Transit Briefs: Brightline, CHSRA, USDOT OIGWritten by Marybeth Luczak, Executive Editor
A new Siemens Mobility trainset is heading to Brightline, Florida’s private-sector passenger railroad. Also, the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) is passed over for Multimodal Project Disciplinary Grants from the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT); and a recent audit finds that USDOT oversight of Seattle’s transportation-funds management is insufficient.
Brightline is another step closer to extending its 67-mile Miami-to-West Palm Beach line north to Orlando. Brightline Orange 2, the last of five new trainsets from Siemens Mobility that will help serve the $2.7-billion, 170-mile extension, is now on its way to Florida. The railroad on Feb. 11 reported that it had left the manufacturing facility in Sacramento, Calif. (See Twitter post, above.)
The first trainset was delivered in October 2021; Bright Blue 2 arrived in February 2022; and Bright Pink 2 and Bright Green 2 arrived July 21, 2022. Each comprises four coaches and two Charger diesel-electric locomotives (one at each end).
Service to Orlando is expected to start this year. Brightline on Jan. 9 released a video and renderings of its future 37,350-foot Orlando Station.
In related developments, Brightline announced Feb. 6 that it has launched a new rail safety campaign and safety public service announcement (PSA) to remind residents that their decisions around the tracks will impact others in the community and emphasizes the point: “Stopping a bad decision is easy, stopping a train isn’t. Be safe and stay off the tracks.”
For more on the new Brightline service, read “Rolling Into Orlando,” by Railway Age Engineering Editor and RT&S Editor-in-Chief David C. Lester
The Sacramento Bee on Feb. 10 reported that CHSRA was unable to secure more than $1.2 billion in competitive grants from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Multimodal Project Disciplinary Grant program.
According to the newspaper, CHSRA Chief Financial Officer Brian Annis said the authority was “disappointed not to receive a grant in this particular round,” but has previously received funding in smaller amounts from other federal grant programs. Only nine projects, two rail-related, received grants under the Mega grant program announced Jan. 31; they will share the nearly $1.2 billion awarded.
CHSRA had sought funding to add a second track to the 119-mile construction route; wrap up “advanced design work” on extension to downtown Merced (north) and to downtown Bakersfield (south); purchase six trainsets for Merced-to-Bakersfield service; construct Fresno and Hanford stations; start route design for environmentally cleared segments or segments nearing approval, including San Francisco-San Jose, San Jose-Merced, Bakersfield-Palmdale, and Burbank-Los Angeles, according to The Sacramento Bee.
A CHSRA spokesperson told the paper that the “authority remains optimistic that our strong partnership with the Biden-Harris administration will result in continued joint investment from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, from which the authority has already received grant funding. …”
According to the newspaper, CHSRA could apply for grants under the Federal Railroad Administration’s Federal-State Partnership for Intercity Passenger Rail program (applications are due in April) and eyes future Mega grants.
“When Proposition 1A, a $9.9 billion bond act for high-speed rail, was approved by California voters in 2008, state rail leaders expected the federal government to pitch in between one-third and one-half of the total project cost for a full 520-mile system linking San Francisco and Los Angeles via Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley,” the newspaper reported.
“But cost estimates have fluctuated wildly since California has received about $3.5 billion in federal railroad and economic stimulus funds in 2010 and 2011,” according to the paper. “A statewide system at one time expected to cost somewhere around $43 billion; that later ballooned to almost $100 billion before the state rail agency sought ways to use ‘value engineering’ to bring the costs back down. The most recent cost estimate for the planned Merced-Bakersfield operational segment is about $24 billion, according to the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s 2022 business plan sent to the state Legislature last year.”
Building east to San Jose and San Francisco and south to Palmdale, Burbank, Los Angeles and Anaheim is still “a wild card,” according to the paper. “Depending on the complexity of construction and uncertainty of such costs as buying property for right of way, tunneling through the Coast Range toward San Jose and the Tehachapi and San Gabriel mountain ranges toward Los Angeles, the agency’s 2022 business plan estimated the price tag for a full San Francisco-to-Los Angeles/Anaheim system range from a low of $72.3 billion to as much as $105.1 billion.”
For more on U.S. high-speed rail (and its challenges), read “Moving Forward—At Restricted Speed,” by Railway Age Contributing Editor David Peter Alan. And check out “Part 10: Another Landowner Takes Texas Central to Court,” also by Alan.
The USDOT’s “oversight is not sufficient to ensure the city of Seattle [Wash.] meets requirements for managing federal transportation funds,” according a new audit by the USDOT’s Office of Inspector General, The Seattle Times reported on Feb. 9.
The review stems from citizen complaints to an Office of Inspector General hotline in 2019, according to the newspaper, which noted in 2018, “then-Mayor Jenny Durkan suspended Central City Connector streetcar construction along First Avenue, amid rising estimates for operating costs.”
The audit says a “$3.8 million federal payment ‘could have been put to better use,’ because those dollars were inactive for more than five years,” The Seattle Times reported. “According to USDOT guidance, idle projects must be reviewed by the FTA after one year for ‘de-obligation,’ in which case the state can switch money to another transit project in the Seattle area. The FTA replied it didn’t intend to do so because Seattle is still reviewing the downtown streetcar, and there’s no legal deadline to cancel FTA support, the audit says.” The project “maintains a ‘High’ rating and a $75 million pledge in the Federal Transit Administration’s capital grants list,” the newspaper reported.
The city also “abandoned $8.5 million in federal aid for a canceled north Broadway extension of the First Hill Streetcar,” according to The Seattle Times. “The FTA redirected $4.9 million, but another $3.6 million remains ‘unused for over 6 years instead of being put to better use on more immediate projects,’ the audit says.”
While the Seattle Department of Transportation “doesn’t agree with the finding that $7.4 million in federal money would be better spent elsewhere,” according to a spokesman, “the City Council has been divided over the project for years,” the newspaper reported.
The Seattle Times also reported that the city’s new Lander Street Bridge was built for $53 million instead of a budgeted $140 million—a sign of “lax management” in the eyes of auditors. “The $140 million number, devised in 2008, lingered through 2016 when $55 million federal funds were granted because SDOT ‘did not fully support its cost estimate,’ the [audit] report said,” according to the paper. “In the end, SDOT rebated $21 million to the Federal Railroad Administration. But national taxpayers wound up subsidizing 68% of Seattle’s new bridge, rather than a more normal share of 39%.”
Additionally, the Office of Inspector General “questioned $10.7 million within 10 highway and transit grants, saying the city produced inadequate documentation,” according to The Seattle Times. “In four of 444 records examined, change orders totaling $540,825, including one involving lead paint removal, lacked signatures by a city capital program director.”
The newspaper reported that according to a SDOT spokesman, “these anomalies involved old methods from 2014 to 2019. SDOT generally concurs with audit suggestions, and the city revamped its internal financial controls to better fit federal tracking processes. …”
Download the complete audit report and its 14 recommendations below.