High-speed rail service to Vegas? Merely a Desert Mirage

Photo courtesy disneybrent, flickr

Photo courtesy disneybrent, flickr

In 2014, Governor Jerry Brown infamously promoted California High-Speed Rail as the best way to travel between San Francisco and Los Angeles. To justify the estimated $68 billion price tag, the governor tried to play the funny guy, asserting that “old people who shouldn’t be driving … should be sitting in a nice train car working on their iPad, having a martini.”

Now imagine high-speed rail between Southern California and Las Vegas. Instead of enduring the drive on I-15 across the Mojave Desert, people could sit in a nice train car getting a head start on a weekend of inebriation, having five martinis. As a bonus, taking the train instead of driving would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the effects of global climate change.

How compelling is the idea of high-speed transportation between Southern California and Las Vegas? In a July 10, 2017 opinion piece published in various California newspapers, political commentator Joe Mathews declared that building major transportation infrastructure to improve travel connections between the two regions “might be the most powerful current idea in California.”

Actually, the idea is neither current nor powerful. Politicians have touted it for decades, particularly since Amtrak terminated direct service between Los Angeles and Las Vegas in 1997 because of insufficient ridership. And so far the idea has failed to attract enough funding (public or private) to achieve it.

Mass transit between Southern California and Las Vegas is a vision similar to the planned high-speed rail system to connect Northern California and Southern California. Politicians and corporate executives make visionary statements – driven by professional public relations – that get overblown news coverage lacking in critical evaluation. Studies are done to prove the viability and feasibility of the project. Money is poured into planning and review. Then nothing substantial happens to overcome obvious hurdles to the vision.

California High-Speed Rail is a model for how visionary boondoggles get started. A coalition of corporations and unions teams up with politicians. They support a campaign asking voters to authorize government to borrow money and raise taxes to pay off that debt (including the interest). Voters then see well-tested rhetoric in the title of the ballot measure. Each voter takes five seconds to vote YES for imposing another tremendous debt burden on future generations.

It’s likely that one massive Joint Power Agency will eventually consolidate the ambitions of other Joint Power Agencies and ask voters to approve a massive bond measure to fund a passenger rail project between Southern California and Las Vegas. Before this campaign gets moving, the public needs to know the recent history of this idea.

Standard Passenger Rail Service

The most reasonable and achievable recent proposal for passenger rail service between Southern California to Las Vegas began moving forward in 2009 under the direction of Las Vegas Railway Express. The company has promised an adult-only experience called “the X Train,” or colloquially known as “the Party Train.” Originally the company planned to begin service in mid-2011. Eight years later the company is still promising to start soon.

In 2012, Las Vegas Railway Express Inc. reached an agreement with Union Pacific to use its existing track. The company now claims to be currently working with government agencies to “secure the necessary rights, equipment and facilities required to commence charter services in late 2017.”

As the company notes on its website, “there has been no regular passenger rail service between the Los Angeles and Las Vegas areas for over 18 years.” Amtrak operated direct passenger rail service between Los Angeles and Las Vegas until 1997, when it shut down the “Desert Wind” line because of declining ridership and cuts in government subsidies. Reportedly the service was unpopular in part because the trip sometimes lasted as long as eight hours. The train often had to yield to freight trains operated by the owner of the track, Union Pacific.

In weighing decisions about cost, convenience, and time, travelers had chosen instead to drive or fly via Southwest Airlines. Congress provided direct funding in 1999 to resume service, but it never started back up. Amtrak has no public plans to resume service to what is now described as a “shuttered, worn-down depot.”

Very High-Speed Passenger Rail Service (Maglev)

The empty desert would seem to be a relatively easy place to build a high-speed or very-high-speed rail alignment. In fact, there have been two proposals over several years to do this.

In the early 2000s, the Southern California Association of Governments and its individual member governments began considering public-private partnerships to plan, build, and operate a Maglev (magnetic levitation) train between Anaheim and Las Vegas. Congress even dedicated $45 million in 2006 for project planning, but three years later the Federal Railroad Administration had not released the funding. The private partner in the plan, a company called American Magline Group, had failed to raise enough money to qualify for the grant.

Today American Magline Group estimates a cost of $12-15 billion to build the complete project.  It had estimated a cost of $12 billion in 2008. People suspect – with good reason – that the cost estimate for maglev is too low.

Remember that in 2008 supporters of Proposition 1A claimed in official voter information that a complete statewide high-speed rail system in California would cost $45 billion. Today, the Authority claims a line between San Francisco and Los Angeles – sharing track at times with commuter rail – will cost $64 billion.

