Friends, sick Romans, Republicans… lend me your ears.

REMINDER: Guess what!  The election is tomorrow.  Remember to vote, and to get your Democratic family members in those important swing states to vote.

UPDATE:  I’m officially endorsing David Campos in District 9.  Upon further research, being reminded that others whom I respect are supporting his candidacy, meeting the man on Cortland Avenue on Halloween, and learning of his outreach efforts and longstanding interest in the District, I recommend a vote for David Campos.

MORE:  There’s a great story in the SF Bay Guardian this week about the legacy of district elections and the progressive supervisors of the last eight years.  Highly recommended reading and very even-handed, honest reporting.  Its called Class of 2000.  I can’t find it on their website, but I will update with a link if/when I do.

Also, some unconfirmed information on the train proposition (1A), which I oppose, is attached below.

See you at the polls.


November 1, 2008

To:  Friends, Relatives, Acquaintances & Associates in California

Subject:  High-Speed Rail Bonds, Prop. 1A  —  As I See It

Dear Friends–

Over the last few weeks an increasing number of people, knowing my background, have asked how to vote on Prop. 1A, the high-speed rail bond measure.  California voters are gaining an increasing awareness that voting for a proposition on the ballot–and supporting the ideals purported to be behind that proposition–are two very different things.

I am in favor of high-speed rail in California.  That said, I must vote AGAINST this bond measure.

As most of you know, I worked for a passenger rail advocacy group the past six years.  As such, I followed the project closely and attended most all of the High-Speed Rail Authority (HSRA) board meetings held in Northern California. I have many reasons to be concerned.  $80 million dollars has been spent on “planning”, yet with all this money spent on consultant salaries, the route is still a broad, conceptual line.  If the project is funded, there is a high probability that it will never be built.  The official estimated cost for the project is $45 billion.  Some industry insiders I have spoken with believe that it will easily cost $80-$100 billion.

High-speed rail should be as straight as possible, both for speed and energy consumption.  Instead, the line veers in a 42-mile extra-long loop to hit open lands near Mojave to serve KB homes.  The route takes Pacheco Pass to, among other reasons, serve a not-yet-built community on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley near Santa Nella.  It veers 30 miles east from LA before going south because wealthy communities on the coastline don’t want it going through their towns.  Tiny Visalia even managed to get a study commissioned to bend the line east towards them so they could have a stop.

Think about energy for a moment.  Just the extra 42 miles to go through Palmdale means every train, every day, forever, will go 42 extra miles.  Think of the energy that will use.  Is that green?  Besides the other environmental problems associated with Pacheco Pass, it is a higher pass than Altamont Pass, thus taking more energy for every train, every day, to climb over the mountains.  Is that green?

Pacheco Pass was chosen as the preferred route by HSRA and “spun” as more environmentally friendly, even though the route passes through a huge wildlife refuge and opens up huge tracts of land to housing outside present urbanized areas.  To justify the decision, an HSRA board member with ties to San Jose insisted in a radio interview recently that the environmental problems with building Altamont Pass and a rail bridge at Dumbarton were “huge”, while those involved with crossing Pacheco and Grassland Wetlands were “minor”.  Even the group charged to protect the refuge near Dumbarton said it preferred the Altamont route.  Grassland, though you may never have heard of it, is on the Pacific Flyway and is the largest contiguous wetlands in the Western United States.  Using Pacheco would bisect this most important bird sanctuary, not to mention cutting a new transportation corridor through Pacheco Pass where no railroad has ever been built.

Some environmental groups were satisfied by recent legislation that “banned” a station between Gilroy and Merced.  That sounds great, except another law passed in 15-20 years could reverse the ban just as easily as the ban was created.   Why would this happen?  One of the largest greenfield developments, the Villages of Laguna San Luis, is proposed to be built around the banned station. Citizens of this future development will eventually demand a stop on the train running right through their community so they won’t have to drive to work in the Bay Area.  This station, by the way, is on the property of a bankrupt dairy farm owned by a state representative, whom the organization I used to work for found, through a public records request, had a $50,000 contract with the HSRA to “attend meetings”.  When asked for a public records disclosure of worked performed, they were told there was “no written product”.

$950 million of the Prop. 1A money is supposedly for other rail and transit agencies that will someday connect with high-speed rail.  Almost certainly that $950 million for conventional rail is fake, just like the money you voted for in Proposition 1B a couple of years ago was fake (in terms of being an increase in funding for rail transit).  The legislature simply zeroed out the traditional funding source for transit, then backfilled the loss with 1B money.  You the people voted for more rail money and got nothing, except a shell game in which you ending up paying for more bonds that are now paying down the state debt.  With the state budget in shambles, it is highly likely the same thing will happen with the $950 million for conventional rail in Prop. 1A.

Ron Roberts, the president of the Southern California Association of Governments and chairman of the Metrolink Commuter Rail Service (a service which stands to gain tens of millions of dollars if 1A passes) said “The high-speed bond measure only allows $9.9 billion when the actual cost for the first phase from San Francisco to LA is closer to $40 billion. That does not cover phase two from LA to San Diego through Riverside County.  Anyone south of LA will pay the price and never get the rail service if the bill is passed, and if the other $30 billion is not found, no one in California will ever ride on a high-speed train unless they go to a foreign country.”

High speed rail doesn’t currently exist in the US, thus making California the guinea pig of the Western Hemisphere.  Every mile and every town is its own large construction project, with the potential to morph into its own version of Boston’s “Big Dig”, the grand-daddy of transit cost overruns.  The HSRA is even using the same primary consultant that Boston did, which isn’t necessarily a foreshadowing but doesn’t exactly endear me with trust.  As much as you may want to see high-speed rail built “at any cost”, at some point the money simply won’t be there.

