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Intelligent and Inspired Leadership - A Rare Commodity in California

The Clovis Chamber of Commerce reverses its stand on the project and its reasoning is included below.

Jul 25, 2012

We were impressed by the two articles below. One of the Democratic State Senators to vote against Governor Brown and his intimidating tactics to barely win approval for funding his pet train project writes a compelling op-ed exposing the flaws of the project. Also, the Clovis Chamber of Commerce reverses its stand on the project and its reasoning is included below. In each case, it demonstrates courage to stand up to the pro-hsr forces who consistently demean and degrade anyone with concerns.

On the local level, the Clovis Chamber stands virtually alone among those who have historically favored this project. The other individuals and organizations advocating for this HSR project have turned a blind eye to the flaws and are content to remain silent while their neighbors and their rights continue to be violated. Almost as despicable, are the indivduals and organizations primarily in Fresno County who continue to remain silent during this controversy.


Once a Great Idea

Mark Blackney/President/CEO

Clovis Chamber of Commerce

When a grand plan is envisioned, all that is considered at first is the positive, end results. Then as research and due diligence is completed, , reality hits and the plan doesn’t look so grand after all.

That’s what has happened with the Clovis Chamber’s support of High Speed Rail. When first proposed in 2008, the economy hadn’t totally collapsed and we all were still in the “we can afford it” mindset. You know, the attitude that created the mortgage crisis.

HSR was to be fast, efficient, create hundreds of thousands new jobs and revolutionize transportation in our state. And the expense didn’t seem too out of line.

After careful consideration and study, the Clovis Chamber, like many other organizations, supported the proposition that allowed the sale of bonds for the initial phase of the project.

However, after much review, the Board of Directors has voted to formally disapprove of the current plan that has been fundamentally altered since the passage of Proposition 1A in 2008.

We understand that this is a symbolic statement but one that must be made when taking into consideration what has changed since the original vote. It is no longer what was approved in 2008.

Our decision is based on five factors – the costs of construction, the price of the fares, ridership estimates, speed and finally, the economic impact.

The costs of construction have ballooned as the project is fine tuned. Starting at $40 billion in the proposition, it grew to $110 billion until Jerry Brown decreed it would be $68 billion. Who knows what it will be tomorrow? Of course, the costs are just estimates and will be revised, but as more study is done and the project is led by a seemingly inept High Speed Rail Authority, one has to be concerned how out of control costs will go.

When approved in 2008, funding was expected from the federal government. However, since then, the economy has deteriorated so those revenues are no longer guaranteed. That leaves the bulk of funding on the backs of Californians who are struggling with an uncontrollable debt. Much of California’s revenues are based on income tax proceeds that are highly volatile and unpredictable that creates an unstable future.

In 2008, the cost of a ticket between LA and SF was estimated to be only $55. Soon, however, that cost doubled to $110 since, according to a rail official, “ that is the level that will generate the highest revenue, and reduces the operating costs and the number of trainsets needed”. How high will the fares have to go to cover costs? Two things will make them increase – higher costs of construction and operation and below estimate ridership. Of course, the higher the fare, the lower the ridership and the taxpayer will have to pick up the slack.

A selling point of Prop 1A was the high number of riders projected at over 42 million a year. Joseph Vranich, a pre-eminent authority on high-speed rail in the United States commented during testimony before a hearing of California’s State Senate Transportation and Housing Committee in 2008 that those estimates are much higher than those developed by the Federal Railroad Administration and by independent studies from the University of California at Berkeley’s Transportation Center. He called the estimates pure science fiction and said that in the Northeast Corridor with a population of over 50 million, ridership is only 18 million a year..

Vranich also noted that the predicted speeds of 200 mph that would make a trip between LA and SF take exactly 2 hours and 40 minutes is practically impossible since they will have to be reduced in urban areas for safety and noise regulations. And, of course, with our country’s safety and crashworthiness regulations, the cars would have to be heavier and thus slower.

However, rail authority Chairman Dan Richards defended the speeds by saying, “The reason we are confident the blended-approach system, which costs $30 billion less, can work is that our engineers have told us it will achieve the performance standards the voters insisted on in the ballot measure.” In other words, it will work because we said so.

In 2008, claims of the economic impact were rampant. Hundreds of thousands new jobs were predicted – even Fresno was crowing about 100,000 jobs in their city alone. Reality check – now they are saying that only 100,000 new jobs will be created in the entire state.

To make matters worse, UCLA commissioned a report on the economic impact of HSR in Japan since its inception in the 1960’s. The results? It did not generate higher economic growth or additional jobs. Jerry Nickelsburg, senior economist with the UCLA Anderson Forecast concluded about California’s HSR that it “will have only a marginal impact at best.”

