NY Times’ Ignorant Optimism On $64B California High-Speed Rail Program, Derailed By Reality

Posted on Tue 03/07/2017 by

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By Clay Waters ~

Thomas Fuller’s New York Times piece pushed for a public works program in La La Land that comes with a big promise and a $64 billion price tag: A high-speed railway that will one day, theoretically, connect San Francisco and Los Angeles in less time than in takes to watch The Dark Knight Rises.

The story’s headline and tone pit stingy, stick-in-the-mud conservatives against sunny, striving liberal futurists: “Silicon Valley Rail Upgrade Is Imperiled Amid G.O.P. Ire.” But some of the dirty details got lost in Fuller’s glittery view of the future of “high-speed rail” in California, the ones that less starry-eyed outlets like the Los Angeles Times have noted.

The engineers of Silicon Valley are fine-tuning driverless cars, building robots designed to replicate the human brain and shaving milliseconds off internet response times.

Their trip to work, however, can be a throwback to the predigital age. The region’s commuter rail line is saddled with aging, smoke-spewing, diesel-powered locomotives.

For more than a decade, the managers of the Silicon Valley railway, known as Caltrain, have been planning to upgrade to faster and less polluting electric trains.

But those plans are now imperiled by the Trump administration’s decision in February to withhold a $647 million federal grant.

In this impasse, some transportation experts see a foretaste of the political infighting and financial hurdles that could plague the nationwide infrastructure projects that President Trump is promising. Reviving America’s rusted and sagging infrastructure is one of the few areas where it seemed Democrats and Republicans could agree. But making these projects a reality — the “new roads, bridges, tunnels, airports and railways gleaming across our beautiful land” that Mr. Trump enumerated to Congress last week — will require political cooperation and accommodations that are increasingly rare in ultrapartisan times.

The photo caption pressed down: “A Caltrain station in Sunnyvale, Calif. The commuter rail line is saddled with aging, smoke-spewing, diesel-powered locomotives.”

Despite initial support, Republicans now regard the high-speed project as too costly.

….

There has long been tension in California between advocates of more freeways and those favoring public transport. But the high-speed rail project had bipartisan support in its early stages. It was formally started in 1996 by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and was supported by another Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

That consensus is long gone. The letter penned by the state’s 14 Republican members of Congress, including Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader, called the project a “boondoggle” and described the Caltrain grant as an “irresponsible use of taxpayer dollars.”

Caltrain and the high-speed rail project are administratively separate, but a 2013 agreement to share tracks as a cost-saving measure raised Republican ire.

….

In recent weeks, more than a dozen leaders of Silicon Valley firms called lawmakers to urge that the federal money be released for the Caltrain electrification project, according to Carl Guardino, the president of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which represents most of the region’s large tech companies.

Mr. Guardino called the Republican campaign to block funding “a misinformed effort.”

Fuller tried to sweeten the pot for Trump:

The bigger picture, proponents of the electrification project say, is that the commuter rail project deserves the support of the Trump administration because it meets the broad criteria of its infrastructure push — it will be made in America by American workers. Almost all of the materials for the new train system will be sourced from factories across 14 states. Caltrain estimates the project will create nearly 10,000 jobs.

He concluded with this inspiration.

Tom Richards, a real estate developer in Fresno who is on the authority’s board, said the rail connection could encourage tech companies to set up in the city and workers to commute to well-paying jobs in Silicon Valley.

“This is a whole story about connecting California together,” he said.

Fuller left out the bait and switch, as documented by Reason Magazine, which is based in Los Angeles, that explained just why GOP support may have disappeared. Author Steven Greenhut underlined the brutal expectations gap about the “high-speed rail” project that the Times ignored.

California’s ongoing “high-speed rail” project connecting Los Angeles with San Francisco continues to run up against the same, recurring problem since voters gave the plan initial bond funding in a 2008 statewide initiative. There’s a growing chasm between the promises supporters  made to the state’s taxpayers — and reality.

In the latest bombshell, a confidential federal report points to cost overruns of at least 50 percent on the easiest, mountain-less leg of this complex infrastructure undertaking. The Federal Railroad Administration analysis, obtained by the Los Angeles Times last week, detailed a variety of other problems within the state’s rail administration, as well.

For instance, the project already is at least seven years behind schedule in building the first segment, which connects Merced in the northern part of the San Joaquin Valley to Shafter, a small town just north of Bakersfield in the southern part of the valley. That section was supposed to be completed this year, but isn’t slated for completion until 2024.

….

A series of lawsuits focused on the disparity between the rail authority’s latest iteration of the project and the promises made to voters in 1A in an attempt to do what Kopp suggested and derail the project…. The measure promised private investment, low fares and optimistic ridership projections. Yet the current plan is unlikely to live up to its core promises.

Local coverage in the Los Angeles Times coverage has been significantly less starry-eyed than Fuller’s report. An editorial from 2016 showed the gap between glittering promises and new downgraded expectations:

….High-speed rail is supposed to be the backbone of a faster, cleaner, more modern transportation system that connects the state’s major population centers. The new plan, however, provides a clear path to building the line just from downtown San Jose to the Central Valley, which it says it will complete by 2025….Are the funding challenges insurmountable? Not necessarily. But the High Speed Rail Authority has to lay out an honest analysis of the challenges ahead and reasonable options for building the bullet train all the way to Los Angeles. That is, after all, what Californians thought they would be getting when they voted for the project.

Clay Waters was the director of Times Watch a former project of the Media Research Center .

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