Intriguing new twist to high-speed rail | April 11, 2012 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Viewpoint - April 11, 2012

Intriguing new twist to high-speed rail

Gone are the four sets of tracks. Gone are the elevated sections. Gone are trains that could reach 200 miles per hour on the Peninsula. Gone is the tone-deaf authority board that could not issue a press release without antagonizing many Peninsula residents and local government representatives. And gone is the incredible $98.5 billion price tag that more than doubled the $40 billion cost presented to state voters when they approved the project in 2008.

Yet the question remains. Where will the California High-Speed Rail Authority find the newly-budgeted $68.4 billion when it has only $9 billion in state bond funds and $3 billion in federal grants committed at this time? Does it make sense to move forward with less than 20 percent of the total needed to complete a high-speed rail system that right now opinion polls say would not win approval if placed on the ballot again.

Under new management led by Dan Richard, Gov. Jerry Brown's hand-picked board chair, the authority on April 2 laid out a business plan to support its new strategy of building the system through a "blended" design on the Peninsula, with high-speed trains sharing the two Caltrain tracks. The plan calls for early investment in the northern and southern portions and rather than building a "train to nowhere" in the Central Valley, a 300-mile segment would run from Merced through Bakersfield and Palmdale and on to the Fernando Valley. At a Fresno news conference, Mr. Richard said work could begin next year on the Valley stretch, although the state Legislature would have to approve issuing the bonds.

For Peninsula train-riders, the most significant news was the authority's earlier announcement that it would kick in about half of the $1.5 billion cost of electrifying Caltrain, funding that seemed unobtainable for the financially struggling San Francisco to San Jose and Gilroy commuter service. The offer was quickly accepted by the Bay Area's Metropolitan Transportation Commission and won support from Assembly members Jerry Hill and Rich Gordon. And it would be surprising if state Sen. Joe Simitian, who along with Mr. Gordon and Rep. Anna Eshoo was an early advocate of the "blended" two-track approach on the Peninsula, does not support the Caltrain upgrades.

However, the catch for any legislator who wants to support the segments in his or her district is that a vote based on the rail authority's support for Caltrain and L.A.'s Metrolink is virtually a vote to approve and fund the entire project, which could wind up putting the state even more deeply in debt. And at this point, no additional funding has been identified in the business plan.

As we have often said in this space, the high-speed rail project is a tantalizing bauble that could be a crown jewel for California. But the rail authority simply has not demonstrated where the funding will come from to build it and whether there will be enough riders to break even. Several studies have found major flaws in the estimated number of passengers projected to ride the trains.

The new business plan says, "Benefits will be delivered faster through the adoption of the blended approach and through investment in the bookends. Across the state, transportation systems will be improved and jobs will be created through the implementation of these improvements."

Richard calls the upgrades to existing rail services like Caltrain and those in Southern California "near term benefits" and that the authority will be building "a portion of the system that we will ultimately be using."

Few would argue that point, but regardless of the partial benefits promised, even at $68.4 billion this is a huge project with less than 15 percent of its needed funding. Legislators must not forget that point when they decide in the next few months whether to support the sale of the first round of bonds for the high-speed rail project.


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