High-speed rail project still on the tracks … for now
Gov. Jerry Brown and the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s proposed “bullet” train just dodged a bullet. On July 6, the state Senate passed by only a single vote a nearly $8 billion funding plan to start construction in the Central Valley.
Proponents called the vote a “historic moment” for the state while opponents have decried it more as a “historic blunder.”
Passage of the bill also authorized the state to begin selling $4.5 billion in voter-approved bonds and to collect another $3.2 billion in federal funding that would have been rescinded otherwise.
Not everyone is ready to get on board, however. State Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto).
“My hope is that the project is a success. I’m just not convinced this is the right way to make it real,” Simitian said Friday on the Senate floor. In an interview with the San Mateo Daily Journal, he said the train has some great benefits, but thinks spending $6 billion in federal funds for a 130-mile stretch of “conventional” tracks in the Central Valley is a poor investment.
Brown’s bill needed 21 votes to pass and it got exactly 21 votes. Every Republican in the Senate voted against it, including Sen. Ted Gaines (R-Roseville), vice chair of the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee Vice Chair.
“The Democrats just passed another budget that is billions of dollars out of balance and now they are threatening to cut billions more from our schools unless they get a massive tax increase in November,” Gaines said in a press statement. “And they think this is the appropriate time to sink a fortune into a high-speed rail project that is doomed to failure?”
Tickets, please …
Voters approved Proposition 1A, or the Safe, Reliable High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act for the 21st Century, in November 2008. Its $9.95 billion in general obligation bonds were to partly fund an 800-mile stretch of high speed train service under the supervision of the California High-Speed Rail Authority. Back then, the project was estimated at costing $40 billion, but that price tag has since more than doubled. In 2011, the Rail Authority estimated that it would now cost between $98.5 billion and $118 billion.
Prop 1A also called for up to $950 million of the bond to be available for capital projects on other passenger rail lines to provide connectivity to the high-speed train system and for capacity enhancements and safety improvements to those lines.
The train’s route is proposed mainly between San Francisco and Los Angeles, with Anaheim designated as the initial segment’s southernmost terminus. The timeline calls for service by 2030, taking 120,000 riders per day between San Francisco and Los Angeles taking about 2 hours and 40 minutes at speeds of up to 200 mph.
The funding plan also calls for electrifying the Caltrain tracks, a $1.5 billion project, by 2019 to make them compatible with high-speed trains under a “blended system” that will travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco.
The blended system was the idea of three high-powered local lawmakers early last year as a way to make the project more palatable by reducing the risk of property takings.
Next stop: courtrooms
The proposed train might be fast, but it’s going to have to outrun lawsuits from opponents, who have vowed to try and derail the project in court.
“The legislative aspect is over, we lost that round. So now it’s going to be the litigated phase,” said state Sen. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale), who led the charge against the project in the Senate, and is spearheading an effort to put a repeal of Prop 1A (or at least its bond funding mechanism) before voters.
Good news for the train: Union Pacific, which for years threatened to stall the project by withholding pivotal rail property along the bullet train route, said it hopes to have a deal with the rail authority “finalized soon.” And Peninsula opponents said they’re close to settling a four-year court battle over the rail line.
Bad news: before a single mile of track can be laid, the project has to clear a few major hurdles, not the least of which includes settling at least five current lawsuits (with more waiting in the wings). Several cities and non-profits located in the Bay Area have sued over the planned route and over environmental concerns, including the City of Palmdale, which sued to prevent the rail authority from building the planned Antelope Valley line up Interstate 5, instead of through the city.
In February, the Kern County Board of Supervisors voted to oppose the rail plans, citing spiraling cost estimates. This despite the fact that Bakersfield is at the heart of the high-speed rail plans. The latest version calls for the system to begin with 130 miles of track between Chowchilla and Bakersfield.
“If the Legislature doesn’t have the guts [to kill the project] then we better make sure the court system will carry that forward,” Aaron Fukuda, a community leader in Kings County, told the San Jose Mercury News.
The train also faces heavy opposition from wary farmers in the Central Valley, Madera County and the Merced County Farm Bureau.
The train must also meet key environmental standards required by the state’s strict laws. Central Valley groups argue under the California Environmental Quality Act that the project was rushed through the planning stages and would negatively impact air quality and noise.
And there won’t be a train or tracks until investors are convinced to buy more than $500 million in state bonds this fall to kick off construction.
“There is going to be real opposition at every little step,” said Santa Cruz environmental attorney Gary Patton, who is representing opponents on the Peninsula and Central Valley. “There are so many things still to be decided that it’s unclear what will actually happen.”
Additional source: KBAK/KBFX Bakersfield
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