Preview of upcoming California High Speed Rail Authority board meeting

The California High Speed Rail Authority Board is expected this week to select which corridor will be the first to be constructed. The staff recommendation is for a 65 mile route between a place called Borden located just north of Fresno and Corcoran, a small town on the way to Bakersfield.

Things to note about the recommendation:

1) The price tag of $4.15 billion is up almost $1 billion from August.

2) A lot of the cost is to beef up the extensive viaduct structures to withstand the weight of the heavy locomotives currently used by the San Joaquin Amtrak service. This will cost several hundred million dollars and result in bulky structures bisecting Fresno and other communities. These expensive modifications are for “Plan B”, a loosely defined idea to use the tracks for Amtrak service, if this high speed rail construction is the only high speed rail construction. This seems contrary to the whole purpose of true high speed rail, which features very light weight trains and lower cost construction. It is worth noting that adding heavy rail to the Bay Bridge replacement was rejected because of the incremental cost. In that case, the rail infrastructure would have been definitely used and had high value.  Please see our brief report for more information, as well as a packet of the source documents we used.

3) The extra costs have escalated the price tag for current plans well above the current $43 billion estimate. How high exactly we don’t know. CEO Roelof van Ark is adamant that he will deliver the project for $43 billion and we get some hint as to the “value engineering” required to keep the overall cost down.   First, we see that the station in Fresno will be “bare bones” and only have two tracks through the station. Second, the criteria for selecting a segment included not building anything “north of the wye”.  The wye is the turnoff to the Bay Area. Building north of there never made any sense, given the route selected to get from the Central Valley to San Jose.

In both cases, there is little to no reason to go back and do either project until you have trains running on a very frequent basis between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

4) Supporters of a station and heavy maintenance facility in Merced, the only proposed station “north of the wye”, will no doubt be out in force. It is likely that the tracks to Merced will not be built until service is extended towards Sacramento as part of Phase 2 of the project. They are able to read the writing on the wall and are up in arms, feeling like they have nothing to show for their unwavering support for the project.

In addition, the environmental review work is being done in such a way that the route will need to be cleared all the way to Merced by this September.  Merced could be sitting in limbo for a decade or more, with approved plans but no building taking place.

5) The Authority’s plans are carefully constructed to meet the Federal government’s requirements for “independent utility”. The state bond money, which has been promised as a match for federal grants, has it own, different strings attached. The high speed rail legislation includes serious safeguards to make sure that state money only pays for  tracks that lead to self-supporting high speed rail service. The only way in which the current approach meets these criteria is under a very liberal definition of a “funding plan”. To actually run trains, you will need electrification, high speed rail system elements and a maintenance facility, none of which are included in the current proposal.  The Authority’s stance, laid out at the last board meeting, is that they just need to have a vision for where the additional money to pay for these items will come from, akin to the current funding plans in the business plans. The legislation has a lot of hoops in it, including certification by the board that the plan is achievable. The question of whether the legislative requirements are just hoops to jump through or potential stumbling blocks is an important one  and should be resolved sooner rather than later.

6) It is worthwhile noting that the corridor selection decision is the only substantive item up for discussion at the board meeting. In addition, there are no committee meetings. In fact, no committee meetings have been held since September. We are concerned about the way in which the board’s oversight and public’s involvement has narrowed over the last couple of months.

7) Finally, it will be interesting to see which board members show up for the meeting. Richard Katz won’t be there. He did the right thing and resolved the conflict of interest over his various public offices by resigning from the board. Curt Pringle is alone in the hot seat, trying to hold onto his spot until the issue becomes moot when his term as Anaheim mayor ends next month.

Board meeting Agenda – http://stateofcalifornia.granicus.com/AgendaViewer.php?view_id=4&event_id=31
Documents for the board meeting – http://www.cahighspeedrail.ca.gov/2010_December.aspx