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High-speed rail network can’t be built piecemeal

Traveling in California this holiday weekend, it certainly would be convenient, even fun, to step aboard a 200-mph bullet train and zip around in quiet comfort.

It definitely would beat suffering through long, inane security lines at oppressive airports -- or enduring a daredevil, but dull, drive along Interstate 5 through the San Joaquin Valley.

The long-dreamed-of California bullet train, however, keeps encountering difficulty leaving the station.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is trying to sidetrack it, offering a medley of rationales for his efforts to again delay a $9.9-billion rail bond proposal slated for the November 2008 ballot. The governor and Legislature already have twice postponed the bond vote -- the last time, in 2006, because it would have competed with their $37-billion public works package.

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One month ago, Schwarzenegger spokesman Adam Mendelsohn told Times reporter Marc Lifsher that the governor and the public still had higher priorities than creating a bullet train. “Right now, the voters are crying for relief from congested freeways,” he said. “That’s the immediate priority.” The spokesman also mentioned the need for building dams and prisons.

But the governor soon began spinning his delaying effort another way, contending that the project needed a “comprehensive financing plan” before being submitted to the voters.

Many believe that’s a bogus argument and Mendelsohn’s explanation was closer to the truth: The governor continues to have higher infrastructure priorities, including water storage.

Schwarzenegger’s go-to guy for the bullet train is David Crane, a San Francisco financial services executive who advises the governor on economic growth and recently was appointed by him to the California High-Speed Rail Authority board.

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Crane, a political novice, is expounding on the need for a concrete financing plan.

As currently envisioned, the cost of creating a $40-billion high-speed rail system would be shared one-third by the state and one-third by the federal government. The final third would come from local governments and private entrepreneurs.

Crane insists all this should be laid out in detail. Somebody in Sacramento, he says, should get potential investors and the feds -- such as California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco -- into a room and wring out financing commitments.

Most everybody outside the governor’s office considers this naive. Until California voters commit to the project, seasoned pols note, no private investors or government officials will. Besides, no one knows who’s going to be in charge in Washington after 2008. And about the only Sacramentan with the ability to coax Boxer, Feinstein and Pelosi into a negotiating room is Schwarzenegger, who isn’t lifting a finger for high-speed rail.

Indeed, he originally proposed a bare-subsistence annual budget of $1.2 million for the rail authority, which had requested $103 million for engineering work and rights-of-way buying. The governor recently upped his offer to $5.2 million, but that included $3.5 million contributed by Orange County for planning work on a line to Anaheim.

State Senate and Assembly budget subcommittees last week approved appropriations of $45 million and $55 million, respectively. But the governor could whittle that down.

Schwarzenegger did recently sign an Op-Ed piece in the Fresno Bee declaring that “a network of high-speed rail lines connecting cities throughout California would be a tremendous benefit to our state.”

To which state Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter), a bullet train advocate, comments: “Obviously, the governor’s budget writers don’t read his Op-Ed pieces.”

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Quentin Kopp, a former state senator and retired San Mateo Superior Court judge who chairs the rail board, says the bullet battle “would be 80% over if Schwarzenegger would step up and be a champion.”

Well, not quite.

There’s another significant problem besides Schwarzenegger trying to apply the brakes.

The rail board last week adopted the “first-phase” route for the bullet train and it excluded some significant cities -- and therefore some potential riders and supportive voters. They would be included in a “second phase” in some future lifetime.

Left standing on the station platform were San Diego and Sacramento -- plus Riverside, San Bernardino and Stockton. Add to that the growing counties bordering Sacramento, and the excluded potential riders total 4.3 million registered voters, about 28% of the state’s total.

The adopted route is from Anaheim to San Francisco, with stops in Norwalk, Los Angeles, Burbank, Sylmar, Palmdale, Bakersfield, Fresno, Merced and San Jose. There’s a dispute about whether to enter the Bay Area over Pacheco Pass near Los Banos or Altamont Pass at Tracy. If board members decide on Altamont Pass, they could add stops in Modesto and Stockton.

And if they’re going to Stockton, why not go another 40 miles north to Sacramento?

That wouldn’t be cost-effective, rail authority officials say.

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But it would be politically effective -- with voters and politicians.

“If the project actually has a life, it’s going to have to include Sacramento,” says Sen. Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento).

Sen. Michael Machado, a Democrat who represents Stockton, strongly favors the Altamont Pass route to provide an option for San Joaquin County residents who increasingly commute daily to the Bay Area.

And why is this important? Because Machado soon will serve on the budget conference committee that will decide the rail authority’s spending allotment. So will Sen. Denise Moreno Ducheny (D-San Diego), who heads the Senate Budget Committee.

“I don’t see how they could leave out San Diego and have this make sense,” Ducheny says. “I can’t imagine why anybody in San Diego would vote for it.”

The entire project can be built for $40 billion, the authority says. The scaled-down first phase would cost $30 billion.

If there’s voter support for a partial system, there’d be even more support for the full deal.

For the bullet train to fly, everybody will need to be on board -- the regions and the governor.

George Skelton writes Mondays and Thursdays. Reach him at george.skelton@latimes.com.


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