Recap of 2010 and what to expect in 2011

Happy new year! I want to recap what happened in 2010 and identify what to expect in 2011 with regard to the California High Speed Rail Authority’s proposal to put its trains through Alhambra and our neighboring cities. We have a busy year ahead of us.

UPDATE: Some of this is apparently is now outdated. The day after I made this post, the City of Alhambra announced that its next City Council meeting (Jan. 24) would address the Rail Authority’s staff decision to recommend only the I-10 route and placement of an elevated platform 74 feet above street level.

Recap 2010

1. Alhambra and neighboring cities in the cross hairs

In August, we learned that the California High Speed Rail Authority is talking seriously about sending high speed trains at speeds up to 150 miles per hour through residential neighborhoods on either the north or south sides of the I-10 freeway or in the center of the I-10 freeway where it will potentially take up the carpool lanes and the existing Metrolink tracks. Click to view maps. The train would go by every 7 to 15 minutes, from 5 a.m. to midnight, 365 days a year, and tower more than 35 to 50 feet high.

That proposal is part of a high speed railway between Los Angeles Union Station and San Diego. Environmental review would begin by the end of 2011 and construction could begin two to three years later (2015), assuming the project is funded. However, the Rail Authority currently does not intend to actually begin construction until 2020 the earliest, after it has completed the first phase of its high speed railway from San Francisco to Anaheim.

The Rail Authority will decide whether to include the I-10 corridor west of the 605 in its full environmental review during its board meeting in March 2011. Initially, it had intended to make the decision on October 7, 2010; however cities, their residents, and the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments (SGVCOG), which represents 31 cities in the region, urged the Rail Authority to delay any action until February.

2. General background on the progress of the statewide high speed rail network

The Rail Authority has divided the construction of its statewide high speed rail project into phases. The first phase will be from San Francisco to Anaheim. It is slated to begin construction during 2012 and finish in 2020. The second phase is the L.A. to San Diego segment that the Rail Authority has proposed routing through the San Gabriel Valley. The Rail Authority intends to begin construction of the second phase between 2020 and 2025. Other phases would foreseeably connect Irvine, Sacramento, the Central Coast, Las Vegas, and Northern California.

The Rail Authority continues to work on the first phase of its project between San Francisco and Anaheim. It is compiling environmental impact reports for the segments, arranging financing, and working through the details of how to accomplish its goals and building the project. At the same time, it has been criticized for rubber stamping plans issued by its contractors, not properly tracking expenses, and overestimating ridership estimates while underestimating costs.

Significantly, the Rail Authority decided during November to begin construction of its project in the Central Valley when it decided to start with a section between Fresno and Corcoran. A few weeks later, it added a section between Corcoran and Bakersfield. In both decisions, the Rail Authority board was given a Hobson’s choice (a choice that really is not a choice) by the Obama Administration.

The federal government awarded the Rail Authority nearly $4 billion in grants toward construction of the high speed network during 2010. The first grant (around $3 billion) had a series of conditions that seemed to limit construction of the first segment to the Central Valley. A second grant made in December apparently identified the segment the money is intended to fund (Corcoran to Bakersfield). Construction is expected to begin next year on the segment between the Fresno area to Bakersfield.

The Rail Authority still has not identified how it will finance the first phase of its project. The first segment is officially forecast to cost about $45 billion. Unofficial estimates put the price tag closer to $75 billion. Proposition 1A, approved by voters in 2008, covers about $9 billion. The federal grants provide for about $4 billion. Together that is about $13 billion. More recently, the Japanese government has offered to lend about 50% of the cost (another $22-23 billion). The Chinese, French, and Germans are likely to make similar offers. That leaves the Rail Authority about $8 to $9 billion short of its project costs. Wall Street is the most likely source of any remaining amount.

