Senator: High-Speed Rail at Political Crossroads


State Sen. Alan Lowenthal, who chairs the committee on high-speed rail, says the $43-billion project is at a political crossroads. (Photo credit: San Francisco Examiner)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011 | California's proposed high-speed rail project, battered by an uncommonly long series of very critical state audits and analyses, is reaching a political crossroads, says one influential state senator.

"We can all come together on it, or it can all disintegrate," said Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on High-Speed Rail.

In less than three months, the nine-member High-Speed Rail Authority board must devise "plans B and C," as Lowenthal puts it, for raising more than $43 billion to build the train system should the federal government back out.

The rail authority also must decide who will run the trains and how. And with groundbreaking scheduled a year from now in the Central Valley, it must present an environmental impact plan that won't wind up in a prolonged court fight.

All of this must be accomplished against a backdrop of ongoing debate over whether the Central Valley is the best place to begin the train system. Some argue that it makes more economic sense to create an express train system in the urban hubs at either end and work toward connecting them later.

Gov. Jerry Brown, who dealt with a failed high-speed rail proposal the last time he was governor, was pulled directly into the fracas Monday. Former Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle resigned from the rail authority and pointedly said his departure was an opportunity for Brown to demonstrate how he felt about the project with whomever he chose to fill the vacancy.

Last week Voice of OC asked the governor's office staff to discuss Brown's views on the current project, but there was no response.

At the heart of the rail problems, according to Lowenthal and others, is a basic inability of rail authority leaders to communicate with either the general public or state lawmakers.

"California wants high-speed rail, but there are many difficult questions that must be asked," said Lowenthal He supports a high-speed rail system but has been critical of the way the current project is managed. "If we can pull it off, that would be great."

Lowenthal said among his concerns is that those planning the 800-mile train system are ignoring the lessons of the past when it comes to garnering public support.

California has a history of being in the forefront with huge, innovative engineering projects, such as the Owens Valley aqueduct, which was built 100 years ago to bring water from the eastern side of the Sierra to the San Fernando Valley. The project was an engineering marvel that enriched its backers, but it devastated farmland in the Owens Valley.

Similarly, the very earliest freeways in the 1950s plowed straight lines through communities, causing civic outrage and even leading to decades-long efforts to stop them, as in Pasadena and communities east of the 105 freeway in Norwalk.

The Army Corps of Engineers, Lowenthal recalled, paved the sides and bottoms of rivers, creating smooth channels for water but obliterating wildlife habitats and recreational open space.

None of those things would be allowed to happen today, he said.

"You don't come in and impose things on communities. We have learned time and time again, you have to develop support in communities. You can't impose" mega projects on them.

Failure to listen and a refusal to work with local leaders and those most adversely affected has been a constant criticism of project planners by local elected officials and residents from the San Francisco Bay Area to Buena Park.

At a joint meeting Friday of the Senate Agriculture and Transportation and Housing Committees, rail authority CEO Roelof van Ark said, "Obviously, we're not going to satisfy everybody's wishes always."

He said the rail authority has held more than 700 meetings in the Central Valley, but farmers who have testified complain that meetings lack substance.

They and local elected officials say they can't get answers to questions or are left out of meetings altogether when the sessions are aimed at those who already support the rail project.

Another meeting is scheduled for Thursday in Kings County, according to the Hanford Sentinel. Farmers are expected to voice concerns about routes that run through prime farm land and about lack of information from the rail authority.

Planners must "do a much better job on outreach," said Lowenthal. "It's just outrageous. Anybody who's done any work at all in California knows a project makes it or breaks it by outreach. This [outreach] was designed by non-Californians."

The rail authority has allowed construction contractors to manage outreach to those most affected, but according to numerous complaints from farmers and local elected officials, the contractors only wanted to work with groups and individuals who support the project. Those whose property might be harmed were ignored, according to the complaints.

In addition, the overall outreach effort has been criticized as being nothing more than a PR campaign, not serious government communications.

When voters approved the high-speed rail plan in 2008, the nation was in much better financial shape, but the rail authority is moving forward as if it is a typical transit project in typical times, Lowenthal noted.

Project leaders need to learn how to work with the Legislature, provide solid information and "then come together and figure out 'where are we?'" said Lowenthal.

If the project is not on the right course, he said, "let's fix it now. It will be much more difficult to fix it later."

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