rail service from Pasadena to Anaheim and commuter rail in and out of San Francisco. They believe a shorter, scaled-down version of the Central Valley route is viable with funding in the $14 billion range.

“I like the concept,” Rendon told the Times. “Any project that doesn’t have a significant amount of service to the largest areas in the state doesn’t make much sense.”

The prospect of taking state bullet train money for the Los Angeles area was first raised publicly in April by several members of board of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Any reduction in the scope of the Central Valley route proposed by Newsom is likely to face bitter opposition from the area’s politicians, who see the bullet train as crucial to improving the economy in one of the state’s poorest regions. They were enthusiastic about Newsom’s comments during last year’s campaign that a bullet train would be ideal to connect Silicon Valley workers with relatively inexpensive housing in the Central Valley.

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Two new headaches for beleaguered bullet train project

The California High-Speed Rail Authority – the agency in charge of building the state’s bullet train system – has already faced a tough year, with Gov. Gavin Newsom signaling in February that he’s not confident the full system can ever be built. But now the rail authority has two new public relations headaches on its hands.

In the Central Valley, farmers were already upset over state use of eminent domain to seize their property for construction of the project’s first segment – a 110-mile route from Bakersfield to Merced projected to cost $12.2 billion. But a recent report in the Los Angeles Times documented how slow the rail authority was in paying for seized land and in refunding farmers for the cost of the train project’s effects on their businesses.

The Times’ story focused on a kiwi farmer who lost 70 acres of land to the project more than a year ago and who since has gone unpaid for $250,000 incurred in “relocating wells, removing trees, building a road and other expenses.” It also noted farmers who had been owed $1.9 million and $630,000 for three years, and two others owed $500,000 and $150,000, though for shorter periods of time.

State officials questioned by the Times had no explanation for the delays beyond saying the project was complex in its legal and engineering challenges.

A follow-up story by Fox News emphasized why the delayed payments are particularly upsetting to many Central Valley residents. Not only is there a chance the initial segment between Bakersfield and Merced will never be completed because the state doesn’t have enough funds, there is a good chance that even if the segment is finished, some of the property that has been seized won’t be used for the project. That’s because even now – more than five years after the administration of Gov. Jerry Brown decided to start the bullet train’s construction in the Central Valley – authority officials still haven’t agreed on the exact details of the final route.

“The property owners are very frustrated that the High-Speed Rail Authority [doesn’t] seem to know what they actually need,” Sacramento attorney Mark Wasser said. “We have farmers who the authority has come back four times to change where they want to take.” Wasser has more than 70 clients affected by the rail authority’s Central Valley project.

Audit warnings validated by ethics probe

Meanwhile, state audits which have long warned that it is problematic for the rail authority to rely so heavily on outside consultants have been vindicated with what appears to be evidence of a conflict-of-interest scandal.

Recently, the authority’s deputy chief operating officer – Roy Hill – was suspended pending an investigation by the state Fair Political Practices Commission. Hill is a top executive with the WSP consulting firm employed by the authority. Evidence suggests that Hill approved a $51 million increase in a bullet-train contract held by the Spanish firm Dragados despite his apparent ownership of more than $100,000 in stock in Jacobs Engineering, a multibillion-dollar multinational corporation that is providing key services to Dragados on the California project.

The FPPC approved the request of Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, to investigate Hill, his actions and his personal economic interests.

“This is such a deep conflict that it calls into question whether the entire High-Speed Rail Authority and the contractors they have put together are involved in a massive corruption,” Patterson told Fresno TV station KMJ.

The rail authority says it will cooperate with the FPPC probe.

Hill has not yet commented publicly on the matter.

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

President Trump Doing California a Bullet Train Favor

At last count, California’s Democratic political leadership had filed four dozen lawsuits against President Donald Trump’s administration, reflecting differences on policies large and small.

For the most part, California’s legal allegations have been on target. However, Trump is on solid legal and logical ground in the latest conflict over the state’s disastrous foray into high-speed rail transportation.

Nine years ago, the Obama administration gave the state a $3.5 billion grant to finance a big share of the initial bullet train segment, more than 100 miles of track from a point north of Fresno to the outskirts of Bakersfield.

The federal money was to be matched by state funds from a $9.95 billion bond issue passed by California voters in 2008 and the San Joaquin Valley stretch was to be completed by 2017. Later, before Trump became president, the feds gave California an extension to 2022, but only tiny portions have been built.