3. Burdens await

We learned that once operational:

  • a train would go by every 7 to 15 minutes;
  • trains would run from 5 a.m. to midnight, 365 days a year;
  • the trains are likely to be elevated on a platform at a minimum of 35 feet high (more than 3 stories) and quite likely 50 feet high (the freeway sound walls are 14 feet high through most of Alhambra); and
  • @ 125 MPH high speed trains at ground level are about 77 decibels loud. They even louder when elevated. In contrast, Caltrans expects the freeway to register about 70 decibels after it finishes construction and puts the new high occupancy toll lane in service (currently an empty buffer lane next to the carpool lane).

4. Alternative routes

The Rail Authority has proposed 4 alternative routes between L.A. Union Station and the 605 freeway. Two of those routes are not feasible at the moment.

  • Union Pacific (UP) right of way: Not feasible because California lacks power of eminent domain over railroads. Union Pacific refuses to cooperate.
  • Union Pacific adjacent: Not feasible because it is too destructive. The route would tear through commercial and industrial businesses, & homes
  • SR-60 freeway: The 60 freeway may not be feasible depending on whether Metro chooses it for the Goldline Extension from East L.A. By September, Metro will complete an environmental impact report for the the Goldline extension. At that point, it will decide on whether to route the light rail down the 60 freeway or Washington Blvd to Whittier.
  • I-10 freeway

5. Community opposition produced results

Since opposition appeared in August, the Rail Authority has been forced to hold community meetings, present to city councils multiple times, and modify its presentations to better address our concerns. It is likely that less outreach would have been done had our communities not been so vocal.

Another positive sign is that the Rail Authority has backpedaled and scaled back its initial proposals. When it first approached Alhambra, the Rail Authority proposed cutting through residential neighborhoods between the 710 and 605 freeways. As it stands today, its staff and consultants are promising not to make any proposals that would go outside the footprint of the freeway or force any resident from their homes. That said, the staff and consultants do not have the power to make such a promise. Only the Rail Authority Board makes decisions on routes, although it does strongly consider advice from its staff and consultants.

6. The California High Speed Rail Authority was a troubled agency throughout 2010

  • Two board members held other public offices that directly conflicted with their duties and obligations to the Rail Authority. One member, Richard Katz, also sat on the boards of Metro and Metrolink. He ultimately resigned from the Rail Authority to preserve his seats on those boards. The second, Curt Pringle, was also mayor of Anaheim and sat on OCTA. His terms as mayor and on the OCTA board ended in December thus ending the conflict. Also in December, Mr. Pringle was reappointed to the Rail Authority board in one of the last official acts as governor by Arnold Schwarznegger.
  • Misters Katz and Pringle were also accused of having personal financial conflicts of interest.
  • Reports issued by the State Auditor and State Inspector General cited poor contracting and oversight practices.
  • The Rail Authority began work on a third set of ridership estimates that forecast how many people are expected to ride the high speed trains and the stations those riders will use. The first two ridership forecasts were not reliable. Ridership forecasts are extremely important because they estimate how much business the high speed rail system will generate for the Rail Authority. Those forecasted numbers are the basis for a number of things including where the trains and stations should go, whether the system can generate enough revenue to cover operating costs, and whether the Rail Authority can expect to pay back bonds it will need to construct its high speed rail network.
  • The non-partisan Legislative Analyst was critical of the Rail Authority’s business plan in its last analysis in March 2010 According to the Legislative Analyst’s report, the Rail Authority’s business plan lacks important details such as a discussion of risk management and identifiable deliverables or milestones against which progress can be measured.

What to expect during 2011

1. The Rail Authority will focus on Phase 1

The Rail Authority will spend 2011 focused primarily on Phase 1 of its project, which is the main line between San Francisco and Anaheim. The L.A. to San Diego route is part of Phase 2 and is lower in its priorities list. Federal grants of money, totaling around $4 billion, requires the Rail Authority to meet certain deadlines such as breaking ground in 2012. That means we are likely to see action items on the board’s calendar or to-do list related to the L.A. to San Diego route bumped in favor of Phase 1 items.

