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Posts Tagged ‘high speed rail’

There were two articles in Citywatch recently about the candidacy of Janice Kamenir-Reznik, who seeks the open seat to be vacated by termed-out Fran Pavley in Senate District 27.

There are five candidates, including Republican Steve Fazio, who stands an almost certain chance to make it to the general election. The district is moderately competitive owing to enough Republican or decline-to-state registration to rule out a walkover by a Democrat.

But Reznik faces a formidable opponent in Democrat Henry Stern.
The fact that it is an open seat makes it potentially even more competitive.

Stern is a senior advisor to Pavley. In that role, he undoubtedly has absorbed much about the workings of the district and the issues affecting the state.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was approached by a mutual acquaintance to chat with him. Even though I do not have a vested interest in the district, the potential for a competitive race got my attention. Not to mention that there are state issues in play affecting all of us.

It is likely that this will be one race I will follow besides what will be a marquee event in AD39 between Patty Lopez and Raul Bocanegra, who was taken down by Lopez in what had to be the biggest upset in modern times in California.

Stern and I sat down over coffee the other day and covered a range of subjects. It was not a Q&A; more of a discussion. And it was more process-oriented, framed by some key issues concerning both the state and local levels.

I will start by saying he impressed me by his focus on how things should get done. If you involve the public at the grassroots and level with them, there is a greater likelihood of turning out sensible legislation.

For example, he faulted the lack of transparency by the framers of Prop 47 (which allowed early prison releases)for not providing details as to when structural savings from a smaller prison population would kick in, and not dealing with funding resources localities would need to deal with the influx of former inmates. For that matter, he stated that poorly-crafted propositions were all too common.

Prop 1A, which authorized the sale of $9.5B in bonds to fund the start-up of high-speed rail, was another case where a half-baked plan was sold to the public. His boss, Fran Pavley, opposed the initial funding for constructing the controversial system in the Central Valley.

Stern and I agreed that there was nothing wrong with the concept of HSR, but the plan was unrealistic and the assumptions unsubstantiated, plus there are far more important priorities facing the state ranging from education, infrastructure and water, to the problems of homelessness. Cap-and-trade funds could be applied to considerably more effective environmental improvements (if indeed the train would even produce a measurable net effect on the clean air in our lifetimes, a criticism often cited by opponents).

On a local level, he claimed to be very supportive of Neighborhood Councils and strongly urged making the voices of residents a priority when it comes to determining development. Stern said that was a key difference he has with Resnik. He also did not support the density bonuses allowed under SB1818 due to the unintended consequences of of the bill’s implementation.

He was strongly concerned over how CEQA has been subverted in the interest of development.

Stern expressed his dismay as to how Porter Ranch was ever approved for development given the adjacent gas field. He supports a fee to be paid by Sempra- one that cannot be passed on to customers – to cover the damages suffered by the residents. He did acknowledge it would take oversight to assure the cost would be fully absorbed by the gas company.

As I mentioned earlier, this will be a race to watch in both the primary and general.

I will cover it in greater depth.

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California has got its own version of a Runaway Train, a 1985 Oscar-nominated movie about escaped convicts who steal a train. It does not end well, as the out-of-control consist hurdles towards a violent end, with the lives of the convicts and their hostages at stake.

The California High Speed Rail Commission is run by the equivalent of convicts who are taking the state’s taxpayers on a ride to a disaster of the financial kind.

Proposition 1A, passed in 2008 by a margin of 5 percentage points, stipulated the following:
the train system would have to be financially viable, enable trains to maintain headways of five minutes in each direction, operate without a subsidy, have all construction funds identified for an operating segment before breaking ground and travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco in two hours and 40 minutes.

It has failed on most of these requirements and the others are in doubt.

A blended system, that is HSR would have to share tracks with slower freight and current passenger service, would make it very difficult to reach the promised speeds, times and headways, not to mention that freight traffic is harder on the rails, which translates to higher maintenance. If you have ever ridden on shared tracks used by heavy freight, smooth is not the word to describe the ride; delays are a certainty.

Only half the construction costs for the proposed first segment from San Jose to the Central Valley are available. Funding is also challenged by the reliability of cap and trade funds, an important piece of the already anemic available capital.

Also in doubt is the avoidance of an operating subsidy from the government. Technically, that would be enough to kill the project as it would be in clear violation of the bond covenants. It was hinted by a peer review committee that the state might have to make financial guarantees to investors in order to entice them into buying bonds backed by revenue, but that would amount to a commitment to subsidize an operating deficit.

Although Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny dismissed a lawsuit aimed at stopping construction, the reason was because there are “too many unknown variables.” In other words, he is not convinced that the project is viable at this stage. His decision appears to err on the side of due process, giving CAHSR time to back up its optimism.

But time is running short for CAHSR to put its money where its mouth is. The lawsuits will continue, cost overruns will pile up and public pressure to kill the project will grow, especially in Southern California and the Central Valley.

If not stopped soon, the people of California will be left with only part of a system, serving only a minority of the population, at a cost much higher than promised for the entire system, as promised in Proposition 1A. According to CAHASR Chair Dan Richard,this is what passes as “delivering what the public voted for.”

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Last week’s tragedy along an at-grade crossing in Oxnard adds to the growing list of accidents involving trains and motor vehicles. Fortunately, no one was killed in this latest one, but there were severe injuries.

In almost all cases, these incidents are due to carelessness, recklessness or criminal acts. Given human nature, recurrences are inevitable. However, the possibilities can be greatly reduced with right-of-way improvements that eliminate at-grade crossings.

Some projects designed to do just that are underway, but they cover only a fraction of what needs to be done.

Funding is tight, which means the work will be piecemeal.

What is needed is a systemic approach that not only addresses safety concerns, but improves the efficiency, timeliness and comfort of commuter rail travel.

Measure R2, a half-cent sales tax increase is being planned for the November 2016 ballot. The measure would attempt to raise $90 billion over 45 years. At $2 billion per year, improvements will be slow in coming and, although increasing safety, may not have a perceptible impact on efficiency, timeliness and comfort. We will still be left with a mishmash system juggling passenger and freight service on shared tracks. Not a very attractive option for commuters.

While our local and regional transportation needs are being underfunded, California is doing everything possible to push ahead with High-Speed Rail.

Stop and think of the relative demands – ask yourself: how often do you commute locally versus travel to and from Southern California to the Bay Area? Over the course of the year, how long does you car idle on our clogged freeways and streets? Quite a bit more than the time you spend on the 5 or 99 traveling through the San Joaquin Valley.

Why are we throwing away $68 billion to supplement existing satisfactory alternatives for our infrequent north-south trips? By the way, commercial aircraft and cars have been becoming more efficient and safer. For example, since 2000, domestic airline fuel consumption has improved 40%. Within a decade, hybrid and electric vehicles will comprise a major share of the automobile market.

The State should stop HSR and cut off further funding. Instead, a bill should be introduced to fund rail improvements designed to create a well-integrated network of commuter trains and subways in all major metropolitan areas.

It’s about getting value for the money. $68 billion could create far greater benefits if applied to projects that move people through our major cities, rather than from L.A to San Francisco – or from Bakersfield to Madera. Less gasoline burned; less congestion.

HSR is political pork and payback for California’s oligarchs. It is a project straight from Vladimir Putin’s playbook.

We do not need Sochi on rails.

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