Late last year, the state’s auditor, Elaine Howle, told the Legislature that meeting the 2022 deadline would be nearly impossible, citing the High-Speed Rail Authority’s “flawed decision making regarding the start of high-speed rail system construction in the Central Valley and its ongoing poor contract management for a wide range of high-value contracts.” Howle said the problems “have contributed to billions of dollars in cost overruns for completing the system.”

A couple of months later, Gavin Newsom succeeded bullet-train booster Jerry Brown as governor and told the Legislature in his first State of the State address, “Let’s be real. The project as currently planned would cost too much and take too long. There’s been too little oversight and not enough transparency. Right now, there simply isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego, let alone from San Francisco to L.A.”

He said he would concentrate on finishing the San Joaquin Valley segment and extending it on both ends to piece together a three-system pathway for traveling between San Francisco and Bakersfield.

After Newsom’s address, President Donald Trump declared on Twitter: “California has been forced to cancel the massive bullet train project after having spent and wasted many billions of dollars. They owe the federal government three and a half billion dollars. We want that money back now. Whole project is a ‘green’ disaster!”

Last week, the Federal Railroad Administration, in a 25-page letter, formally rescinded about $1 billion dollars not yet given to California and hinted again that it would claw back the other $2.5 billion.

“It is now clear that California has no foreseeable plans, nor the capability, to pursue that statewide High-Speed Rail System as originally proposed,” wrote Ronald Batory, the federal railroad administrator, adding that the state “is chronically behind in project construction activities and has not been able to correct or mitigate its deficiencies.”

“The Trump administration is trying to exact political retribution on our state,” Newsom responded in a statement. “This is California’s money, appropriated by Congress, and we will vigorously defend it in court.”

That’s not really true. The money was part of an overall appropriation by Congress for rail projects and California was given a piece of it by the Obama administration under a contract.

It has not met its contractual obligations and cannot, as Howle said late last year, meet the 2022 deadline due to poor management during Jerry Brown’s administration.

The bullet train utterly lacks a rational purpose, has been ill-managed from the onset and is a black financial hole. If the Trumpies strangle it, they would be doing California a big favor.

This article was originally published by CalMatters

High-Speed Rail Construction Continues as California Sues Trump

California’s high-speed rail agency remains determined to complete about 119 miles of bullet-train construction in the central San Joaquin Valley, even as a confrontation with the Trump administration over promised federal funds escalates into a lawsuit.

“We are looking for a ramp-up in activity for construction,” said Tom Richards, vice chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, adding that he expects the pace of work to accelerate this summer. Richards, a Fresno businessman, said Tuesday at the agency board’s meeting in Sacramento that the state remains mindful of “the requirement to abide by all of the commitments we have” under a pair of federal grant agreements dating to 2010 and 2011 for about $3.5 billion to support engineering and construction in the Valley.

Tuesday’s board meeting came on the heels of California filing suit challenging the Federal Railroad Administration’s termination of the grant agreements. …

Click here to read the full article from the Fresno Bee

L.A. Politicians Want to Spend Bullet Train Funds

In a sign of frustration over the state’s transportation priorities, several board members with the high-profile Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority have made the argument that it makes far more sense to use money that Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to spend on a bullet train route in the Central Valley on Los Angeles-area projects instead.

Newsom made international headlines in February when he pulled backfrom predecessors Jerry Brown’s and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s commitment to have the California High-Speed Rail Agency build a statewide high-speed rail network. Instead of continuing to try to secure all the funds needed for the $77 billion project, Newsom said the state should focus on completing a 110-mile segment from Merced to Bakersfield that is expected to cost $12.2 billion.

Five L.A. Metro board members – Hilda Solis and Kathryn Barger, both Los Angeles County supervisors, Inglewood Mayor James Butts, Los Angeles Councilman Paul Krekorian and Glendale Mayor Ara Najarian – think that’s a bad idea.

At a recent Metro board committee meeting, Solis said that “many, many projects” in the Los Angeles region would be more helpful in meeting state transportation goals.

In a motion they crafted for the Metro board’s consideration, they wrote that the Central Valley segment “has little value for public transportation and limited greenhouse gas reductions. Regional rail transit improvements in the Los Angeles region would be more cost effective with more substantial mobility benefits.”