High-Speed Passenger Rail Service

In 2009, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada shifted his allegiance from the maglev proposal to a more traditional high-speed rail proposal called DesertXpress, a privately-owned operation that would run from Las Vegas to Victorville. Advantages of this proposal included a lower cost (then estimated at $6.9 billion) and a more familiar and tested technology. Supposedly DesertXpress would eventually extend to Palmdale to connect with a planned California High-Speed Rail station.

In the end, DesertXpress could not qualify for a loan of $4.9 billion or $5.5 billion from the federal government to build the project, ostensibly because it would not or could not abide by a federal requirement to purchase train sets built in the United States and could not obtain an exemption. In 2015, a consortium affiliated with the People’s Republic of China became a partner and potential funding source for DesertXpress (renamed XpressWest in 2012), but the partnership ended a year later.

Why the Failure to Move Forward?

Backers of all three of these proposals claim that people will ride their system and operators will thus make money on them. The Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada Las Vegas to Los Angeles Rail Corridor Improvement Feasibility Study sees the maglev proposal as feasible and desirable. The High Desert Corridor Joint Powers Authority High Desert Corridor: Investment Grade Ridership & Revenue Forecasts projects similar success. And the X Train is sure to be a winner, if you believe the public relations over the last eight years.

Why are investors leery of pouring their money into these long-term projects? As shown when the California High-Speed Rail Authority has sought private funding (as required by voter-approved Proposition 1A), potential investors want assurances from the government to reduce their risk before getting involved.

Just like California High-Speed Rail between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the profitability of a passenger train between Southern California and Las Vegas will depend on travelers evaluating transportation options and choosing the train from among them. Ridership projections – even if they are “scientific” – have limited value because of unknown objective criteria (for example, the future cost of driving or flying) and unmeasurable subjective criteria (for example, the willingness of people to travel captive with an inebriated crowd for five hours).

The end of Amtrak passenger service in 1997 and subsequent failures to initiate three modes of intercity mass transit are warnings that trying to connect Southern California and Las Vegas may end up as another government-driven scheme to enrich special interests at the expense of everyone else. Voters need to be wary when the politicians, corporations, and unions ask them for money to make this powerful vision come true.

This article was originally published by the CA Policy Center


Kevin Dayton, a frequent contributor to CPC’s Prosperity Digest, is the President & CEO of Labor Issues Solutions, LLC, and is the author of frequent postings about generally unreported California state and local policy issues at www.laborissuessolutions.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DaytonPubPolicy.

Bullet train is likely to face more environmental hurdles

As reported by the Los Angeles Times:

California’s high-speed train project is likely to continue to be buffeted by environmental challenges as a result of a decision by the state’s top court.

In a 6-1 ruling last week written by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, the California Supreme Court decided that federal rail law does not usurp California’s tough environmental regulation for state-owned rail projects.

The decision has broad significance, lawyers in the case said.

It clears the way for opponents of the $64-billion bullet train to file more lawsuits as construction proceeds and also allows Californians to challenge other rail uses, such as the movement of crude oil from fracking.

A federal court could later decide the matter differently, ruling that U.S. law trumps state regulation.

But lawyers in the field said …

Click here to read the full article

GOP lawmakers bet bullet train bad news will never end

high speed rail trainWill news about the California bullet train’s cost overruns and missed construction deadlines remain the norm for years to come? Or will the state’s $64 billion project find a groove and make considerable progress in coming years?

These are the key questions prompted by a concession that some Republican state lawmakers gained in return for helping Gov. Jerry Brown keep alive the state’s greenhouse-gas emissions cap-and-trade program until 2030. The provision could eventually end the state’s high-speed rail project, leaving a massive white elephant in the agricultural fields of the Central Valley. Or the concession could end up yielding a second vote validating a project first approved by state voters in 2008.

The concession – secured by Assembly Republican leader Chad Mayes of Yucca Valley – places a constitutional amendment drafted by Mayes before state voters in June 2018. If passed, it would lead to a one-time up-and-down vote in the Legislature in 2024 on whether to continue allowing the use of cap-and-trade revenue to fund the project. But the threshold wouldn’t be a simple majority. A two-thirds vote would be required to allow continued use of the funds – presumably giving GOP lawmakers a prime chance to pull the plug.

So far, the funding has been substantial in one sense but marginal in the big picture of trying to pay for a $64 billion project. After the fifth year of cap-and-trade distributions, about $1 billion has gone to the California High-Speed Rail Authority, with another $500 million expected this fiscal year. But it is considered crucial because it is the only new funding source Brown has found for the project, which has been unable to gain outside investors because of rules banning public subsidies for bullet-train operations.

Rail authority chair Dan Richard says he isn’t worried about a public veto in seven years: “By 2024, we’re going to be deep into construction. We’re going to be on the verge of opening the first service. We’ll be seeing Google and others making massive investments in areas around high-speed-rail stations. The case will be there for the importance of continued funding,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle.

