Excitement at Transbay Event, But Federal Transportation Bill Uncertain

Transbay_groundbreak_1.jpgSenator Barbara Boxer, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, US DOT Secretary Ray Lahood, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and Transbay Joint Powers Authority Board Chairman and SFMTA CEO Nat Ford at the Transbay Transit Center groundbreaking. Photos: Matthew Roth.

Though most of the California political class celebrated the groundbreaking of the new Transbay Transit Center with U.S. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood in San Francisco yesterday, significant questions remain for funding a national high-speed rail network through the federal transportation act.

The event swarmed with Secret Service and various other branches of law enforcement keeping an eye on a crowd that, as San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom joked with LaHood, was mostly made up of consultants on the Transbay project.

LaHood cracked wise several times at Newsom’s expense, repeating more comments Newsom made before the press conference to the public and the media and suggesting Californian’s should vote him in as Lt. Governor on his humor alone.

When he stopped ribbing Newsom, LaHood gushed about how far "ahead of the curve" California is on high-speed rail. LaHood said U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) had cast "courageous votes" that made the stimulus bill possible, which meant a $48 billion infusion for the US DOT or nearly two-thirds his annual budget. From the $8 billion President Barack Obama added for high-speed rail nationally, California received $2.3 billion, $400 million of that for the Transbay Transit Center.

"People who come back from Europe or Asia and have ridden high-speed
rail, like many of you have, come back to America and ask why we don’t
have high-speed rail in America? Because we’ve never made the investment,
that’s why," said LaHood. "This year we had 8 billion times more money for high-speed
rail given President Obama’s vision to connect America with high-speed,
inter-city rail."

LaHood also pointed to California’s competitive advantage in federal money for high speed rail because the state has "its act together and you want high-speed rail, you’ve been working on it for a decade."

"The people deserve a lot of credit, to go to the polls, and to
cast votes to raise taxes in order to develop the kind of
infrastructure for high-speed rail, the people deserve a lot of credit."


A day later LaHood was still excited by his visit to San Francisco, and he wrote on the US DOT’s Fast Lane blog, "The Transit Center is part of a larger redevelopment effort that will breathe new life into the Bay Area and provide people with better transportation, housing, and employment options. It’s a true embodiment of the livability principles I talk about so often."

While ribbon cutting on such a monumental project made for good photos and sound bites, long-term funding for high-speed rail nationally and in California is not a sure thing. Despite the $8 billion last year and another $2.5 billion this year, the U.S. lags far behind China, which is investing nearly $300 billion over the next decade on its high-speed rail network. What’s more, states sought seven times more funding for rail than the stimulus gave out and demand is only growing.

When asked if the Senate will take up the re-authorization of the national transportation act, Senator Boxer told Streetsblog after the Transbay event she hoped to have a bill out of her Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and to the Senate floor this year. "I think we have a very good chance but I can’t say for sure," she said.

When asked if her bill would mirror House Transportation Committee Chair James Oberstar’s (D-MN) commitment to increase transit funding, Boxer said, "I would hope so. I would hope we will be able to do that."

When asked whether she thought she could convince Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), the ranking minority leader on her committee and an opponent of linking climate and transportation policies, to support money for high-speed rail or at least stay out of her way, she said, "I don’t know how he feels on high-speed rail," but that it was "not necessarily a problem."

Boxer.jpgSenator Boxer elaborating on the climate and transportation bills.

Boxer also noted that with a comprehensive energy bill unlikely in the near term, she and her colleagues were looking for numerous other options to "put a price on carbon," whether by making sure the Environmental Protection Agency was vigilant in regulating carbon emissions or by supporting states’ efforts to limit climate change, such as the Western Climate Initiative.

"If we can’t convince our colleagues that this is serious, we’re going to
do absolutely everything we can absent comprehensive legislation," she said.

