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High-speed rail's ticking time bom

By ELIZABETH HELD


WASHINGTON – The California High Speed Rail Authority says it plans to break ground on the 500-mile project by the end of this month. Sound familiar? The rail authority previously promised to start construction in 2012 … and then again in the spring of 2013.


A series of delays, each unrelated but significant, is putting the rail authority in a race against the clock to spend roughly $3 billion it received in stimulus funds on the first phase of rail between Madera and Fresno before the federal government’s scheduled expiration of the allocation.


A provision of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act requires that all stimulus funds be spent by Sept. 30, 2017. The language was meant to encourage recipients to spend the money quickly and pump money into the ailing economy during the Great Recession.


Four factors have delayed the start of phase one of high-speed rail construction and jeopardized the overall project: lawsuits, land-use concerns, federal permitting and objections from members of Congress.


The rail authority maintains it will meet the stimulus expiration deadline, noting an agreement with the federal government whereby it can spend stimulus funds before it spends state contributions, said Dan Richard, chairman of the California High Speed Rail Authority.


Others aren’t so sure. Ronald Tutor, whose company Tutor Perini recently signed a contract to construct the first 30 miles of rail, said in published reports that he doesn’t believe construction will start until next year.

Richard told the Register that he remains confident in Tutor Perini and its ability to finish by the 2017 deadline. “I’m less concerned with the start date than the finish date,” he said.


If the rail authority doesn’t spend the money in time, the federal government would decide what would happen to the stimulus funds, said Adrian Moore, vice president for policy at the libertarian Reason Foundation. Moore co-authored a report on the flaws in the rail authority’s business model earlier this year.

“These delays put that money at risk,” Moore said. The state could receive an extension, he pointed out, and the outcome of that decision would depend on who is president at the time – a Democratic president might be willing to give California extra time, but less so a Republican.


Moore added there’s no reason to expect Congress to be flexible. “Congress has made it pretty clear they would snatch it back,” he said, not only because it violated stimulus rules, but because key members of Congress object to the project and the future federal funding it is seeking.


Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Modesto, chairman of the House subcommittee on rail, has said he will not approve more federal funds for the California rail project until he thinks the rail authority has a viable business plan. He added language to the House transportation funding bill specifically barring the Department of Transportation from spending any money on California high-speed rail.

California’s high-speed rail project has hit four significant speed bumps:


1. Lawsuit over Prop. 1A

“People who don’t want the project going through their neighborhood will sue,” Dan Richard, chairman of the California High Speed Rail Authority, told the Register. A lawsuit decided earlier this month could have lasting repercussions if the judge decides to overturn the project’s plan.


Judge Michael Kenny, of the Sacramento Superior Court, ruled the High-Speed Rail Authority’s 2011 business plan violated the terms of Proposition 1A, a voter-approved, 2008 initiative that authorized $9.9 billion in bonds to build 500 miles of rail eventually linking Los Angeles and San Francisco.


The ballot initiative was specific in its promises. It stated that the rail authority would have to have a plan in place to pay for the construction of the initial segment before building could begin. Kenny found that wasn’t the case. He wrote, “The identification of funds must be based on a reasonable present expectation of receipt on a projected date, and not merely a hope or possibility that such funds may become available.”


Rail advocates, however, point out that Kenny didn’t comment on the new business plan the rail authority adopted in 2012, or the Legislature’s approval last year of $2.6 billion for the project .


Kenny said he will hold a hearing, yet to be scheduled, to determine what the rail authority’s next steps should be.


2. Land-use concerns

The rail authority needs to take possession of 372 parcels of land between Madera and Fresno. As of Aug. 26, it had made 123 written offers to landowners, Lisa Marie Alley, a spokeswoman at the rail authority said.

“This would be the largest abuse of eminent domain in California, or even the nation’s history,” Aaron Fukuda, a Hanford land owner said.


Fukuda discovered in January 2011 that the plot of land where he planned to build his house was right in the proposed bullet train’s path. It came as a shock, he said, because the rail authority had assured him three months earlier the alignments would be 800 yards from his proposed home.


Fukuda, who was one of the litigants in the Prop. 1A lawsuit, said his opposition to the project goes beyond his one parcel of land. He’s concerned about what will happen to the agriculture in his community if farmers lose their land to the train.


3. Objections in Congress

Congress has added roadblocks. House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, and Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Modesto, joined other congressmen in asking for the Government Accountability Office to audit the project. The GAO released its findings in March, saying “The California High-Speed Rail Authority met some, but not all of the best practices.”


