Yesterday the Sacramento Bee said "answers are needed before November" on high speed rail. Let's see what we can do, shall we?
But the authority's preferred route for high-speed rail between the Central Valley and the Bay Area has always been the Pacheco Pass. To win over environmentalist opponents who worry that a new rail corridor through sparsely populated Pacheco Pass will induce sprawl, the authority wants to add Altamont as a potential recipient for funding. Thus the Galgiani bill. Because it's closer to Sacramento, Altamont has the added advantage that it would likely bring high-speed rail to the capital city earlier.
The sprawl opponents' main concern was addressed when a station at Los Banos was deleted. I've not encountered any environmentalist or enviro group that believes Altamont would be better from a sprawl perspective. If that belief is out there it's not driving the effort to revisit Altamont - that instead is being done by Central Valley lobbying organizations and of course, Cathleen Galgiani herself, whose district lies along the Altamont corridor.
While the Galgiani bill may improve high-speed rail bonds' chances at the polls, it does not resolve all the issues surrounding it. As Sen. Alan Lowenthal, the chairman of the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee recently observed, the high-speed bond act is not "a conventional public works project" – a dam or road, for example, built with borrowed money to be repaid with taxes or fees on the users or beneficiaries. Voters are being offered a "business proposition" – and a highly speculative one.
Alan Lowenthal is wrong. There is not much difference between a dam, a new freeway, and high speed rail. HSR is a commonplace public works project. It's only "not conventional" if you deny the existence of the rest of the world. Yes, it's new for California, but that does not make it some sort of totally crazy and unpredictable new idea. It's been perfected over the decades into a rather humdrum and normal project.
The High Speed Rail Authority assumes that the $9.95 billion in state bond money when combined with an unknown and uncertain amount of federal and local funding will attract enough private investors to finance the full $33 billion cost of the first phase of the project, between San Francisco, Los Angeles and Anaheim.
The private investment issue is uncertain, that I will grant. But who really believes federal funding is uncertain? Veto-proof majorities just supported $14 billion for Amtrak in the US Congress including some for HSR. Yes, it would be smart of Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein, Nancy Pelosi, or some other California leader in Washington DC would direct some funds to the CA HSR project as a down payment on federal support, but given the broad support for passenger rail in the Congress, and Barack Obama's outspoken support for high speed rail the chances look very good for federal funding.
And as the Sac Bee editorial board surely knows, the feds aren't going to commit funding until California does. Someone has to make the first move here, otherwise we all just stare at each other.
The authority also assumes that high-speed rail operated by a private consortium will generate enough revenue to repay investors, cover annual costs and provide a profit. And, the authority says, high-speed rail won't need operating subsidies from the state.
That assumes operating subsidies are a bad thing. But even if we said they were, HSR lines around the world show operating profits. None require subsidies. SNCF, the French government train operator, is going to pay the government a €131 million dividend. As ridership is soaring on all rail lines in California surely there is cause to believe California HSR will be as successful as lines around the world.
Those are a lot of questionable assumptions. While there are obvious benefits to a modern high-speed rail network, particularly with fuel prices soaring, the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee outlined a number of potential risks and unknowns associated with this project. It raised doubts about the authority's ability to gain access to rights-of-way necessary to build a new rail corridor, especially through parts of Southern California already heavily congested with conventional passenger and freight rail networks. It noted that the financing plan relies on outdated estimates of construction costs.
But as a commenter explained a few days back these concerns are overblown:
It is quite surprising and upsetting that the media and nay-sayers are portraying this right-of-way issue as a deal killer when the CHSRA is already aware of these obstacles and trying to address them.
The CHSRA is not as of yet absolutely counting on using the freight rights of way. They acknowledge that doing so will minimize impacts and probably reduce, but according to the Bay Area to Central Valley EIR/EIS, they are not planning to try to seek agreements until the high-speed rail project has been given a go ahead by the state and the voters.
Doesn't this make sense? Why would we have this state agency make agreements that it can't back up? Hopefully there will be a successful negotiation between UPRR and CHSRA, but if not there is nowhere in the studies that indicated this will irrevocably hamper the project.
Well said. The Bee continues:
In the face of the state's big deficit, Lowenthal asks the key question: "What assurance can the authority provide that California taxpayers will not be stuck with a massive bill in the future if they approve the bond measure on the November ballot?"
It's a question high-speed rail advocates must answer for this measure to have a chance of passage.
Here the SacBee has shown it does not understand this issue at all. The key question is NOT what the financial cost of HSR will be - but instead what is the cost of not building HSR? The Bee's implicit assumption is that either we take a supposed risk on HSR or we save money by not building it.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Not building HSR consigns Californians and their economy to reliance on methods of travel that are undergoing major stress from high fuel prices - prices that are not expected to come down anytime soon, if ever. The SacBee should answer that question: what are they prepared to pay if we do not build HSR? Have they considered that not building HSR might in fact be the more costly and risky option?
Probably not. But then that's why we're here. To ask the questions our state's media won't. And to provide the leadership few else seem interested in providing. California's high speed rail project won't just be a boost for sustainable, affordable transit here, but will open the doors to high speed rail across the country. It's time for Californians to act like leaders again - and not fall prey to obsolete and disproved assumptions phrased in the form of a question.