CA: High-Speed Rail Board's New Attitude

Nov. 10, 2011
When the California High-Speed Rail Authority released the long-awaited revision of its business plan, officials heralded the report as "a new beginning" for efforts to build the nation's first railroad with trains running at speeds up to 220 mph.

When the California High-Speed Rail Authority released the long-awaited revision of its business plan, officials heralded the report as "a new beginning" for efforts to build the nation's first railroad with trains running at speeds up to 220 mph.

The report takes a blunt new approach to the project, hoping to convey a new open and honest attitude to combat the spreading impression of the authority as an arrogant, inflexible agency that can't be trusted.

The shift reflects both a new attitude toward dealing with the public and design, acknowledging that sharing operations with commuter rail operations on the Peninsula and in Southern California will help get a fast rail connection between the state's two largest regions completed more quickly, less expensively and with less community opposition.

The new attitude, and approach, was spurred by a makeover in the nine-member High-Speed Rail Authority board, which gained four new members in the past year - two appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown and two by state Sen. President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.

"This is not a small change in a relatively short period of time," said state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, who has been critical of the rail authority's approach to the project. "This is a major change in perspective."

$98.1 billionBut the new perspective comes with a $98.1 billion price tag - more than twice the earlier official estimates - along with lower ridership figures and an extra nine years to build the Bay Area-Los Angeles segment in phases.

The new approach appears to have calmed some of the criticism of the 800-mile high-speed rail project, but the higher price has given ammunition to opponents who had already labeled the project a boondoggle. At least one rail foe, state Sen. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale Butte County, wants to put the project back on the ballot for a public vote on whether to proceed. California voters backed the project in November 2008 with 52.7 percent supporting a $10 billion bond measure for a project then estimated to cost $43 billion.

The authority plans to start construction of the first segment of high-speed train tracks - a 130-mile stretch from the northern edge of Bakersfield to near Chowchilla - in about a year, with $3.3 billion in federal stimulus funds and $2.7 billion in state bond money. But the Legislature must approve the release of the state funds, and include the money in the state budget, before ground can be broken.

Which means the authority needs the support of the Legislature, and the public, if California is to start building the nation's first high-speed rail system.

"This is a watershed moment," Simitian said.

A different approachGov. Jerry Brown did not respond to questions about the change in the authority board, but it's widely acknowledged that his appointment of two financial experts, Dan Richard, a former BART director and Pacific Gas and Electric executive, and Michael Rossi, a former financial industry executive and the governor's jobs czar, was intended to steer the authority in a more forthright direction. Senate appointees Jim Hartnett, an attorney and former Redwood City mayor, and Bob Balgenorth, president of the state Building and Construction Trades Council, also helped move the board, and the business plan, in a new direction, board members and legislators say.

"The governor said he'd like to see everybody get their act together," Richard said.

'Rightful distrust'The authority, under the previous board, gained a reputation for pushing forward with its plans without listening to communities along its intended right of way. That feeling was particularly strong on the Peninsula, where engineers insisted on elevated tracks and a wide four-track right of way that residents felt would divide communities.

"There was a fair amount of rightful distrust of the rail authority's work," Hartnett said.

The new directors have used the business plan, which was released last week, to mend the agency's reputation and push the project forward.

Richard focused on the financial assumptions of the business plan, he said, while Rossi delved into the ridership estimates. Hartnett worked on the "blended approach," which relies on incorporating Caltrain on the Peninsula and Metrolink in Southern California.

Under the phased construction plan, the San Joaquin Valley segment would next be extended either to San Jose or to the San Fernando Valley, and high-speed trains would start to run while the other end of the line is constructed. Until the commuter lines can be electrified, and rails improved to accommodate high-speed trains, passengers would have to transfer to diesel trains to get to downtown San Francisco or Los Angeles.

Trying to 'get it right'Financially, Ross said, the plan relies on high estimates for construction costs, low estimates for revenue and ridership, and assumes that construction will take longer than originally anticipated.

"The plan," Richard said, "is a major departure from the thinking of the past. It is not a promotional plan; it is a business plan."

Hartnett said the plan "has to be solid enough" to restore the confidence of critics.

"We don't get another chance at this," he said. "We've got to get this right."

Questions remainBut critics haven't been silenced.

"The business plan is the first step in the right direction," said state Sen. Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield. "While many in the valley would like to see additional transportation infrastructure, it's questionable if this project is viable when you weigh the cost and impact to local communities."

Others, however, are more skeptical.

Elizabeth Alexis, co-founder of Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design , a Peninsula group that has been critical of the authority, said that she's met with Rossi and Richard, but that the ridership model remains seriously flawed, and so does the authority's relationship with the public.

"The new board members would like to erase what's happened," she said, "but you can't. There's a lot of water under the bridge."

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