Transportation agencies seek bullet train funds to upgrade local corridors
In a major shift in thinking about the state’s bullet train, powerful transportation agencies in Northern and Southern California want to quickly obtain up to half the project’s bond financing to upgrade local rail corridors that could become part of the proposed high-speed network.
Until recently, the project was expected to draw down only $2.7 billion of its $9-billion bond fund in coming years to help pay for a 130-mile rail segment in the Central Valley. But the new proposals call for potentially spending an additional $4 billion upfront, which would leave just a few billion in the state’s voter-approved finance package.
“We ought to be investing whatever is available now to show California and the rest of the country the benefits of high speed rail very soon,” said Jose Luis Moscovich, executive director of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority. “We believe there can be simultaneous efforts in Southern California and on the peninsula” between San Francisco and San Jose.
Giving local rail improvements a higher priority also represents a retrenchment from the original vision that the bullet train would be a state-of-the-art system, running on dedicated track its entire length. The new proposal would blend the bullet train into existing rail corridors and make it share track with commuter trains and even freight railroads.
The plan, which has received some encouragement from Gov. Jerry Brown’s top bullet train appointee, would provide $1 billion to improve key Southern California passenger rail corridors, making it possible for Metrolink and Amtrak to increase maximum speeds from 79 mph to 110 mph.
In the Bay Area, transportation agencies are preparing to ask for $3 billion for similar projects, including several miles of tunneling to the new Transbay Transit Center, which is under construction in downtown San Francisco.
The money would prepare the urban bookends of the system to handle bullet trains that would run at speeds of up to 240 mph from Anaheim to San Francisco. Proponents say the goal is to ensure that the high speed rail funding would provide near-term transportation benefits in case the overall $98.5-billion project stalls.
If approved, the funds would pay for scores of grade separations, new signals, bridge replacements, track additions, station improvements and faster locomotives for conventional passenger service. In the Bay Area, the existing right-of-way for the Caltrain commuter line would be electrified. Adding track and new high-tech systems to manage train movements and avoid collisions can make an integrated system safe in urban areas, officials say.
“Investing in the bookends is a good way to provide the connections we need and the best way to implement high speed rail in California,” said Will Kempton, chief executive of the Orange County Transportation Authority who sits on a state oversight panel for the bullet train project. “These investments will not be lost in terms of public benefit whether or not high speed rail goes forward.”
Concerns persist that the bullet train project might not be able to secure enough local, state and federal funding to extend the system beyond the Central Valley, where the authority wants to begin construction this fall on a section of track from Bakersfield to Chowchilla that would cost an estimated $6 billion.
The Central Valley, however, will not be equipped to operate high speed trains until another $20 billion to $25 billion is found to connect the segment to either Palmdale or San Jose.
In Southern California, a draft agreement with the rail authority has been approved by the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Riverside County Transportation Commission and two regional planning agencies, the Southern California Assn. of Governments and San Bernardino Associated Governments.
The Orange County Transportation Authority is considering the agreement. The San Diego Assn. of Governments is scheduled to vote on the proposal later this month.
The California High Speed Rail Authority and the Legislature also would have to approve the issuance of state rail bonds to pay for the local projects.
Dan Richard, the rail authority’s board chairman, said he supports the Southern California plan and the concept of tapping into the bond fund soon. “We won’t waste it, but holding it for years just diminishes its buying power,” he said.
Richard, however, said the assumption by some of the local agencies that state bond money alone could pay for improvements may contradict terms of Proposition 1A, the bond measure passed by voters.
The law requires that certain types of spending for the system be matched by other government agencies. Richard noted the proposed agreement with Southern California agencies opens the possibility of funding sources other than the bonds.
Officials in Northern and Southern California contend that billions of dollars in bullet train construction costs could be saved by dropping plans for exclusive high-speed rights-of-way in dense urban areas. Even with an exclusive corridor, they say, bullet trains could not travel much faster than conventional trains.
“Blending the systems will make high speed rail more feasible and provide a broad benefit across the population centers of the state,” said Art Leahy, the MTA’s chief executive and an early critic of exclusive rights-of-way for the bullet train. “It reduces the risk if no other funds for high speed rail are available near term.”
The shared-track approach has been embraced by the rail authority. Hasan Ikhrata, executive director of the Southern California Assn. of Governments, said state officials did so only after the association proposed dropping the high-speed project from a regional transportation plan, a major planning document. Such a move, he added, would have made it difficult for high speed rail to obtain government funding.
“The committee involved did not want to put the high speed rail project into the plan because just building a line in the Central Valley without working on the bookends would not benefit anybody,” Ikhrata said.
Richard asserted that he “reached out” to the local agencies rather than being pressured by them to accelerate spending for upgrades to local rail lines.
Until now, Moscovich of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority said, high speed train officials had gravitated toward the sort of costly and exotically engineered networks found in some other countries, rather than a practical starter line that could provide quick benefits.
“We don’t need a Tokyo-style system,” he said.