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Republican’s Attempt to Undermine High Speed Rail on Hold…for Now

The Assembly Transportation Committee said “thanks, but no thanks” to A.B. 6, legislation by a Santa Clarita Republican that would give voters the chance to overturn $8 billion in bonds meant to fund California High Speed Rail. A.B. 6 was defeated by an unofficial vote of 7-4 (which will likely be 11-5 when the official tally is released.)

Assemblymember Scott Wilk (R-Santa Clarita) introduced the legislation in hopes of rerouting the funding approved by voters in 2008 for high-speed rail to schools instead. The wastefulness of spending on high-speed rail has been an article of faith for Republicans, with governors in Wisconsin and Florida actually returning federal funding for bullet train projects.

With Governor Jerry Brown championing the project, conservatives have taken to mocking the “Browndoggle” even though campaigning against high-speed rail has not proven to be an electoral winner in the Golden State.

So rather than just attacking high speed rail, Wilk’s argument wasn’t just that high-speed rail is a waste, but that the money could be better spent on schools. Wilk made that argument this weekend in the Sacramento Bee.

I believe there is a better use of the $8 billion set aside for high-speed rail. California is in dire need of school facility funding. The last statewide school bond was passed in 2006; only $187 million remains and of that, $142 million is earmarked for seismic repair.

According to the Office of Public School Construction, future need for K-12 new construction and modernization is estimated at more than $16 billion. These bond funds not only are critical to schools, they are beneficial to the economy and will generate thousands of construction-related jobs.

Read more…


High-Speed Rail Breaks Ground in Fresno

Photo by Alex Brideau III

At today’s groundbreaking in Fresno, Governor Jerry Brown celebrates construction of California’s High-Speed Rail. Photo by Alex Brideau III

California signaled its commitment to high-speed rail with a groundbreaking today in Fresno. The ceremony, featuring a speech by Governor Jerry Brown, marks the official beginning of construction on the long-awaited train.

It also puts California on track to be the first state in the nation to build high-speed rail. That depends on how you define it, though; Amtrak’s Acela Express service between Boston and D.C. comes close, getting up to 150 miles per hour on some sections.

The first section of track to be constructed will run 29 miles between Fresno and the town of Madera to the north. It includes two viaducts, a trench in downtown Fresno, and twelve grade separations—most of them lifting existing roads over the at-grade tracks.


Route of high-speed rail between Madera and Fresno. The first construction phase ends at Avenue 17, just south of Avenue 19 1/2. Image: CAHSR Authority

Today’s groundbreaking was held at the site of the future downtown Fresno high-speed rail station. It was largely ceremonial, as actual construction may not start until April. However, pre-construction activities have been underway, including archaeological and geotechnical preparation work.

In his speech Governor Brown addressed project criticisms, saying it is necessary to be critiqued to build a better project.

“It’s not about money,” he added. “You’ve got to get something in the ground. You’ve got to put the building trades people to work.”

He compared building high-speed rail with other large projects that have met with opposition, like the Central Valley Water Project, the Golden Gate Bridge, and BART. “All those projects were a little bit touch-and-go,” he said.

Read more…


California Legislation Watch: Weekly Update

Screen Shot 2014-05-02 at 4.34.24 PMHere is Streetsblog’s weekly highlight of California legislation and activities related to sustainable transportation.

With the legislature in recess, Sacramento waits for Governor Brown to decide on hundreds of bills passed by lawmakers before they left town. His deadline is the end of this month, and he has begun signing small groups of bills.

A Win for Bikes on Buses: The governor signed A.B. 2707, from Assemblymember Ed Chau (D-Arcadia), allowing 40-foot buses (not longer) to carry mounted bike racks that can carry three bikes. L.A. Metro, the bill’s sponsor, will be able to add half again as much bike-carrying capacity to more than half of its fleet, including new buses on order, and the new regulation applies to transit agencies throughout the state. See Streetsblog’s coverage here.

Climate Change Conversation: State leaders held a symposium in Sacramento this week to pat themselves on the back for state efforts on climate change. Both former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and current Governor Jerry Brown spoke at the gathering, which also featured talks by climate change researchers and business leaders who are finding ways to thrive under California’s regulations.

The overall themes were: California leads the world; California needs to do more, and soon; the economy will not wither and die if we try to fix climate change; and individuals still do not understand the impact of their individual choices. See Ethan Elkind’s recap of the symposium here

Bicycling was mentioned twice in the course of the morning. It’s hard to say whether that’s progress: a life-long bicycle activist I spoke to afterwards told me there’s a sense that bikes will never be able to replace long driving commutes and therefore a focus on bikes seems too small and too slow in the face of the enormity of the climate change challenge. But Jim Brown of Sacramento Bicycle Advocates had a different reaction: he was inspired, he said, to focus on what individuals can do now, and on helping them overcome obstacles to doing it.

