A bumpy ride on the bullet train

California bullet train. (Illustration: High Speed Rail Authority)

(Ed’s Note: This story appeared earlier in California City News, a content partner of Capitol Weekly)

Fasten your seat belts: It’s a bumpy ride for California’s proposed bullet train.

“Like all transformative projects, we understand that there will be many challenges that will be addressed as we go forward in building the nation’s first high-speed rail system,” said Dan Richard, chairman of the board of the High Speed Rail Authority.

Two of those challenges happened within the past two weeks. First, a Superior Court judge ruled that the rail authority didn’t meet the legal rules to use billions of dollars of voter-approved bond funds.

Then, the federal Surface Transportation Board, or STB, rejected the rail authority’s request to exempt from review a 29-mile stretch of line deep in the Central Valley. The board noted that it wanted to take a closer look at the $68 billion bullet train project and said the authority shouldn’t have told a contractor that it was ready to proceed. The board’s vice chair, Ann D. Begeman, called for a review of the financial fitness of the HSRA.

HSRA Chair Dan Richard

HSRA Chair Dan Richard

The latest actions, although far from conclusive, may force delays in the project, which is scheduled to be completed by 2028 to link San Francisco and Los Angeles through the Central Valley. High-speed rail has long been popular in Europe and Asia, but earlier efforts in the U.S. to develop high-speed rail have failed in Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida.

Despite the hurdles, California may get its high-speed rail line. But when?

“I think that the High Speed Rail is probably going to move forward, eventually,” said Madera Mayor Robert Poythress.

“I think that there is too much political will and too much political capital that has been invested in this project for it to go backwards.” But, he added, serious obstacles remain.

“I think it’s going to be a very awkward movement forward … I don’t think the High Speed Rail is going to be built anywhere near in the timeline that the proponents expect it to be built,” Poythress said.


Madera Mayor Robert Poythress

For communities along the bullet train’s proposed route, the latest problems reflect the locals’ ongoing concerns. The sharpest opposition to the bullet train has emerged among Republicans in the Central Valley, where the first stages of the rail line will be built.

In Bakersfield, officials believe the proposed route could cripple downtown property values, while uncertainty over the project’s details leaves the broader real estate market potentially at risk.

“Certainly it would create a great problem for those businesses that would be affected,” said city spokeswoman Rhonda Smiley. Without a finalized route, she said, “How do you market a property? … you are placing hundreds of people’s residences in limbo.”

For some in the Valley, the fear is whether the bullet train will have an adverse impact on property values.

The city, she added, “as a whole had great reservations and great concerns about the lack of firm and concrete plans.”

In Corcoran, the feeling is similar. An initial route “would have been very detrimental. It would have taken out businesses, a trailer park, an apartment complex and some residences,” Corcoran City Manager Kindon Meik.

The route was revised – a third version bypassed the city entirely – but opposition to the project appears to run deep in Corcoran. He said “there’s always been a question about the feasibility of the project in both the short term and the long term,” and questioned the benefits to Corcoran, which is not one of the proposed stops.

“There is no economic benefit to Corcoran whatsoever,” Meik added. “When you don’t have a stop between Fresno and Bakersfield, then you leave a lot of territory in between that’s not covered.”

The plan is to run bullet trains from Los Angeles to San Francisco through the Valley. The state originally said it would begin the construction in four different packages along a route from Madera to north of Bakersfield.

One glitch with federal regulators: The HSRA reportedly wasn’t aware it need the Surface Transportation Board’s approval, contending that the bullet train was out of their jurisdiction.

Until earlier this year, the authority had not even sought the STB’s approval, even though the independent federal agency oversees most major rail projects. State officials argued — ultimately unsuccessfully — that the federal board lacked jurisdiction in this instance.

The Superior Court decision bars the HSRA from using the $8 billion in bonds to fund the initial stages of this project. It also said that the HSRA must both draft a new budget for the project and prove that they have enough money for it before starting. But despite this delay in the process, this project received $3 billion in federal funding, which will still be available to spend.

“We are reviewing both decisions to chart our next steps, but it is important to stress that the court again declined the opposition’s request to stop the high-speed rail project from moving forward. Additionally, the judge did not invalidate the bonds as approved by the voters in Proposition 1A,” Richard said. This project is previously reported to use a combination of federal, state, and local funds.

However, with state funds under siege, not much is left to work with. However, many leaders question the authority of the HSRA entirely. For critics of the line, the STB and court decisions provide ammunition.

“I think High Speed Rail is a rogue agency, I think it’s out of control. It has had to be slapped back into obeying the law by the courts,” said Assemblyman Jim Patterson, a Fresno Republican.

“I am pleased to see that the judge upheld the requirement that the voters of California mandated when they voted for High-Speed Rail in 2008. This ruling continues to show that the High-Speed Rail project is on the wrong track,” said newly elected Republican Sen. Andy Vidak, whose district includes pieces of Kings, Fesno, Kern and Tulare counties. The area encompasses the first stage of the bullet-train line.

Supporters of the bullet train continue to focus on the positives. “I think it’s very significant that the judge did not place a restraining order on any aspect of the project, even though he was asked,” said Rod Diridon, formerly of the HSRA. “The project is going ahead, using the funds that are available, not including the bond funds,” elaborated Diridon, currently the executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute.

“I would expect them to begin construction … shortly after the first of the year.” Others, including the Assembly’s Republican leader, question the basic finances of the HSRA. “Voters were promised that California taxpayers would only foot a fraction of the total cost of the train but so far the High Speed Rail Authority has spent more than 700 million tax dollars without laying a single foot of train track,” said Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway of Madera.

Meanwhile, Vidak wants to have the high-speed rail project go before voters again and intends to introduce legislation to do hold the election in November 2014.

But the criticism of California’s high-speed rail program appears to be having an effect: The public is closely divided over the merits of high-speed rail, with 52 percent of Californians now opposing the bullet train, according to a recent L.A. Times survey.

Ed’s Note:  Summer ParkerPerry is a Capitol Weekly intern from the UC Sacramento Center. She attends classes at UC Santa Cruz. 

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