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July 2, 2008 > Amber light for high speed rail

Amber light for high speed rail

Senate committee report raises questions, voters left to decide

By Aditya Anand
Photos By NC3D

1997 saw the birth of the high speed rail project in California. A vision for the future, the project called for train service that could traverse the state at a 220 mph clip, connecting far flung cities of the state. With the development of a train that could link metropolitan Los Angeles to San Francisco in less than two and a half hours, California would finally join Japan and Europe at the forefront of high-tech infrastructure.

Eleven years of planning the California high speed rail service have revealed many risks and benefits of the project. Since current plans require a sizable investment, officials have placed the decision of whether the project should continue to receive funding in the hands of the public. The final decision to "make or break" the project will be made through a business proposition for voters slated for this November's ballot.

The proposed bond measure, if passed, would grant $9.95 billion to the California High Speed Rail Authority, an independent organization in charge of the venture. Furthermore, it would authorize the construction of a high speed train service in California to be completed by 2020.

The high speed rail project, if approved, would be implemented in two phases. The first phase, a rail connection between Anaheim, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, is estimated to cost $33 billion. The second phase, an extension north to Sacramento and south to San Diego, is expected to add an additional $7 billion in expenditures.

According to Senator Alan Lowenthal, Chair of the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, "The immediate challenge for the Authority is to demonstrate to voters how the $9.95 billion in bonds on the November ballot can generate the $33 billion necessary for the project's first phase."

An official report issued by the committee on June 5 echoes Senator Lowenthal's concerns. Based on two high speed rail oversight hearings held in December 2007 and January 2008, the report cautions that current funds from private and government sources may not cover all the costs.

A list of findings from the committee report raises more cause for concern: Since 1997 the Authority has spent $58 billion in just the planning stages. Due to construction cost inflation (estimates are now $15 billion higher than the initial plan), the purchasing power of the Authority has declined, resulting in a scaling back of the rail system. Moreover, the report claims that the Authority's strategy for the funding of high speed rail service lacks clarity. The report concludes that, if voters are to be well informed, "greater financial transparency and accountability" is required from the Authority before November elections. Legislative action has been suggested.

Despite current financial troubles, the advantages of constructing a high speed rail system cannot be underestimated. With high speed rail, customers could travel up and down the state at a price 50% to 70% of comparable airfare. Passengers between Fresno and Los Angeles would save an estimated 29 minutes in travel time, and travelers from Los Angeles to San Diego would save 44 minutes. Although most travel is expected to occur in Southern California, the link between Los Angeles and San Francisco is projected to relieve some of the effects of traffic in the Central Valley, congestion in urban Los Angeles, and insufficient gate capacity at California airports in the future.

High speed rail is also expected to exceed environmental transportation standards. According to Governor Schwarzenegger, "High-speed trains offer improvements to our air quality and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions." As a form of public transportation, high speed rail would also reduce the number of individual vehicles traveling throughout the state.

Notwithstanding current concerns, Governor Schwarzenegger maintains that the "promise of high speed rail is incredible." Although there have been delays and costs in the process of upgrading California infrastructure, the development high speed rail is a step in the right direction.

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