Ever since the California High Speed Rail plan was published in 2002, the proposed bond funding plan has always insisted that the first section to be opened would be the link between LA and SF. Although the full buildout would include lines to Sacramento and San Diego, LA-SF was rightly seen as the backbone of the system, providing a sustainable, reliable, and rapid transportation option linking the state's two main centers. As with European HSR lines, a successful first line generates political support, public enthusiasm, and financial resources to expand the network.
With that in mind I am a bit hesitant to embrace a proposal from Fiona Ma and Cathleen Galgani that would, according to an AP report:
allow the bonds to be used for all segments of the proposed 700-mile rail system. The bond's current language dedicates the money only for the proposed segment between the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas.
I think this is a bad idea, but first, some background.
Significantly, the bill not only has Arnold's backing, but was drafted by the administration's advisers and the California High Speed Rail Authority board of directors. Quentin Kopp, chair of the board, "said he had been told by Schwarzenegger's chief of staff, Susan Kennedy, that the Republican governor supports the bond proposal." Which is certainly welcome news after years of delayed votes (the plan was originally to have been voted on in 2004, and then in 2006).
Ma and CHSRA director Mehdi Morshed explained the new bill this way:
Ma and Mehdi Morshed, the rail board's executive director, said the bill could broaden public support for the bonds by allowing all areas served by the project to compete for money.
The bill would require the board to give top priority for bond funding to segments of the project that could attract the most federal, local government or private financing and that also could be used by other passenger trains.
What is happening here is the resolution to a months-old conflict between the rail board and the governor's office. Arnold had been trying to undermine the project by, as I explained at Calitics in June 2007, insisting that federal and private funding be secured first, *before* going to the ballot - even though that is ass-backward, as a state funding commitment is necessary for the feds and investors to commit. The Ma-Galgani proposal seems to satisfy Arnold's insistence on leveraged funding by privileging those portions of the route that can find it.
Further, it may satisfy a political need. Back in May 2007 I wrote about concerns that the LA-SF priority was going to lose votes in other parts of the state. I didn't buy that thinking then, or now, but it does appear to have combined with the desire to buy Arnold's support at whatever cost to produce this proposal.
And it's not a good proposal. The core selling point - the "killer app" if you will - of the high speed rail plan is that it offers an alternative to flying and driving between the Bay Area and Southern California. Instead of a hassle-filled, expensive, environmentally ruinous flight, or a long, expensive, unsustainable drive, Californians could hop a train in downtown SF and be in downtown LA in 2 1/2 hours.
As we enter the age of peak oil and global warming, perhaps our greatest transportation need as a state will be long-distance intercity service. We will not be able to fly and drive between the two great metropoles of our state for much longer.
But with this plan, it is precisely that portion - LA-SF - that is *least* likely to get bond funding. There are no other local services that can be leveraged, and federal funding is still uncertain (especially if noted train-hater John McCain wins the White House). What this proposal will produce is HSR along the Caltrain line from SF to San Jose, HSR along the Metrolink line from Santa Clarita to LA and Anaheim, and leave an enormous gap in between. A missing link that will hurt ridership and limit political support for the project, while the costs of filling the link continue to soar.
The Ma-Galgani plan is well-intentioned - but wrong. We need to instead make the case to Californians that our state cannot survive without HSR. Emphasize the environmental and sustainability benefits, as well as the convenience. A winning coalition is built not through gimmicks, but through showing people the underlying value of the system.