News

Rail Authority besieged by critical reports

State legislators give agency until February to resolve ridership, oversight issues

The California High-Speed Rail Authority has until February to resolve a litany of recently uncovered problems with the planned rail system or risk losing state funding for the project, state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, told the Weekly this week.

Simitian, who sits on both the Senate's Budget Committee and Transportation Policy Committee, is one of many local and state officials who have become increasingly frustrated with the voter-approved project in recent months as three independent reviews found a slew of problems in the proposed rail line, which would stretch from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

The latest of these reviews, issued last Friday by the Institute of Transportation Studies (ITS) at University of California, Berkeley, picked apart the model that the rail authority's consultant used to estimate how many people would use the new line. The ITS report concluded that these models have "large error bounds" and are "unreliable for policy analysis."

Simitian, a former Palo Alto mayor and Santa Clara County supervisor, said the ITS study is particularly troubling because it was issued on the heels of other critical reports about the rail project. Last year, the Legislative Analyst's Office called the rail authority's business plan incomplete and consideration of funding risks inadequate. And the State Auditor's report, issued in late April, summarized its findings in its title, "High-Speed Rail Authority: It Risks Delays or an Incomplete System Because of Inadequate Planning, Weak Oversight, and Lax Contract Management."

Simitian called the slate of problems identified in the recent reports "an unfortunate trend that needs to be turned around."

"This is just the latest in a series of observations from qualified, reputable third-party commentators who really don't have an ax to grind," Simitian said, referring to the ITS study.

Simitian said he believes the rail authority still has a chance to remedy the problems identified in the recent reports. The agency hired a new CEO, Roelof van Ark, in May, and legislators have decided to give the agency until Feb. 1 to present a list of reforms for dealing with the identified issues. If the agency fails to meet this target, state legislators could withhold some of the funding for the project, which has an estimated price tag of $43 billion.

"There's still time to get it right, but that time is slipping away quickly," Simitian said.

But even as critics pummel the rail authority's ridership model, the agency has indicated that it will stand behind its calculations. Both the authority and its transportation consultant, Cambridge Systematics, responded to the ITS report by highlighting the report's observation that Cambridge "followed generally accepted professional standards" in analyzing the ridership models. But they challenged the report's conclusion that the models are unreliable.

Lance Neumann, president of Cambridge Systematics, wrote a memo claiming that the ITS report is "deficient in significant, substantive ways."

"The ITS Draft Report focuses on academic viewpoints and ignores what it takes to create a model for real-world application," Neumann wrote.

Van Ark also wrote a letter to the ITS saying the authority believes Cambridge has "provided a direct and credible response to each technical point raised" in the report. Van Ark also took issue with the report's conclusion that the error bounds in the model "may be large enough to include the possibility that the California HSR may incur significant revenue shortfalls." He called this "an extraordinary statement for which we find no foundation in the Draft Report."

Meanwhile, local officials along the Peninsula are continuing to call for the rail authority to slow down and to focus less on meeting federal-grant deadlines and more on designing the best system for the state. Earlier this week, the Peninsula Cities Consortium, which includes Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton, Burlingame and Belmont, issued a statement asking the rail authority to "take a step back and resolve troublesome issues" before proceeding with the project.

The Consortium's chair, Menlo Park Mayor Richard Cline, said in the statement that "common sense is absent from the high-speed rail discussion" and criticized the "extremely rushed project schedule that is dictated solely by the desire for federal funds."

"The project is suffering from an enormous credibility problem, due to its widely criticized business plan, faulty ridership numbers and the absence of funding to carry out the project statewide -- let alone offer realistic alternatives for the section planned on the Peninsula," Cline said. "There also is no stated plan for paying to operate high-speed rail once it is built, and we fear local taxpayers may be left holding the bag."

Comments

Like this comment
Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Jul 10, 2010 at 1:28 pm


- - - -“Simitian said he believes the rail authority still has a chance to remedy the problems identified in the recent reports.