Denham, a member of the House Transportation Committee, also added a layer of federal oversight to the project. Early this year, he asked the federal Surface Transportation Board to review and approve the project, which it did in June.


4. Slow federal permitting

The rail authority is still waiting to receive approval from federal agencies on its proposed path.


“It gets very complicated quickly,” John Prettyman, a public affairs officer with the Army Corps of Engineers, said. The corps of engineers has not yet signed off on the rail authority’s plan to lay tracks between Merced and Fresno.

There are 25 places where the proposed railroad will cross water between the two cities. The corps of engineers plans to issue a single permit for the entire project, rather than 25 individual permits. It will issue or reject a permit in early 2014.


Prettyman said as long the corps of engineers is concerned, the rail authority could begin construction before permits are received, as long as they don’t build in U.S. waterways or wetlands.

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Warriors arena schedule lags, costs jump

The Golden State Warriors' plan to build a waterfront arena in San Francisco is months behind its original schedule, and the repair cost for piers to hold the venue has increased by as much as $50 million, city documents show.
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Yosemite fire: San Francisco water, power unaffected

Crews are continuing to inspect and repair two powers stations serving San Francisco that were damaged by the Rim fire.
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Rick Orlov’s Tipoff: Playing chicken at City Hall

It was a game of political chicken for Mayor Eric Garcetti, the City Council and one of the most powerful unions in the city last week as the mayor moved to assert his power over the Department of Water and Power and begin to set his...
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CalPERS pushed to invest through minority firms

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Oceanside city manager announces resignation

Oceanside City Manager Peter Weiss announced Wednesday he will resign at the end of the year, ending his 26-year tenure with the city.
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Judge to rule on San Bernardino bankruptcy, pensions loom

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The city of San Bernardino is expected to learn on Wednesday if it is eligible for bankruptcy protection despite the opposition of California's powerful public pension system -...
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Steve Rocco gets a trial date with Santa Ana mayor

SANTA ANA – Steve Rocco, a former school trustee who is gathering signatures to recall Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido, has an Oct. 21 trial date in a civil case in which he alleges harassment on the part of the mayor.


“Miguel Pulido has proven himself a danger to everyone,” Rocco said in court documents. He’s seeking a civil harassment restraining order, seeking to keep the mayor at least 100 yards away.


Rocco, known for rants, conspiracy theories and repeated campaigns for public office, indicated in court papers that Pulido had not threatened him with the use of a gun or other weapon. “But did threaten police harassment and street terrorism – and they have guns!” the document said.


In an appearance Friday before Commissioner Jane D. Myers, Rocco said he wanted a change of venue, contending he couldn’t get a fair hearing in Orange County. That request ended up before Judge Richard Luesebrink.


Toting his documents in a Mother’s Market shopping bag and wearing a blue knit cap, Rocco told the judge that he and the mayor, who was not present in court, are both public figures. And in response to a question from the judge, he said he needed to wear his beanie for medical reasons.


The judge noted that Orange County Superior Court is a large one, with many judges, and asked Rocco why he couldn’t get a fair hearing.

“It’s political suicide to grant me a restraining order against Pulido,” Rocco said.

“I haven’t heard any reason why you can’t get a fair trial,” the judge said, denying the request.


Rocco and Laura Rossini, an assistant city attorney representing Pulido, agreed to the Oct. 21 trial date. Under the city charter, the city attorney is charged with representing city officers “in any or all actions and proceedings in which the City or any such officer or employee, in or by reason of his official capacity, is concerned or is a party.”


Rocco served on the Orange Unified School District board from 2004 to 2008. He ran unsuccessfully for Santa Ana mayor in 2000, and for the Ward 3 council seat in 2008 and 2012.


To force a recall vote against Pulido, Rocco must file by Oct. 14 a minimum of 13,101 valid signatures, which represents 15 percent of registered voters.

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Air board will start monitoring pollution next to SoCal freeways

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ARTIC ridership projections appear hig

By DOUG IRVING and ART MARROQUIN


ANAHEIM – City officials have overstated by thousands the number of passengers likely to use a soaring new transportation hub being built near Angel Stadium at a total cost of more than $220 million, a review of project documents shows.


City projections suggest that 10,000 trips a day will start or end at the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center, or ARTIC, when it opens next year. But those estimates rely on bus lines that exist only on paper, an airport shuttle shelved in 2011 and optimistic assumptions for Metrolink and Amtrak demand, according to records and interviews.


The actual number appears to be closer to 5,000. And that counts travelers both as they come and go, a typical measure for the transportation industry, one that double-counts anyone making a round trip.


