OCTA Unfriendly to High-Speed Rail

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Gov. Jerry Brown and state high-speed rail officials were urged Monday by a unanimous Orange County Transportation Authority board to forget the $68-billion bullet train project and create instead a basic state rail system.

One after another, board members told Valerie Martinez, the local representative of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, they couldn’t rely on the rail authority’s cost estimates and financing plans.

“Take a little more common-sense approach to this,” urged Orange Mayor Carolyn V. Cavecche. She said public support for the project “has plummeted” as the number of official reports criticizing the financing and management of the Anaheim-to-San Francisco project have mounted.

Several OCTA board members specifically noted there is no passenger train service of any kind through the Central Valley from Los Angeles to northern California because of a “gap” between Palmdale and Bakersfield, where there is a track for freight but not for passengers.

And state officials have said financing for high-speed rail now is supposed to come largely from “cap and trade” money or pollution credits.

Brown is even getting the caution flag from OCTA board member and Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido, who considers himself a friend and supporter of the governor.

Pulido told the OCTA board it would “behoove us not to put too much faith” in cap and trade as a source of high-speed rail funding. He said there will be a great deal of competition from a number of projects for that money.

“Let’s slow down,” said Pulido, a Democrat. “Let’s let things become much more clear.”

Three Republican OCTA board members, supervisors Shawn Nelson, John Moorlach and Pat Bates, a former assemblywoman, each voiced strong skepticism.

“My question is, where is this money going to come from?” asked Nelson.

“It comes from hope,” said Bates.

“I find it all very surreal,” said Moorlach, noting there is no history of passenger rail traffic through the Central Valley to demonstrate there is a need for high-speed rail.

Lake Forest Mayor Peter Herzog said the only thing that currently available money would pay for is new rail track running parallel to existing track with still no way to connect passenger service between Bakersfield to Palmdale.

The quickest way to get a train system that would run from Los Angeles to San Francisco through the Central Valley is to “fill the gap,” said Herzog, who proposed drafting a letter to high-speed rail officials.

He said such a system would “unify the entire state” and enable Republicans and Democrats in the state’s congressional delegation to lobby other members of Congress for money. Currently Republicans in the House of Representatives are saying they won’t vote for more high-speed rail money.

The board unanimously decided to draft a letter to state officials and bring it back to the board for approval before sending it.

Their action came as federal rail officials have insisted the project begin laying track in the Central Valley and, according to the Los Angeles Times, have pressured the Legislature to approve state bond money in the next few weeks, rather than waiting until August, as some legislators preferred.

The Times also reported Monday that California would have to move at unprecedented speed to meet all deadlines and qualify for existing federal funds.

According to the Times:

The bullet train track through the Central Valley would cost $6 billion and have to be completed by September 2017, or else potentially lose some of its federal funding. It would mean spending as much as $3.5 million every calendar day, holidays and weekends included — the fastest rate of transportation construction known in U.S. history, according to industry and academic experts.

State Senate committees charged with oversight of high-speed rail budgeting and construction legislation are scheduled to meet Tuesday to hear analysis from the independent legislative analyst’s office and the state auditor. Both have strongly criticized the rail authority’s financial plans and management.

— TRACY WOOD

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