Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

December 10, 2009


Host: Ted Simons

High Speed and Commuter Rail

  |   Video
  • Transportation reporter for the Arizona Republic, Sean Holstege, provides an update on efforts to bring high speed and commuter rail to Arizona.
Guests:
  • Sean Holstege - Arizona Republic
Category: Business/Economy

View Transcript
Ted Simons:
Could Arizona's transportation future include a bullet train between the valley and Los Angeles? What about a commuter train between downtown Phoenix and the outlying suburbs? Here to help answer those questions is Sean Holstege. He covers transportation issues for "The Arizona Republic." A bullet train, what's going on here?

Sean Holstege:
Five states looked at the map that came out of the Obama administration and realized there's a gaping hole. None of big cities in the west, Phoenix, salt lake, Reno, were included in the government's blueprint that the Obama administration rolled out and as director of the Maricopa association of government, if you're not on the map, you're nowhere.

Ted Simons:
That particular map did include -- what? -- Los Angeles to Las Vegas?

Sean Holstege:
It's been an idea kicked around for decades and I think you had Rick Simonetta talking about. It's been an idea that's been around but Phoenix is nowhere and it's the fifth largest city and the mountain west is the fastest growing region in the country and planning directors like Dennis said why?

Ted Simons:
As far as the congressional delegations in Utah, Arizona, Nevada, everyone on board?

Sean Holstege:
That remains to be determined next year. The next year is going to be interesting because we don't have a federal transportation bill and all of these cities are looking for that bill to be the mechanism to find the money that doesn't currently exist in the stimulus plan to build these trains. So Harry Reid, the majority leader is on board. Beyond that, we don't know.

Ted Simons:
It's interesting, you've got the stimulus money, which goes a certain extent and then you have to follow that with a transportation bill which goes further. Where's the dividing line?

Sean Holstege:
Part of the reason is the money itself. The stimulus plan puts $8 billion into high-speed rail. It's likely that two, three regions are going to benefit from that money. Compare that to what California is doing. They have envision a $40 billion system. 800-miles. China, five years ago had the smallest high-speed rail network in the world and today they have the largest. And they're investing $300 billion, double that the next decade. We're far, far you behind that investment.

Ted Simons:
We're far behind but I know you wrote about European folks at a conference regarding this stuff and they weren't sure that this was a viable concept for a country like America.

Sean Holstege:
Let's understand who these people are. They're finance people and they're looking at from the financial sense. From that point of view, they're very pessimistic about the number of city pairs in the United States that actually make financial sense. In my experience, I would say probably too pessimistic. To put that in context, when the Europeans built the tunnel between England and the U.K. and France, 90% of the -- that was one of the busiest travel routes in the world. Until the tunnel was built. You're seeing business travelers eager to take advantage of.

Ted Simons:
We're talking bullet trains.

Sean Holstege:
The fastest train in the world in service is again in China, 225 miles per hour. As the crow flies between here and Los Angeles, that would be a little over two hours. You have to navigate the terrain. Probably about three hours. I know the studies in California said the travel times between San Francisco and Los Angeles were about [inaudible] hours. The time you spend in the airport, in the airport, getting from the airport, in security, it's a competitive time and the prices for the tickets are competitive too.

Ted Simons:
The last question on the bullet train here.

Sean Holstege:
Sure.

Ted Simons:
You're going against Florida cities and Texas and the eastern seaboard and even to a certain extent L.A. to San Francisco. When you are talking Denver, those are areas where you have to go through rough territory.

Sean Holstege:
The engineering will be very costly. Who knows what the price tag will be? California is investing, they say, $40 billion. But we don't know the final price tag.

Ted Simons:
Commuter rail, the slower trains, from downtown Phoenix to -- which suburbs?

Sean Holstege:
The folks at MAG have been studying it for years. That's another study we'll talk about later. The commuter rail study looks at four different tracks, focused on four, from queen creek to buckeye and Chandler toward Wickenburg to Whitman. And it's a different system. Light rail is a heavily used slower system with more stops. It's an urban system. Almost like a bus. These commuter rail lines are intended to bring people in from the suburbs as quickly as possible. Every train has a different objective.

Ted Simons:
I'm hearing northwest, southeast, southwest. What about the northeast?

Sean Holstege:
The reason is simple. There are no existing freight tracks in that part of town. One of the advantages to commuter rail is the speed and cost with which you can build one of these. In New Mexico, they put one together in three years. Record time. Why? They had a willing freight company that was willing to sell the tracks. So we're looking at existing tracks in the valley to accommodate.

