Building Credibility at the High Speed Rail Authority Board Meeting August 30th, 2011
August 25 Meeting Report by Bill Kerby, RailPAC Treasurer
Public comments, invited by the High Speed Rail Authority (HSRA) Board at the opening of the meeting August 25, 2011, lasted about a half hour with two minute presentations: hiring opportunities for small businesses; environmental justice; support for HSRA recommended route alignments; and one instance where an individual engaged in self promotion for employment. Planners and business owners weighed in on alignment A2 through Fresno arguing that tracks will divide the communities on this route.
Two new members of the Board, Thomas Richards and Michael Rossi, were sworn in by Chairman Umberg during the public commentary. The Chairman welcomed them, noted that they have the confidence of Governor Brown, and expressed gratitude for the service of the outgoing members, David Crane and Kurt Pringle.
The action item involving HSRA funds was approved with the caution that no single contractor should receive the system-wide job. Resolution HSR11-21 resolves “(t)hat in accordance with the conditions of …the resolution…, approved by the Board on July 14, 2011, the Board approves the methods of ensuring contractors’ performance and accountability substantially as presented, and which will be included in the RFP for Right-of-Way services, and authorizes the CEO to issue one or more RFP’s and concludes contracts for Right-of-Way services in an amount not to exceed $40 million.”
Roelof van Ark, CEO of the Authority, and Jeff Morales former Chief of Caltrans and current leader of the working group for a HSR business plan, offered explanations of the need for high speed rail in California. Morales stated that benefit cost analysis excludes the cost of not investing in high speed rail, which the staff asserts will have costs exceeding $100 billion if the state needs to build between 2,000 to 3,000 new lane miles of highway. Then Kurt Ramey, of the accounting firm KPMG which has been hired to reshape the authority’s business plan for the system, presented schematic information on the business model and a funding and finance plan. Funding requirements for the high speed rail project will range from $3 to $4 billion in each of the next 15 years. The funding plan will be detailed and discussed at a public hearing December 1, 2011; a final business plan will be unveiled January 1, 2012, and included in the governor’s budget on January 12, 2012.
Chief Executive Officer van Ark presented a long list of recent agency actions which highlighted the accelerated pace of work. Key work includes release of the second draft of the two part environmental impact statement for the Merced to Fresno and Fresno to Bakersfield segments of the project; each part is available on line for review and comment until October 13th. Several high level positions, including those of chief financial officer, project manager, and chief legal counsel, are expected to be filled by the next board meeting of the authority. An agricultural working group, which was recently established, began meeting with the HSRA several months after a heated interchange during a prior HSRA meeting, between the HSRA’s former chair, Kurt Pringle, and two representatives of Kings County’s farming community who protested that their concerns were summarily rejected by Mr. Pringle. Since then, the HSRA set up a project office in Kings County which is staffed by two persons who work with the community on outreach and technical issues. Van Ark announced that an advisory committee to the principal engineering contractor, Parsons Brinckerhoff, led by the Authority’s General Van Winkle, meets periodically to implement plans, such as the substitution of berms for viaducts in various locations as well as adjust them. With the early termination of the previous controversial systemwide $9 million outreach contract awarded during the administration of former Governor Schwarzenegger, the HSRA will review bids for a new $1 million contract. Reports from the critical ridership peer review panel are late; they have rerun demand models with updated and presumably better data. Mr. van Ark expressed optimism, with the internationally known experts on the peer review panel, that the problems in generating the final ridership report will be resolved.
Linking Bakersfield to the LA Basin by high speed rail continues to be a problem in choosing between the direct Grapevine route and the Palmdale alternative. The HSRA established a study group to assess the feasibility of a shorter route through Tejon Ranch near Interstate Highway 5; that group will submit a report at the HSRA Board meeting on September 22, 2011. Support for the Palmdale route continues to be very strong, with elected officials endorsing it in the earlier public commentary of this meeting. A hearing on August 29th was scheduled to determine whether litigation will proceed on the right of the Authority to study the Palmdale route.
On the San Francisco Peninsula, interim design changes morphed the dedicated four track high speed rail proposal into a blended hybrid system. In the eight miles between Redwood City and Hayward Park, a four track system is planned to be shared with Caltrain. Caltrain and the HSRA will meet next month to make progress on this hybrid proposal. RailPAC northern vice president and Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board member, Arthur Lloyd monitored the proceedings from his second row seat.
HSRA Vice-Chair, Lynn Schenk (San Diego), asked if some piece of the project scheduled in Phase I fails, such as the Peninsula segment, would it be legal to shift Phase I funds to Phase II projects. A lawyer from the Office of the Attorney General of California opined that the movement is not inconsistent with the bond act which enables the entire project. A written opinion is expected by the next board meeting on the legality of moving funds from one project phase to another. Ms. Shenk has called for consideration of planning by elected officials from Sacramento to Merced to advance their time tables on building Phase II components. Meanwhile, a final arbitration hearing on the complaints brought by the City of Atherton on the San Francisco Peninsula is under consideration by an arbitrator and a finding is expected 90 days after August 12th.
With the filling of high level positions at the HSRA, narrowing down of route choices, and the collection of public input and legal opinions, decisions made by the next meeting of the authority should reduce uncertainty of “the way forward.” In the meantime, curious readers will review the second draft EIR for the Merced to Bakersfield segments of the high speed rail route at http://cahighspeedrail.ca.gov/draft-eir-m-f.aspx.