The Director's Cut on High-Speed Rail in California

Some reporters write long. If an editor gives them 3,000 words, they'll take 4,000. Some reporters write short. Give them 3,000 words and they'll struggle to ...
by | May 4, 2010

Palo Alto RR 359

Some reporters write long. If an editor gives them 3,000 words, they'll take 4,000. Some reporters write short. Give them 3,000 words and they'll struggle to fill the space.

With me, it all depends. Sometimes, I struggle to come up with enough words. But, the more nuances a story has the more I get into it, the more words I'll have in my head.

My story in the May issue of GOVERNING on high-speed rail definitely was one where my head was filled with words. More than 3,000 of those words made it into the article, but I still have a ton more to say. So, consider this the outtakes or the director's cut.

--I hedged a little in the article on whether high-speed rail in California is the biggest public works project in America. It's definitely really, really big -- which makes the small size of the High-Speed Rail Authority's staff incredible to me. As of the December Business Plan, the Authority had only 8.5 full-time equivalents on its staff (it was budgeted for 11.5). That was with a 2009-2010 budget of $139 million.

There are a couple of reasons that perhaps the largest public works project in American history had fewer than 10 state employees working on it. One is that most of the grunt work is being done by an army of contractors. The other is that the Authority is transitioning from being an organization that, until recently, had a very small purpose in the context of California state government. It was building support for high-speed rail and doing early planning work. Until California voters approved the ballot measure to fund high-speed rail in 2008, the state didn't want to spend a lot of money on what was nothing more than an idea.

Now, everyone acknowledges that the Authority needs to get bigger if it's going to do its job well. The Authority is asking for its budgeted staff to increase, from 11.5 to 38.5 full-time equivalents.

--That assumes, of course, that the Authority continues to exist at all. There's some debate about that. The Authority is an independent agency. It's overseen by a part-time board that is appointed by the governor and key legislators. This structure is designed to give the Authority a measure of political independence, but some legislators worry that it also creates a lack of accountability. So, there's some talk of folding high-speed rail into a conventional state agency.

--For now, the board still is calling the shots. It's in the process of hiring the Authority's new executive director. I had an interesting conservation on that topic with Curt Pringle, the chairman of the Authority's Board (and Anaheim's mayor). I asked him if he was looking for technical expertise in an executive director and he, in essence, said no. The important thing, in his view, is that the person be a skilled manager who's capable of handling a large public works project.

That might sound strange, but it reminded me of the biography of Pete Rahn, the Missouri Department of Transportation head that Governing named as a Public Official of the Year last year. Rahn's experience prior to starting at New Mexico Department of Transportation wasn't even in transportation. He was a planner and insurance salesman.

--The small Authority staff is probably part of the reason lines of communications haven't always been open or clear between the Authority and cities such as Palo Alto. Joe Simitian, who represents the Peninsula in the California Senate, offered another reason for the communications problems. He said that the Authority has viewed the process as iterative: they come with plans, then they revise those plans, then they revise them again. But, to those the outside, that process has made it seem as though the Authority can't give a straight answer.

--Simitian also had high praise for the citizen activists in his district. "I can't over emphasize the amount of time andtalent that has been brought to be bear," he said. By that, I think he was referring to Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design, which is an all-volunteer citizen group that I highlighted in my story's sideshow. It is striking that some of the toughest (and most technical) questions about the Authority's ridership projections came from Elizabeth Alexis, a member of CARRD.

--Besides ridership, one of the huge questions obviously is funding. The state is counting on billions of additional dollars from the federal government beyond what it received from the stimulus. But, one reason the Authority thinks that money is coming is that lots of other states received some high-speed rail money in the stimulus. All of these states now have a vested interest in getting annual high-speed rail funding approved by Congress, so they can make high-speed rail a reality too. You could call this the F-22 funding model -- if programs are designed to benefit lots of states, Congress is more likely to pay for them.

--Still, as I wrote in the article, the Authority's own business plan acknowledges that there are risks that jeopardize completion of the project. What I didn't say is that this section of the report was panned by legislators. They didn't think it reflected serious thinking on how to mitigate risks. As an example, here's what the report said about concerns about inadequate ridership, "These possibilities would be mitigated by policies that continue to draw people to reside in California and that encourage high-speed rail as an alternative mode of transportation preferable to other modes."

--Unfortunately, rail has been in the news for other reasons in Palo Alto too. A series of suicides have taken place on the Caltrain tracks. With high-speed rail, there wouldn't be any grade crossings, so it would be much more difficult to drive a car onto the tracks.

But, there are other risks. Security is a major concern of James Moore, an engineering professor at USC. "To keep a high-speed rail system secure," he says, "You've got to keep the entire right of way secure." Moore fears that attacks similar to the 2004 Madrid train bombings would be possible.

On the other hand, it's worth noting that car accidents kill tens of thousands of people in the U.S. each year. So, to the extent that high-speed rail takes cars off the roads, it's possible that a lot of lives could be saved.

--One thing I never mention in the story is whether Palo Alto will have a high-speed rail station. The answer: maybe. Station locations haven't finalized and stops in Palo Alto and Redwood City are under consideration. But, other than perhaps from the business community, I didn't detect much enthusiasm in Palo Alto for a stop. Residents are worried that a stop would just mean more traffic congestion. It's possible that the nearest stops will be in San Jose and near where San Francisco International Airport is located.

- -I hinted at this in the story, but didn't quite put it as bluntly as I could. Some supporters of high-speed rail think that the critics on the Peninsula are spoiled, rich NIMBYs. Brian Stanke, executive director of Californians for High-Speed Rail, described the opponents' arguments like this: "You shouldn't build this thing, it's going to cost too muchand, by the way, you should build a tunnel where I live."

People in Palo Alto and throughout the Peninsula are VERY sensitive to this criticism. They've focused on the big issues in high-speed rail -- ridership projections, financing, etc. -- in part because those are genuine sources of concern, but also (I think, anyway) in part because they're trying to demonstrate that they're not NIMBYs. They're making the point that they care about the project as a whole, not just how it affects Palo Alto or Atherton or Menlo Park.

--In the story, I say, "Farmers in the Central Valley wonder whether vibrations from the train will knock almonds off their trees." Perhaps you're wondering whether California almond production is a big deal. It is. According to the Almond Board of California, "California produces about 80 percent of the world's almonds and virtually 100 percent of the domestic supply." All of California's almond-producing counties are in the Central Valley. Incredibly, the value of California's almond exports is more than twice the value of its wine exports.

JMRosenfeld--Finally, a mea culpa: In the story I refer to "Stanford's popular tree mascot" (right). Here's what Wikipedia has to say, "The tree regularly appears at the top of internet 'worst mascot' lists." And, that one sentence comes with five citations!

But, just look at those eyes. Apparently, the people who write Internet worst mascot lists have crumpled balls of soot where their hearts used to be. (Main photo: David Kidd: Stanford photo: JMRosenfeld, flickr/CC)

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman | Former Staff Writer |