- - - -. . .legislators have decided to give the agency until Feb. 1 to present a list of reforms for dealing with the identified issues.

- - - - "There's still time to get it right, but that time is slipping away quickly," Simitian said.


- - - -local officials along the Peninsula are continuing to call for the rail authority to slow down and to focus less on meeting federal-grant deadlines and more on designing the best system for the state.

- - - -the Peninsula Cities Consortium, which includes Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton, Burlingame and Belmont, issued a statement asking the rail authority to "take a step back and resolve troublesome issues" before proceeding with the project.”

I’m sorry, but that’s not good enough. Wagging our scolding finger at them, yet one more time, and giving them until February is not good enough.

The CHSRA has had since before the ’08 elections to come clean and say something truthful. That hasn’t happened yet and IT’S NOT GOING TO HAPPEN! All of us in California are being jerked around by a group of back-room politicians who are in this for personal and political reasons.

Let’s be brutally frank and look at the bottom line. This will be a luxury train for the well to do and for professionals with expense accounts. That’s not what tax dollars ought to be for. We can’t afford this project that will cost way over $100 billion if it ever gets completed, which isn’t very likely. So long as it continues, this project will be a black hole, sucking tax dollars into the bank accounts of overseas consulting corporations like Parsons Brinkerhoff, or public relations firms like Ogilvy.

The CHSRA burn-rate is in the hundred millions. That should stop much sooner than next February. Why is everyone dragging their feet? Why is there no cojones in the Legislature to say, ENOUGH. Enough critical reports; enough questionable numbers; enough mis- and dis-information.

This is a state in severe financial crisis. No, this project won’t create zillions of promised jobs. No, this project will not turn California’s economy around.

Stop telling us about European HSR. This isn’t Europe. Stop envying China’s trains, unless you like what China is doing to the Chinese.

Stop this HSR project before massive damage is done to the 17 cities on the Peninsula.


Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of another community
on Jul 10, 2010 at 2:18 pm

Time to pull plug on this flawed high speed rail project.We do not need more proof. In order to receive federal funding and believe , given the history of deception and neglect by the authority. that they will irresponsibly rush the plans just to obtain funds in an 'act first,think later' approach.It's a very high time. Project must stop.


Like this comment
Posted by R.Gordon
a resident of another community
on Jul 11, 2010 at 11:01 am

"THE PENINSULA" is NOT a SPECIAL place when it comes to getting California back on its feet and the beginning of the 21st Century A BIT LATE.
THE HSR WILL BE BUILT.
There is no alternative or cure for the problems of the entire country and California will be the leader in spite of these communities which Engel campaigns against with absolutely NO reason other than protecting his property.
He just bought in the wrong place, or is not aware of how the future is dependent on catching up with the world.
If you were to ask Engel how we are going to repair our highways, our bridges, our streets and all of our crumbling structures just LOCALLY, how does he come up with that answer?


Like this comment
Posted by POGO
a resident of Woodside: other
on Jul 11, 2010 at 11:17 am

I'm not sure I understand the justification for spending more than $50 billion of taxpayer money on a high speed rail system.

I can easily fly from any of THREE Bay Area airports to at least FIVE Southern California airports (Los Angeles, Burbank, Long Beach, Orange County, San Diego). Flights leave almost every 15 minutes, I arrive in just one hour and it costs as little as $39 (and the airlines actually make money doing this!).

So remind me why I need the government to spend so much money to do something that seems to be pretty well handled by private industry?

PS - Do you realize that with all of its infrastructure, trains, service and advertising, that the average daily ridership for ALL of Amtrak is just 75,000 riders?


Like this comment
Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jul 11, 2010 at 1:40 pm

Mr. Gordon:

if you spent all of the money that is due to be wasted on HSR on our "crumbling infrastructure," we would have the finest infrastructure in the world. But you know that. Oh, and just repeating yourself doesn't make it so. The taxpayers are waking up to the boondoggle they were sold and are starting to demand an accounting.


