There are still many unknowns about the high-speed rail project and despite the vote to fund 130 miles or less and sprinkle some money on the end points of Northern and Southern California, no one knows for sure if the project will actually will go forward. There are lots of winks going on that translate to “high-speed rail may never come but let’s spend the federal money.”
Opponents point to the harm that spending of $6 billion dollars in the Central Valley will cause, that is the destruction of homes, family farms, dairies and businesses with little to no long term benefit for the amount of money spent. While regional transportation in Northern and Southern California will benefit from the spending of 1A money, it is a questionable action at best since the law clearly says it has to be for high-speed rail, not maybe for high-speed rail in 15 or 20 years if we get some more money. There are no references for phased implementations or blended systems in the bond act.
Hoping that high-speed rail will never come is not a good enough assurance for the communities along the corridor. The question is still on the table: “What is fate of the San Jose to San Francisco segment if high-speed rail eventually find more funding to develop the corridor.
Senator Joe Simitian was the only democratic elected official from the peninsula who voted no to the funding of the project. He voted no because it was “the wrong plan in the wrong place at the wrong time.” On a smaller scope he was unable to accomplish the one thing he wanted which was a rock solid agreement for the peninsula. Simitian had his eye on the future, he’s worried about consequences that might occur 10, 20 or 30 years down the line, if high-speed rail comes a calling to collect on the down-payment they put forth on the electrification of Caltrain. There is a clear obligation, make no mistakes about it.
Currently the funding bill just put into law does not protect the peninsula to the degree Senator had hoped for. Terminology that states the money cannot be spent for a four track system is only pointing to early funding for the project. It’s the later stage funding that could be used for a larger system not in the funds appropriated now. Senator Simitian said, “Would I have liked more, yes, would I have liked it to be tighter, yes? Considering the political dynamics that is the best we could negotiate.” The votes just were not there for a rock solid guaranty.
To be clear, Simitian attempted to get language in the funding bill that would have solidified the agreement on the peninsula. He couldn’t get it done because the Authority and or the Administration turned down his attempts calling the language “unduly limiting in terms of flexibility.” This of course gives one reason to pause because by not agreeing to put into writing what they agreed to verbally, might indicate they had something else in mind.
In the July 5th budget and Fiscal Subcommittee, informational hearing, Simitian was successful at this meeting to secure a verbal agreement from Jeff Morales, the new CEO to agree to commitments made by the former CEO and Chairman Richard to agree to the SEG plan. . See this 9 minute YouTube. http://youtu.be/L_p8iiEZkzM
In that meeting there was a new twist to the definition of “substantially within the ROW” and it was stated at the Senate Informational meeting prior to the funding vote that it might be ok to go outside the right of way (ROW) by 5 or 10 feet. This could have devastating effects on communities and cities with very tight right of ways.
Senator Simitian explained the origin of this exception. He said he met with former CEO Roelof Van Ark and in their meeting Van Ark assured him,” we can put the viaduct issues to rest, we won’t do that except in communities that are asked to do that.” On the ROW issues, he quoted Van Ark as saying, I think we can stay substantially within the ROW but in some areas we’re going to need a limited ability to go outside perhaps 5 or 10 feet. Simitian told him,” I hear what you’re saying but that should be the exception to the rule and not an exception that swallows the rule.” Van Ark acknowledged he understood.
The Senator summarizes “In an ideal setting, the goal is to have the HSR Authority to stay within the existing ROW. That provides the greatest degree of security in terms’ of people’s property up and the corridor.”
Senator Simitian felt he accomplished four things during the high-speed rail funding negotiations that should provide some level of comfort to communities in his district and strongly outline intent.
- The language in the funding bill SB 1029 says the funding for the peninsula shall not be used for a 4 track system. Here are the words: “Any funds appropriated in this item for projects in the San Francisco to San Jose corridor, consistent with the blended system strategy identified in the April 2012 California High-Speed Rail Program Revised 2012 Business Plan, shall not be used to expand the blended system to a dedicated four-track system.”.
- A commitment to have the bill author compose a letter to the journal, which will memorialize as part of the legislative history that the two track system was the long term expectation and not designed to grow into a substantially larger project later on. Another clarification would be to make the same note of no four track system on future funding requests. (not yet in the record)
Note: These letters are not the regular course of business, they do not have the same power as a law or a statute, and they merely show intent when there is no time or no will to change bill language.It gives proponents of those ideas ammunition to show intent if and when it is needed down the road.
