Money flowing, high-speed rail gets back on track

The long-awaited, first step of California’s bullet-train program got under way this week – with the help of some new money.

 The California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) approved the use of additional federal funding to build the first tracks of the mammoth, $43 billion project to run from Fresno to Bakersfield.  

Some $616 million in Recovery Act funds – redirected from states that decided to scrap their high-speed rail ambitions – could make the project a more politically viable prospect. The project has come under fire as a “boondoggle” by critics, who question the expense and routing of the proposed system.

Initial plans approved by the authority charted a 63-mile span between the tiny towns of Borden and Corcoran, drawing fierce criticism for failing to connect any of the state’s major population centers.

This latest move, which will connect the Valley’s two largest cities along the inaugural 123 miles of track, could mark a shift in the project’s initial phase, dubbed the “high-speed train to nowhere.”

“It was a bad move to have a line between two cities nobody knows,” said state Sen. Bob Huff, chair of the Republican caucus. “To have the rail line go from Fresno to Bakersfield, at least that is from somewhere to somewhere.”

But many are chafing at the idea of starting in the Central Valley at all. Federal pressures attached to purse strings largely determined it as the starting point for what will eventually become 800 miles of bullet train infrastructure. The first phase aims to construct 520 miles of track connecting the Bay Area to Anaheim. Connections to Sacramento and San Diego would be added later, on top of the $43 billion.

The newly approved Fresno-Bakersfield leg will expend $5.5 billion, nearly the entire balance of all funds immediately available. With a federal deadline of Dec. 31 looming, the HSRA had to adhere to federal requirements that they start in the Central San Joaquin Valley — or risk losing federal funds to the tune of $3.6 billion.

One such requirement demands that new tracks have “independent utility,” allowing existing rail services to utilize it if a completed system never comes to pass. The planned Fresno-Bakersfield segment would allow Amtrak trains to divert and run as fast as 125 mph on the tracks. The current speed limit on Oakland to Bakersfield service is 79 mph.

“This is a great place to start,” said Rachel Wall, a spokesperson for the HSRA, calling the section the “backbone” of the entire system. Wall cited other benefits like the relatively low cost of construction,  the flexibility to build north or south as more funds are secured and pumping thousands of new jobs into an area hit hard by the recession. The lack of local opposition, already mobilizing in cities to the north and south, no doubt furthered the region’s positioning.

The system’s groundbreaking is on hold until environmental impact reports, due by next September, are completed. Construction is expected to begin in 2012, and must be completed by 2017. Wall says the authority is on track to begin operations on a completed Anaheim-San Francisco system by 2020.

Huff, a supporter of high speed rail, says in a perfect world, the project would have started in either the Bay Area or the Los Angeles-Anaheim corridor. “Sometimes you have to take the money you can get,” said Huff.

But those charged with overseeing the project are not satisfied. “I don’t like the idea of making these decisions with a gun to our head,” said Senator Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, who added that he found it strange that the authority didn’t ask the federal government for an extension. “There are potentially lots of unintended consequences.”

Lowenthal, who chairs the Senate transportation committee, says he is concerned about the transparency and governance of the authority, and he has unanswered questions about the project’s long-term feasibility.

“They want a lot of money,” said Lowenthal in a phone interview. “Well, they’ve got to answer these questions, first.”

Lowenthal says the authority has resisted legislators’ requests for a revised business plan and failed to conduct any public outreach or discussion before the initial line was chosen. He adds that the entity’s top-down attitude in dealing with municipalities along the planned corridor have led to fierce opposition in areas like the peninsula south of San Francisco, where a consortium of cities is currently suing to halt the project.

Other early missteps of the HSRA included a lack of documentation for paid invoices and a recommendation from staff close to Gov. Schwarzenegger that the authority award a $9 million public relations contract to a firm with close political ties to the administration.

Huff chalks it up to growing pains. “It’s like watching a toddler take his first step and you hope he doesn’t plow into the coffee table,” he said. Huff believes the authority, with a  new chief executive in place, is moving in the right direction. “It’s all happening as it should, maybe not necessarily in the order I’d like.”

But the project has been plagued by a barrage of reports critical of more substantive questions, such as its funding strategies. An April report by State Auditor Elaine Howle assailed the authority’s reliance on over $17 billion in federal funds as folly, noting at the time that only a fraction of that amount was committed. UC Berkeley’s Institute of Transportation Studies released a review that deemed ridership projections inflated, deepening skepticism about its profitability.

And most recently, a peer review commissioned by the Legislature joined the chorus of critics with a scathing report demanding “a thorough reassessment of a number of engineering, financial, economic and managerial issues.” The major concerns yet to be resolved, wrote the review, included understaffing, lack of a clear and sound business model, and the uncertainty of funding in view of the deepening budget crisis and a new political landscape in Congress.

Representative Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, incoming chair of the House Appropriations Committee, has led an effort to yank $12 billion in unspent stimulus funds to close the federal budget gap, including $2 billion the HSRA is already counting on to begin construction. Though it’s not expected to garner support in the Democratic Senate or President Obama’s signature, the bill is indicative of the climate in Congress following November’s elections.

“In this economy, we are aware of the challenges to getting additional funding,” said Wall, who says the authority will be aggressive in competing for federal funds. Wall says the authority is hopeful that they will continue to receive additional federal funding and environmental approval on a rolling basis, allowing continuous construction. “What we’re looking at is a true high speed rail system…investing in the system here is a long-term added benefit to the economy.”

Lowenthal and others are not convinced the risk is worth it.

“They are now making decisions on billions of dollars, and they haven’t demonstrated competence,” said Lowenthal, who notes that attempts by Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, to tie some state money to benchmarks was vetoed by the governor.

Asked for a response, HSRA spokesman Jeff Barker wrote in an email that officials were “looking forward to working with all members of the Legislature in the coming year … .”

Huff says California is running out of time to plan for the future. “When it comes to transportation … you don’t have the luxury of saying we’ll deal w
ith it later,” he said, adding that voters who approved Prop 1A want to see progress. “It’s time for the rest of us to roll up our sleeves and implement their vision in the most cost effective manner as possible.”

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