High-speed rail legacy, despite hassles, still on track

By fits and starts, amid fights over routes and funding, construction on California’s bullet train remains on track to begin next year.

The ambitious $45 billion project has generated criticism and controversy but remains viewed by its supporters as an economic boost for the state. Its fate will be determined on the continuity of federal funding and resolving uncertainties over the routes.

The first leg is to be built from Fresno to Bakersfield along 123 miles of track, the first of some 800 miles of line linking the Bay Area to Anaheim. But beyond that first leg, controversy over the exact layout of the subsequent routes is generating debate.

Currently, the High Speed Rail Authority is selecting the initial route and will release their business plan to the Legislature in October, including cost and risk assessments.

According to HSRA spokeswoman Rachel Wall, possible routes include San Jose to Bakersfield, Merced to the San Diego Valley, and Merced to Palmdale. The first major line will go from San Francisco’s Transbay Terminal to Los Angeles’ Union Station.

The high-speed rail would allow Amtrak trains to ride on the new track and increase their speeds from 79 mph to 125 mph.  Construction is proposed to begin in September of 2012 with a goal of completion by 2017. A conference to prepare for preliminary bidding is set to occur on Sept. 8. The HSRA stated that operations of the completed railway will begin in 2020.  A second phase, adding extensions to Sacramento and San Diego, is scheduled for 2026. The high speed rail will allow for transport between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 2 hours and 40 minutes. The train is to be electrically powered, greatly lessening pollution and alleviating congested highways.

Fares have not yet been set.

Currently, the HSRA is making sure the railway will comply with environmental standards, such as the California Environmental Quality Act and its federal equivalent.

“We’re looking at the potential impacts of a system that does not exist in the United States at this time. There is an unfamiliarity but we are working to provide information to the public about what is true about high-speed rail and what exactly a high-speed rail system is. There’s 10 high speed rail systems operating internationally that are all cash positive and compete very well with short-haul airfare,” Wall said.

The railway has had fluctuating costs, helped by substantial amounts of federal money.

In 2010, the initial tracks were said to cost $43 billion. The project has so far received $3.5 billion in federal aid, taken from other states that had cancelled their own high-speed train projects. The federal government has promised a total of $19 billion in aid, 40 percent of every available high-speed rail dollar in the country.

However, economic hardships have called that amount into question. Republicans in the House recently attempted to re-direct those funds to other projects. Wall says the HSRA is committed to receiving long-term Federal funding.

“There’s an acknowledgment that new infrastructure, updates and maintenance are funded through federal appropriations. We’re looking for the same kind of federal commitment for high-speed rail. I think that the president and the administration’s vision for high-speed rail is supportive of that.”

Prop 1A authorized the California High-Speed Rail when it was approved by voters in 2008. Last month, the new chairman of the HSRA, Thomas J. Umberg, met with board members in Bakersfield to examine potential segments, an overview of upcoming environmental analysis, and an informational update.

There has been some controversy over the HSRA, including criticism that HSRA officials failed to adequately explain the project to the Legislature and the public.

Nadia Naik, co-founder of the volunteer grassroots group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design, has been critical about HSRA’s lack of transparency.

“Getting information from the authority can be like pulling teeth. Promotional information or ‘good news’ is more like a wiggly baby tooth, it comes out easily. Potentially ‘bad news’ or technical data is a lot more like an impacted wisdom tooth.”

She says HSRA has not updated costs, ignores public records requests and fails to adequately share information.

CARRD recently sent an opening letter to HSRA, attacking them for their failure to “adopt regulations stating the procedures to be followed, making its records available and make such procedures publicly available.”Citing the California Public Records Act, the letter criticizes HSRA’s failure to produce documents originally requested on May 22,

which still have not been received on July 26th, which violates the Public Records Act’s ten day response time.

UC Berkeley released a report saying that HSRA’s initial ridership projections were inflated and Naik contends that “it is even harder to know what the benefits are because the Authority is using an unreliable ridership model as their basis for decisions, making it difficult to assess the opportunities, risks and costs with confidence.”

CARDD says the costs will be far larger than what HSRA has projected, perhaps totaling $65 billion.

“It is hard to know if you can afford something if you don’t know what it costs,” Naik said. “The most current capital cost estimates, provided in the highly criticized 2009 business plan, actually describe the project circa 2005. A lot has changed and it is impossible to know if we are making good economic decisions if we have no idea what the true costs are.”

Local farmers have also protested the bullet-train’s route, declaring that it would cut through their farms and damage their livelihoods. Wall was quick to address these concerns on behalf of the HSRA. “If we cross agricultural lands, we want to make the land on both side farmable and provide the farmers with the necessary equipment.”

CARDD is also critical of the chosen route. Prop 1A forces the train to proceed through urban areas, causing excess noise pollution and costs, or through agricultural areas, which will sacrifice riders and requires subsidies.

“The project is being pushed further and further away from existing corridors and into greenfield locations. The rising costs are leading to “value engineering” and these debates and discussions are not being held publicly, which is causing significant problems for the Authority in places like Palmdale,” Naik says.

The bullet-train project, however, has powerful supporters.

Last month, the mayors of San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Jose, Sacramento and Fresno rallied in defense of the program. San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee said freeways have changed transportation in California and likened the bullet train as a similarly vital project.

Advocates also have projected that construction would provide 160,000 temporary and 450,000 permanent jobs.

Japan, China and numerous European countries also have constructed high-speed railways.

The July 23 bullet-train crash in China, which cost the lives of 39 people and injured 191, weighs heavily on the minds of the HSRA.

“We have offered our condolences to the families and friends of those who lost their lives in this tragic accident by means of a letter of support to the Ministry of Railways,” Wall said. She noted that bullet trains have been operating successfully in Asia and Europe for more than four decades. Some 10 billion passengers have been transported on high-speed rail
networks worldwide. There has been only one fatal accident, in 1998 in Germany, and no fatalities in France, Japan, Spain, and the United Kingdom, as well as in the other countries operating HSR.

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