SF to LA rail sees setback…

Halt state funding for high-speed rail; Peer-review group finds flaws in business plan for high-speed rail, urges Legislators not to use bond funds for project

Gennady Sheyner, Pleasanton Weekly, Palo Alto Online Staff, January 4, 2012, link

California’s quest to build a high-speed rail system between San Francisco and Los Angeles suffered a heavy blow Tuesday when a peer-review committee recommended that state legislators not fund the project until major changes are made to the business plan for the increasingly controversial line.

In a scathing report, the California High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group found that the business plan the California High-Speed Rail Authority unveiled in early November offers inadequate information about funding, fails to answer the critical question of which operating segment will be built first and features a phased-construction plan that would violate state law. The group, which is chaired by Will Kempton, recommends that the state Legislature not authorize expenditure of bond money for the project until its concerns are met.

The report deals the latest of several recent setbacks to the project, for which state voters approved a $9.95 billion bond in 2008. Since then, the project’s price tag more than doubled and several agencies, including the Legislative Analyst’s Office and Office of the State Auditor, released critical reports about the project.

High-speed rail has become particularly controversial on the Peninsula, where several grassroots groups have sprung up in the last two years to oppose it. Menlo Park, Atherton and Palo Alto had filed a lawsuit challenging the rail authority’s environmental analysis and the Palo Alto City Council last month adopted as the city’s official position a call for the project’s termination.

In its letter to the Legislature, the peer review group highlighted some of the same flaws that local officials and watchdogs have long complained about, most notably a deeply flawed funding plan. The project currently has about $6 billion in committed funding and the rail authority plans to make up much of the balance from federal grants and private investments — investments that would be solicited after the first major segment of the line is constructed. The peer-review group found this plan to be vague and insufficient.

“The fact that the Funding Plan fails to identify any long term funding commitments is a fundamental flaw in the program,” the report states. “Without committed funds, a mega-project of this nature could be forced to halt construction for many years before additional funding could be obtained. The benefits of any independent utility proposed by the current Business Plan would be very limited versus the cost and the impact on state finances.”

The group also faulted the rail authority’s business plan for failing to choose the “initial operating segment” for the rail line. Though the authority has decided to build the first leg of the line in Central Valley, this segment would not be electrified and would serve largely as a corridor for testing the new line. The first “true” high-speed rail segment would be built later and would stretch either north toward San Jose or south toward San Fernando Valley.

Though the peer-review group acknowledged that a phased approach is the only feasible way to build the system, it also found that this plan violates a requirement of Proposition 1A, which mandates that the rail authority identify funding for the first usable segment of the line before construction begins. The Central Valley segment, the peer report notes, “is not a very high-speed railway (VHSR), as it lacks electrification, a CHSR train control system, and a VHSR compatible communication system. Therefore, it does not appear to meet the requirements of the enabling State legislation.”

The peer review group also wrote in its letter that the authority should have determined in its business plan whether the first “operating segment” would go north or south from the Central Valley. Its letter states that “it is hard to seriously consider a multi-billion dollar Funding Plan that offers no position on which IOS should be initiated first.”

“This indecision may also have consequences in obtaining environmental clearances. We believe that the Funding Plan as proposed should not be approved until the first IOS is selected.”

The report reserves “final judgment” on the funding plan because the rail authority’s business plan is still in draft form and subject to revisions. But it also makes clear that major changes would have to be made before the project warrants state funding. The letter notes that while legislators could potentially come up with a funding source for the project, without such a source “the project as it is currently planned is not financially ‘feasible.'”

“Therefore, pending review of the final Business Plan and absent a clearer picture of where future funding is going to come from, the Peer Review Group cannot at this time recommend that the Legislature approve the appropriation of bond proceeds for this project,” the peer group’s letter concludes.

The new report presents a potentially devastating blow to the rail authority, which is banking on getting $2.7 billion in Proposition 1A funds for construction of the Central Valley segment. The agency has also received $3.5 billion in federal grants.

The state funds are particularly critical given the lack of private investment and increasing local opposition. The authority had acknowledged that private investment would not start coming in until later phases. Future federal funding is also deeply uncertain at a time when many Republicans in the House of Representatives are vehemently opposing the project.

The rail authority responded to the report by disputing many of its findings and by claiming that it “suffers from a lack of appreciation of how high-speed rail systems have been constructed throughout the world.” The authority also said in a statement that the peer-review group’s report “makes unrealistic and unsubstantiated assumptions about private sector involvement in such systems and ignores or misconstrues the legal requirements that govern the construction of the high speed rail program in California.”

Roelof van Ark, CEO of the rail authority, said in a statement that the recommendation of the committee “simply do not reflect a real world view of what it takes to bring such projects to fruition.”

“It is unfortunate that the Peer Review Committee has delivered a report to the Legislature that is deeply flawed in its understanding of the Authority’s program and the experience around the world in successfully developing high speed rail,” van Ark said.

Rail authority officials also argued that the peer-review group’s report could jeopardize federal funding for the project. Thomas Umberg, chair of the authority’s board of directors, said the board takes seriously “legitimate critiques” of the rail program, including recommendations that the authority hire more staff.

“However, what is most unfortunate about this Report is not its analytical deficiency, but that it would create a cloud over the program that threatens not only federal support but also the confidence of the private sector necessary for them to invest their dollars,” Umberg said in a statement.