The authority’s 2016 business plan said the state expected to have $21 billion in hand from state bonds, federal grants and cap-and-trade funds to build a segment from San Jose heading south.

Feds expect cost overrun of 48% or more on first segment

But Mayes and other GOP lawmakers are betting that from here until 2024, the bad news about the project will never stop.

Lawyers for the Central Valley farmers and the government and civic officials they represent in lawsuits against the state government like to point out that – apart from court victories allowing the project to continue to spend public monies – there has been no substantial encouraging news about the project in years.

In January, the Los Angeles Times reported that it had obtained a confidential Federal Railroad Administration risk analysis that predicted a cost overrun of 48 percent or more on the initial 118-mile segment in the Central Valley. What the Brown administration has been saying would cost $6.4 billion is instead likely to be $9.5 billion to $10 billion, federal officials warned.

The idea that voters will be pleased with what they see in 2024 could be difficult to square with what rail authority officials told avisiting congressional delegation in August 2016: that construction is expected to stop in the middle of an almond orchard 30 miles northwest of Bakersfield when the money runs out.

This is contrary to promises made to voters in 2008 to get them to provide $9.95 billion in bond seed money for the project. They were guaranteed no construction would begin until the state could guarantee its initial segment would have financial viability without any more train tracks being laid.

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Void in Leadership Continues for California High-Speed Rail

High Speed RailFour months after then-California High Speed Rail Authority Chief Executive Jeff Morales told authority board members he was moving on and two months after Morales made his decision public, the agency overseeing the state’s $64 billion bullet train project hasn’t settled on his successor.

In 2012, four months after Chief Executive Roelof van Ark abruptly left following two stormy years, Morales already had the job. This time around, the same speedy selection process seemed likely. The RT&S transportation industry website reported after Morales’ decision was announced in April that the board was likely to have his replacement approved before Morales’ final day of June 2.

But the CHSRA board met in closed session on the succession issue on May 10 and June 14 without reaching a decision. The rail agency’s number two job – deputy chief executive – has also been vacant since Dennis Trujillo left in December.

The empty slots atop the CHSRA power structure come at a critical time.

According to a federal report prepared under the Obama administration, the state’s high-speed rail project is already seven years behind schedule and on its way to having a 50 percent cost overrun on the $6.4 billion, 118-mile first segment now being built in the Central Valley.

The project also continues to face legal challenges which argue that it violates the terms of Proposition 1A, the 2008 ballot measure providing $9.95 billion in bond seed money for the project. The rail authority has won most recent judgments. But opponents remain confident they eventually will prevail because of a 2014 state appellate court ruling that held the project still was subject to a financial “straitjacket” that would require it to show short- and long-term financial viability without public subsidies before the project could significantly proceed. The project’s struggle to attract private investment shows that at least in the private sector, there are many doubts that the bullet train could operate successfully without such subsidies.

Obama administration rules could haunt project

But the election of Donald Trump as president in November also has led to a huge new headache for CHSRA. All 14 California House Republicans have urged Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to reverse Obama administration actions that loosened federal rules to give California access to about $3 billion in federal dollars for the project.

Rep. Jeff Dunman, R-Turlock, and his colleagues have focused their harshest fire on a 2012 decision that gave the state the go-ahead to spend about $200 million in federal funds but not have matching state spending. The decision went against longstanding Washington precedent.

Withdrawing all federal funding could also be justified by citing the Obama administration’s 2009 regulations for projects that were to be paid for or partly paid for with money from the economic stimulus bill passed a month after President Obama took office. The Federal Railroad Administration rules said projects that didn’t demonstrate “reasonableness of financial estimates” and “quality of planning process” would get no funding.

That’s the same agency which recently concluded the project was seven years behind schedule and on course for a 50 percent cost overrun on its initial segment

The California High Speed Rail Authority board’s next meeting is July 18 in Sacramento.

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Bullet train driving local transit boondoggles

ARTICSACRAMENTO – Over the past six years, California legislators and the governor have increased overall general-fund spending by $36 billion but couldn’t find extra money to spend on road, freeway and other meat-and-potatoes transportation projects. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t spending money like drunken brakemen on myriad rail-related projects.

Sacramento’s transportation focus has been transit, which Democratic leaders believe will reduce the state’s global-warming footprint and combat congestion by encouraging Californians to ditch their cars in favor of a rail pass. State leaders complain about a lack of money – hence, the newly signed law to boost gas taxes and vehicle-license fees – but the problem always comes down to priorities.

