Column: California high-speed rail: A train to nowhere without a conductor

Everything was looking good Wednesday night at the High-Speed Rail Authority’s big meeting in Pacoima.

California’s bullet train officials set up nifty information stations in the Hubert H. Humphrey rec center gymnasium, spectators printed questions on yellow cards, and the meeting began with an overview of the benefits of the 800-mile railroad and the unveiling of plans for the Palmdale-to-Burbank section.

And then the train went off the rails and over the cliff.

Attendees from the northeast San Fernando Valley interrupted officials, accused them of not giving straight answers to questions and eventually shouted them down. If tomatoes were available, they would have been flying.


“We don’t want your train!” the woman behind me yelled to the beleaguered bureaucrats on the podium.

Trains would travel most of the 38-mile section in underground tunnels beneath Santa Clarita and bypass Shadow Hills and Lake View Terrace. The locomotives would pop out of the earth near San Fernando Road and Branford Street near Pacoima, where blocks of auto demolition and parts businesses now sit.

Among those who spoke at the meeting, there were no champions. Instead, there were pointed questions about all the noise and pollution during construction, seismic dangers, traffic diversion, the relocation of businesses. And none of the 75 or so attendees seemed to be satisfied with the answers.

“Put it somewhere else. We don’t want it here!” one of them shouted.

Two nights earlier, as my colleague Ralph Vartabedian reported, “300 somewhat skeptical” people attended a version of the same show in Sun Valley.

In Pacoima, there was no “somewhat” about it. Nicole Chase, acting CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of San Fernando Valley, commandeered the meeting as she marched behind the rows of chairs gesturing and hollering.

“This has been going on for years,” she began, voice rising. “Eleven years and you’re giving the same answers.”

Chase was so worked up, Michelle Boehm, the rail authority’s Southern California section director, quick-stepped to the back of the room to try to calm her.

Chase told Boehm to back off and continued her rant.

“The train does not stop here!” she hollered.

“You’re going to destroy property. You can stand up there because you’re not being impacted,” she went on, jabbing a finger at each of the bullet train officials. “You’re not being impacted. You’re not being impacted. You’re gonna get paid. You’re not gonna lose your house.”

Related: California bullet train aims to dodge a political bullet in San Fernando Valley »

The folks in the audience may have been a bit harsh, given that the bullet train reps were trying to explain that the proposed route between Palmdale and Burbank was the easiest, fastest, safest and least disruptive, based on their research.

But this far into the game, can you really blame anyone who thinks the high-speed rail project — even if you like the idea of it — is a disaster?

In 2008, voters approved what was supposed to be a $33-billion railroad completed by 2020. Today — and check back tomorrow, because these numbers could change — the cost has exploded to an estimated $77 billion and the current completion date estimate is 2033.

Of the three funding sources, state money isn’t nearly adequate, federal money is no guarantee and private investment is nonexistent.

Hundreds of lawsuits over environmental concerns and the rail authority’s condemnations have jammed court dockets for years.

And highly regarded Chief Executive Brian Kelly, who took over in February after eight months with nobody at the controls, just went out on extended medical leave.

Adding to all these woes, Gov. Jerry Brown — the lone high-profile political champion of high-speed rail in California — will soon be puttering around on a golf cart at the family ranch in Colusa County. And neither of his potential successors seems inclined to borrow Jerry’s conductor’s cap.

Gavin Newsom is squishy on high-speed rail, while John Cox would blow the whole thing up. There is talk of an initiative on the 2020 ballot that would halt the project and use the money instead to fix roads without a gas tax.

So where does this leave us?

“I can’t see any particular scenario in which we should continue to pour money down this rathole,” said James Moore, director of USC’s Transportation Engineering program.

Moore said he was initially intrigued by the concept but became a skeptic after studying the details.

“Like most people with a technical background, I was susceptible to a gee-whiz factor,” Moore said. “I would love it if bullet trains and maglev trains were a good idea because I love technology and want it to be useful. But this is not. Modes of transportation that are more expensive than aircraft and slower than aircraft do not compete very well with aircraft.”

Those are fair points, and if a train ride between L.A. and San Francisco takes almost three hours but doesn’t cost significantly less than flying, that’s a bit of a problem. It would be a far bigger problem, as Boehm acknowledged in a conversation before the meeting, if it takes an hour to get through security at the train station rather than 15 minutes or so.

For all that, I’d still like to believe this could work. Europe has high-speed rail. Japan has high-speed rail.

“Even Uzbekistan has high-speed rail,” Boehm argued.

Martin Wachs, a longtime transportation policy expert and member of the bullet train’s peer review group, neatly laid out the advantages of a well-executed high-speed rail project.

There could be smart mixed-use projects at each station along the route. People could live, work, eat and play near the stations, and commute to nearby cities for business meetings, making for better connectivity among the state’s far-flung job centers. All of this could nicely complement the state’s greenhouse gas emissions goals as the state population grows, offering a reliable alternative to travel by air and vehicle.

“There could be enormous long-term benefits,” Wachs said.

For sure, and I liked the size of the ambition. But I don’t think Brown has done a bang-up job of selling the dream, nor did he make a convincing argument as to why or how a state that can’t fix its roads or address its poverty and housing crises should build a multibillion-dollar railroad under mountains and over the plains. And neither has anyone else.

“As a member of the peer group, I’ve seen very little input from the highest officials in the state, other than that they support it,” Wachs said.

So at the moment, we have a train to nowhere without a conductor. And in Pacoima, nobody was ready to climb aboard.

Robin Madrid, a waitress at the Town Cafe in Sunland, was certain that if the train ever runs, it’ll cost way more than what we’ve been told. Victoria Kiser, a retired special ed teaching assistant, wondered why we’d spend so much on high-speed rail when we have so many greater needs. Besides, she said, “we have Amtrak. You can also fly. And we also have freeways.”

“None of this is going to come to fruition,” said Dave Hernandez.

“Where are they going to get the $77 billion?” asked his friend Edwin Ramirez. “That’s what I want to know. Where are they going to get the money?”

Get more of Steve Lopez’s work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez