High-speed rail proponents seek ways to salvage project

by Lance Williams, California Watch

The California bullet train project is buffeted by bad news – downbeat pronouncements regarding its financial prospects, growing opposition from the very communities the system hopes to serve and lawsuits with the threat of more to come.

Photo: California High-Speed Rail Authority
Some proponents of the $45 billion, 800-mile rail system fear the ambitious project – and the huge economic boost they foresee from its construction – is starting to slip away.

But in a July 19 letter, Bay Area Council President and CEO Jim Wunderman said he feared that the fight over the bullet train’s route down the San Francisco Peninsula was going to kill California high-speed rail – or at least the Bay Area portion of it. He calls the bullet train “the signature infrastructure project that will define the Bay Area, California and even the United States in the 21st century.”

In the letter, he urged the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which coordinates transit planning in the Bay Area, to take the lead in coming up with some sort of compromise rail plan that might be acceptable to the project’s many critics.

“Our inability, as a region, to articulate a clear vision for high-speed rail has real consequences,” Wunderman wrote to commission Chairwoman Adrienne Tissier, who also is a San Mateo County supervisor. “We weaken our support in the state and federal government, we put ourselves at the back of the funding line, and we strengthen those who argue that high-speed rail is an impossible fantasy.”

As California Watch has reported, Peninsula opponents have filed two environmental lawsuits against the California High-Speed Rail Authority. Opponents fear that running the bullet train the length of the Peninsula will bring blight and sprawl – especially if the trains run on elevated tracks for most of the way as currently planned. But the legal dispute over the project’s environmental planning has morphed into a more generalized critique of the entire financial plan for building and operating the bullet train.

Recently, a compromise was proposed by three Peninsula lawmakers: Democratic California Congresswoman Anna Eshoo; state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto; and Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Los Altos.

They suggested confining high-speed rail to the present right of way of the Caltrain commuter rail service and scrapping plans for elevated tracks. This would create a “blended system that integrates high-speed rail with a 21st Century Caltrain,” they wrote.

Some boosters countered that without its own tracks, the bullet train never would be able to run frequently enough to meet passenger demand – and generate revenues sufficient to head off crippling operating deficits. Wunderman, though, wrote that the lawmakers’ ideas could represent “a promising path forward.”

Some rail experts say that saving the project will require a drastic systemwide overhaul.

Michael Setty, a transportation consultant and proprietor of the publictransit.us transportation blog, has proposed a high-speed rail “reboot” [PDF] that he says would be far cheaper than the current plan.

His stripped-down version of high-speed rail would use “existing, mostly under-utilized rail lines” whenever possible, thus saving the tremendous cost of constructing new tracks for the bullet train.

To link Northern and Southern California, he would run the main spur “down the middle of I-5” on the western side of the Central Valley.

Using the freeway corridor, rather than the rich agricultural land to the east, “eliminates 99 percent of the opposition” that the project has encountered from Central Valley farmers, he said in an interview. It also would dramatically reduce land acquisition costs.

The link between Los Angeles and Bakersfield would run over Grapevine, also to save money; the expensive, controversial jog into the Antelope Valley would be eliminated as well. And he would link the Bay Area with the Central Valley via the I-580 corridor over Altamont Pass, mostly so that prospective passengers from the East Bay and North Bay could be better served.

Stripping the project down to a 400-mile, $20 billion system might well attract the billions in private investment capital needed to build it, he said.

“The project is in a lot of trouble,” he said, “but there are ways to salvage it.”

Lance Williams is an investigative reporter for California Watch, a project of the non-profit Center for Investigative Reporting. Find more California Watch reporting here.

  • Ted Crocker

    Mr. Wunderman did his members a huge disservice. Instead of listening to the concerns and issues brought to light by the very well informed communities of the Peninsula Cities Consortium (PCC), and working with them in support to address those issues with the HSRA, he, not unlike the approach taken by the HSRA, a year ago chose to call them “obstructionist” and “dangerous”. This was his plan for saving the “immediate” jobs he saw slipping away from his members on the Peninsula – jobs which he was promised by the politicians who asked for his support – jobs which the state politicians in their desperation to grab federal funding told President Obama would be “immediate” by claiming this project was shovel ready. The thing is, this project was never shovel ready and it was naive, nay, irresponsible to think it would be in time to save the unemployed before they lost their homes. His approach, however stirred something up alright, and it wasn’t jobs or good will. It only gave those already angered greater resolve. His “greater good” speeches ring insincere with me. Don’t let him fool you. He needs the jobs on the Peninsula and could care less if the rest of the state gets them. I imagine he is feeling a lot of heat from his members right now. I never told him (I shouldn’t have to), but I told a lot of labor folks early on that unless you get buy-in from the communities, you will have no jobs. Seems logical, right? Many already thought that themselves, but explained that they were told by their union bosses they had better tow the line and back the HSRA and the politicians. All I can do is shake my head. The arrogance of man! Because of it, those people suffering without jobs due to the economy will continue to suffer at the hands of those with power. I can only hope some people have learned a big lesson: Question authority. If they are wrong, don’t roll over.

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