Rail out of town

Schwarzenegger budget says hasta la vista to bullet train. At least for now.





SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA -- In the year 2020, a sleek blue and gold train zooms past the freeways and farms of Central California, hurtling through hillside tunnels at 220 mph, carrying its passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in just two and a half hours. The ride is smooth, cheap and hassle-free compared to the headaches incurred at California’s airports, and the environmental benefits of taking the train match the state’s desire to create greener pastures. Indeed, as the train pulls into a downtown station, it’s done more than just deliver Californians to their destination; it has transformed their state, showing them an alternative to the pollution, gridlock, sprawl, and quality-of-life issues that rampant growth threatens to inflict.

Then the promotional video ends, and the squabbling begins.

“I wouldn’t want to show this,” says former U.S. Rep. Lynn Schenk as an uncomfortable silence descends on her fellow members of the California High Speed Rail Authority. The video’s opening segment, which focuses on California’s growing population and the pressure it will put on the state’s transportation infrastructure, won’t grab constituents for a bullet train, Schenk complains; she asks pointedly whether the video is a finished product. In the stifling downtown Sacramento conference room, mumbled responses and shrugged shoulders ripple around a U-shaped table.

“Here we go again,” Schenk says with a sigh.

These are, indeed, confused and exasperating times for the rail authority, a state agency formed in 1996 to study, plan, build and operate a 700-mile high-speed rail line that would connect San Diego, Los Angeles, the Bay Area and Sacramento, with commercial and residential development in the form of “transit villages” popping up next to stops along the way. It’s a project that would literally change how and where Californians work, live and play.

California has spent nearly $50 million in the past decade on the debate over whether a so-called bullet train is the best answer to the state’s daunting demographic future, including an estimate that the state’s population is expected to grow from 35 million to almost 50 million in the next 25 years. But the money paid for more than debate. Rail alignments were scouted, environmental studies were conducted, preliminary engineering was done, even some right of way was bought. The initial phase of construction on the $33 billion project was scheduled to begin next year, funded by a $9.95 billion bond issue to be placed on the November 2008 ballot. The bullet-train throttle seemed wide open.

But with high-speed rail supporters chugging ever closer to their elusive goal, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger unexpectedly dashed their hopes: In his budget for 2007, he shockingly cut the High Speed Rail Authority’s funding by 90 percent, recommending only $1.2 million for the agency and suggesting that a vote on the bond issue to fund the project’s early phase be postponed indefinitely. Although Schwarzenegger continues to express limited support for the project — and just recently appointed two more political allies to the board — he doesn’t believe high-speed rail would alleviate congestion in the short term and has said the state needs immediate financing for education programs, water and freeway infrastructure and construction of prisons.

Although the only high-speed rail service in the United States is the Acela Express, connecting Boston, New York and Washington, D.C., bullet trains are in wide use throughout Japan and Europe and are beginning to cover more territory throughout the world. To improve its railway network, China has earmarked more than $80 billion for a high-speed system covering about 7,500 miles. And the Mexican government has opened bidding on a $12 billion, 180 mph bullet train that will zoom 360 miles between Mexico City and Guadalajara.

In California, however, the future of the bullet train has never been murkier. Supporters argue that the choice is simple: Build the train, which would use less energy per passenger mile than any competing travel mode, or construct 3,000 new miles of highway lanes, 60 new airline gates, and five new airport runways. Some state legislators remain determined to move the project forward. Some High Speed Rail Authority board members – including former state Sen. Quentin Kopp, who’s been quoted as saying he’s not “plunged into despair” by Schwarzenegger’s budget proposal — believe the bullet train is anything but dead.

But other members of the rail board have publicly questioned how effective the agency can be with a $1.2 million budget for 2007-2008, barely enough to pay staff salaries.

And last month, Legislative Analyst Elizabeth Hill said in her annual review of the governor’s budget that it’s “time to bite the bullet for the bullet train,” writing that Schwarzenegger’s funding proposal “would essentially end the project unless another source of funding is provided.” Indeed, one of the governor’s appointees, longtime Schwarzenegger associate and funding whiz David Crane, is believed to be a major proponent of securing private financing for the project. But it’s entirely unclear that capital markets will look fondly on such a risky project unless public bonds are used to begin the first phases of construction.

Former legislator and current Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle, one of the governor’s recent appointees to the rail board, addresses the potential of high-speed rail this way in the long-debated promotional video for the bullet train: “Quality of life is going to be redefined in the next decade. And one of the most important elements of quality of life is the time you get to live it.” The question now in front of California’s legislators is whether the bullet train will live long enough to redefine anything.

The author is a Southern California native who now lives in San Francisco.

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