- A commitment from the Authority that they would send a letter to the cities from San Francisco to San Jose concerning the commitments discussed about the design and scope of the project. He wanted the cities to have in hand the Authority’s commitment not to expand the system.
- Senator Simitian intention to come back in August to put into statute a bill that memorializes the legislative intent system that the project be “limited in perpetuity” that it shall not grow into a larger system for the peninsula. He reminds us that it would go to the Governor to be signed into law
“Those four things were the best we could negotiate under the circumstances for the San Jose to San Francisco corridor. Simitian said, “The hope is these actions will be the belt and suspenders and the belt and suspenders again. He admits it’s not all he would have wanted but it was all he could get.”
Let’s see if the Senator can get the votes to add some concrete language in the follow up bill, a statute that may only deal with intent. Simitian reminded us in a senate meeting back in April that once the Authority got its funding they would be far less likely to work with the legislature. Time will tell if he was right in thinking that.
The Senator thinks that the administration has some desire to expedite the project and may well involve some amendments to CEQA. He said that was not something that he could or would support.
Simitian offers it’s a question of the timing. Will this be something that will be attempted in this last month of session this year or January 2013? The challenge with this is that a bill passed in January 2013, doesn’t go in effect until January 2014 unless it is passed on an urgency basis. The problem with that is it takes a 2/3rd vote and Simitian offers that considering the controversy around the project that might be tough to get a 2/3rds vote on exemptions to CEQA.
While it is true the April 2012 business plan does point to the blended system but does not emphatically say that this is a 2 track system. On page ES-14, it says, “If required, a full-build option for Phase 1 could be completed by 2033 at an incremental cost of $23 billion in the year of expenditure dollars for a cumulative cost of $91.4 billion.”
The Legislative Counsel’s report published June 8, 2012, suggested that a full- build out (translation 4 tracks- 2 dedicated to HSR) might be required.
“We think that in order for Proposition 1A HSR funds to be used on blended system infrastructure as part of a plan that includes a full-build scenario, the blended system infrastructure would, as a rule, need to be a part of the infrastructure needed for the full-build system.” This could well mean expanding to dedicated tracks for high-speed rail, a four track system. http://www.calhsr.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Leg-Counsel-Opinion-on-April-2012-CHSRA-Business-Plan.pdf See bottom of page 7-9. The long over-due Attorney General’s report might also say high-speed rail must have dedicated tracks and the blended system is not legal.
The only real definition to the blended system in the business plan is this, “the integration of high-speed trains with existing inter-city and commuter/regional rail carriers via coordinated infrastructure (the system) and scheduling, ticketing and other means (operations)”. The statement basically refers to the infrastructure.
And to be clear the business plan is not a statute, there are significant changes each time a new one is issued. You have to look at the environmental documents, the laws and eventual court rulings.
Even with the proposal put forth by Senator Simitian, Congresswoman Eshoo and Assembly member Gordon plan (SEG) doesn’t guaranty anything. At the time there were two elected state officials promising not to support the program unless these tenets were met. They are ideas proposed by these elected officials. The vote is now over. http://pingroof.com/article/california-high-speed-rail-peninsula-legislators-take-action
To refresh your memory, in the SEG plan proposed minimum standards and one tenet was the reduction in scope to a smaller project and a one-time build so that business owners and residents up and down the 50 mile corridor would not have a certified 4 track EIR hanging over their heads like a sword… not knowing if or when an expansion might come. Unfortunately the Authority did exactly that, they certified a 4 track system in the Program environmental work.
All we have is a verbal commitment from ex-CEO van Ark and current CEO Jeff Morales to stay substantially within the ROW and not to construct aerial track designs unless a city wants it. Simitian laments, “Unfortunately given the history on the peninsula with the HSR Authority, there’s not a lot of trust, and the sooner the Authority can reduce this to writing, the better.”
Locally though, there is hope that the Joint Powers Board who owns the Caltrain Corridor has stated in writing that they are not interested in expanding to a four track system. If they expand their commitment to even less damaging effects to the communities, such as keeping the current track configuration in residential communities, it would earn them more respect in the communities.
Senator Simitian will leave the Senate this November and his shoes are big ones to fill. He will be sorely missed. It will take someone with the same courage to analyze issues, someone willing to listen to their constituents and have the courage to say no to the democratic leadership when it’s the right thing to do. Just going along with the program is not what we need at this time. We need leadership and guts.