Bottom line: California officials are far more interested in social engineering than transportation engineering. They prefer to prod and cajole us into changing the way we get around than in building the infrastructure to help us actually get around. Even the new tax-hike package includes $750 million extra a year in transit projects and for biking and hiking projects, according to a Senate Republican analysis.

The most high-profile example of this approach is, of course, the governor’s pet high-speed rail project, a $64-billion-plus project that promises to connect the Bay Area to Southern California (via a variety of Central Valley cities) in about three hours. The rail authority last week sold $1.25 billion in bonds as it seeks to get something on the ground so there’s no turning back.

As former Assembly speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2013, referring to the cost-overrun-laden Transbay Terminal in San Francisco: “If people knew the real cost from the start, nothing would ever be approved. The idea is to get going. Start digging a hole and make it so big, there’s no alternative to coming up with the money to fill it in.”

At least he was honest. A lot of sensible people have wondered why the Brown administration is spending so much time and scarce transportation dollars on a bullet train that won’t be particularly fast and faces enormous geographical hurdles (getting over the Tehachapi Mountains, for starters). Well, Jerry Brown is following the Willie Brown model: he’s trying to dig a hole that’s as deep and wide as possible.

In fact, state and local governments are digging several holes – fiscal sink holes, actually, that are closely linked to the bullet-train project. For instance, Orange County taxpayers, thanks to the Measure M tax, spent $120 million to build the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center. Its acronym, ARTIC, is a good one given that the bullet train should reach that destination sometime after hell freezes over.

This largely empty 67,000 square-foot boondoggle was meant as a central hub for the county’s bus, Metrolink and other transit services – but was justified because of the role it could play as the end point for the bullet train. The project’s boosters predicted 10,000 riders daily, but it struggles to serve 2,800 a day. As I wrote for the Orange County Register recently, it was supposed to pay for itself, but it’s only expected to earn $1.4 million of its $3.9 million annual budget. The city’s tourism district has decided to stop paying the deficit, which will now be borne by Anaheim taxpayers.

It’s an even more precarious situation in San Francisco. Willie Brown might be okay with the $2.4 billion spent on that Transbay Transit Center, a similar hub in the city by the Bay, but that city’s taxpayers should be less thrilled by its $20 million in annual operating subsidies a year.

“The three-block-long behemoth was envisioned as the Grand Central Station of the West, a dynamic hub for buses and high-speed rail that would draw more than 100,000 visitors a day,” wrote San Francisco Chronicle columnists Matier & Ross. “Come opening day, however, there will be no high-speed rail. Instead, for many years, the five-level showcase … will be little more than the world’s most expensive bus station — serving mainly the 14,000 Transbay bus commuters … .”

And other costs are coming for that project. “For high-speed rail to reach the new terminal,” says California Policy Center’s Marc Joffe, “Caltrain would have to be extended 1.3 miles from its current San Francisco terminus at 4th and Townsend. It would cost a lot of money – perhaps a billion dollars – to build this new 1.3-mile subway.”

San Francisco is also spending nearly $1.6 billion, in coordination with Caltrain and the California High Speed Rail Authority, to connect the Caltrain commuter rail depot to the North Beach neighborhood. There are legitimate local reasons to extend this light-rail system perhaps, but the prospect of a pie-in-the-sky bullet train is driving some of these decisions. These are costly projects – and the money could be better spent elsewhere.

Likewise, Los Angeles Metro officials just approved a massive overhaul of Union Station to enable it to “handle an expected doubling in the number of daily passengers by 2040,” according to Curbed Los Angeles. “Another big part of the project is readying Union Station for high-speed rail service” even though “questions continue to swirl around the fate of that much-delayed project as political opposition to it grows in Congress … .”

Yeah, but you’ve got to start digging holes, especially holes that get transit advocates clapping.

Los Angeles magazine wrote last week that “Against all odds, the California Bullet Train Barrels Forward.” Well, it is true the state’s political leadership won’t take no for an answer, and the courts continue to let the current project barrel ahead even though many of its main promises are at odds with the supposedly ironclad promises made to voters when they approved the initial $9.95 billion bond funding in 2008’s Proposition 1A.

Last week, a superior court judge said bond money can be spent despite an ongoing legal challenge. But overcoming political and legal hurdles isn’t the same things as surmounting myriad fiscal and engineering feats, which lie at the heart of the bullet-train’s problems.

One of the fathers of this rail project, former judge Quentin Kopp, has argued that the high-speed rail (HSR) project “is no longer a genuine HSR system, as covenanted to California voters and the Legislature. Instead, it has been distorted in a way directly contrary to the high-speed rail plan the authority attempted to implement while I was chairman.” He takes issue with the current “blended” system, which shares commuter-line tracks near Los Angeles and San Francisco. He also complained about the way bullet-train funds are used for that central subway project in San Francisco.

