In a crowded room this week at the capitol, the Senate Transportation and Subcommittee on Finance, questioned the High Speed Rail Authority (HSRA) about their newest business plan. Senator Simitian and Senator Lowenthal questioned Curt Pringle, HSRA chairman, about ridership numbers, state guarantees (illegal in AB3034) and questioned him about what happens if the ridership or the funding doesn’t work out, the subject of risk. All concerns raised last week from the Legislative Analyst’s office. This was definitely a tougher crowd for the Authority.
Regarding the much debated ridership numbers, Curt Pringle says they were initially done to provide the very best ridership number needed to get the environmental processes started. “You don’t know the capacity, number of trains needed, you don’t know the size of the station or the number of people walking through it,” said Pringle.
He reminded the Senate committee about the Federal stimulus funds deadlines, environmental work which must be completed by the fall of 2011. He said it’s going to be tight with this a project of this size,” hearing and participating with communities, doing the very best to present alternatives and mitigate impacts, we will be working very hard to insure we meet that environmental clearance deadline.” A “week’s delay or a month’s delay” could put us in jeopardy of getting funding for those segments.
Senator Simitian wanted to know how to double check the work before the committee takes a “leap of faith” to fund the project. Mr. Pringle argued they had to start somewhere (use the numbers they have) to do the environmental work and if they had to go back and modify the basis and start over, they don’t have that luxury. Pringle added that a change the ridership numbers at this point, would require re-doing the environmental work and they would lose the stimulus money. Mehdi Morshed added that they have no new models right now, that the “same old models” will be used. He added it would be another year before or so before a new model will be ready.
The public commentary was strong, a mix of supportive and concerned testimony. Those who wanted the project to move forward without delay testified the need for HSR because of environmental pluses, and boost to the state’s economy it would bring due to the jobs it would produce. Some warned that delay might mean the project would not be built due to the increased cost in the future.
Tina Andolina, lobbyist for Planning and Conservation League (PCL) explained that PCL wants high speed rail, but we are going to insist it be done right, and for one simple reason, if public and private investors don’t have faith in it, “we won’t get a train”. She ‘s also concerned that the Authority is not moving from promoting the project to the task of building it. She believes “a new goverance structure is in order.”They don’t want to see the truth”and gave examples of how the HSRA minimizing the decertification of the Program level EIR and the refusal to acknowledge Union Pacific Railroad’s stance that their tracks can’t be used for HSR for part of the segment.
Today’s discussion of state subsidies makes Andolina more uncomfortable, “it seems to be that instead of acknowledging the truth in AB3034, they’d rather do a creative interpretation of the law. ” “That’s not acceptable, not what the public asked for when they voted for the project” If we want this train to be actually built, we need something to change and to change soon.
Marty Mazner from Menlo Park, a high tech entrepreneur, reviewed the ridership numbers not based on a model but on real population statistics and % of ridership- the east coast vs.west coast, even though the east coast has a much denser population and is the busiest corridor in the US. Using this very conservative comparison Mr. Mazner came up with 5.9 million passengers compared with the authority’s 41 million. Mazner then prepared a simple profit and loss statement which showed the state would lose $36.9 billion dollars between 2012 and 2042 when the bonds were finally paid off.
Proposition IA, promised that this plan be profitable. Does the state “have the luxury” not to get more competent numbers before moving forward? Who enforces the statute, AB3034?
Tonight, at 7 pm. there will be a meeting at Palo Alto’s city hall to continue the debate about the business plan and the project.