The Orange County Transportation Authority voted unanimously Monday to send two messages to Sacramento and Washington lawmakers about the planned $98-billion high-speed rail project.
First, don’t go ahead with the 520-mile system until funding sources are secured to build a workable portion that immediately will carry high-speed trains.
But if either state or federal lawmakers kill the present plan, please make sure Orange County keeps its share of rail money for improvements to local commuter and freight systems.
“If they kill the project, as I understand it, they kill the whole thing,” said OCTA Chairwoman Pat Bates after the meeting. “We need to protect those funds.”
Specifically, the board is concerned about the future of $950 million of the $9.9 billion approved by voters in 2008 that was designated for connecting existing rail systems to the high-speed project.
Bates said local rail improvements that became part of the project — like track separations for freight and commuter lines — must be done whether or not the overall vision of an Anaheim-to-San Francisco high-speed line is built.
“That’s what I’m concerned about, that we don’t lose financing [for local upgrades] because it got transcended by high-speed rail,” said Bates, a member of the Orange County Board of Supervisors.
At the same time, she said, the OCTA board wanted to send a message to the leaders of the high-speed rail project that “you guys need to go back to the drawing boards.”
The draft letter approved by the OCTA board is a response to the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s latest business plan. The period for public comment on the plan closes Dec. 31, then the Rail Authority must submit a final plan to the Legislature. Lawmakers then must decide whether the project is ready to begin receiving allocations from the state’s $9-billion fund.
Supporters of the rail project, including High-Speed Rail Authority Chairman Tom Umberg, a former Orange County assemblyman, tried to persuade the OCTA board that it should move forward as currently proposed.
“The population of California is going to be 50 million in the year 2030” when the first phase of the rail project would be within three years of completion, Umberg said. High-speed rail could replace some highway or airport expansions to meet that need, he said.
Other supporters argued that the project would create construction jobs and be good for California’s overall economy. They included the Teamsters union, the Electrical Workers Union, the Orange County Business Council and Anaheim City Councilwoman Chris Murray, a former executive at OCTA.
But Assemblywoman Diane Harkey (R-Dana Point) urged the OCTA board to “demand a new and independent ridership study” before the project is allowed to move ahead.
Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson said he doesn’t believe current ridership projections, which estimate that as many as 30 million people could use the train annually. The estimates far exceed the actual ridership of Amtrak’s express train from New England to Washington, D.C., the most densely populated transportation corridor in the U.S.
Nelson also persuaded the board to include in the draft letter a request that rail leaders build a track system that would link Bakersfield to Los Angeles. There is Amtrak service in much of the Central Valley, but when southbound travelers arrive in Bakersfield, they must transfer to an Amtrak bus to reach Los Angeles.
In the end, the OCTA board approved a draft letter (see related documents) that will urge state officials to withhold funds from the California High-Speed Rail Authority until it meets the concerns of the legislative analyst and has firmly identified where it will get all of the federal and private funds needed to complete a fully-operational first stage.
A report by the nonpartisan legislative analyst’s office stated the project currently does not comply with state law because rail leaders plan to build the first 130 miles in the Central Valley that won’t be usable for high-speed trains until later portions are built.
Rail officials have said they believe the short section of track planned for the Central Valley does meet the requirements of Proposition 1A.
“The plan as currently conceived is in compliance with 1A,” said Umberg after the meeting. He said the High-Speed Rail Authority’s lawyers as well as the state attorney general’s and Gov. Jerry Brown’s all agree.
“They’re in accord,” said Umberg. “We’re in compliance with Proposition 1A.”
The OCTA board also approved a trip to Washington for board member Jerry Amante, a Tustin city councilman, to testify Thursday at a hearing by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee specifically about the California High-Speed Rail project.
Amante’s comments will mirror the draft letter the board is sending to the California High-Speed Rail Authority. But several OCTA board members said that despite all of their criticisms, they want to be sure they “keep a seat at the table.”
— TRACY WOOD