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High-Speed Rail in a Low-Budget Era

GETTING THERE FROM HERE - Ours is an era where all of our expectations will need to be pared back, and the need to do things cheaper and more efficiently will have to take precedence over our desire to want something simply because we believe it’s a good idea.  Whether it’s education, defense, safety/security, social services or transportation, painful decisions lie ahead.

And to paraphrase Mark Twain, anyone who tells you differently is a liar, or a politician…but then again, I repeat myself.

And to paraphrase the parting address of (unfortunately) outgoing Times business columnist Tom Petruno (link), this current deep recession is a bit more threatening than all the other previous doom and gloom recessions because of one key element:  The Debt.

Enter the California High-Speed Rail (CAHSR) plan, initiated decades ago by the man who just got re-elected for governor.  While it’s clear his political bent and reliance on public sector labor unions pulls him to the left, it’s also clear that Governor Jerry Brown knows when to be fiscally conservative—as his past budget cuts and proposed state worker pension reforms illustrate.

The argument can be made that Brown’s budget-balancing efforts are too little too late, but he’s made some bold choices that many of his critics believed he was incapable of making, and he’s going to have to do the same for his beloved CAHSR.

The long knives are out in Washington, DC for cutting social services, defense, Medicare, education and just about everything else, so it’s not that surprising or unfair that the CAHSR is being targeted even before construction begins. (Link)  After all, now that the projected costs for CAHSR have jumped from $35 billion to $98 billion, it’s not a stretch to suggest that many Californians (including high-speed rail supporters like myself) have become disenchanted with CAHSR.

And we may have the opportunity to find out whether Californians have changed their mind on CAHSR, should current opposition lead to a proposed ballot initiative that reverses previous funding efforts.  The opposition is growing to CAHSR,
(link) and although the $98 billion is really “just” $65 billion in today’s dollars with inflation counted in, the cries for revisiting CAHSR are growing ever stronger.

Of course, the question of what Washington, DC is willing to spend on the Acela line from Boston to Washington (link) versus the CAHSR raises the old specter of unfair bias towards different geographies (with California always coming in last), but it should be acknowledged that the Acela line started relatively small ($5 billion) and slow…but is now being recognized as a bipartisan priority.

Similarly, the CAHSR will need to think smaller and slower, not only because of our economic and debt problems, but because CAHSR simply isn’t being successfully sold as a high priority—even to those who favor rapid transit in our state.

A very good question is whether an anti-high-speed rail ballot initiative would pass right now; I’m guessing it would, despite my support of high-speed rail).

Yet an equally good question is whether a ballot initiative to redirect the $10 billion in California voter-approved funds to critical rail corridors (even to corridors outside of the original CAHSR routing) in megadense regions (such as that through which the Acela traverses) would pass.  I’m guessing it would, too.

It’s hard to know what the fiscal, legal or engineering realities are for this proposed redirection of the $10 billion, but it’s easy to conclude that federal support of the CAHSR is anything but assured—it’ll pass the Senate, but the House has said “no” to the $3-4 billion that President Obama wants to spend for the CAHSR’s central Californian portion.  Meanwhile, the private sector has said it’ll show more interest if the CAHSR focuses construction first at its northern and southern portions.

The northern and southern termini are not nearly as “shovel ready” as central California is for CAHSR, but the political will to enhance higher-speed rail (if not truly “high-speed” rail of 200 or more mph) already exists with the growing Caltrain and Metrolink networks in the Bay Area and the Greater L.A. region, respectively.  

Furthermore, Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner from San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara to San Diego is Amtrak’s #2 train route nationwide with respect to ridership, and the ridership of Amtrak’s Capitol Corridor from San Jose to Sacramento ain’t too shabby, either.

I’d hate to lose the $10 billion of Californian bonds for CAHSR altogether, and if “higher speed rail” is all we can realistically do then perhaps we should follow the lead of the Acela model and recognize that the Perfect really IS the enemy of the Good.

So perhaps the right thing to do is to just have a geographically- and politically-balanced effort to reassign federal and state (and, maybe, private) funds to rail routes that are already popular in order to upgrade, speed up and increase the service and ridership of those currently-popular routes, and thereby create a better fiscal case for future rail upgrades and extensions.

But if Governor Brown and those of us who still support CAHSR of some sort really want to have any kind of high-speed rail within our lifetimes, we’ll need to really confront innovative ways to fund public works projects:

1) Make deals with various Native American tribes to allow legalized gambling on the trains for segments of rail routes that run through or near the boundaries of their tribal reservations.

2) Determine whether non-violent prison inmates can perform some of the unskilled yet necessary labor to expedite the construction and lower the labor costs of this large project.

We can always just throw in the towel on CAHSR altogether, but if we want to embark on a major public works project at a time when budgets and political will for this project are shrinking, we’ll have to do right by taxpayers and private investors alike if we’re committed to get anything done at all.

(Ken Alpern is a former Boardmember of the Mar Vista Community Council (MVCC), previously co-chaired its Planning and Outreach Committees, and currently is Vice Chair of its MVCC Transportation/Infrastructure Committee. He is co-chair of the CD11 Transportation Advisory Committee and chairs the nonprofit Transit Coalition, and can be reached at He also co-chairs the grassroots Friends of the Green Line at The views expressed in this article are solely those of Mr. Alpern.) –cw

Tags: high speed rail, California, Washington DC, CAHSR, Jerry Brown, Governor, Governor Brown

Vol 9 Issue 95
Pub: Nov 29, 2011