City officials say the new station will improve regional transportation from the day it opens, and provide needed space for high-speed rail in the years to come. They describe the station, with its translucent shell more than three stories tall, as a landmark for Orange County and the future of transportation.

“We’re not building a building necessarily for today,” Anaheim Public Works Director Natalie Meeks said. “We’re building a building for the next 50 years.”

The ARTIC station has been planned for years with an eye toward high-speed rail and the tens of thousands of passengers that the city projects would take a bullet train to and from Anaheim. But it will take almost a generation for high-speed rail to reach Orange County’s most populous city, according to the rail authority’s most-recent business plan.


Anaheim has used an opening-day promise of 10,000 riders to woo companies that might provide maintenance, advertising or other support for ARTIC, records show. As recently as May, potential bidders were told in a Power Point presentation that they could expect 10,330 daily riders from the day the station opens.


A big part of that number – more than 4,000 daily riders – would come from special express bus lines and a Fly-Away shuttle to connect Orange County residents to Los Angeles International Airport, according to city documents. But none of that exists right now, and there’s no guarantee it will when ARTIC opens about a year from now.


Orange County’s long-range transportation plan calls for express bus lines; but none that would serve the Anaheim station have been budgeted into reality, much less scheduled to start service, records show. And the idea of an airport shuttle hasn’t been seriously discussed since 2011, LAX spokesman Marshall Lowe said.


Meeks said that at least some of the riders who would take the rapid bus lines are already riding standard buses that will use ARTIC, and should still be counted. But she said no ridership studies have been done to determine how many of them there are.


The city numbers also suggest that around 3,000 passengers a day will arrive or depart from ARTIC on Metrolink and Amtrak trains. That’s nearly 1,000 more than Anaheim’s current station sees on any given day, statistics show. And even that assumes that every Metrolink passenger who departs from Anaheim eventually comes back through on a round trip, and should be counted twice.

The city also included in its number special promotional trains for Angels and Ducks games, which have seen strong ridership in recent years. But those trains only run on limited schedules during game days.


Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait declined to speak in detail about the numbers. He abstained from voting on ARTIC’s construction contract because his company has done work for the Orange County Transportation Authority, which is providing most of the station’s funding. But the mayor said he supports the project.


“The numbers seem robust,” Tait said. “Time will tell if they bear out.”

ARTIC was conceived as much more than a Metrolink station and a bus stop. It was going to hum with high-speed bullet trains and even a “super speed” shuttle to Ontario’s airport, all within walking distance of 9,500 new high-rise homes, according to a 2005 agreement between Anaheim and the OCTA.

Only about a fifth of those homes were built before the recession put Anaheim’s hopes for an urban Platinum Triangle on hold. And high-speed rail has become mired in politics and questions about the billions of dollars it would cost to build. The state’s High-Speed Rail Authority doesn’t expect a bullet train to pull into Anaheim until at least 2029.


When – or if – that day comes, Anaheim expects high-speed rail to deliver some 32,900 new passenger trips to ARTIC every day. That would also drive up ridership on a streetcar that Anaheim wants to build from ARTIC, through the Platinum Triangle, to Disneyland and the Convention Center, according to planning documents.


Until then, the city expects ARTIC use to peak at around 15,500 trips on any given day, counting both arrivals and departures, records show.

“If it looks to you like we’re building an awful lot of building for not a lot of ridership, you’re not missing anything,” said county Supervisor Shawn Nelson, a longtime critic of the project who serves on the OCTA board. His district includes ARTIC. Everyday commuters will now have to navigate a “Crystal Cathedral of transit portals,” he said, rather than hop a train or bus at a simple street stop.


“It’s not like a flight, where you’ve got a two-hour layover,” he said.

Plans for ARTIC show three stories of lobbies, ticketing counters and waiting areas, with space for shops or restaurants, beneath a half-shell canopy made of glassy plastic. Crews broke ground on it last fall and have begun constructing the building’s steel skeleton just east of Angel Stadium.


The station’s total cost comes to around $221 million, including land, engineering, construction and improvements to nearby streets, according to city progress reports. Most of the funding is coming from Orange County’s half-cent sales tax, approved by voters for such transportation improvements, bolstered by tens of millions of dollars in state and federal grants.

The station is scheduled to open to passengers in late fall 2014.

