Bullet train faces difficult journey

An artist's conception of the bullet train in operation. (Image, High Speed Rail Authority)

California’s bullet train may be in trouble again, as a recent court ruling and potential funding obstacles have plunged the transportation project into further uncertainty.

The latest setbacks add to lingering questions over whether the $64 billion project can both meet its scheduled completion date and guarantee enough funding.

“With the mixture of funds that we have, we believe we can get our first passenger rail up and running.” — Lisa Marie Alley

When proposed to voters in 2008 through a bond initiative, the train system was supposed to be paid for through a combination of state funds, federal funds and private-sector investments, with each source contributing about a third of the total cost. In 2008, the San Francisco to Los Angeles line was predicted to cost $40 billion, but since then that estimate has risen to $64 billion.

While the passage of Proposition 1A gave the rail line an initial $9 billion of bond money to work with, it has raised only $3.65 billion in federal dollars. High Speed Rail Authority spokeswoman Lisa Marie Alley said the Rail Authority is not expecting the federal government to provide more money in the near future.

“If the president or Congress or a future administrative professional, said (they) want to invest more federal dollars into high speed rail we would definitely be interested in that” she said. “But right now, with the mixture of funds that we have, we believe we can get our first passenger rail up and running.”

The debate over California’s cap-and-trade program also has raised questions about the funding for the bullet train.

The rail line is currently scheduled to begin operating in 2025, when, if completed, it could take riders to locations between North Bakersfield to downtown San Jose, and later the line would be extended to San Francisco and Los Angeles.

According to the Rail Authority’s 2016 business plan, once passengers begin riding between the Central and Silicon Valleys, the private sector will contribute investments to the remainder of the project.

But the debate over California’s cap-and-trade program, which was recently extended a decade to 2030, has raised questions about funding for the bullet train. Cap-and-trade is a market-based auction system in which companies buy, sell and trade credits that allow them to continue operating while they ratchet down on their greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition to the 1A bond money, the train receives state dollars from the revenue generated by the proceeds from state-run cap-and-trade auctions. The program commits 25 percent of its annual auction money to high speed rail, in part because the completed project would shrink state greenhouse emissions by taking cars off the road and cut the number of short distance flights.

However a proposed constitutional amendment written by Assembly minority leader Chad Mayes R-Yucca Valley could eventually end these contributions.

The amendment, which would need voter approval in 2018, would require lawmakers to reach a two-thirds majority vote —as opposed to a simple 51-vote majority — when they reassess where cap and trade auction money will be allocated starting in the year 2024.

The plan’s need to pass a higher vote threshold would, at least theoretically, allow minority Republicans a larger role in the negotiations and potentially help them block funding for the transportation project they have long opposed.

“This absolutely calls into question the viability of high-speed rail going forward,” Assemblyman Marc Steinorth, R-Rancho Cucamonga said in an interview with The San Francisco Chronicle. “If the bullet train can’t prove its worth, (this amendment) provides a pathway to ending the funding for the boondoggle once and for all.”

But despite the potential ramifications, both supporters and critics of the bullet train are, at least for now, downplaying the proposal’s significance.

Alley said that by 2024,  Silicon Valley-to-Central Valley segment would already be a year from its projected completion date. She added that by this time the economic benefits of the program will be clear to voters.

“We really feel confident that (by 2024) the benefits of the program and the historic nature of where we will be will play a huge factor” in potential cap-and-trade negotiations, Alley said

Aaron Fukuda, a critic of the rail line and vice president of the Citizens for California High Speed Rail Accountability, was skeptical that voters will even pass the Mayes amendment. He said project supporters could push a majority of citizens to vote no.

“(California is) ruled by Sacramento and the strings are pulled by the unions,” Fukuda said. “So when it gets down to a voter initiative this won’t be made into a straight forward question, vote and answer. It’s going to get complicated, (and) there’s going to be a lot of money thrown around.”

Ironically, it may be California’s other environmental regulations that end up further complicating the bullet train’s future.

In a late July, ruling the California Supreme Court found that publicly owned rail projects could not completely bypass the state’s environmental laws, including the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the state’s premier environmental protection law.

Though the plaintiffs of the case were the North Coast Rail Authority and a nearby environmental watchdog group, the ruling was viewed as a win for bullet train opponents, including the Central Valley farmers who have previously sued the HSRA on grounds that the new rail line disrupts their land.

The state-run project now likely will be subject to the notoriously slow -moving CEQA procedures, which could further delay the project.

In an an email statement, Alley said the ruling would have no immediate impact on the project and that the HSRA would keep complying with required regulations.

“We will continue our ongoing work of preparing environmental documents for the remaining project section complying with both the federal (NEPA) and state (CEQA) environmental requirements,” the statement read.

While challenges to the project appear bound to continue, construction on the project is well underway on a 119-mile section between Madera and Bakersfield.

This early phase of the project is also providing a steady source of trade jobs.

According to the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, there were 1,220 tradespeople working on the project’s Central Valley segment as of May 31. This workforce includes electricians, iron workers and laborers, and they are paid a prevailing wage that averages out to about $51,000 annually.


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