Ted Simons:
Do we have willing freight companies? How's that going to work out?

Sean Holstege:
That's the next step. Problem one, we don't have any money for any of these projects. Problem two, then you have to begin the negotiations with the freight companies and those haven't gone far enough to know where they stand. Southeast valley is a very -- the model shows that southeast valley will be heavily traveled. We're talking about comparable volumes of passengers to the Los Angeles system which is a extensive system.

Ted Simons:
What are we looking at next in terms of something happening?

Sean Holstege:
For all of these plans we have to get from idea to plan to concept to engineering, to being an approved project ready to go out and looking for money. And that usually means the federal government. Don't expect a transportation bill for another year. How that bill gets crafted and how successful we are for lobbying for our piece of money will determine how this will get built.

Ted Simons:
Interesting stuff. To think of a bullet train going from here to Los Angeles is fantastic. But if it happens, maybe we'll be around it to see it.

Sean Holstege:
Thanks for having me.

METRO Light Rail

  |   Video
  • METRO Light Rail is getting a new CEO. The current CEO, Rick Simonetta, is leaving his post at the end of the year to work for a company that’s pursuing high speed rail projects across the country. Hear what Simonetta has to say about some of the successes, challenges and surprises he encountered while finishing the Valley’s 20-mile light rail starter line on time and on budget.
Guests:
  • Rick Simonetta - METRO Light Rail -
Category: Business/Economy

View Transcript
Ted Simons:
Metro light rail will soon have a new CEO. Stephen Banta, executive director of operations for the Tri-Met Public Transit System in Portland, has accepted the job. He takes over as CEO at the end of the year. That's when the contract for current CEO, Rick Simonetta, will expire. Under Simonetta's leadership, metro light rail was built on time and on budget. He'll soon be taking on a new challenge with a company involved with high-speed rail projects across the country. Joining me now, for one last time as metro light rail's CEO, is Rick Simonetta. Good to see you again. Thanks for joining us congratulations.

Rick Simonetta:
Thank you, Ted, it's nice to be with you again.

Ted Simons:
Why are you leaving? Were you asked to stay on?

Rick Simonetta:
I had a contract and the contract originally had five years associated with it. That would have been at the end of December of last year, but the end of December last year was when we were opening the 20-mile line and the board asked me to stay on for one more year and I did and it's been a great year. A lot of good ridership numbers. People are using light rail and it was time to move not last chapter of my career and I wanted to end it with consulting and I have a good opportunity with the URS corporation.

Ted Simons:
What is the URS corporation?

Rick Simonetta:
It's a major engineering and consulting organization. I think the second largest in the country. They've been involved in railroad and mass transit rail work for many, many years and want to play a big role in the whole push for high-speed rail in North America.

Ted Simons:
Including places like Arizona? It seems I'm hearing it talked about all over the place. What about us?

Rick Simonetta:
We hope the mountain west will be included in the national effort to welcome at high-speed rail. We've got large population centers and there's valid reason to connect places like Los Angeles, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Denver, Salt Lake City -- places that are growing cities.

Ted Simons:
As far as metro light rail, when you took this job, you had expectations. Were they met?

Rick Simonetta:
They certainly were. The biggest expectation was build this thing on budget and on schedule. And that certainly was the largest challenge we faced in building the project because there are always surprises and unknowns that pop up. Market conditions changed and commodities weren't as readily available and if they were available, they were more expensive. Labor rates were going off the roof and gasoline prices high. But with everyone working hard and the objective of on time, on budget, always there before them, we did it and that's certainly my greatest reward seeing it happen and the credibility it brings to the region and the agency I've headed up for the last six years because we have a lot more rail we want to build.

Ted Simons:
Other than the market forces you mentioned, other surprises? What surprised you most -- let's put it that way -- looking back on the light rail project?

Rick Simonetta:
One was the number of archaeological finds we uncovered in the Tempe area. Not far from here and those were rich area where is the Indian culture flourished and came across burial graves and sites and pit houses and those things. And when that happened, you had to park the bulldozers and bring the archaeologists in with shovels and toothbrushes and they would spend time documenting what they found but it was a necessary and important thing to do. But those were surprises that weren't built in to the schedule. One of the other surprises that got media attention a couple years ago was the rail breaks where we had cracks in the rails once the temperatures got cold and while that's normal and would probably occur in any event, we had really a larger number of those than were expected and they were all occurring around a particular design feature so we had to mitigate that and it took a lot of good effort and we brought in the best experts from around the country. But got it done and those are the things you've got to get over when you build a major project like this.

