By Shawn Nelson, Orange County Register
I have been struck lately by the supporters of the high-speed rail and their seeming lack of common sense when it comes to problem-solving. My observations have led me to believe that the current leadership of the program has become more focused on getting a pot of government gold to spend (the more the merrier) and enriching the myriad players involved in the process. By ignoring existing opportunities to run the rail project on existing Metrolink and Amtrak lines, the current design for the HSR to run from Anaheim to Los Angeles provides a windfall to those in the consulting industry by requiring countless hours for public outreach and environmental impact study.
Why aren’t the leaders of the program asking the basic questions and looking for basic answers? Case in point: I went to a presentation in Anaheim two weeks ago given by the project team of HSR. They explained that the HSR will be able to connect Anaheim and L.A. in 23 minutes. Of course, to accomplish this the tracks would need to be able to cross existing streets that are not presently separated from the rail line (think rail crossings with the drop arms and flashing lights) and some improvements to a curve in the tracks in the Buena Park area. They admitted that the first leg could be a stand-alone service in case the rest of the project was never built!
After a few follow-up questions we learned the existing system only takes 30 minutes, and, with a few of the improvements that are necessary for the HSR the Metrolink will be able to achieve the same speed as the HSR from Anaheim to L.A. With a few of the upgrades being made to the existing system we could all make it to downtown L.A. in about 26 minutes.
In layman’s terms, the first leg of the HSR project is a likely multibillion-dollar effort to shave a few minutes off the average commute from Anaheim to L.A. It would save zero time if we just made the grade-separation improvements and ran an express train line (i.e. no stops in between) once per hour. Is there anyone on the HSR board that is thinking this through? Clearly we do not need to spend billions of dollars to avoid running an express train once an hour to L.A., do we?
The concept of HSR in California could be a useful in tying the central parts of the state with the major metropolitan areas of the San Francisco Bay Area and greater Los Angeles. Why isn’t the current effort focused on getting the communities in between tied in to the anchors on each end? Couldn’t Amtrak funding be tied in if the train went to the exact same locations on the route? As things stand now both ends of the line have operating rail systems that could be used and result in tens of billions in savings. Can’t the HSR start out by connecting the southernmost terminus of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system with the northernmost terminus of Metrolink?
Art Leahy, former OCTA president and now the current head of the MTA in Los Angeles, has gone on record acknowledging the problems with the existing approach. I applaud Art for standing up. He has a working knowledge of these systems, and we should listen to him. I hope he takes a prominent role in the discussion going forward.
Another public figure to recently demand some common sense be included in this process is Assemblywoman Diane Harkey of south Orange County, who recognized the disaster we are walking into if we sell bonds to cover the costs for the current proposals.
There are a number of other problems, such as why would our Measure M dollars be used to fund the vast majority of the HSR train storage facility/transit link planned in Anaheim? Isn’t Measure M money generated here for the purpose of helping all commuters get around Orange County? This is a state and federal project, not a local project. Getting people from San Francisco to Anaheim was never the purpose of Measure M.
To make matters worse, the $140 million or so in Measure M funds being proposed for the train parking facility are desperately needed by cities like Placentia and Fullerton to finance underpasses at railroad grade crossings – projects that will make life better for everybody in North Orange County.
The road we are on now is going to exhaust all the funding available at the state and federal levels, enrich a few well-connected consultants, ruin many neighborhoods that don’t need disturbing and accomplish virtually nothing but duplication of service already provided. Why can’t common sense have a place at the table? Government doesn’t have to be the home of poor execution, but in order to get results that are good for the citizens we need to demand accountability before it is too late.