Officials with the state’s High Speed Rail Authority say it’s now or never for the plan to build a bullet train from San Francisco to LA.

That’s in response to an internal watchdog group’s report, issued Tuesday, which recommended holding off on the project until more funding can be secured.

If construction on the bullet train doesn’t begin by October 2012, the state will have to forfeit $4 billion in stimulus money.

That, in turn, would trigger a clause that prohibits the state from spending bond money on the plan, says Tom Umberg, Chair of the High Speed Rail Authority. He says it would effectively “kill” high-speed rail in California.

“The project will be basically done for many, many years,” says Umberg. “And [it] may be impossible to build.”

California has enough money to build the initial 130 miles of track, between Chowchilla and Bakersfield, in the Central Valley. Once that money is spent, the state will have to ask for more federal support, as well as private investment, to complete the full, 520-mile line from SF to LA.

The initial segment has been derided by opponents as a “rail to nowhere,” but supporters of the plan call it a critical backbone that can serve as a testing ground for the technology.

This week’s report from the California High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group is the latest setback to the project. In July, the peer review panel criticized the rail authority’s ridership and revenue projections as unrealistic. California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office has also issued reports skeptical of the high-speed rail plan.

Last year, Republicans in Congress killed President Obama’s proposal to include high-speed rail funding in the FY2012 budget, and the project is in danger of becoming ensnared in election-year politics. But rail officials in California say they won’t ask for additional money until 2014, at which point they hope to have more support in Washington.

In Tuesday’s peer-review report, a panel of transportation experts said it’s too risky to break ground on the initial segment without a committed source of funding for the complete, $100 billion dollar project.

Umberg believes that’s unrealistic.

“If the same standard were applied to other projects in California, we wouldn’t have the Golden Gate Bridge. We would not have the California Aqueduct. We would not have the various campuses of the University of California. We would not have the I-5.”

Tuesday’s report from the California high-Speed Rail Peer Review Group rejected such comparisons, arguing that, while they made sense from a “phasing perspective,” they ignored the fact that those projects had dedicated funding sources, such as a gas tax or airport tax.

Governor Jerry Brown’s new budget includes plans to continue spending on high-speed rail.

State Sen. Doug LaMalfa, a Republican from Richvale says he plans to introduce a bill that would send the high speed rail plan back to California voters. Last month, a Field Poll found voters would would reject the $9 billion bond package by a wide margin.

You can read the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s response to this week’s peer review report here

CA High Speed Rail Authority Responds to Peer Review

High-Speed Rail Officials: It’s Now or Never 5 January,2012Amy Standen

  • Muthaiga

    “…they ignored the fact that those projects had dedicated funding sources, such as a gas tax or airport tax.”

    Not to mention the fact that they weren’t required by law to operate without subsidy.  Of course Mr. Umberg would rather we forget that little detail.

  • Willie Green

    Production of airline and automotive fuels is already shifting from traditional petroleum resources to vastly inferior oil shales and tar sands.  As diminishing traditional resources continue this permanent trend, automotive and airline travel will become much less affordable than what we’ve enjoyed during the last Century.

    It should not be surprising that current investment projections have exceeded original estimates as local bureaucrats and obstructionists impose their demands and delays into the planning process.

    Granted, this is a necessary step in any project of this magnitude. However, in a democratic society, we need to accept the “inefficiencies” that are nonexistent in a totalitarian state.

    One thing is certain, further procrastination and delay will only escalate investment requirements even higher.  Therefor every effort should be made to cut through the red tape to accelerate construction and reduce the investment requirements.

    • John Dough

      Ummmm… I don’t hear anybody calling for procrastination or delay. I hear millions of voices calling for an END to the boondoggle!

      I hear a call to reduce the “investment requirements” to zero.

  • John Dough

    Now or never…. Hmmmmm…. Never is staring to sound better and better, isn’t it?

  • Redscribe66

    Keep going Jerry and fight for green transportation. We made a critical mistake in Ohio turning down the 3C and it cost us 256,000 jobs thanks to the tea party.


Amy Standen

Amy Standen (@amystanden) is co-host of #TheLeapPodcast (subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher!) and host of KQED and PBSDigital Studios’ science video series, Deep Look.  Her science radio stories appear on KQED and NPR.

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