Certainly, sending supposed bullet trains along commuter tracks will vastly reduce the speed of the trains – and the whole purpose of a project designed to provide speedy north-to-south transportation. But Kopp, who made his arguments as a declaration in one of the lawsuits opposing the current rail project, is thinking rationally, whereas the Brown administration and the rail authority are too busy embracing Willie Brown’s cynical approach.

I argued for the California Policy Center that the new $5.2 billion a year transportation tax really is a pension tax given that state officials have refused to rein in pension costs, which will soon require the state to dump $11 billion a year into the pension systems. Had state officials fixed the pension mess, they would have had plenty of cash to fund extra transportation projects.

But the new tax increases also can be thought of as a high-speed rail tax. If state officials weren’t spending so much money on these wasteful rail-related transit projects, they’d have extra money to fix roads, bridges and freeways – and to provide realistic transit projects rather than overbuilt boondoggles designed with a future fantasy train in mind.

Steven Greenhut is a contributing editor to California Policy Center. He is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org.

This piece was originally published by the California Policy Center.

Judge allows California high-speed rail project to proceed

As reported by the Sacramento Bee:

A California judge allowed the state’s bullet train project to go forward Wednesday but delayed a final ruling on a legal challenge asserting the state is not keeping its promises to voters.

Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Raymond Cadei denied opponents’ attempt to temporarily block the state from spending about $1.25 billion from the sale of $10 billion in bonds last week for the project intended to link Los Angeles and San Francisco with a bullet train.

He did not immediately rule on their underlying challenge to the $64 billion project after hearing arguments.

However, recent changes to the train plan detailed in the lawsuit fall within what voters approved in 2008, Cadei said, echoing the reasoning in his tentative decision issued Tuesday. …

Click here to read the full article

Can Trump Help California Dodge Jerry Brown’s Bullet Train?

Gov. Jerry Brown, Anne GustThe State of California issued the first tranche of taxable construction bonds last Thursday for the High Speed Rail Project, making it clear that it is determined to go ahead with the unpopular project despite numerous obstacles, including federal funding roadblocks thrown up by President Donald Trump.

According to a Bloomberg News report, California officials have made a show of faith by moving forward with the $1.25 billion offering, despite challenges including a lawsuit filed in Sacramento’s Superior Court. According to a Los Angeles Times story, “The suit was brought by John Tos, a farmer; Kings County; the city of Atherton; and several opposition groups,” and focuses chiefly on AB 1889, a bill that alters the way bond money can be spent. Attorneys for the plaintiffs, who oppose the train, state that “the bond act never gave the legislature the authority to alter it.”

The project is roundly vilified by pundits and talk radio hosts up and down the state — every major California GOP politician has denounced it, with the exception of Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin — and now many residents who originally voted for it, no longer support what they see as Brown’s “boondoggle.”  But none of that has stopped Jerry Brown from making his legacy project the state’s top priority.

“California can well afford it, and it will make our state a much better place,” Gov. Jerry Brown said in February in a recorded news conference to which his press office referred in response to questions from news organizations. “I know we’re going up against a very red tide here of opposition. This thing is a long-term project, and one way or another we’re going to get it.”

Brown is coming off a rough couple of months, as California’s crumbling infrastructure became front page news — highlighting the apparent folly of building a very expensive train with money the state doesn’t have — while raising gas taxes that will hit the working poor the hardest.

Proceeding with the controversial project comes at considerable risk to California’s perennially shaky finances.  If the lawsuit is successful in freezing the original bond funds, that would be a major setback.

At issue in the suit is the diversion of $713 million of Proposition 1A Bond Funds — specifically designated for the High Speed Rail — to act as matching funds for a $2 Billion project to electrify and retrofit a government-owned Silicon Valley commuter rail known as Caltrain.

On top of that, if Trump freezes all federal funds, both rail projects will struggle even more. CalTrain officials were banking on a $647 million matching grant from the Federal Transit Administration — which Trump has “deferred” indefinitely.

If the federal spigot is turned off, California taxpayers might be forced to foot the entire bill, essentially killing the projects by delaying them —which can force the return of matching funds already spent.

The Washington Post reports that President Trump weighed in on the issue in a note to Congress last month, stating that “localities should fund these localized projects.”

Some political observers believe that Trump’s denial of funds is just playing politics.

Christopher Leinberger, chair of George Washington University’s Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis, told the Post that the cuts suggest Trump is “playing to the base,” because he received much less support in urban areas than in “drivable suburban locations.”

“This is about pure politics,” Leinberger said.

Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA), who chairs a key House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee, disagrees.