The Curbed Los Angeles website reported that the five decided not to ask the full Metro board to endorse the motion, evidently after being reassured that the state would help fund some of the local projects that Solis had praised. But the sharp criticism from five board members of Metro – one of the nation’s largest transportation agencies, serving 10 million people in a 1,400-square-mile region – is a powerful reminder that even with Newsom’s scaled-back version, the state’s bullet-train project faces considerable skepticism.

Cost, viability of Central Valley segment questioned

The Central Valley route faces two of the same key criticisms that the statewide project did under Brown.

Its initial cost estimate of $6 billion has more than doubled, just as the statewide plan’s cost soared from $34 billion to $77 billion.

Under Proposition 1A, the 2008 ballot measure providing $9.95 billion in bond funding for the project, every segment is supposed to generate enough revenue to be self-supporting, with taxpayer subsidies banned. But assumptions that linking Merced, population 83,000, with Bakersfield, population 380,000, will lead to ridership that is heavy enough to cover the cost of bullet-train operations is tough to square with the fact that presently, there are only six conventional train trips daily between the cities with an average ticket price of $27.

Questionable assumptions about ridership have been common from the state rail authority. For example, in 2015, the Los Angeles Times reported that the authority projected annual ridership of up to 31 million passengers after the Los Angeles-San Francisco route was complete. That’s about the same number of annual riders as Amtrak, which operates in 46 states.

On Wednesday, the rail authority is expected to release more detailed plans from the Newsom administration for the Merced-Bakersfield segment.

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Central Valley Angered by Newsom’s Bullet-Train Plans

High speed rail constructionGov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement in his State of the State speech in February that he didn’t believe California had the resources to complete its $77 billion statewide bullet-train project produced a backlash that Newsom didn’t seem to expect. Within hours after the speech, his aides said the media was inaccurately reporting that Newsom’s only commitment was to build a $12.2 billion, 119-mile high-speed link between Merced and Bakersfield in the Central Valley and nothing more. They said he remained a supporter of the full project.

But nearly two months later, the initial reaction to Newsom’s speech remains the enduring takeaway for most Capitol watchers: He’s off the bullet train bandwagon. Building unions and green lawmakers who believe in the statewide project’s potential to help in the fight against climate change remain among the most upset.

Yet easily the most intense reaction is in the area where Newsom still wants the project to proceed: the Central Valley.

Coverage from The Bakersfield Californian, the Los Angeles Times and small newspapers in the region reflect anger over how the valley has been treated. Valuable farmland and family homes have been acquired with eminent domain for a project that no longer will link the area with the rest of the state – despite promises from Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown.

‘My mouth was just open with shock’

“I don’t want to talk political because I don’t do it very well,” Fairmead resident Vickie Ortiz told the Times. “But you know, you had a governor that was pushing-pushing-pushing for the high-speed train, and we started getting used to the idea that we can’t stop a train but maybe we can use it to help the community. But then you get another governor and he says: ‘No, I don’t want to do that any more.’ My mouth was just open with shock.”

In the Antelope Valley Press, retiree Bill Deaver, a former official in the Federal Railroad Administration, blasted the “politics and ignorance” of project critics who he blamed for Newsom’s decision.

“Politicians used [high-speed rail] to score political points rather than supporting something that will be able to handle huge increases in traffic projected in coming years. That sort of behavior is one of the biggest barriers to progress.”

Newsom’s decision didn’t surprise some in the Central Valley who never believed a statewide bullet train would get built. “People lost their homes and businesses. And for what?” Visalia farmer Randy Van Eyk told the Times.

Some see commitment to help region

But other remarks the governor made about the Central Valley have resonated more positively – and created an expectation that he will do more than past governors to help the region.

“The people of the Central Valley endure the worst air pollution in America as well as some of the longest commutes. And they have suffered too many years of neglect from policymakers here in Sacramento. They deserve better,” Newsom said in the same speech in which he outlined his views on the bullet-train project’s future.

Bakersfield Californian columnist Robert Price said if Newsom was serious, he should help Kern County diversify its economy away from “two industries under assault in the Central Valley: agriculture and, especially, oil and gas.”

Anna Smith, another columnist for the Californian, also said Newsom should promote economic diversification. But she also called on him to address the Central Valley’s social ills, including “high rates of illiteracy and obesity, lack of access to quality education and health care (especially in rural communities), water contamination and extreme poverty.”

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com