The authority’s Chief Counsel Thomas Fellenz called the committee’s findings about the project’s inconsistency with Proposition 1A “unfounded assumptions.” The group’s legal conclusions, he said in a statement, are not only “beyond the expertise of the authors, but attorneys at the state and federal government level and the legislative author of the bond measure, profoundly disagree.”

The authority also submitted an eight-page letter to state Legislators responding to the peer-review group’s criticisms. The authority disputed in its letter the peer-review group’s finding that the “initial construction segment” in Central Valley would violate Proposition 1A and argued that the group’s demand for a long-term funding plan fails to consider how major transportation projects are normally built.

“By this measure, none of the unconstrained regional transportation plans of any transportation authority should be pursued,” the letter from Umberg states. “No project, in our experience, has fully identified funding sources for the entire project at this stage and it is both unfortunate and inappropriate for the Committee to apply this test only to high speed rail.”

And we’ll just keep on saying it – rates are great!

Refinancing Gets Even More Attractive

ANNAMARIA ANDRIOTIS, Wall Street Journal, December 31, 2011, link

Homeowners who have resisted the urge to refinance their mortgages until now could be rewarded for their willpower. Mortgage rates have fallen to new lows—and banks are rolling out incentives to win business.

Economic uncertainty in Europe and slow growth in the U.S. are prompting investors to pile into ultrasafe U.S. Treasurys. That, in turn, is pushing down mortgage rates, which are tied to Treasurys.

The average interest rate on a 30-year mortgage fell to 4.05% for the week ended Dec. 23, the lowest in 60 years, according to HSH Associates, a mortgage-data firm. And rates on jumbo mortgages—private loans that in most parts of the country are larger than $417,000—also have hit new lows, averaging 4.61%.

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Despite the incentives, many would-be applicants remain sidelined because they can’t meet the long list of qualifications.

“It’s hard to argue rates will get much lower than they are today,” says Stuart Gabriel, director of the Ziman Center for Real Estate at the University of California, Los Angeles.

That’s good news for homeowners. A person who refinanced a $400,000 30-year mortgage in February would pay an interest rate of 5.04% on average, according to HSH Associates, and fork over $2,157 a month; at the current rate of 4.05%, he’d save $236 per month, or $2,830 per year.

What’s more, demand for refinancing is declining, since many homeowners already took advantage of lower mortgage rates. Applications for refinancing are 17% below this year’s peak in September, according to the latest data from the Mortgage Bankers Association.

That and other factors have prompted some lenders to offer incentives to win new business—particularly regional and community banks, which are focusing more on jumbo mortgages, says Stu Feldstein, president at SMR Research, which tracks the mortgage market.

The discounts can be sizable. Regional bank Valley National Bank charges homeowners in New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania a flat fee of $499 for closing costs on mortgages as large as $1 million. Since average closing costs on a refinance run about 2% of the total loan amount, a person with an $800,000 mortgage could save about $15,500.

A spokesman for the bank says it is aggressively marketing the discount in part to bring in more customers.

While many lenders don’t refinance mortgages that are larger than about $2 million, Union Bank—which has branches in California, Oregon and Washington—refinances up to $4 million at no extra cost. (Many banks that refinance multimillion-dollar mortgages tack up to an extra quarter of a percentage point on the interest rate.)

Since November, Union Bank has also allowed borrowers to roll the costs of a refinance, like the appraisal fee and loan processing fee, into the mortgage. And borrowers whose original mortgage is from Union Bank don’t have to provide all of the income documentation that other customers do in order to refinance.

In part, the bank’s goal is to develop relationships with high-net-worth clients, says Stuart Bernstein, national production manager of residential lending at Union Bank.

Despite the incentives, many would-be applicants remain sidelined because they can’t meet the long list of qualifications.

The home-equity requirement is one of the toughest hurdles, says Mr. Feldstein. Homeowners with at least 10% home equity make the cut, but people with less have a tougher time.

Borrowers with 10% to 19% equity in their home usually have to buy private mortgage insurance, whose cost varies based on many factors, including their credit score. A borrower with 15% equity and a FICO credit score above 720 could pay 0.44% of the total loan amount, says Keith Gumbinger, vice president at HSH Associates. On an $800,000 loan that would be $3,520 a year—eating into the potential savings of a refinance.

In December, the federal government rolled out a revamped version of the Home Affordable Refinance Program with relaxed home-equity requirements, to allow more borrowers to refinance. To qualify, the current mortgage must be owned or guaranteed by Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae, and borrowers need to be mostly current on payments.

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For regular refinancing, applicants need a FICO credit score of at least 740 to get the best rates, says Mr. Gumbinger. And they must provide copious documentation, including at least two years’ worth of tax returns and proof of income as well as recent statements for assets such as retirement and brokerage accounts.

After clearing those hurdles, you might wait about 60 days for refinancing to be completed, says Mr. Gumbinger—longer than the typical 45 days. While some lenders are offering 60-day rate locks for free, others charge a quarter of a percentage point of the total loan amount for the service. On an $800,000 mortgage, that’s $2,000.

Or you could opt to take your chances with a free 45-day lock and hope rates don’t spike between day 46 and the date your loan closes. With the euro zone still in economic crisis and global investors rushing to the safety of U.S. Treasurys, housing-market analysts say it could be at least six months before rates rise significantly.