Denham, who lobbied Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to deny the grant on the basis that the new Caltrain cars did not meet the definition of high-speed rail, urged Brown to find a different source of state funding for Caltrain, then reapply for the matching federal grants, cautioning that overcommitment puts other priorities at risk.

“If you’re going to continue to obligate state dollars that you do not have, then you’re in jeopardy of at some point the federal government calling for those notes to be due, which could then put public safety dollars at risk, other transportation dollars at risk or education dollars at risk,” said Denham according to Bloomberg, who sits on the transportation and infrastructure committee.

Brown, who met with Chao last month to discuss the grant, said of Denham in a phone interview with the Post:

“That’s called blackmail.”

Californians “voted for a bond issue” for high-speed rail “but envisioned other projects” using the cash, the governor said in the interview. “To go against it is the rawest, stupidest form of politics.”

Tim Donnelly is a former California State Assemblyman and author who is doing a book tour for his new book: Patriot Not Politician: Win or Go Homeless. He ran for governor in 2014.

FaceBook: https://www.facebook.com/tim.donnelly.12/

Twitter:  @PatriotNotPol

This piece was originally published by Breitbart.com/California

How the Trump administration can stop the bullet train

From the San Diego Union-Tribune Editorial Board

The only kind of news the troubled $64 billion California bullet train project seems to generate is bad news. In January, a Federal Railroad Administration analysis was leaked that projected the initial 118-mile, $6.4 billion segment of the project would run 50 percent over budget. Then last week, a Los Angeles Times report revealed that the project’s price tag may continue to be pushed higher and higher by “the complex engineering needed for passenger safety.” It also offered an alarming warning from rail safety consultant Steven Ditmeyer that corners were being cut already on safety issues for budgetary and political reasons.

The jarring questions these reports raise about the project’s finances and management couldn’t come at a worse time for the rail authority and Gov. Jerry Brown, the bullet train’s most vocal backer. That’s because U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao is being urged by California House Republicans not only to audit the project but also to reverse Obama administration decisions that exempted it from normal standards relating to the state’s use of about $3 billion in federal funds.

One of those decisions was explicit and aboveboard, if dubious: a 2012 agreement that allowed the state to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding without matching state spending. Rep. Jeff Dunham, R-Turlock, and other bullet train critics have long argued that this waiver is directly in contradiction to decades of precedents under which the federal government requires matching state spending on big projects to lock in states’ commitments to finish what they start. …

Click here to read the full article

What Californians Could Build Using the $64 Billion Bullet Train Budget

California’s High-Speed Rail project fails to justify itself according to any set of rational criteria. Its ridership projections are absurdly inflated, its environmental benefits are overstated if not actually net detriments, and its cost, its staggering cost, $64 billion by the latest estimate, overwhelms anyone with even a remote sense of financial proportions. To make this final point clear, here is an assortment of California infrastructure projects that could be paid for with a $64 billion budget.

If these projects were built, instead of the bullet train, Californians would have abundant, cheap electricity, abundant fresh water, and upgraded roads and freeways capable of handling all the traffic a surging economy could possibly dish out.

What Californians Could Build on a $64 Billion Budget

20170321-what-we-can-do-w-64B-1

(1) Build 10 natural gas power plants generating 6.2 gigawatts of electrical output for $5.7 billion.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, a modern natural gas power plant generating 620 megawatts can be built at a capital cost of $568 million. Someday, when electricity storage technologies are inexpensive and safe, the solar age can ripen to maturity, but in the meantime, California’s private energy companies can tap abundant in-state natural gas reserves, enabling California’s public utilities to provide cheap electricity to the public.

Since California’s peak demand rarely exceeds 50 gigawatts, increasing capacity by 12 percent will drive the price for electricity way down, making California competitive again with other states. Cheap electricity will also obviate the need to force consumers to purchase extremely expensive “energy sipping” appliances that are internet enabled, monitor your behavior and penalize you if you run your dryer at the “wrong” time, break down a lot, are unnecessarily complex, and require ongoing warranty and software upgrade payments forever.

Who needs that? Build natural gas power plants and develop natural gas.

(2) Build plants to desalinate 1.0 million acre feet of seawater per year, supplying 1/3 of ALL California’s residential (indoor and outdoor) water requirements for $15 billion.

Desalination plants are being developed all over the world, and California, with only one major desalination plant operating (Carlsbad in San Diego), is way behind. Desalination requires no more energy today than the amount of energy already being used to transport water from California’s northern regions several hundred miles south (and over the Tehachapi mountains) to Southern California’s coastal cities. The California current, second in flow volume only to the legendary Gulf Stream, can easily disperse the brine left over after extracting fresh water. The energy and environmental issues surrounding desalination have been addressed, and nobody would ever build these plants more responsibly than Californians.