The focus on Phase 1 likely will lead to some uncertainty in our community about what the Rail Authority is planning, especially if there are sizable delays in the timeline provided by the Rail Authority. On the positive side, we should start to learn more information about the high speed trains as the Rail Authority releases environmental impact reports for segments of its project from San Francisco to Anaheim. More specifically, we’ll learn about impacts on other communities, steps to mitigate those impacts, aesthetic design, and about noise issues.

2. Alternatives Analysis process, and beyond

The Rail Authority is currently engaged in the early stages of the environmental review process. Its actions are controlled by a state statute called the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and a federal statute called the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Together, the two statutes set out the process that must be followed by the Rail Authority in making decisions that affect the environment.

The Rail Authority is currently in a stage it calls the preliminary alternatives analysis process. During this time, it has identified certain alternative routes that seem to make sense to its engineers to get from point A to point B. In our case, point A is Union Station and point B is El Monte. This process will culminate in March when the Rail Authority staff and contractors will present a report to its board recommending routes that should be studied in further detail.

Rail Authority representatives will recommend in its March report that both routes along the Union Pacific right of way be discarded and no longer considered. That is at least what I was told its representatives conveyed to the San Gabriel Council of Governments transportation committee last week. The State of California lacks the power of eminent domain over the Union Pacific. Without cooperation from Union Pacific then the state has no way to utilize that right of way. The route adjacent to the Union Pacific right of way is way too disruptive to the local and state economies. Put another way, the Rail Authority staff will recommend only the routes along the I-10 and SR-60 freeways be studied in detail as possible routes.

A few months later, the Rail Authority will issue its final/supplemental alternatives analysis report. At that point, the Rail Authority will begin the environmental impact report/statement (EIR/EIS) process, which it expects will take two to three years. CEQA requires an EIR. NEPA requires an EIS. Both laws allow for a combined document, to save us the trouble of reading two mostly duplicate documents. 🙂

3. Political Activism

We must be politically active to achieve our goals and ensure the communities along the route are not unreasonably burdened by the high speed rail project. Ultimately, most decisions by the Rail Authority are political in nature, including the routes it chooses, how it uses the state’s scarce resources, or how it spends the taxpayer’s money.

To that end, several of us have actively engaged our elected representatives.

  • Last Friday, a small group of us met with Congresswoman Judy Chu in her offices in El Monte. We spoke with her about some of our concerns regarding the high speed rail project. We made two requests: 1) to publicly support a delay in the alternatives analysis process; and 2) introduce legislation that would give California and other states limited rights of eminent domain over underutilized railroad rights of way.
  • I made the same requests to Congressman Adam Schiff’s office.
  • The same group that met with Congresswoman Chu will meet with Assemblymember Mike Eng this coming Friday to voice our concerns.
  • We have attended city council meetings and spoken with our city council members to voice our concerns

To be successful, larger numbers in our communities must get politically active during 2011. I intend to post “action alerts” from time to time asking you to organize your friends, family, and neighbors to contact and ask our elected representatives to act. The first action alert will ask everyone to repeat our demand of Congresspersons Schiff and Chu, demanding Congress allow states limited rights of eminent domain over underutilized railroad rights of way.

4. Community Involvement

We must better engage San Gabriel Valley communities that will be affected. The residents and businesses need to know so they may raise their concerns about the project and suggestions on how it may be improved before it is too late.

Send email to dan [at] alhambra123.org if you would like to get even more involved, whether it be: helping with 3d modeling on the computer; involving your PTA, church, or other community group; canvassing neighborhoods and businesses; or setting up booths or passing out flyers at community events such as the farmers’ market or lunar new year festival.

Together our communities can limit any burdens the project might have on us. No matter how negative it might look, the high speed rail proposal is something we must continue to actively address. We have already had a significant affect on how the Rail Authority approaches the cities and residents along the I-10 freeway corridor. Working together, we can continue to successfully force the Rail Authority to consider our needs and limiting the impacts of its project.

I’ll continue to post developments and information to this web site –> http://www.alhambra123.org/ You do not need to visit the web site daily to know when I make new posts. You can subscribe to receive updates by email or for RSS feeds by clicking the links on the top right corner of the web site.

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