Thomas D. Elias: Time to change map on high-speed rail?
Here's a question for the California High Speed Rail authority: How about cutting out the most expensive parts of your current plan — which also happen to be the most controversial — while leaving its essence intact?
That's a question no one on the board making the plans for this putative system has answered, or even been asked.
As it now stands, the estimated cost of this project is $43 billion, but state voters have approved "only" $9.95 billion in bonds, while the federal government has committed another $2.25 billion. It's anybody's guess where the rest of the money might come from (the project's board hopes for more federal money and plenty of private financing, but has yet to arrange any). Plus, anyone who thinks building a 238 mph rail system stretching from San Diego through Los Angeles to Sacramento and San Francisco will come in at or under budget is probably hallucinating.
That, at least, is implied in a springtime report by state Auditor Elaine M. Howle, who told the governor and the Legislature that "The High Speed Rail Authority has not adequately planned for the future development of the program…the program risks significant delays without more well-developed plans for obtaining funds."
This, of course, didn't keep the authority from hiring a French/South African executive with experience running high speed systems in Europe as its chief executive at $375,000 per year, plus a housing allowance.
The auditor's report, scathing as it was, did not even take up the question of local opposition to the current plan, currently strongest on the San Francisco Peninsula but rising in the Anaheim-Los Angeles corridor and other metropolitan areas.
So why not do a little reassessing, especially in light of the High Speed Rail Authority's own report of last winter, which amounted to a bait-and-switch on the voters who approved the state bonds for this project by a 52-48 percent margin two years ago? That report raised the estimated year-2035 fare for the San Francisco-Los Angeles run from the $55 projected in ballot materials two years ago to $105 dollars. Nearly doubling the fare would cut the pool of likely riders by about one-third.
And yet, those eliminated riders, plus taxpayers in parts of the state far from the high speed trains are still on the hook for repaying the bonds, if and when they are sold.
Given this dicey picture for the future of California high speed rail, maybe it's time to redesign the system's planned map to eliminate its most expensive portions while keeping the fundamentals intact.
Here's how to do that: Run high-speed trains on existing track in densely-populated areas even if that means running them at ordinary train speeds. Tie them in with existing transit systems.
So Southern California trains, for example, might run full-out from Carlsbad north to about Tustin and then slow down as they use ordinary, existing track between Anaheim and Los Angeles. It might add a few minutes to the trip, but would cost billions less and raise far fewer hackles.
From Los Angeles, the trains could run at ordinary speeds into the San Fernando Valley and then go full-out through the Central Valley. Rather than running over the Pacheco Pass to Gilroy and San Jose roughly along Highways 152 and 101, the train could be rerouted over the Altamont Pass into the East Bay suburbs of San Francisco, where passengers could switch to special Bay Area Rapid Transit trains for a non-stop run into San Francisco on existing track. The Sacramento spur, to be added later under current plans, would remain pretty much as it now stands.
That eliminates the need for the most expensive rights of way. It satisfies Peninsula cities and environmentalists who have demanded a tunneled system that would add billions of dollars to the project cost.
It might add as much as 45 minutes to the entire ride, but would still leave passengers to enjoy hundreds of miles of travel at very high speeds. In short, this would retain the essence of the high speed rail experience without impacting urban areas significantly.
It would take high speed rail away from areas that are now resisting it most strongly and leave the plan intact in areas that are welcoming it.
And it would cost many billions of dollars less, probably coming in at a price close to the state's existing means.
There is precedent for all this, too. Amtrak currently runs successful trains that link to buses between Union Station in Los Angeles and Bakersfield and from Emeryville on the eastern side of San Francisco Bay into the city itself.
Do this and if the mass of Californians still want more when the project is up and running, more could be added. But build a sensible, economical system first.