Basically, this project was sold to California based on false promises. Unfortunately, nobody heard Vranich’s testimony in 2008 when he said, “This is the first time I am unable to endorse a high-speed rail plan”.

California voters have seen the handwriting on the wall and what they see isn’t pretty. A November 2011 Field Poll showed that 64% want a re-vote and that 59% would vote against the project. That includes 39% of those who originally voted for Prop 1A in 2008.

But, Sacramento went ahead and voted to start spending the money. The attraction of free federal money was just too tempting. Of course, they haven’t mentioned how they’ll pay for the rest of the $68 billion.

High Speed Rail is a grand project with a grand vision. But is it realistic? Unfortunately, based on the constant missteps, miscalculations and revisions, it is looking more and more like a mistake.

Herdt: Is this a way to build a railroad?

As a career schoolteacher who spent years teaching American history, Sen. Fran Pavley has developed more than a few lesson plans around the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad and the driving of the golden spike in May 1869 at Promontory Summit, Utah, connecting the western and eastern portions of the United States.

Construction had begun on both ends — from Sacramento eastward, and from Omaha westward.

"There is a reason," Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, told me this week, "that they didn't start in Utah."

That simple logic drawn from the history books — the logic that says the proper way to build a railroad is to start from population centers on each end and move toward the barren middle — helped shape Pavley's decision earlier this month to cast a difficult and, to some, surprising vote against a bill to begin construction of high-speed rail in California.

Pavley was one of four Democrats to join Republicans in voting against the bill that authorizes the issuance of $4.6 billion in voter-approved state bonds that, combined with $3.2 billion in federal funds, will finance the first phase.

The measure passed with 21 votes — the bare majority it needed.

Most of the money, $5.8 billion, will go toward constructing 130 miles of track in the Central Valley, California's equivalent of desolate northern Utah. The line, which will run from Madera to Bakersfield, is envisioned as the initial leg of a high-speed rail system to link the Los Angeles Basin with the San Francisco Bay area.

Pavley, who describes herself as "still a huge advocate of high-speed rail," said she concurred with the stark assessment offered by Joe Simitian, D-San Jose, the senator who had taken the lead in overseeing high-speed rail plans. Simitian called the proposal "the wrong plan at the wrong place at the wrong time."

The conventional wisdom in Sacramento was that Simitian and two other outspoken Democratic critics of the plan, Sens. Alan Lowenthal of Long Beach and Mark DeSaulnier of Walnut Creek, voted against the proposal out of principle and that Pavley, facing a tough re-election campaign in competitive new district that includes all of eastern Ventura County, took a pass solely for political reasons.

Pavley disputes that interpretation.

"It wasn't a pure political vote," she said. "Did it enter my mind? Of course. But if Joe, Mark and Alan could not be convinced, what's their political motivation? I found their arguments persuasive. The whole Central Valley piece was problematic."

Matt Rexroad, political strategist for the campaign of Republican Todd Zink, called Pavley's vote "completely contradictory to her record" as an environmental advocate and proponent of transportation alternatives to cars.

"The timing of this actually made me laugh out loud," Rexroad wrote me in an email. He said Pavley's vote came just a few days after her campaign completed a poll that included a question on high-speed rail.

Pavley acknowledges there was such a question, and that public sentiment in the district was negative. But she says she hardly needed a poll to tell her that.

"It's a common sentiment," she said. "You can ask my 98-year-old mother's bridge group. They'll say, 'What's with this high-speed rail? Can we afford it now?'"

The plan was strongly backed by Gov. Jerry Brown, the state's Democratic leadership in Congress and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.

They pulled out all the stops, exerting pressure and offering promises to round up the 21 votes.

"I wasn't going to negotiate for my vote," Pavley said. "That's not how I've ever cast my votes."

In the end, she said, it was concern over the cost of debt repayment along with her objection to the specifics of the plan that cemented her opposition. "I didn't see how I could justify voting for it, based on the facts."

She said she will now commit herself to "making sure it works and that it's fiscally sound," but still wishes the vote could have been postponed for a few months until a plan was fashioned that would have started the rail line at the major population centers and moved outward.

The extra time wasn't taken, she said, because state leaders feared the Obama administration would follow through on its insistence that the federal money was contingent on the first phase being built in the Central Valley.

"That $3 billion from the feds orchestrated a rushed vote," Pavley said.

"I had been a huge advocate of spending to the maximum extent possible at the bookends," she said. "That would have kept the jobs going, creating modernization at the two ends and then slowly moving toward each other — à la the Transcontinental Railroad."

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