I think my colleague Joe Linton has it right: put a map on your fridge, draw a two-mile (or one-mile) circle around your home, and commit to walking or biking every trip you make within that circle. You won’t convince me that enough people taking that one individual action won’t make a big difference.

High-Speed Rail Foes Prolong Litigation: The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, the Pacific Legal Foundation, and other opponents of California’s high-speed rail program announced they will take their case against the project to the California Supreme Court. They are appealing the recent Court of Appeals reversal of a lower court’s ruling against the sale of bonds to build the train.

Email tips, alerts, press releases, ideas, etc. about California transportation to

For social media coverage focused on statewide issues, follow Melanie @currymel on Twitter or like our Facebook page here.


Give Your Input at Upcoming CA High Speed Rail Scoping Meetings

The audience at yesterday's High Speed Rail scoping meeting in Burbank. Meetings continue this week though August 19. Photo: Joe Linton/Streetsblog L.A.

Yesterday’s High Speed Rail scoping meeting in Burbank. Meetings continue this week, and though August 19. Photo: Joe Linton/Streetsblog L.A.

The California High Speed Rail Authority (CAHSRA) is hosting a series of meetings to solicit input on two Los Angeles County sections of the statewide project.

CAHSRA is gaining momentum after securing state cap-and-trade funding, and prevailing over a lawsuit that restricted the agency’s financing abilities. With construction already underway in the Central Valley, Southern California lawmakers are pressing for the agency to move forward hereBurbank to Palmdale looks to be the first in line for Los Angeles County. Though that segment is on a relatively fast track, it will still take through the end of 2015 to complete and approve the environmental studies.  

Last night, the agency held a scoping meeting in Burbank. There were roughly 90-100 attendees from the public, and more than 25 people employed by the agency, presumably consultants. The format of the meeting was mostly open house, with CAHSRA representatives responding to the largely white, elderly audience both individually and in small groups.

At about 6 p.m., there was a 40-minute presentation by CAHSRA Southern California Regional Director Michelle Boehm. Boehm touted her agency’s involvement in numerous L.A. County activities that are laying the groundwork for HSR’s arrival. CAHSRA has a role in: the Regional Connector, Metrolink capital, positive train control, double-tracking, grade separation and run-through tracks planned for Los Angeles Union Station.

CAHSRA is currently scoping their environmental studies for two discrete, but ultimately conjoined, sections:

  1. Burbank to Palmdale: HSR is planned to run non-stop between Burbank Airport and the Palmdale Transportation Center. There are two routes currently under consideration. The first is on the surface, along existing rail tracks that more-or-less parallel the 5 Freeway and the 14 Freeway. The second would be a tunnel under the San Gabriel Mountains. Boehm expressed some enthusiasm for the latter, as it would shorter and faster, though it is likely to be more expensive.
  2. Burbank to Los Angeles: HSR is planned to run non-stop between the Burbank Airport and L.A. Union Station. Though most of this segment would run alongside existing railroad tracks that parallel the 5 Freeway, there are a number of alignments under consideration for the approach to Union Station. Boehm stressed that this segment is being designed in close coordination with three other planning processes underway: Los Angeles River revitalization, Union Station Master Plan, and Union Station Run-Through Tracks.

Earlier HSR planning had combined these two sections into just L.A. to Palmdale, but CAHSRA determined that the Burbank to Palmdale stretch will have “independent utility” and appears to be able to proceed sooner, while complexities are worked out on the Union Station end.  Read more…

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California High Speed Rail to Present L.A.-area Options

The California High Speed Rail Authority will hold a series of public meetings starting next week to discuss proposed alignments for two segments of the project: from Palmdale to Burbank and from Burbank to downtown Los Angeles.

Proposed alignments for HSR between Palmdale and Burbank. Yellow swath is proposed tunnel area. Graphic: CAHSR Authority

Proposed alignments for HSR between Palmdale and Burbank. The yellow swath shows the area where the proposed tunnel might go. Graphic: CAHSR Authority

Three routes have been proposed for the Palmdale to Burbank section: two of them vary slightly but both would follow the Highway 14 corridor through Santa Clarita and Canyon Country into the San Fernando Valley in Sylmar. A third alignment, proposed after residents of Santa Clarita and Acton complained about the Highway 14 route, would cut via tunnel directly through the San Gabriel Mountains, connecting more directly to Burbank.

The route proposed for Burbank to Los Angeles follows the existing Metrolink rail corridor, cutting between Glendale and downtown Los Angeles.

The purpose of the meetings is to inform the public and gather feedback before detailed analysis of each proposal is completed. Future analysis will compare the costs and feasibility of the various routes.