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Rim Fire sweeping toward Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy reservoir

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With scant cooperation from Mother Nature, fire crews waged a battle with few gains Sunday against the giant Rim Fire, which voraciously consumed dry brush and trees as it marched toward Hetch Hetchy reservoir in Yosemite National Park.
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Dan Walters: Steinberg's bills show his visions for California - The Sacramento Bee

Five years ago, Darrell Steinberg carried into law a sweeping revision of California's local land-use rules, aimed at creating what the legislation called %22sustainable communities.%22
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Reform of CEQA requires compromise

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SACRAMENTO — California's economy is crawling back, but the state still suffers from a national reputation for being anti-business.
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State plans to withhold $2.5 million from Santa Ana

The state Department of Finance is ordering the Board of Equalization to withhold more than $2.5 million in sales and use tax revenues from the city of Santa Ana.


City officials, who failed in one legal attempt last week to block the state action, said they plan to appeal to the state Court of Appeal in Sacramento.

“Despite numerous orders by Finance, the City has refused to remit to the Orange County Auditor-Controller $2,580,847 in unencumbered Low and Moderate Income Housing Fund assets of its former redevelopment agency that are in the City’s possession,” said an Aug. 19 letter from the Department of Finance. ”Finance directs that the withholding begin with the September 2013 sales and use tax distribution.”


Ultimately, the county auditor-controller’s office would distribute the funds to taxing entities, such as school districts.


City officials in June adopted a balanced budget for the next two years aimed at building reserves, and are concerned about the potential impact of the state action.


“The city is striving to preserve a balanced budget and achieve reserves that amount to two months’ worth of expenditures as defined by best practices under the Governmental Finance Officers’ Association,” said Francisco Gutierrrez, executive director of the city Finance and Management Services Agency. “The $2.5 million would have allowed the city to realize that goal by fiscal year end. Current economic activity still has mixed signals, and the city is still concerned in terms of an economic slow-down or downturn. As such, for the city to attain a balanced budget without inclusion of the $2.5 million by year end, there needs to be sustained economic growth throughout the fiscal year.”

The dispute has its roots in the state’s decision to end redevelopment. The state’s 400 redevelopment agencies, including Santa Ana’s, were dissolved in 2011.

Last December, city officials vowed to fight a demand from the state that it pay $56 million in redevelopment funds that Santa Ana contended it must use for low- and moderate-income housing. The City Council directed its legal staff to take any legal action needed to protect the city’s interests, and to pay any legally enforceable obligations it has to developers of affordable housing.

At the time, the city said that about $30 million of the money had been set aside for low- and moderate-income housing as the result of legal settlements dating to the early 1980s. The other $26 million was subject to contracts with housing developers as well as legal settlements.

Legal settlements allowed certain funds to be released for housing projects that were under way, such as the now-complete Triada at the Station District. But the state is contending that the $2.5 million it is owed was improperly transferred to the city’s Housing Authority.

The state in an April letter also maintained a demand for more than $30 million in redevelopment funds that city officials contend are encumbered as a result of legal settlements and judgments made through the years.

Among other cities in a similar situation are Huntington Beach and Orange, documents show.

The League of California Cities has sued the Department of Finance, challenging its authority to order the withholding of city sales taxes and property taxes.

Initially, a judge rejected the claim, saying that it was premature because the department had not attempted to actually withhold money.

Now that the Department of Finance has issued the order on Santa Ana’s sales tax, the league has asked the court to reconsider and plans to seek an order Sept. 20 in Sacramento County Superior Court to block the demand for the money.

The dissolution of redevelopment left a trail of other lawsuits in its wake.

A lawsuit by the Public Law Center spelled out five court-ordered judgments requiring Santa Ana to set aside certain percentages of funds from redevelopment project areas for low- and moderate-income housing. They are, the lawsuit said, “enforceable obligations” under the state law that dissolved redevelopment agencies.

Another case on appeal in Sacramento has sought to enforce a settlement in a 1984 lawsuit brought by property owner Gerald Peebler that set aside a percentage of property tax money for public improvements in the South Main Street business corridor, as well as for affordable housing.

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Bay Bridge fasteners withstand tests, Caltrans says

Tests that Caltrans launched to predict the reliability of hundreds of at-risk steel fasteners on the new Bay Bridge eastern span after 32 rods failed this year are giving rise to cautious optimism that the parts will not need to be replaced,...
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Our View: It's time for a restart on high-speed rail

A Sacramento judge’s recent ruling echoes what many have thought for the past few years — that the California high-speed rail project violates both the spirit and intent of Proposition
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Rail News - Caltrain seeks $20 million in TIGER V funds for electrification, PTC. For Railroad Career Professionals

Railroad industry Positive Train Control news about: Caltrain, Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) V, PTC. From the editors of Progressive Railroading Magazine
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