Menlo Park activist leads the charge against high-speed rail

Thanks in part to vocal critics in the Peninsula, California's high-speed rail project has hit roadblocks. (Image: Courtesy of California High-Speed Rail Authority)

Months before its construction was supposed to begin, California’s high-speed rail project hit big roadblocks.  In January, the state-appointed California High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group recommended against selling debt to finance the project. Meanwhile, both the chief executive officer and board chairman of California High-Speed Rail Authority announced their departures, raising new questions about the program’s stability.

Since California voters approved a $43-billion proposal for a high-speed rail system four years ago, the ride for the program has been bumpy at best. Supporters commend its potential to drive economic development and create job opportunities. Opponents question the environmental impacts and management. Over this period, the project’s cost estimate doubled to $98.5 million.

“We need to stop that train,” said Michael Brady, a Menlo Park resident who, for years, has been one of the most vocal California high-speed rail opponents. One of his major concerns is how the project is funded.

In 2008, state voters approved the sale of $9.95 billion in bonds to finance the work. The state has received $3.5 billion in federal funds for the project, but said it would need $17 billion to $19 billion more in federal money. But Congress declined to approve  high-speed rail funds requested for 2012.

State Auditor Elaine Howle said the California High-Speed Rail Authority identifies the federal government as its largest potential funding source for the project. But its business plan provides few details on how it will obtain the money. The plan also leaves out $96.8 billion in operating and maintenance costs from 2025 to 2060, she added.

The state rail authority’s spokesman Lance Simmens replied that the agency will deal with the auditor’s concerns in a revised business plan to be released in the next month.

“We’re working with the auditor’s office on identifying deficiencies, and we’ll continue to work with them,” Simmens said. “Nothing in the audit suggests that the work should be halted.”

However, Brady argued that, “at a time when the state and federal governments are deeply in debt and cutting education, social service and other funding,” the taxpayers may not be able to afford such a massive infrastructure project that could cost even more than current estimates.

If the rail authority were to start the project with only partial funding, it risks having to abandon it mid-way, which would constitute a waste of taxpayer dollars, Brady said.

In addition, he is critical of the ridership estimate and the management of the high-speed rail authority.

Brady said watchdog and non-partisan groups have widely criticized the ridership projection which was used prior to the revised business plan and said it would not be enough to cover the expenses.

For example, the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California Berkeley issued  report that says the data the authority uses was so “unreliable” that it is impossible to predict whether the project will be successful or lead to “severe revenue shortfalls.”

As a lawyer, Brady has filed several lawsuits against the state rail authority on behalf of individuals or government agencies. The latest one was filed in November. Brady is representing the Kings County Board Supervisors and two area farmers and contends that the authority’s construction of the Valley portion of the rail line illegally uses state bond funds for a non-electric rail line.  He said because Prop 1A, a ballot proposition and bond measure passed in 2008, called for an electric rail system, the use of proposition funds for a non-electric rail line — even in the “preliminary” stage — violates state law.

As a long-time opponent of the project, Brady has tried to get people to pay attention to  the projects’ impact.

In the run-up to 2008 election, when California voters approved the project, Brady worked with two other companions, Morris Brown and Martin Engel, as well as a few legislative members who opposed high-speed rail.

Brady, with help from Brown and Engel, launched a Web site called “Derail HSR” in the months before the 2008 election.

The three of them also wrote drafts of the opposition for ballot books, made numerous trips to Sacramento and were publicly consulted by Rod Diridon, a board member of the state rail authority, Brady said.

Even after the ballot measure passed, the group continued to be as vocal as they could against high-speed rail. Brady said they have written numerous letters to the legislators, the media and the public about high-speed rail and contemplated lawsuits aimed at what they see as the rail board’s maneuvers.

He said, they have been trying to shake people into an awareness of the devastation they believe the project will inflict upon the region, and the state budget.

At first, most people wouldn’t listen to them.  Brady said most newspapers supported the project at that time.  Still, things gradually changed.

A December 2011 Field Poll revealed that nearly two-thirds of Californian voters oppose the project and would like to re-vote on it. A few Republicans have already called for the rail authority to slow down and give the project some more thought, as has Democratic State Senator Joe Simitian.

The non-partisan state Legislative Analyst’s Office has also been critical of the project. In a recent analysis of the authority’s business plan, the office stated funding sources were “highly speculative.” “Congress has approved no funding for high-speed rail projects for 2012. As a result, it is highly uncertain if funding to complete the high-speed rail system will ever materialize.”

Meanwhile, Gov. Brown argued that it was still worth it to build the train.

During his State of the State address last month, Brown said: “If you believe that California will continue to grow, as I do, and that millions more people will be living in our state, this is a wise investment.”

He said the state high-speed rail authority is within weeks of a revised business plan that will enable it to begin initial construction before the year is out.

With a September deadline for the project to break ground looming larger by the day, what can be expected from the decision makers?

Brady said, “I hope they could have at least a time-out and give more considerations about the project.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Sen. Joe Simitian as a Republican. He is a Democrat.

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