All of the meetings will be held from 5:30 to 7:30 pm. Read more…


The Los Angeles Times and its Disgraceful Reporting on High Speed Rail

TGV high-speed trains lined up in Paris. Photo courtesy of Ryan Stern

On the morning of March 24, I was in the café car on the Eurostar high-speed train, on my way from Paris to London. I glanced out the window as we zoomed at nearly 200 mph past a stopped train, a concrete platform and some parked cars.

I asked the barista if that was Haute-Picardie station. She looked at the clock, gave a Gallic shrug, and said “probablement.” I told her how I’d read in the Los Angeles Times that California’s High Speed Rail project needs a re-design, citing Haute-Picardie as evidence that intermediate stations slow the whole system.

She chortled and said “did we slow down?”

Under the new state budget, $250 million was allocated for California HSR in the next fiscal year. With a portion of cap-and-trade funds now dedicated to the project, it will have a way to move steadily forward. This was covered widely in the press, including in the Times. But more often than not, Times coverage has been alarmingly one-sided, substandard and inaccurate.

For example, on December 15, 2011, the paper ran “Bullet Train’s Travel-Time Mandate Adds to Ballooning of Costs.” It was written by Ralph Vartabedian, the principal reporter on the beat, and Dan Weikel. It says that “In the fine print of a 2008 voter-approved measure funding the project was a little-noticed requirement that trains be able to rocket from Union Station in downtown Los Angeles to San Francisco in no more than two hours and 40 minutes.” The article’s premise is that the speed requirements were virtually unknown and that was causing huge complications.

On page one of Proposition 1A, which launched the project, it says, in bullet points: “Establishes a clean, efficient 220 MPH transportation system.” The obligation to complete the journey in two hours and 40 minutes is deeper inside, but it’s in the same print as the rest of the law. The speeds were well known. And existing HSR trains go fast enough to fulfill the mandate.

On Nov. 12, 2012, Vartabedian wrote a piece entitled “Bullet-Train Planners Face Huge Engineering Challenge.” He wrote that the train will “…cross more than half a dozen earthquake faults heading toward L.A,” as if there’s a big question about whether it’s prudent to run HSR in areas prone to temblors.

I wrote the following letter to the editor in response:

On March 11, 2011, Japan was hit by the largest earthquake in its history. There were 27 bullet trains running through the destruction zone. But early warning computers hit the emergency brakes as soon as the shockwaves were detected. The quake and accompanying tsunami killed 16,000 people and destroyed 129,000 buildings. Yet the bullet trains stayed on the tracks, continuing Japan’s perfect safety record for its half-century old network. It’s odd that Vartabedian focuses on high-speed train engineering and earthquakes without mentioning history’s most definitive real-world test.

They emailed me back that the letter was approved and would likely run in a few days.

But it didn’t. Instead, they ran letters that were negative on the project.


Steinberg: CA Cap-and-Trade Must Fund Transit-Oriented Affordable Housing

Negotiations over the California state budget are producing dueling proposals on how best to spend revenue from the state’s cap-and-trade program.


Senator Steinberg proposes affordable housing as a greenhouse gas reduction strategy. Photo courtesy TransForm.

While Governor Jerry Brown continues to call for a third of the cap-and-trade funds to go to CA high-speed rail, Senate President ProTem Darrell Steinberg last week expanded upon his alternative proposal to spend a larger share of the revenue on affordable housing and transit at the local and regional level.

State cap-and-trade funds are collected under the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, A.B. 32. The law provides a way for companies to meet a state-mandated cap on greenhouse gas emissions by buying “pollution credits” produced when others exceed emissions reductions. Estimates vary on how much revenue the program will generate, but it could produce billions each year between now and 2020.

Standing in front of an active construction site for new housing units near Oakland’s MacArthur BART station last Thursday, Steinberg called for permanent sources of funding for affordable housing, mass transit, and sustainable communities development. The Senator argued that  California is facing a “catastrophic funding crisis” as affordable housing bonds run out, and noted that the transportation sector is the state’s biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

“Californians are logging more vehicle miles annually than ever before,” Steinberg said.

Behind him, a forklift raised a load of lumber high up in the air, with an attached sign reading, “At least 972 lbs of CO2 emissions reduced every day.” That’s the amount by which  the housing project, which will provide 624 housing units next to the BART station, is estimated to reduce greenhouse gas emissions compared to other housing developments. Of those apartments, 108 will be leased at below-market rates. Read more…


CA High-Speed Rail Authority Certifies EIR for Fresno-to-Bakersfield Segment

Click on the image to go to a higher resolution pdf. Image via California High Speed Rail

Click on the image to go to a higher resolution pdf. Image via California High Speed Rail

The California High Speed Rail Authority (CAHSRA) Board voted unanimously today to certify the Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR) for the project segment between Fresno and Bakersfield in the Central Valley. This section of CAHSR can now move to the “final design” stage that precedes construction.