While desalinating water from the sea, at a capital cost of $15,000 per acre foot of annual output, is the most expensive means of increasing California’s water supply, it has the unique virtue of being the only way to actually create fresh water, as opposed to reuse or redistribution. It is a technology that has been proven at large scale for decades and is a necessary part of California’s strategy to increase water security as the state alternates between wet and dry multi-year weather cycles.

(3) Build plants to reclaim and reuse 2.0 million acre feet of sewage per year, supplying 2/3 of ALL California’s residential (indoor and outdoor) water requirements for $10 billion.

Californians produce about 3.0 million acre feet of sewage per year, and today only a small fraction of that sewage is treated to “potable” (drinkable) standards. In California’s huge coastal urban centers this sewage is treated sufficiently to be released into the environment where it wasted as outfall into the ocean. A recent installation in Orange County, the “Ground Water Replenishment System” (GWRS) plant, reclaims as indirect potable water 70,000 acre feet of sewage per year, at a capital cost of only $350 million (not much when compared to the bullet train budget). This equates to a capital cost of $5,000 per acre foot of annual output, which is one of the most cost-effective ways to increase the supply of fresh water for Californians.

Sewage reuse combined with desalination not only have the potential to fulfill 100 percent of California’s residential water requirements for a combined price of $25 billion, but the treated water can be injected into coastal aquifers, combating saltwater intrusion. Currently these aquifers are often replenished with water transported from rivers hundreds of miles to the north, at equal or greater cost.

(4) Build the Sites Reservoir for $4.4 billion.

Anyone who has taken a look recently at the San Luis Reservoir in Central California, now 100 percent full, can appreciate the beauty of off-stream storage. Fed by surplus run-off water that is delivered there by aqueduct, and available for farms and urban use, this reservoir minimizes environmental harm because it doesn’t block the flow of any river. Like San Luis and just as big, the proposed Sites Reservoir, with a planned capacity of 1.8 million acre feet, will be situated in the semi-arid foothills of California’s Central Valley. Unlike San Luis, the Sites Reservoir will require almost no aqueduct, because it will be up in the northern Central Valley, immediately west of the Sacramento River. If the Sites were available today, it would already be filled up with runoff from this year’s many storms, and filling it would have taken pressure off of levees from Sacramento all the way to the delta.

The vast, 100% full San Luis reservoir, 84 square miles, holding 2.0 MAF.

(5) Build the Temperance Flats Reservoir for $3.3 billion.

While this proposed reservoir is in-stream, and would dam the San Joaquin River, it nonetheless has virtues that make a strong argument for its construction. First of all, there are already dams on the San Joaquin River, which would be submerged beneath the larger Temperance Flat dam. With planned storage of 1.3 million acre feet, the Temperance Flat reservoir would guarantee more water to farmers in the dryer reaches of the San Joaquin Valley even during droughts. It would also ensure a reliable flow into the San Joaquin river, to protect its riparian habitats during droughts.

(6) Widen and resurface every major interstate (and then some) in the entire state.

Are you tired of risking your life on Interstate 5 when it’s only two lanes in each direction, and trucks clog the slow lane and speeding tailgaters own the fast lane? Then spend $15.4 billion to add lanes and resurface the entire length of Highway 101 (807 miles), Interstate 5 (796 miles), Route 99 (415 miles), Interstate 15 (294 miles), Interstate 10 (243 miles), Interstate 80 (204 miles), and Interstate 8 (172 miles). According to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, this will cost $5.25 million per mile, and the freeways just listed total 2,931 miles.

(7) Fix the Potholes.

With everything noted so far, we have only used up $53.8 billion. That is, for only 84 percent of the bullet train budget, we have delivered to Californians cheap, abundant energy, abundant water, and unclogged our major freeways. But we still have $10.2 billion left. What to do? Why not fix the potholes? For $10.2 billion, we can resurface 8,160 miles of 4-lane roads, or, presumably, an even greater length of 2-lane roads. Isn’t that the first thing that goes when governments go astray, and prioritize pet (and useless) environmentalist mega-projects ahead of serving the public? Potholes?

Apart from the fact that a few farms have been purchased in Fresno County, and a few pylons have been stuck in the ground, and a handful of extremely well-paid bureaucrats are doing everything they can to preserve their jobs, why is high-speed rail still being pushed? The reasons are a disappointing example of our dysfunctional democracy here in California. Because you could accuse every project on the above list of being susceptible to cronyism and cost-overruns, and you’d be right. Just as the Bullet Train will never get built for a mere $64 billion, it is likely these projects will also, in aggregate cost more than $64 billion. But we’d have abundant energy, abundant water, and a 21st century network of wide, upgraded freeways. If you’re going to play the innately corrupt game of public works, build things that help people live better, more prosperous lives!

