Suddenly out of nowhere appear opinion pieces extolling the wonder and splendor of aerial structure design options for High Speed Rail, particularly for the peninsula. Obviously these authors are in favor of High Speed Rail at any cost. No – – correction – – not any cost, but in particular the cheapest, noisiest and most dangerous design possible. And last week in Gilroy, CEO van Ark, is carefully trying to socialize the idea that if cities want trenches, covered trenches or one assumes tunnels, they have to pay for it themselves.
Why is this happening? Because the High Speed Rail Authority does not have the money to build the system, any way, let alone the right way. Estimates over the years have risen starting in 1999 with $25 billion; then 2008, with $34.9 billion; and then in 2009 a price tag of $42.6 billion. Many estimate cost, like the Bay Bridge construction, could double or triple exploding to $60 to $90 billion dollars, or more. Rider and Cost Exaggerations
So please just say, we can’t afford it. But please don’t say suck it up, aerial is the way to go.
Europe does not build trains on aerial tracks, high above the ground, through neighborhoods. Sample, December 10th at the Peninsula Cities Coalition (PCC), Jean Claude Guez, director of the Eurostar organization gave example after example of how the High Speed Rail Authority is not managing the project in manner that will lead to success. In residential areas in Europe, High Speed Rail is put in trenches to mitigate the sound, Guez said. And frankly everyone knows that sound and vibration are much exaggerated if tracks are elevated.
But are they safe? In a nutshell, no, says Geologist Douglas Hamilton. Regarding the safety of aerial structures in residential areas, in a Design Workshop, hosted by the PCC group September 12, 2009, as well as in his written EIR comments, Hamilton, a PhD Geology from Stanford, stated that the aerial structure is the most dangerous in an earthquake. “Derailment of a High Speed Train moving 100 plus mph on an elevated track though homes, schools and businesses has the potential for mass casualties and property destruction.”
And it appears the management of the HSRA is trying to remove expectations that underground designs will be chosen. Just last week, according to Councilman Perry Woodward in Gilroy, CEO van Ark stated in their December 15th meeting that “trenching would not be an option in any city, unless the city wanted to pay for the trenching itself. Woodward said he was “worried about Gilroy getting railroaded by a state agency with a lot of money and its own agenda.”
So is van Ark violating the law by stating cities have to pay for any below ground alternatives before the Environmental work is complete? No, concludes Gary Patton, Environmental Attorney and Executive Director for Community Coalition on High Speed Rail (CC-HSR). “It’s bad form but not illegal for Van Ark to make personal pronouncements prior to the end of the CEQA process. By the way, CEQA requires that all feasible mitigations that would reduce or eliminate identified impacts must be incorporated into the project. In other words, if a trench is ultimately determined to be “feasible” and effective in reducing project impacts, the Authority HAS to pay for it, not the local community.”
The cheapest design is not required by CEQA because the HSRA doesn’t have the money. In fact CEQA says in PRC Section 21002.1, ”[b]ecause an EIR must identify ways to mitigate or avoid the significant effects that a project may have on the environment the discussion of alternatives shall focus on alternatives to the project or its location which are capable of avoiding or substantially lessening any significant effects of the project, even if these alternatives would impede to some degree the attainment of the project objectives or would be more costly.”
Bottom line, there were many people who nodded yes to the concept of High Speed Rail in the November 2008 Prop 1A vote but they were missing key facts – – such as a valid business plan, (which is required by state law authorizing HSR). One would suppose many regret their “yes” vote today. With no business plan, no credible ridership numbers, even the most avid HSR supporter will look at the facts and acknowledge, “THIS high speed rail project” is not being done smartly. This project is not being done “right.”
Remember the vote did not authorize the project at any cost. Nor did it authorize broken promises like these two examples:
In 2008, in a senate subcommittee meeting, prior to the vote, we were promised:
• The Authority must update its business plan in a format consistent with a standard financial prospectus of the type that is required to be prepared for investors in new stock or bonding.
This has not been done and has failed the recent financial test of top financial and academics in Silicon Valley. cc-hsr.org/index.shtml#finreport
• The project is not being developed as a conventional public works project to be built with pay-as-you-go funding…”
This is also not being done. It’s politics as usual in Sacramento. The pay as you go plan. The Authority will have around $3 billion from the Federal Government plus the match of bond money IF they finish all CEQA requirements in time to get the money and IF the state of California approves the funding plan. And this funding isn’t enough for even a down payment for a system that could cost North of $60 billion dollars and the Federal Government is not going to be handing out money like candy in January.
The advice to the state legislature: Do the right thing, scratch the project now. Start again with new ridership numbers and a solid business plan and put honest numbers forward for a new vote that represents a more realistic project at a better time for the state.
What has been put forward to the public to date is not a solid foundation on which to build the most expensive project in the US. Let the people vote again and decide if it’s worth the costs, the exorbitant debt and destruction of irreplaceable agricultural and ranch lands and some of the finest neighborhoods in California.