Ted Simons:
Indeed. And you met those challenges. What do you see as future challenges with light rail here in town?

Rick Simonetta:
I think we've established the current standards into extensions and we've got the expertise necessary to do that. It's really the economy right now. The economy, of course, is -- is what contributes to the prop 400 fund that the voters approved a few years ago. It's what impacts the sales tax revenues that goes to the cities. And those are the sources of funds that are necessary to build and to operate the extensions of light rail. And because of the downturn in the economy, everything has been pushed become a bit. So there's a little disappoint in that but I'm confident over the next couple years, we're going to see a rebound and we're moving forward with the projects we can move forward with but we'd like to move even faster.

Ted Simons:
As far as moving faster, what about commuter trains. Not necessarily the high-speed bullet trains but the commuter trains from suburb to suburb?

Rick Simonetta:
There's two studies one is with the Maricopa association of governments, looking at opportunities for commuter rail. Operating along the union-Pacific lines or the Burlington northern Santa Fe lines and we've got opportunities out there. And the other one that gets publicity is the opportunity to connect Phoenix with Tucson. That's more intercity. But the same technology can apply and I'll be anxious to see what happens.

Ted Simons:
And now you're going on work with magnetic trains.

Rick Simonetta:
I had the opportunity to ride the MAGlev -- and we were clocked at 280 miles per hour. And it just didn't feel like we were going that fast. But we were.

Ted Simons:
I was going to say, when you're on these things, it's like an airplane. Going fast but don't realize it. You're sitting there, look at the bird going awfully slow?

Rick Simonetta:
It's sort of like that but it's very quiet. The issue with the MAGLEV, there's no contact, no friction. So you're not impacted with steel rims on steel rails or anything like that.

Ted Simons:
We know about bullet trains from Japan. Why are we so behind on this? And why is Arizona behind on any kind of commuter rail?

Rick Simonetta:
It's a matter of priorities. At the state and local level and we've been an automobile society but mass transit has made a huge comeback over the last 10-20 years and with the current administration looking creatively at things like high-speed rail maybe we'll find alternatives to driving our automobiles.

Ted Simons:
Congratulations. Thank you for joining us on "Horizon" on many occasions and good luck in the future.

Rick Simonetta:
Thank you, Ted.

State Budget

  |   Video
  • The Governor’s Chief of Staff, Eileen Klein, provides an update on the $1.6 billion state budget deficit and a possible special session to deal with the shortfall.
Guests:
  • Eileen Klein - Governor's Chief of Staff -
Category: Government

View Transcript
Ted Simons:
Good evening and welcome to "Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. A Maricopa County detention officer jailed after taking documents from a defense attorney is now out of jail. The Arizona Court of Appeals released Adam Stoddard from custody pending an appeal of his case. The court will consider Stoddard's case January 5th. Maricopa County sheriff's deputies today served a search warrant on the Phoenix office of Chicanos Por la Causa. The warrant was served in connection with an investigation of county supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox. She's accused of perjury and forgery in connection with loans she received from the nonprofit organization. A November special session erased about $450 million from the state's budget deficit. But Arizona is still facing a current year shortfall of $1.6 billion. Next fiscal year, the deficit is expected to grow to $3 billion. Earlier tonight, I spoke with Governor Brewer's chief of staff, Eileen Klein, about the budget and the possibility of another special session. And thank you for joining us tonight on "Horizon."

Eileen Klein:
Thank you.

Ted Simons:
Special session possible for next week?

Eileen Klein:
It is possible. Governor Brewer's been pressing really for months for the legislature to come back and continue the work that needs to be done on the remaining deficit of a billion and a half for fiscal year 2010 and take a look at what needs to be done for the $3 billion that faces us for 2011.

Ted Simons:
A referral for temporary sales tax increase, governor still pushing it hard?

Eileen Klein:
She's eager to have the legislature send something to the voters so they can contemplate whether they want to provide additional revenues.

Ted Simons:
I know talking about a full penny.

Eileen Klein:
What is under discussion is a full penny for each of the next three years to help us temporarily bridge the gap.

