CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS: BALLOT MEASURES : Propositions 108, 116 Would Fund State Rail Systems


With two rail bond measures on the ballot, California voters are being asked in the June 5 election to approve the most extensive commitments yet to expansion of passenger rail, light rail and subway service in the state.

Investments of $3 billion--ranging from new lines or improved service to new equipment, acquisitions of rights of way and station improvements--are incorporated in Propositions 108 and 116.

Neither measure would do anything to help California catch up with the ultra high-speed rail transportation available in France, where a passenger train on the Paris-Tours run recently set a speed record of 317 m.p.h., or Japan, where the famed “bullet trains” routinely reach speeds of 150 m.p.h.

But the two propositions would help move California toward the service available between Boston and Washington--intercity service, extensive commuter service, plenty of light rail, and some subways in the urban centers.


Proposition 108, authorizing $1 billion in bonds, was placed on the ballot by the Legislature as part of the package that includes Proposition 111, the measure that would provide for a gasoline tax increase and an increase in state spending limits. Proposition 108 will not go into effect unless voters approve it and Proposition 111.

The second initiative, Proposition 116, a $2-billion bond measure, is sponsored by the Planning and Conservation League. It won a ballot position after a successful petition drive partially financed by the Southern Pacific railroad. Proposition 116 will go into effect if approved by the voters.

The two measures do not conflict. If they and Proposition 111 are approved, the proposed projects will presumably complement each other. Polls have shown both measures leading, although Proposition 108 has been faring better than Proposition 116.

The arguments in favor of both tend to be the same. Gerald H. Meral, executive director of the Planning and Conservation League, contends that a rail improvement program will bring:

“Less crowded freeways. Rail will not solve our freeway congestion problems by itself, but it will relieve traffic and provide opportunities for rapid commuting and travel to those who can take advantage of it.”

“Oil conservation. We are rapidly depleting our state’s oil reserves. Already we import far more oil than we produce, largely because of use of oil in the transportation sector.”

“Cleaner air. California’s air quality would be substantially improved by increased use of rail transit.”

Proposition 108 representatives point out that many rail lines can be built at one-tenth the cost of highways. Existing rail rights of way can often be used, they say, while the cost of land acquisition for widened or new freeways is usually prohibitive.

Outspoken opposition has been sparse, but Ryan Snyder, the Westwood planner who joined in writing the ballot argument against Proposition 116, questioned whether investment in rail service makes as much sense in California as it does in Europe or Japan.

“Rail transportation works quite well in very densely populated areas with well-defined corridors of travel, and usually in cities that have low rates of auto ownership,” Snyder said.

“California is essentially all of the opposite,” he said. “We are very spread out, and although we now have some relatively dense commercial centers, we don’t have the residential density needed to generate the ridership.”

Snyder contended that instead of investing in rail service that is likely to require a large operating subsidy, “We ought to be putting our money into using existing infrastructure more efficiently . . . running more buses, running them more frequently, subsidizing more bus fares and developing high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes. For the cost of the 18.5-mile Metro Rail in Los Angeles, we could equip all 500 miles of our freeways with HOV lanes.”

Proposition 108--scheduled to be followed by two other $1-billion rail bond issues on the 1992 and 1994 ballots--is far more general in its commitments of money than Proposition 116, which allocates specific amounts to virtually every population center in the state.

Proposition 108 backers simply state that a large number of intercity rail, commuter rail and urban rail transit projects would be “eligible for funds” if the measure is adopted.

In Southern California, among those projects listed are improved regular service between Los Angeles and San Diego, Santa Barbara and Fresno; commuter rail connecting Los Angeles and points in Orange, San Bernardino and Ventura counties as well as Saugus; commuter service between Riverside and Orange counties, and commuter service connecting San Diego and Oceanside and Escondido.

In addition, Los Angeles Metro Rail and a number of light rail projects, six proposed light rail lines and eight proposed San Diego light rail lines would be eligible for assistance.

Proposition 116 is more specific. It earmarks $202 million for improved service along the Los Angeles to San Diego rail corridor, $79 million for commuter rail service from San Bernardino and Riverside to Orange County, and $98 million for commuter service between San Bernardino and Los Angeles.

But each project detailed locally would be subject to the approval of the state Transportation Commission, and there would have to be a 50% matching contribution from the local level.

There is a “pork barrel” aspect to Proposition 116, with even such places as South Lake Tahoe and Humboldt County getting allocations--$7 million for South Lake Tahoe for acquisition of a right of way and related facilities for rail transit service, and $6 million to sparsely populated Humboldt for freight and passenger improvements. But most of the money would be allocated to large urban areas.

Meral acknowledged that Southern Pacific’s support had resulted in allocations to improvement of freight service only, such as $80 million for graded road crossings along the Alameda Street rail corridor between Los Angeles and the Long Beach and Los Angeles harbors.

Tom Houston, a spokesman for Southern Pacific, said that the improvements had been requested by harbor authorities and would facilitate a consolidation of lines that would relieve congestion. He said Southern Pacific would pay 10% of the cost, just as railroad companies are obligated to do in ordinary grade separation projects.