Like this comment
Posted by Joseph E. Davis
a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills
on Jul 11, 2010 at 8:55 pm

Pogo, this has nothing to do the average citizen's welfare. This is a simple transfer of taxpayer assets to connected developers and unions under a thin veneer of "let's be green."

The motivation: buy votes and stick future taxpayers with the bill.


Like this comment
Posted by Hank Lawrence
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Jul 12, 2010 at 7:32 am

The HSR is a folly for the following reasons:

1) California can not afford it. We are deeply in debt tottering on the brink of bankruptcy. We should not attempt to douse the fire with gasoline

2) The projected ridership #s are ridiculous. We are supposed to believe that our ridership #s will be higher than the Acela in the NE corridor which has a much higher population density pack than California?

3) Construction and O&M costs are grossly underestimated.

So we have the perfect storm. A State that is insolvent; revenues that are grossly overestimated; and costs that are grossly underestimated.

That dog won't hunt!


Like this comment
Posted by James
a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks
on Jul 12, 2010 at 8:26 am

Hank and others have it right -- HSR is a bad idea. I don't need to repeat what has already been written. But like so many other government decisions, we'll do it anyway and drive us further into debt and then we'll try and subsidize it so officials don't look like they made a mistake.

What more intel do lawmakers need -- BART, CalTrain, and SoCal rail systems are all loosing money? I guess they think HSR won't. That gives me a good reassurance that our decision makers know what's best......


Like this comment
Posted by POGO
a resident of Woodside: other
on Jul 12, 2010 at 10:37 am

If I recall correctly, HSR was passed as an initiative by voters. If so, I suspect there is nothing the legislature can do to stop it.

Unfortunate.

Perhaps a new initiative to repeal it would be popular.


Like this comment
Posted by R.GORDON
a resident of another community
on Jul 13, 2010 at 6:21 pm

R.GORDON is a registered user.

YOU GOT IT.


Like this comment
Posted by R.GORDON
a resident of another community
on Jul 13, 2010 at 6:22 pm

R.GORDON is a registered user.

A BIG PERHAPS.


Like this comment
Posted by Alex Haselden
a resident of another community
on Jul 15, 2010 at 2:46 pm

The cost is estimated at $43 billion. Get it right.

Air travel is heavily subsidized, Pogo. Airport construction is funded by tax revenue. Most are owned by the government and operated by private companies. Otherwise your tickets would cost more than $39. Even with subsidies many airlines barely make a profit and some fail. Much like HSR today, airport construction is often opposed by NIMBY types.

Also, you make it sound as if I could drive to the airport and wait 15 minutes for the next plane. In my experience Air travel is not that convenient.


Like this comment
Posted by POGO
a resident of Woodside: other
on Jul 15, 2010 at 4:42 pm

Alex -

The cost of HSR is "just" $43 billion. I suppose cost overruns won't happen, will they? Can you say Bay Bridge? Or M-A Performing Arts Center?

Airport budgets are public (you can easily google them) and they receive most of their revenues from leasing gates and space to airlines and passenger (user) fees. Even air traffic control and security are paid for by users. I have no problem with that. Very little, other than initial construction, is performed by the government.

That's not true of rail. Are you aware of the subsidies for Amtrak? Don't you think HSR will be heavily subsidized?

Air travel is far more convenient, has a far wider geographic reach, is at least twice as fast and incredibly cheap. Why should we spend so much money - especially when money is so tight! - for something that is already being served so efficiently and effectively by industry?

Fortunately, we won't have to worry about it. Given the lack of funding, NIMBY resistance and environmentalist lawsuits, this project has a near-zero chance of ever being built in our life time.


Like this comment
Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jul 15, 2010 at 7:20 pm

If the proponents of HSR had presented the true costs and presented the fact that it will not be self funding, there is no way in hell it would have been voted in. Unfortunatley, the public tends to be rather gullible and susceptable to glitzy advertising and outlandish claims. If they weren't no one would have been able to sell them snake oil. HSR is just the modern equivelent.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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