Ted Simons:
Is there concern that even this is not going to be nearly enough to make a dent in the problem?

Eileen Klein:
Well, certainly Governor Brewer called for a comprehensive solution back in March. So when she took office in January, the deficit -- excuse me, the budget situation, the -- the problem with the budget had been under way for at least two years already and when she came in she called for a comprehensive solution that would call for additional cuts and use the additional debts and the size of the problem is so great that the solution can't be found in any one single approach. For instance, there's so much protected in the budget currently that you could eliminate all services not protected by the voter protection act of the state or the government and still not be able to solve the deficit.

Ted Simons:
Does the governor support the idea of referring to the voters a way to get around it?

Eileen Klein:
She does. As part of her comprehensive plan, she has recommended that the voters reconsider certain portions temporarily so that some relief can be provided. Instead of having monies going into special programs that may be are not as essential -- important, but not as essential right now, that the monies be diverted so they can be used for K-12 education, daily classroom instruction and public safety.

Ted Simons:
Does that include programs like first things first?

Eileen Klein:
It is. And in part because they have a large cash reserve. Certainly that's one of the areas and while people value early childhood education, right now, we believe we need to be focused on the essential services of government.

Ted Simons:
As far as a temporary sales tax increase and referring it and getting the legislature to go along with that referral, should it be linked, if necessary, can it be linked to tax cut, the permanent repeal of the state property tax for example. Thoughts there?

Eileen Klein:
Well, Governor Brewer called for comprehensive tax reform as part of what the state needs, so that we can propel the state not future and make sure we have a very vibrant business climate. A good economic environment so all businesses can succeed and it's not necessary that these items be linked, but they are important long-term component of economic vitality.

Ted Simons:
I know as far as linkage, there's talks of future tax cuts, maybe starts in 2011. Critics, Democrats mostly, say what sense does it make to raise the sales tax if you're going to cut income and corporate taxes.

Eileen Klein:
Understood and while it may seem that way on the surface, clearly we need temporary revenue of some sort to help us bridge the gap and that's why that was a temporary proposal. But the long-term success of the state depends on us making fundamental adjustments. Governor Brewer called for regulatory reform right out of the gate so that businesses could not be encumbered by rules and regulations of the state. Likewise, business told us that they need reforms to the tax codes so they can be more competitive and we're out of sync with our western states and if we want to attract new business and retain businesses we have --

Ted Simons:
That could be in the future as opposed to now?

Eileen Klein:
I'm not sure it should wait for the future. The time is now to attract jobs and we're focused on what we can do to attract jobs and retain the jobs we have and we're seeing the statistics and employers are shedding jobs and we need to stop that and businesses need to welcome at out and see the beacon we're sending and they'll want to come and locate here and we need to start that now.

Ted Simons:
The concern of cuts, you're getting close to effort of maintenance requirements for stimulus money. How close are we and what can the legislature do from now on?

Eileen Klein:
The -- we're already at maintenance of efforts requirement for the federal government in order to secure the federal funds and Governor Brewer was back in Washington D.C. to say with the release the federal government has provided so far, the state cannot make it through fiscal year 2011 with the current strings attached to the federal stimulus plan. Around the Medicaid program, Governor Brewer went to the delegation this week and provided data that not only can we not afford the stimulus plan going not future but we can certainly not afford to have any expansion the way congress is contemplating for the Medicaid program. Having relief from the federal government and continuing the federal funds will be essential.

Ted Simons:
I know that treasurer Martin said the governor should apply for a waiver as far as the maintenance of efforts requirements are concerned. Is that what the governor did?

Eileen Klein:
Not at all. The governor went back and began to make the case that we need relief from the federal government. We are in the middle of calculating whether we qualify for a waiver, what would that gain us in terms of the budget and what would be the sanctions from the federal government if we went below maintenance of effort. We want to weigh those things and ask congress outright to provide the relief we need now from all of the eligibility requirements attached to the dollars that we simply cannot sustain.

Ted Simons:
Last question: The governor said she will not decimate education and human services. Is that possible the way things are right now?

Eileen Klein:
Certainly, the state's budget situation is so bad that every area is going to need to face reductions and we need to be thoughtful. Governor Brewer has taken a great stand to protect education. So -- and that remains. That's why it's so important we have relief in other areas of the budget. And that we use other tools to help us manage through.

Ted Simons:
All right. Thank you very much for joining us.

Eileen Klein:
Thank you.

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