While the federal agenda was important to her, Boxer indicated she was concerned with a local battle now brewing: California’s Proposition 23, which would suspend the landmark AB 32 climate change law. "The other thing I have to do is just make sure California can move forward and that there’s no preemption of what we’re doing. Right now I’m fighting to defeat Prop 23, which would be a disaster," she said.

Given recent polling that shows Boxer losing ground to her Republican Senate challenger, Carly Fiorina, transportation advocates nationally should be concerned. If she were to lose her seat to Fiorina and the EPW committee were to be shaken up, a transportation act with significant funding for transit and high-speed rail would be more precarious.

  • yawn

    Flipping dirt in a sandbox? Pretty lame “groundbreaking” They should have taken swung picks into the ground

  • Bob Davis

    We had the same process here in Southern California in June for the Gold Line Foothill Extension, which will add light rail service from East Pasadena to Azusa. A big photo op giving grownups a chance to play in the sand pile. Oh well, its all in the name of progress, or in our case, restoring what was pulled out back in 1952. I did get a photo of a local newspaper staff writer I know, who specializes in “learning experience” articles among other things, ready to climb aboard a large front end loader (and she does know basic machinery operation). The caption was “Never mind the shovels! Michelle is ready to do some SERIOUS groundbreaking!” But in actuality, rearranging the landscape for real won’t happen for a few months.

  • But really, this is what big projects are all about. They are face time for politicians. The more “ground breakings” the better. It is just one more opportunity to get your picture in the paper and your name next to whatever the big project is. Why do you think federal monies usually only go to capital projects and not operations? You can’t get your picture next to a bus showing up on time.

  • Bob Davis

    Dare I say that we Americans have a “Golden Spike” mentality? The start and the completion of big projects is cause for celebration, and we ignore the “worker bees” who keep things “shipshape” year after year. The term “maintenance man” conjures up a picture of a tired-looking fellow in greasy coveralls, with a Crescent wrench or a pair of Channelock pliers, trudging from one breakdown to another, telling people that I could fix it now, but the front office (or building owner) won’t buy any spare parts for me to keep on hand.

  • marcos

    The TBT will be both a money pit and an empty dusty empty hole in the ground until the CIty can identify the other $1.5-2b to fill the funding gap.

    Everyone wants a multimodal HSR terminal, but like every other dream development project, TI, HPSY, BV, this one is designed not to solve problems but to leverage political chits.

    Mark my words, when this project runs out of money in 3 years time, we’ll see boondoggle writ large at 1st and Mission.

    Show me the money.


  • Spokker

    “and we ignore the “worker bees” who keep things “shipshape” year after year. ”

    I don’t know about SF but Metro in Los Angeles County promotes its maintenance team on several ads on our trains. One even congratulated them for winning some rail maintenance rodeo, whatever the hell that is. But it has a picture of some maintenance guys holding their tools or something.

    Also, here they are being given awards: http://thesource.metro.net/2010/06/09/metro-rail-maintenance-team-takes-first-prize-at-apta-rail-rodeo-2010/

  • Spokker,
    That’s really cool. Outside of the trolley bell ringing contest in SF, I’m not aware of such public recognition of transit employees, especially in newspapers and advertisements. There was one SFMTA board meeting where they recognized a driver that had worked something like 30 years without ever being late or ever missing a shift, but there were only a handful of people in the room, many of us on the clock, who got to see it. Maybe they should plaster his face on a bus or on bus shelters thanking him. That could be a good gesture from the agencies that the people that make things run day in and day out should be celebrated.

  • Bob Davis

    In recent years there has been recognition of “front line” workers. One time I was driving by the Santa Anita Race Track and noticed cones being set up for a bus driver competition. When I worked for Southern Calif. Edison, our company newsletter would have items about how well our linemen did in overhead-line skills competition. One event was bringing an “unconscious worker” (actually a dummy) down from a pole.

  • ZA

    @Bob Davis – re: “Gold Spike” mentality –

    True, as my own city’s history proves.


    On the other hand, the union shops that maintain a given BART train do add their sign of pride on it for all the public to see.


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