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Opinion

Still on board the bullet train

It’s easy to see why many Californians are losing patience with the bullet train.

Voters who were asked in 2008 to approve $9.95 billion in bonds to build a high-speed rail line from Los Angeles to San Francisco were told the project would cost $33 billion and be completed by 2020, yet a more realistic business plan released Tuesday by the rail authority placed the price tag at — whoops — $98 billion and the completion date at 2033. The project has been hitting political snags at every turn, prompting raging disputes over routing decisions, proposed land seizures and its alleged interference with freight lines. So fed up is state Sen. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale) that he’s planning to introduce a bill asking voters to reconsider the original bond measure, even as Republicans in Congress threaten to block future federal funding.

It’s a steep hill to climb. Californians raised on bedtime stories, though, might recall the tale of a certain Little Engine. If we think we can build it, we can. We just have to be more realistic about the costs, benefits and risks.

This page endorsed Proposition 1a, the 2008 bond measure for the train, with words that now seem prophetic: “If voters approve Proposition 1a, it seems close to a lead-pipe cinch that the California High Speed Rail Authority will ask for many billions more in the coming decades.” That’s because the financial projections and ridership figures used by the authority at the time were based on little more than conjecture, and now that such issues have been subjected to greater scrutiny, it’s clear that they were wildly optimistic. Voters have good reason to believe they were sold a bill of goods, and the project would be in less jeopardy today if its backers had been more honest about the price from the outset. Yet for the same reasons we shrugged and endorsed the bond measure anyway, we still think the train is worth building.

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California is expected to add 17 million people by 2040. The state has little choice but to build transportation infrastructure to meet the growing demand; the only question is whether it should invest in freeways and airports, thus increasing our reliance on vehicles powered by fossil fuels and subject to traffic gridlock, or in clean, speedy trains on dedicated tracks that don’t get jammed. Moreover, unlike freeways that require continual government expenditures to maintain, the train would self-sustaining. Under even the most conservative assumptions considered in the business plan, the line is expected to turn a profit.

The bullet train would be the backbone of public transit systems that would connect to it in urban centers. It’s still a good investment, even if a much bigger one than voters were originally told. Bullet trains have been successful in places with even bigger financial problems than California (notably Spain), and we’d like to think that the home of such visionaries as Steve Jobs, Howard Hughes, D.W. Griffith and Earl Warren is at least as forward-thinking on transportation as, say, Japan or Turkey. The state is in a fiscal jam right now, but bonds are repaid over the course of decades, and the train is a major public work whose value to future generations could be compared to that of the California Water Project.

The good news about the rail authority’s new business plan is that it’s no longer a fantasy. It lays out a sensible and politically feasible strategy for building the line in segments, starting with the 130-mile, $6-billion section from Fresno to Bakersfield slated to break ground next year, thanks to $3 billion in stimulus funds kicked in by the federal government (the other half of the money will presumably come from the state in the form of Proposition 1a bonds, assuming the Legislature approves them). But the plan also lays bare the great risks California officials aim to take with taxpayer money.

The initial Central Valley segment won’t attract enough riders to be commercially viable. The authority admits that no private operator could be enticed to run (and, presumably, invest in) the train until the next segment — running either from Fresno to San Jose or from Bakersfield to the San Fernando Valley — is built. That means California could be stuck with a showpiece bullet train to nowhere, unless more government money, to the tune of up to $27.2 billion, materializes. That’s why it would have been much smarter to build the initial segment in an urban area, such as between Los Angeles and Anaheim or from San Jose to San Francisco, that would benefit from a fast train even if the rest of the project is later abandoned.

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Unfortunately, Washington politics forced a less-than-ideal policy choice on California: To qualify for the stimulus money, the state had to guarantee the funds would be spent quickly, and planning for an urban segment would have taken too long. So now that we’re apparently stuck with the Central Valley line, where will the money for the next segment come from? The authority concedes that “committed funding for this future period is not fully identified.” It suggests that Washington will pony up most of the cash, with the rest coming from a mix of Proposition 1a bonds and local sources. We still suspect that somewhere along the line, California voters will be asked to approve even more bonds. And whether the federal government opts to contribute more will depend largely on whether the U.S. economy turns a corner and infrastructure spending becomes more popular in Congress than it is today.

It’s a gamble, and not one to be taken lightly. But gasoline isn’t going to get any cheaper in the future and the freeways aren’t going to get less clogged. We think California can find a way to get the train built. We think it can. We think it can....


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