LOS ANGELES — California's plans for a $68 billion high-speed passenger rail system have attracted one of the state's most well-known transportation planners to its board despite a series of issues faced by the project.
Katherine Perez-Estolano, 45, who was named to the high-speed rail board in April, says she is excited, not daunted, by challenges such as stalled plans to issue bonds this fall for the system's first segment.
"The complexities of building this kind of system are phenomenal," she said, adding that it's the largest infrastructure project built in the country in two generations.
To her, the recent challenges to funding on the state and federal level represent speed bumps, not road blocks. She cites the fact that it has support from both Gov. Jerry Brown and President Barack Obama.
Just this week, Obama threatened to veto H.R. 2610 if it makes it through the House and Senate in its current form. The current version of the federal transportation and housing bill would prohibit funding for the California high-speed rail project and eliminate Transportation Investment Generation Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants, both of which the president supports.
On Tuesday, the day after the president took a stand on the legislation, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a government watchdog group asked the Office of Congressional Ethics to launch an ethics investigation aimed at the author of another piece of legislation designed to kill the project. The watchdog group questioned why California Rep. David Valadao failed to tell colleagues that the project could affect the property values of his family's Central Valley farmland.
Valadao's bill would require the federal Surface Transportation Board to consider the project in its entirety rather than in segments.
The high-speed rail project also is facing threats to its funding on the state level.
Tom Dresslar, a spokesman for the treasurer's office, said plans to begin issuing $8.6 billion of bonds this fall, which were approved by the high-speed rail authority in March, are on hold pending the resolution of two lawsuits. One was brought by detractors challenging the proposed use of Proposition 1A money that voters approved in 2008. The second is a validation lawsuit brought by the rail authority seeking the judge's seal of approval to issue bonds.
Proposition 1A authorized the issuance of $9.95 billion in general obligation bonds to seed funding for the bullet train system.
In July 2012, Brown signed legislation approving the issuance of $4.5 billion in bonds for construction financing for an initial stage of the project. The legislation freed up $3.2 billion in federal matching funding that would otherwise have expired. Of that, $2.6 billion will be used to build an initial 130-mile segment of high-speed rail line from Madera to Bakersfield in the Central Valley. Another $1.9 billion will be used to improve the existing commuter rail systems in San Francisco and Los Angeles that will anchor each end of the line.
The plan estimates the total cost for Phase 1 connecting San Francisco with Los Angeles via the Central Valley and Palmdale at $68 billion.
That phase, expected to be finished by 2029, would run from San Francisco to the Los Angeles basin in under three hours at speeds topping 200 miles per hour.
The system would eventually extend to Sacramento and San Diego, totaling 800 miles with up to 24 stations. In addition, the Authority is working with regional partners to implement a state-wide rail modernization plan that will invest billions of dollars in local and regional rail lines.
Perez-Estolano believes that the California High-Speed Rail Authority can find solutions, partly through creative financial problem-solving that will include public-private partnerships.
As an advisory board member of the US High Speed Rail Association, she has witnessed what happens to projects facing opposition from the governors in their respective states.
When the state's executive leadership begins to have doubts "the whole thing goes sideways," she said.
In Florida and New Jersey, the governors walked away from funding for big passenger rail projects, but in California "our governor is committed," Perez-Estolano said.
"We are doing our best to identify alternative solutions, because we don't know what will happen in Washington," she said. "We can't just expect some entity or agency to fund us."
The rail authority board has a team exploring unique methods of funding the project such as laying fiber optic cable along the line to lease to internet companies, opening up areas of the state to broadband that don't already have that service.
They want to design a rail system that will be model of how infrastructure projects can be built and funded for the entire country, she said.
Perez-Estolano will use the array of skills she has gained over the course of her career as a transportation planner.
Because of her expertise and experience, she's the answer to detractors who said that the state wasn't capitalizing on the potential to plan transit-oriented development at the stations.
According to Dan Richard, chair of the high-speed rail board, she will help "ensure that high-speed rail is built with sensitivity to local issues and a commitment to sustainable development."
Her resume includes positions as a senior vice president for national housing developer Forest City and as deputy mayor for Pasadena. She also co-founded the Los Angeles-based Transportation & Land Use Collaborative in 2001 that is now a nationally-recognized non-profit advocating for civic involvement in planning and development.
She co-founded Estolano LeSar Perez Advisors L.L.C., a land-use, economic development and transportation consulting firm two years ago with her wife, Cecilia Estolano, a former head of Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency, and Jennifer LeSar of San Diego-based LeSar Development, the managing member of ELP Advisors.
Perez-Estolano headed Urban Land Institute Los Angeles from April 2008 to April 2011 placing her at the helm of the nonprofit land use planning education and research institute as commercial real estate peaked and nosedived.
In that position, she worked elbow-to-elbow with the leaders in commercial real estate, development and planning. Her tenure at ULI-LA also occurred as the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Agency began working with developers to build transit-oriented development at light-rail and subway stations using a combination of public and private money.
Her role on the high-speed-rail board takes her away from her two-year-old company about a week a month at a compensation of $100 a day per diem.
"My time, and that of the others on the team, is almost volunteer," Perez-Estolano said. "We are all doing it because it is a legacy project for the state and the country."
When the rail authority asked Perez-Estolano earlier this year to fill a vacant seat on the board, it was the second time she had been asked.
The first time came just as she was starting her business, so she "politely declined."
But when the opportunity presented itself a second time, Perez-Estolano jumped at it.
She envisions new industries around state-of-the-art transportation and technology arising from this project.