Funds keep high-speed rail project alive

Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO -- Despite lingering doubts about its future, a proposal to build a high-speed rail line between Southern California and San Francisco was kept alive Wednesday when the state Transportation Commission allocated $15.5 million for engineering and design work.

The money is a small fraction of the $40 billion that the system would cost to complete, but commissioners said they were not willing to pull the plug even though full financing had not been arranged.

“Us supporting that allocation doesn’t mean it’s going to get built,” said Commissioner Jim Earp. “There are still a lot of hurdles. But there is no reason not to keep it alive at this point.”


The money for various transportation projects has already been approved by the governor and Legislature as part of the state budget, but the Transportation Commission makes the final determination on which projects are funded.

The proposal calls for a 700-mile rail system in which trains traveling as fast as 220 mph whisk passengers from Southern California to the Bay Area in a little more than 2 1/2 hours.

The project was proposed more than a decade ago but has yet to pick up steam.

The money allocated Wednesday came from $20.7 million budgeted this year by the governor and the Legislature for the California High Speed Rail Authority, a state agency that oversees the project. The authority had asked for about $100 million from the state.

“It’s a step, but it’s not as big a step as we would like,” said Kris Deutschman, a spokeswoman for the authority, regarding the commission’s vote. “At least it’s a vote of confidence.”

Others questioned putting $15.5 million into a project that they do not believe will be built because they say it is not economically feasible.


“It’s a complete waste of money,” said James E. Moore II, a professor in USC’s department of industrial and systems engineering. “It’s pork for the engineering firms.”

Although bullet-style trains have been popular for years in Japan and Europe, Moore said high-speed rail is not competitive in the United States, where a deregulated, low-fare airline industry has a lock on short-hop travel and the price of gas is still not high enough to get people out of their automobiles.

Backers, however, estimate that the cost of a one-way ticket from Los Angeles to San Francisco would be about half the price of an airline ticket, or about $55.

The bulk of the transportation bond money approved Wednesday will go to environmental, engineering and design work for segments of the proposed rail line between Anaheim and Los Angeles and Palmdale, and between San Jose and San Francisco, according to Steve Schnaidt, a consultant for the rail authority.

Orange County transportation officials have contributed an additional $3.5 million for the project this year. The cost of the project is proposed to be evenly split among state and local governments, the federal government and private financing.

A $9.95-billion bond measure for the project is scheduled for the November 2008 ballot, although it has already been postponed twice. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, citing other transportation priorities, proposed earlier this year that the measure be postponed indefinitely, but the Legislature has not taken the two-thirds vote required to take it off the ballot.

About $9 billion of the bond money would allow the construction of about two-thirds of the system, including much of the line between L.A. and San Francisco, Schnaidt said. The other $950 million from the bonds would go to local projects supporting the high-speed line, including shuttle buses to stations.

Those who make decisions about the private and federal funding of the project have not yet committed to it. Schnaidt said those parties are watching to see whether the state approves its funding and completes its environmental review without glitches.