I co-wrote an article on the high-speed rail routing in the Central Valley, published in a 2002 edition of the newsletter of the advocacy organization I worked for.  The idea was that the express trains didn’t pass through the Valley towns, which are served by very fast conventional trains, while the express trains run on a straight alignment outside of town, thus saving billions by not having to buy numerous individual private properties, expand overpasses, relocate railroads and utilities, build sound-walls, overhead structures and trenches.  That’s how it’s done in Europe.

But the politicians in the San Joaquin Valley towns all want the big shiny trains stopping in their town, to put them on the map.  It’s like a 21st Century version of the spaghetti western film genre.  “If our town gets the railroad, we’ll grow like a weed, if it goes around us, all we’ll see are tumbleweeds.”  However, when the citizens realize what 220mph trains, a four-track trench, land-takings and years of construction really mean, the townspeople will revolt.  This project will be laden in lawsuits for years to come.

AB 3034 requires that the HSRA submit a financial-level business plan (set to the standards for any large public works venture) by October 1.  They don’t have one; and they won’t have one before the election.  Joe Vranich (whom I often disagree with–but not on this issue) testified recently in a hearing by Senator Alan Lowenthal regarding the lack of this business plan:

The Authority’s projection of 117 million annual riders is so far from reality that I have to call it what it is—science fiction. The Authority’s projection is far higher than what is found on high-speed rail systems around the world. The Authority anticipates an average load factor of nearly 85 percent. The Federal Railroad Administration’s study for California placed the average at 51 percent. The TGV system in France—which I’ve been on and I love—claims a load factor of 71 percent. The Authority’s projected load factor is nearly 20 percent higher than the very impressive French figure . . . The Authority projects intensities that are far above those achieved in Japan, France and the Boston–Washington Corridor.

Among the unreal estimates is that the trains will connect San Francisco with Los Angeles in 2 hours and 42 minutes. For that to occur, the trains would have to operate at an average speed of 197 mph, a feat that has yet to be accomplished anywhere in the world. That combined with routing problems means the trip is likely to take an hour longer.

High-speed rail holds great promise in certain sections of the country. But the work of the Authority is so deficient that if the current plan is implemented it has the potential of setting back the cause of high-speed rail throughout the United States. The Authority has not learned the lessons: What caused Texas high-speed rail to fail? What caused it to fail in Florida? What caused the prior project to fail between Los Angeles and San Diego?  A common element in the failures were high ridership estimates, low cost estimates, disregard for local environmental impacts and the planners losing credibility. The California Authority is repeating all of the mistakes as if they have never read a single page of history.

It is time to dissolve the California High Speed Rail Authority. Give it no more funding than is required for terminating contracts, transferring data and duties to a more responsible agency, and conducting an orderly shutdown.  High-speed rail in California may be salvageable—after all this poor work—but someone else must be in charge. If the Authority is unable to conduct studies that have credibility, then how will they ever effectively deliver a mega-construction project on time and within budget?  (end Vranich quotes)

Only $8-9 billion of the (supposed) $45 billion will be covered by the bond, while none of the other money is secured.  Where will the rest come from?  There are vague ideas about federal dollars, such as a stimulus package that hasn’t been written yet, or pots of cash – one such source mentioned is the CalPers retirement fund.  Then there are all those private investors the HSRA keeps talking about that are waiting in line to risk a billion here and a billion there.  The $650 million annual debt payment on the Prop. 1A bonds will equal half what California spends on ALL public transit annually.  Think about THAT for a moment!  Then realize that debt payment is only for the $10 billion bond, not on the full $45-$100 billion cost!

Unlike Prop. 1A which falls woefully short on project construction costs, the $2 billion from Proposition 116 from 1990 fully funded its rail projects, which are the intercity and commuter trains you see today.  Lacking as they may be compared to European trains, they are among the most successful passenger trains in the nation.  As if to add insult to injury, the Authority has twice in the last year “redirected” money from Prop. 116 for “planning”, by having the money funneled from projects that would have built actual rail infrastructure on California’s current routes.  As someone who campaigned for Prop. 116, I take this as a personal slap in the face.

I know you WANT to vote for this.  So do I, but knowing what I know I cannot.  I’m asking you to trust my judgment on this one.  In 15-20 years, if 1A passes, maybe we’ll have funded pieces of some transit systems, some right-of-way acquisition, a lot of lawyers, politicians, consultants, planners – but not a railroad.  And all this will delay for years many of the real rail projects we need because the legislature will say, “why bother, aren’t we building high-speed rail?”

It breaks my heart to vote against the ideal of a project I believe in so strongly.  Most everything I hear the proponents of this project say about high-speed rail is correct, but those truths are about a real, completed system, not Prop. 1A.  Please join me in shedding a tear for California while voting NO on Prop. 1A.

–Alan C. Miller

Note:  This is a one-time email. I am writing this as an individual, not in association with my past or current affiliations or employers.  The opinions expressed are mine alone.

Almost everyone I know asks me how EFF gets its money. Well, and we are a membership organization, which means that EFF depends on supporters like you for our budget. (And my job.) We are not, in fact, a foundation, nor does even half our money come from corporations or any large donor(s). So, for the end of this (pretty bad) economic year, EFF is running a friends and family membership drive that gives new members a deal on membership (and the schwag that comes with it). Go here to take advantage of it. Excelsior!