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California’s High-Speed Retreat from High-Speed Rail

WAITING FOR THE TRAIN - I’m a bit surprised—and sorry--that my November 28th CityWatch article on the loss of public support for the California High-Speed Rail (CAHSR) project proved to be so timely. I predicted that a potential initiative to repeal the $9 billion in voter-approved CAHSR bonds would pass (link)  and now it appears a new poll shows that voters would indeed support such a repeal.
The poll, to quote the linked Times article on this topic, was just released from the Field Research Corporation in San Francisco, and showed that “64% of those surveyed want another public vote on the $98-billion project and that 59% of  respondents would oppose it because of changes in its cost and completion date.”

Of those who supported the original CAHSR measure, only 53% still favored it; while Republicans opposed it the most at 73%, 61% of non-partisan and 49% of Democrats opposed it as well.  A more favorable poll in July 2010 was released by the CAHSR Authority, showing at that time “that 76% of Californians supported the project, including 34% who wanted high-speed rail to proceed as quickly as possible”.


So as an overall supporter of California high-speed rail of some sort, I would say I’m the CAHSR’s best friend when I say it’s time to really rethink our short-term and long-term goals for improving mass transit in the Golden State.

Because I do NOT think that Californians of any political stripe truly oppose mass transit altogether, but they do want cost-effective use of their funds—I’m sure that a whole lot of folks are asking themselves where that $9 billion could go for better projects that could be built right NOW.

For example, Orange County (which is really not into light rail like LA County or San Diego County) rejected their Centerline light rail line project from Anaheim to Irvine and chose to invest more into their Metrolink program—particularly in their segment of the LOSSAN (Los Angeles-San Diego) Rail Corridor, which is the second-most high-ridership rail line in the United States (behind the Acela line in the Northeast U.S.).

Of note is that U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has urged Governor Brown to not back down from the bullet train project:  “We will not be dissuaded by the naysayers.”  OK … well how about the taxpayers?

Furthermore, House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica of Florida, who supports the concept of high-speed rail and who once supported the CAHSR project, noted that the project now appears to be in “disarray”.

Both LaHood and Mica are Republicans, and it is their job to make sure that the CAHSR or any other project gets done in a cost-effective manner—and LaHood rightfully repeats that the current interstate highway system did not have all the money on hand when construction began in the 1950’s.  So … CAN WE SALVAGE THE CAHSR PROJECT?

I would have to say YES, but to remind everyone that “The Perfect Is the Enemy of the Good” and to be an adult about this or any other major initiative.  The private investors that are being courted to help fund CAHSR recommend starting at each end of the San Francisco to Los Angeles segment of the proposed bullet train, and we need to LISTEN to them.

We also need to listen to those that correctly observe that the $3 billion offered by the Obama Administration for the Merced-Bakersfield portion of the CAHSR in the Central Valley is the most shovel-ready portion of the project.  

So if we want to match the popularity of the Acela line of the Northeast, we need to focus our state funds in those portions of the CAHSR project where it’s as dense as the Acela line:  the Caltrain lines between San Jose and San Francisco (and perhaps San Jose and Oakland, or the Capitol Corridor Line between San Francisco/Oakland and Sacramento), and the Metrolink/Amtrak LOSSAN Corridor.

In other words, separate freight and passenger rail lines and perform planned widening and grade-separation projects ASAP to get some quick speeding up of our passenger rail system.  For example, would potential Amtrak and Metrolink riders like getting from Anaheim to L.A. Union station in 10-15 minutes?  Yes, I think they would, and they’ll settle for that over getting to San Francisco in 2-3 hours if our current CAHSR initiative takes decades to do that.

A rough divvying up of $4-5 billion of state funds for current Northern California passenger rail lines, $4-5 billion of state funds for the LOSSAN Corridor and related Metrolink routes, and the $3 billion from the federal government for Central California rail lines is the probably the most politically and technically viable approach to go at this immediate time, and the folks in Sacramento better leap on a new initiative to redefine what CAHSR will be for the immediate future or risk losing it altogether.

By having a new initiative to upgrade, speed up and increase the service and ridership of those currently-popular routes, we can thereby create a better fiscal case for future rail upgrades and extensions.  It’s my belief that the Expo Line, the Wilshire Subway, the Downtown Connector and other local rail projects will increase support for future long-distance passenger rail, but that support (as with the interstate highway system) must be organically extended—and not rammed down the hurting taxpayers’ throats.

I still believe that we can expedite and extend the cost-effectiveness of the CAHSR project by making deals with various Native American tribes to allow legalized gambling on certain train segments, and offer non-violent prison inmates the opportunity to reduce their sentences by performing non-skilled labor or even learn a few skills to help them once they’re out of prison.  Seriously.

But we can’t browbeat taxpayers who just did NOT vote for a CAHSR project of this expense and timeframe.  The taxpayers know all the details, and increasingly they don’t like it (including CAHSR supporters).  A $10-15 billion investment is all we should be pushing for in the year 2012, as we build up connecting local and commuter rail lines locally as well.

There are too many transportation initiatives to put too many eggs in just one basket, so I again urge Governor Brown and the CAHSR Authority:  We can always just throw in the towel on CAHSR altogether, but to do right by taxpayers and private investors alike we have to refocus what CAHSR will be for the next ten years if we’re committed to getting 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: LA County, Orange County, California, high speed rail, CAHSR, Ray LaHood

Vol 9 Issue 98
Pub: Dec 9, 2011