Instead, California contends with an alliance of financial oligarchs whose pecuniary interests depend on Californians paying punitive prices for energy and water. Their green energy and high-tech ventures depend on forcing Californians to completely retool their homes with new, upgraded appliances (all of them – washer, dryer, dishwasher, air-conditioner, furnace, refrigerator) that are efficient to the point of diminishing returns. As mentioned, these appliances now double as surveillance devices that will force us to live our lives according to utility company algorithms. Utility companies, of course, no longer make profits based on the quantities of energy or water they deliver, but rather on fixed percentages over cost, which means to please their shareholders, units of energy and water have to cost more. Much more. And manufacturers are thrilled to design all this frippery into their appliances so they can sell them as a service requiring perpetual payments, instead of a durable good.

Our household has a washer that we bought, already used, for $25 in 1999. It has never broken down. No ongoing warranty payments. No ongoing “software update” payments. Do you think you’ll be able to say any of that about any appliance purchased in the last few years?

For anyone who wants this lucrative, exploitative party for the oligarchs to continue, high speed rail is a good place to put what remains of California’s public financing capacity. The environmentalist lobby, firmly in the pocket of these oligarchs, offers up high speed rail to private construction unions, who lack the clout or the vision to demand something that might actually adhere to their ideals – i.e., the projects listed above, that would help ordinary working families in California.

Ed Ring is the vice president of policy research for the California Policy Center.

REFERENCES

(1-a) Cost for modern natural gas power plant generating 620 megawatts
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration
https://www.eia.gov/outlooks/capitalcost/

(1-b)  Peak megawatt demand in California (July 24, 2006) just over 50 gigawatts
Source: California ISO, California Peak Load History 1998 through 2016
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_in_California

(2) Cost for desalination plants – global comparisons:
Source: California Policy Center, Rebuilding California’s Infrastructure – Desalination
http://californiapolicycenter.org/rebuilding-californias-infrastructure-desalination-part-4-of-6/

Recently constructed desalination plants in Israel, rest-of-world, and California:

(2-b) Annual water consumption in California (million acre feet):

Source: Public Policy Institute of California – Uses and Value of Water, Table 2.2
http://www.ppic.org/content/pubs/report/R_211EHChapter2R.pdf

(3) Cost for sewage reuse plants:
Orange County GWRS IPR Project (2008) Fountain Valley
Source: California Policy Center, Rebuilding California’s Infrastructure – Water Reuse
http://californiapolicycenter.org/rebuilding-californias-infrastructure-water-reuse-part-2-of-6/

(4) Most recent and highest cost-estimate for Sites Reservoir:
Source: KCRA News
http://www.kcra.com/article/5-things-to-know-about-the-proposed-sites-reservoir/8593792

(5) Highest cost-estimate for Temperance Flat Reservoir (estimates range from $1.2 billion to $3.3 billion):
Source: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
https://web.archive.org/web/20120316022146/http://www.valleyvoicenewspaper.com/vv/stories/2009/vv_temperanceflat_0164.htm

(6 and 7 – a)  Cost to add lanes and resurface freeways:
Source: America Road & Transportation Builders Association
http://www.artba.org/about/faq/ 

(6 and 7 – b) Length of California’s principal highways and freeways:
Source: CaHighways.org
http://www.cahighways.org/itypes.html

California’s Bullet Train Could Be a High-Speed Fail Without Federal Funding

As reported by L.A. Weekly:

Two weeks ago, President Donald Trump made what might be considered his first real move to screw over California, by delaying a $637 million grant, long thought to have been a lock, to pay for electrifying a Bay Area train route. That’s bad news for Caltrain, which will have to stick to diesel gas for the time being. But it’s also bad news for California Gov. Jerry Brown’s pet project, the bullet train, which plans to share that section of track. The delay has been interpreted, by some, to be an act of political retribution, to get back at California for, oh, take your pick — not voting for Trump, for having so many “sanctuary cities,” for declaring itself the vanguard of the resistance, and so on.

Lisa Marie Alley, a spokeswoman for the California High Speed Rail Authority, downplayed the significance of the grant delay.

“I would not characterize it as a big blow whatsoever,” she said. “It’s something that is not good. The bigger question is, to the Republican administration, why would you hurt something that is creating jobs, creating a system that’s better for the environment and providing a valuable service for the Bay Area?”

The worrying thing for supporters of the bullet train, which aims to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles by the year 2029 for the not-so-low price of $68 billion (and that estimate is probably low), is if the Trump administration is willing to delay a fairly uncontroversial grant, can the nation’s largest infrastructure project currently under construction expect any help at all …

Click here to read the full article