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Michael Hiltzik

The bullet train is troubled, but it's necessary

Is there a big infrastructure project anywhere in the country as disrespected as California's bullet train?

The high-speed rail project, designed to carry passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco in two hours and 40 minutes, at speeds averaging 220 mph, has been labeled a "train to nowhere" and "Gov. Brown's crazy train."

Cost estimates have shifted up and down for years — the latest financial projection from the state's High-Speed Rail Authority is $64 billion — as have forecasts of potential ridership. Critics assert that public support for the project is ebbing, and a group of Central Valley farmers is collecting signatures for a ballot measure that would divert its billions of dollars in authorized bond proceeds to fund water projects instead.

The rail project, which aims to start carrying passengers on an initial segment connecting Silicon Valley and the Central Valley in 2025, may be suffering now through its most vulnerable period. Doubts about financing from the state, federal government and private investors are proliferating at a time when physical evidence of progress is virtually nonexistent, giving the public little reason for confidence. Even some of its most ardent original supporters have turned sour, notably Quentin Kopp, a veteran Bay Area political figure who was among the project's original champions in the state Legislature and served as the first chairman of the High-Speed Rail Authority after its creation in 1996.

Today, Kopp says that the system's specifications have changed so drastically that "it's not high-speed rail" anymore: among other changes, compromises have reduced its overall design speeds and forced the bullet trains to share tracks with slow conventional trains along the San Francisco-San Jose corridor. "It's not a viable program," he says. "It's a fiction."

Yet despite years of controversy, its rationale hasn't changed: to dramatically remake the state's transportation network, relieving pressure on air and road infrastructure that can't possibly accommodate long-term population growth.

The High-Speed Rail Authority has estimated that its project would forestall the need to build 3,000 lane-miles of freeway, five airport runways and 90 departure gates, all costing $100 billion total. Some also contend that, once it's built, the rail system will help the economy by reducing vehicular exhaust in favor of cleaner sources of electricity, especially renewables, to power the trains.

One can debate the authority's numbers or the true potential change in greenhouse gas emissions, but what's undebatable is that the state is going to need the kind of flexibility in transportation capacity that only high-speed rail can provide.

More planes and more freeways simply aren't in the cards. Proposals to cut off funding in Congress or divert the money from rail to supposedly more urgent needs such as water facilities are opportunistic and shortsighted.

Infrastructure projects of even a fraction of the train's magnitude often take decades to come to fruition, with the finished product sometimes unrecognizable to its original promoters. What became Hoover Dam was first conceived in 1905 as a flood-control dam on the lower Colorado River, not begun until 1931, and completed in 1935 as the towering flood-control dam, irrigation source and electrical generation station familiar to tourists today.

With any such project "you can't be completely sure of what it will cost," says Martin Wachs, an expert on transportation and urban planning at UCLA and a member of the peer review committee monitoring the business plans of the high-speed rail project. "The technology changes as it's being built, the demand pattern changes as it's being built. There's an enormous amount of uncertainty."

The projected cost of the California project has soared from about $30 billion to $100 billion before the most recent estimate of $64 billion. Ridership estimates have been decried as massively inflated. That's not unusual among big transportation projects. The Channel Tunnel, which runs under the English Channel and connects the United Kingdom and France, cost the equivalent of about $6.6 billion upon its completion in 1994, and ran 80% over budget. Revenue has been only half what was projected.

To this day, every passenger is heavily subsidized, observed Bent Flyvbjerg, an expert on mega-projects at Oxford, in 2014. "A mega-project may well be a technological success, but a financial failure," he wrote, "and many are."

Minimizing cost estimates typically is part of the process — if an unsavory one — of getting big projects approved. Former Assembly Speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown observed in 2013 that a $300-million cost overrun for his city's massive Transbay transit and redevelopment project "should not come as a shock to anyone."

"We always knew the initial estimate was way under the real cost," he wrote with typical bluntness in his San Francisco Chronicle column. "If people knew the real cost from the start, nothing would ever be approved."

On top of the customary uncertainties, the bullet train faces its own unique obstacles. Proposition 1A, the 2008 ballot measure that authorized nearly $10 billion in state bonds for the project, mandated that the train carry passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco in no more than two hours and 40 minutes — as much as an hour shorter than many experts thought could be reasonably expected. Operating subsidies from any governmental source were barred, and funding for every segment was required to be identified before construction of that segment could begin.

Strict adherence to all these stipulations is almost impossible without creative interpretation, but that leaves the project open to legal challenge. Among more than a dozen lawsuits filed against the project, one brought by Kings County in the San Joaquin Valley alleging multiple violations of these provisions may be the most dangerous legal land mine. A Sacramento state judge could halt funding for construction and land acquisition in a ruling due within 90 days. Already the litigation has helped place the project two years behind schedule.

The biggest uncertainty is financial. Doubts raised by the lawsuits have prevented sales of the state bonds since 2014. Some $2.3 billion appropriated for the bullet train in the 2009 federal stimulus bill must be spent by 2017 or it might be forfeited. Meanwhile, the willingness of a fiscally conservative Congress to make future commitments for infrastructure, a crucial piece of the project's funding, is in doubt. And no private investor has yet shown a willingness to put up risk capital for the venture.

Will Californians be traversing the state in conditions that rival air travel for convenience and speed starting in 2025? The goal is still worthy, even if the path is hazy.

The project "can be rescued," says Kopp. "But it's got to secure universal acceptance and get back to the fundamentals."

To Kopp that means reversing the political compromises that will turn the system from high-speed rail to low-speed rail on many stretches of the route. It also means showing the public how crucial the project is for the state's future.

"High-speed rail works," says James Earp, leader of the Proposition 1A campaign and member of the California Transportation Commission. "If you can build it properly and solve the financing, it can be self-sustaining. And California's the perfect place for it."

Michael Hiltzik's column appears every Sunday. Read his blog every day at latimes.com/business/hiltzik, reach him at mhiltzik@latimes.com, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @hiltzikmon Twitter.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 06, 2016, in the Business section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "We need the bullet train" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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