For the first time since voters okayed more than $9 billion worth of bonds to pay for a high speed rail system linking all California’s major metropolitan areas, it appears the commission charged with building that system is getting realistic.
In fact, you could say the entire idea of a bullet train in California is now on a new track – call it a back track or a slow track.
That’s the upshot of a new report to the Legislature from the High Speed Rail Authority (HSR), which has been widely lambasted for its plan to build the first segment of its system in the San Joaquin Valley, roughly between Bakersfield and Merced.
The report, required by a new state law, puts the bullet train authority on record for the first time saying there are plausible, acceptable alternatives to 220 mph trains for spending the bond money and the billions of dollars already committed to this project by the federal government.
One possibility, the report says, would “reduce the scope or delay the next phase of system development until the performance of the existing system can generate sufficient revenues to support future expansion.” In short, wait and see what the ridership will be before spending piles more money. But you can’t know that unless you’ve built the whole system.
Later, the report adds that the new tracks it plans to build in the Central Valley could link with existing Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad tracks at its northern and southern ends, with Amtrak running its current San Joaquin train on the new tracks. “This will reduce travel times on the San Joaquin service between Northern and Southern California – already one of Amtrak’s five busiest corridors in the nation – by approximately 45 minutes,” the HSR said.
Rather than 220 mph, this change would see trains running at speeds up to only 125 mph – which still meets the federal definition of high-speed rail.
If the HSR system hooks up with the older BNSF tracks, the links would be paid for entirely with federal dollars and not state bond money, which is reserved for truly high-speed projects only. Some federal dollars could also be used to make safety and smoothness upgrades on the BNSF system, thus allowing trains to go much faster than they do now.
It is, of course, remarkable that the until-now hidebound HSR authority so much as acknowledges there’s a possibility of building something other than what its 2008 ballot proposition called for. Yes, this does amount to a bait-and-switch on voters who were told they could get a real bullet train for about $36 billion, with the bulk of the money to come from private investors and national government.
The precise words chosen by the HSR authority are even more interesting. It did not say “… this could reduce travel times…,” meaning it’s just one possibility among many. Rather, the report said, “…this will reduce…,” meaning the HSR now apparently expects to build the cheaper, slower version.
It remains to be seen whether the twice-delayed business plan now due to come from the authority in early November will be as definite, but the rest of the HSR report to the Legislature explains the pullback very well.
It amounts to this: As things now stand, there is no interest in the project from private investors without federal investment guarantees or proven high ridership. Those things do not now exist, nor are they likely to be forthcoming as long as anti-high speed rail Republicans hold a majority or even a significant minority in either house of Congress.
The report contains multiple optimistic references to the possibility that an upgraded system will become self-sustaining by attracting significantly more passengers than today’s trains. Only after that happens, the HSR authority concedes, are private investors likely to dive in. But will a 45-minute improvement in the one-way Los Angeles-San Francisco riding time really entice many new customers away from airplanes or their own cars?
All of which means two things: The new members of the HSR authority appointed last summer by Gov. Jerry Brown are taking a far more practical and hard-nosed attitude toward the entire development than the people they replaced, who were named by ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
And also that protesters who feared the effects of viaducts reaching as high as 40 feet while traversing suburbs of Los Angeles and San Francisco can rest a little easier now than just a month ago. For it no longer seems like anyone is dead-set any more on building a train to nowhere.
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