This is the second segment of the project to have its individual FEIR approved; the segment between Modesto and Fresno was certified in May of 2012.

The two-day board hearing in Fresno featured some contentious and emotional comments from the public, both in support and in opposition to the project. Local farmers who would be directly affected by construction or operations of the system worried that they would not be fairly compensated for loss of their land. Several board members expressed sympathy for those individuals, but then went on to talk about the “greater good” presented by high-speed rail.

Board member Tom Richards pointed out that the project would mean the loss of “less than 1/10 of 1 percent” of agricultural land in the valley. In contrast, said Chair Dan Richard, the state estimates that “over 33,000 acres will be lost to future development within the counties of King and Tulare.”

High-speed rail “will be a tremendous boon for the Valley,” said Richard, “and the benefits tremendously outweigh the costs.”

Several Fresno State University students spoke in support of high-speed rail through the valley, including one student who said her original plan had been to earn a degree and move away. Now, “because of high-speed rail, I plan to stay,” she said. Her testimony and that of another student who called high-speed rail the “next logical progression for transportation in California” were highlighted by board members in their closing remarks.

Some speakers raised concerns about valley fever, a sometimes serious illness contracted by inhaling spores that normally live in the soil in the Central Valley, but can become airborne when construction or farming activities disturb the soil.

Richards proposed an amendment to the EIR that would incorporate several construction design safety features to protect workers. Read more…

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California Legislation Watch: Weekly Update

Screen Shot 2014-03-28 at 2.09.21 PM

For social media coverage focused on statewide issues, follow Melanie Curry @currymel on Twitter or like our Facebook page

Here is Streetsblog’s weekly highlight of legislation and events related to sustainable transportation at the California capitol.

  • This week, the legislature was out for Spring Recess, giving legislative staff time to prepare for the onslaught of bill hearings coming up in the next few weeks.
  • On Monday, Senate President Darrell Steinberg changed his mind about a carbon tax and instead proposed a new plan for spending revenue from the state’s cap-and-trade system.
  • California Senate Transportation and Housing Committee staff published its summary of the committee’s March hearing on CA high-speed rail. Its main conclusion: while numerous legal and fiscal challenges for the project remain, the most pressing issue is the lack of a plan to fill the funding shortfall of $15 to $21 billion.
  • Next week, the State Senate has postponed all hearings that were scheduled for Wednesday, April 23, so that senators and staff can spend the day discussing ethics. This comes in the wake of the recent arrest of Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) on charges of gun trafficking, the arraignment of Senator Ron Calderon (D-Montebello) for bribery and corruption, and the suspension of Senator Rod Wright (D-Inglewood) for pretending to live in a house he didn’t live in.

CA Sen. Steinberg Proposes New Spending Plan for Cap-and-Trade Revenue

Senator Darrell Steinberg’s new proposed spending plan for CA cap-and-trade revenue.

Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) announced a proposed plan to create a permanent spending strategy for cap-and-trade revenue [PDF] that prioritizes investments in affordable transit-oriented housing, transit expansion, and CA high-speed rail. Unlike the Governor’s plan for this year’s budget, Senate Bill 1156 also proposes investments in “complete streets” and transit operations.

Senator Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento)

Senator Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento)

Calling the plan a “long-term investment strategy in greenhouse gas emissions,” Steinberg said he wanted to spark a “healthy debate” about how the state should spend the revenue collected via the state’s cap-and-trade system created under A.B. 32, California’s Global Warming Solutions Act.

“This strategy is designed to achieve the objectives of A.B. 32 through significant reductions in greenhouse gas and the direction of public and private investment to California’s low-income and disadvantaged communities, which are disproportionately burdened by air pollution and the effects of climate change,” Steinberg said in a press release.

Steinberg’s staff emphasized that the plan provides a permanent funding stream for affordable, transit-oriented housing and mass transit, which are key to reaching the goals of A.B. 32 yet lack stable sources of funding. 

The proposal replaces a bill Steinberg introduced in February to replace cap-and-trade with a carbon tax. Steinberg acknowledged that the carbon tax proposal was “not that popular,” and said that the current proposal was a product of the debate provoked by the earlier bill.

A.B. 32 requires California to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020, and calls for the California Air Resources Board to create a market system for helping achieve those reductions. In response, CARB created a cap on emissions from GHG producers and an auction system to allow those who don’t meet the cap to buy emission “credits” from those who do. This cap-and-trade system currently applies to the state’s manufacturing sector, and is scheduled to include fuel producers next year.

Meanwhile, the auctions are producing revenue, which by law must be spent on further reducing GHG emissions to help California reach A.B. 32’s the goals.

Steinberg’s proposal was well-received by transit advocates. Read more…