24 Feb Proponents in Washington promote California’s bullet train
FILE – In this Feb. 26, 2015 file photo, a full-scale mock-up of a high-speed train is displayed at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)
Dan Richard, right, chairman of the board that oversees the California High-Speed Rail Authority, and Jeff Morales, chief executive officer of the rail authority, discuss the bullet train’s revised business plan Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016, in Sacramento, Calif. Officials of the high-speed rail system say they will push to build the first 250 miles of the system north from the Central Valley to Silicon Valley using already-approved funding for the project .(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
Gov. Jerry Brown, center, and his wife Anne Gust, third from right, start signing a portion of the rail at the California High Speed Rail Authority ground breaking event Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015, in Fresno, Calif. (AP Photo/Gary Kazanjian)
WASHINGTON — Ridiculed as a Train to Nowhere, California’s multibillion-dollar high-speed rail project is now a Train to Somewhere, rail officials said Wednesday, touting their decision last week to radically alter course by building the bullet train’s first leg to the Bay Area instead of the Los Angeles area.
In Washington to meet with federal agency partners, rail officials said that with construction under way near the town of Madera in the San Joaquin Valley, the $68 billion project will become a reality within a decade.
The idea is to speed workers to their jobs in unaffordable Silicon Valley and back again, to their homes in the more affordable towns of the San Joaquin Valley.
“It will be quicker for a Google worker to travel by train from Madera to San Jose than from the Amador Valley to San Jose at rush hour,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, who joined rail officials in a meeting with reporters.
Dismissing criticisms of the bullet train’s cost, Lofgren said the alternatives — 4,300 new miles of highway and five large new airport terminals estimated to cost upward of $140 billion — are the truly unaffordable transportation options for the state’s projected 50 million people by 2030.
“Seeing is believing,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Dublin, who toured the Madera site last week and described large vertical structures rising and dilapidated buildings falling in the construction zone.
The decision to build the first line to San Jose was “all about getting a train up and running the fastest way possible,” said Dan Richard, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority. “We didn’t have the money to get to L.A.”
Going to Anaheim would have meant tunneling through the Tehachapi Mountains and facing a lot of resistant ranchers in Kern County.
Private investors needed
By contrast, Richard said, “We know we can get a line up and running on the 250 miles between the Central Valley and Silicon Valley.”
Officials hope completing the line will get private investors to pony up $10 billion or so for the rights to operate the system, money the planners desperately need to complete the project.
Richard conceded that the line must extend all the way to San Francisco on the north from Bakersfield in the south to draw riders. For that, the authority will need an additional $2.9 billion from Congress, which Republicans refuse to spend. Richard said officials are laying the groundwork for the request to Congress but won’t ask for money for four to five years.
Rep. Jeff Denham, a Stanislaus County Republican who chairs the railroad panel of the Transportation Committee, said Congress “is never going to allocate more money” to the project, citing projections for lower-than-promised ridership numbers, lower train speeds than initially projected and private funding that has not materialized as expected. Denham said by switching the first leg to San Jose, rail officials are “finally acknowledging what the rest of us have known for years — tunneling through the Tehachapis is going to cost them billions more than they have.”
Denham said the rail authority “must stop their efforts to put down tracks that will never connect in other parts of the state.”
Rail officials are doing just the opposite, breaking ground in time to tie down the $6 billion in federal funding California secured under the Obama administration’s 2009 Recovery Act, and proceeding in the face of a blizzard of lawsuits, as well as a potential ballot proposition funded by farming interests that would divert rail funding to dams and other water projects.
2008 bond measure
Initiated by a voter-approved $9.9 billion bond in 2008, California’s bullet train plan envisions trains linking Anaheim with San Francisco via the flat lands of the San Joaquin Valley. It has the potential to be the largest infrastructure project in the country.
The Obama administration initially envisioned a national high-speed rail system, but California grabbed the bulk of the 2009 stimulus funds because Republican governors in Ohio, Wisconsin, Florida and elsewhere refused the seed money out of fear of embarking on a costly boondoggle.
When Republicans took control of Congress in 2010 and cut off further funding, California’s project appeared doomed.
The Brown administration kept the project alive through infusions of revenue from the state’s cap-and-trade greenhouse gas auctions. By switching the initial leg to San Jose, rail authorities can leverage the Caltrain line between Gilroy and San Francisco slated for a $1.7 billion electrification.
California Democrats remain enthusiastic. Rep. Jim Costa of Fresno called high-speed rail a “game changer” for the rapidly growing San Joaquin Valley, where 6 million people now live.
“People still aren’t sure it’s happening,” said rail authority CEO Jeff Morales. “The work is under way. We will have high-speed trains for the first time in the United States.”