Bullet train plan may never leave station
By E.J. Schultz - Bee Capitol Bureau
Last Updated 12:05 am PST Tuesday, January 30, 2007
Mehdi Morshed, executive director of the High Speed Rail Commission, confers with George Spanos during a session on Monday. With the prospect of a massive cut in its budget, the commission is pondering its future.
Sacramento Bee/Kevin German
The state's perpetually delayed high-speed rail project faces yet another funding setback. And this one could be fatal, dashing the dreams of bullet train enthusiasts, including many in California's Central Valley.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposes slashing funding for the High Speed Rail Authority from $14 million to $1.2 million, leaving the group with enough just to keep its doors open. The Legislature has yet to vote on the governor's spending plan.
"There's really no public purpose for me and my staff to be in office unless you want to move forward with the project," said Mehdi Morshed, the authority's executive director, who wants the governor and lawmakers to approve $103 million for the project next year. "If you don't want to move forward with the project, then close it down and save yourself some money."
With his focus on road building, the governor also wants the Legislature to indefinitely delay a $9.95 billion rail bond slated for the 2008 ballot. That would clear the way for $29 billion in bonds the governor wants to put on the ballot to pay for courthouses, schools and dams -- the second phase of his "strategic growth plan" that would spend billions of dollars on roads but nothing on high-speed rail.
"In our plan that we put together, it didn't fit in," Schwarzenegger said in an interview last week. "It doesn't mean that it is not going to fit in in the future."
The electric-powered railroad would be similar to the bullet trains prevalent in Europe and other parts of the world.
Trains traveling up to 220 mph would speed the length of the state, zooming through the Central Valley with stops in Bakersfield, Fresno, Merced, Modesto, Stockton and Sacramento. An express trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles would take less than 2 1/2 hours.
Construction costs are estimated to approach $40 billion. But Morshed said the longer the state waits, the more expensive it will get.
Tracks dedicated to the system would, for the most part, be built next to existing tracks. More than 1,000 grade crossings -- where the railroad goes under or over roads -- are needed.
To build the crossings, the authority needs to secure rights of way. But that gets harder and more expensive each year, especially in high-growth areas like the Central Valley, where land is getting sucked up for other uses, Morshed said.
Next year, he said, $40 million is needed to start buying rights of way and $63 million for planning and engineering.
Though its future is in doubt, the authority is pushing forward. At a board meeting Monday, members authorized their staff to finalize three multiyear engineering contracts worth nearly $300 million.
Established in 1996, the authority has spent $30 million to plan the route and do environmental reviews, Morshed said. The authority's budget has $702,000 for salaries and benefits this year. Three full-time employees and one part-timer are on staff, with plans to hire three full-time staff members in the next month.
All that money would be wasted if the project were halted, board members said Monday.
"It would be an obscene extravagance if this investment of taxpayer money is simply ended," said board Chairman Quentin Kopp, a former state senator and San Mateo County judge.
To date, the Legislature has shown little zeal for the project. Rail bond ballot measures have been delayed twice, in 2004 and 2006. Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, D-Los Angeles, said he would be hesitant to push for another delay.
"I did say to folks that are very committed to the high-speed rail that I would work with them to see to it that we put it on the 2008 ballot," he said recently. "I think that it's the right thing to do."
High-speed rail lacks the "very powerful old lobby" of developers, carmakers and airlines that have driven the infrastructure debate, said state Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, a rail supporter whose mother, Fran Florez, sits on the nine-member rail authority board.
"Because people haven't seen (high-speed rail), touched it or ridden on it, most people, at least in the Legislature, they don't think it can be done," Florez said.
U.S. Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, who led the charge for rail while in the Legislature, said there is a misconception the project would benefit only the Valley. "This is far bigger than simply being a Valley train," he said. "This is a statewide, 700-mile system that would benefit over 80 percent of the state's population."
Consumer appetite could be growing. Intercity rail ridership, operated by Amtrak, jumped from 2.3 million in 1994-95 to 4.4 million in 2004-05, according to a report released Friday by the Legislative Analyst's Office.
The governor, though, has more immediate concerns.
"I feel that our roads are in such horrible shape -- the worst in the nation," he said. "We needed to fix the roads, we needed to expand the roads, we need to add lanes to our highways and freeways."