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Rail line no silver bullet

December 24, 2007|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Six years ago on this date, I wrote that "California needs an electric train set for Christmas." Santa still hasn't come through.

I had in mind a big train set that's 700 miles long with locomotives barreling at 200 mph. A bullet train.

To be honest, I'm no longer as excited about it as I once was, anyway.

Turns out, as a Sacramentan, I wouldn't be allowed to use the train for a very long time. Neither would people in San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Modesto or Stockton.

We'd only get to watch from a distance as the bullet became the plaything of people in San Francisco, San Jose, Fresno, Bakersfield, Palmdale, Los Angeles and Anaheim.

San Diego and the Inland Empire were cut out of the action in May by the California High-Speed Rail Authority. Last week, Modesto, Stockton and Sacramento were excluded, at least for the foreseeable future.

This happened when the authority approved a Pacheco Pass route from the San Joaquin Valley to the Bay Area -- a path through rural Los Banos roughly 60 miles south of an alternative Altamont Pass line near fast-growing Tracy.

If the bullet line had been extended north to Tracy, it could also have served Modesto and Stockton. And then it might have been feasible to lay another 40 miles of track to the state capital.

But the Pacheco Pass route was more direct to San Francisco, less expensive and a detour around environmental slow-downs.

We outcasts in Sacramento, San Bernardino and San Diego are being told that we'll not be forgotten. The 420-mile Anaheim-to-San Francisco route will be built first. And after it's up and running on time with full cars, the "second phase" of the 700-mile line will be constructed.

When will that be? Mumble, mumble.

"Whenever there is money to do it," says Mehdi Morshed, executive director of the rail authority.

Besides, he adds, "even if we had all the money in the world we can't build everything at once."

Not surprisingly, seven of the nine authority board members live near the rail route they chose, four of them in the Bay Area.

But regardless of who gets to use this electric train, we'll all be paying for it. Because there is no Santa Claus for bullet train gifts.

Santa is you and me and all taxpayers -- state and federal -- plus, it's hoped, some private investors.

The plan is to place a $10-billion state bond issue on the November ballot next year. The bond would provide seed money for the $30-billion Anaheim-to-San Francisco line.

But that bond vote has been scheduled twice previously, in 2004 and 2006, and delayed by politicians who had higher priorities -- principally a $37-billion public works package last year. Chief among the delayers was Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who now seems amenable to a public vote for high-speed rail, which he professes to favor.

The governor, however, places a much higher priority on repairing and expanding California's broken water system. There's bound to be an $11-billion-plus water bond on the crowded ballot, and perhaps a proposed tax increase for healthcare expansion.

Meanwhile, government services are expected to be severely cut as Sacramento attempts to fill a $14-billion budget gap.

So the question is just how much more borrowing will Californians stomach, especially for a flashy train that's routed to bypass millions of voters?

But the governor and virtually everyone else in the Capitol realize that it's time to either vote or forget it.

"If it's postponed again, it's gone," says authority chairman Quentin Kopp, a former legislator and retired San Mateo County Superior Court judge. "All the momentum would stop. People would forget the possibilities, disregard it, debase it."

The benefits of a bullet train are appealing: an alternative to oppressive, stifling airports. A 2 1/2 hour comfortable ride from L.A. to San Francisco for $55, half the cost of a plane ticket. No dodging wannabe NASCAR drivers on daredevil freeways. Clean transportation.

"Look at the facts," Kopp says. "I don't think you're ever going to build another freeway in California much less a new airport. You can't expand airports."

Assemblyman Dave Jones (D-Sacramento) articulates the other side: "I'm disappointed about the route, but there's a bigger question about our ability to afford this in the first place. For a lot less money, we could make significant improvements in regional rail systems."

If the bond passes in November, the next step will be to seek federal matching funds. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is a fan of train travel and has pledged to help. But $10 billion is a lot of federal largesse for California, especially while George Bush remains president.

If federal money can be lined up, the rail authority hopes to secure private investment.

Schwarzenegger lately has been promoting public-private partnerships -- or "P3" as he calls it. The governor intends to seek legislation next year providing public-private partnership power to all government entities.

"This is where the action is," Schwarzenegger told an economic conference in Long Beach last week. "A lot of money is out there in the private sector. . . . It's the only way we're going to raise that kind of money and really rebuild California fully."

One thing that's getting Schwarzenegger revved up about high-speed rail is the opportunities for public-private partnerships. He placed his P3 guru, retired investment banker David Crane, on the authority board.

"In order to get the private sector in, it's going to need confidence that the project can actually be built," Crane says.

There'd be a much better chance of winning public support for state bond financing if so many voters weren't being left on the station platform. Building the entire project at once would cost another $10 billion -- but require boosting the bond size to only around $13 billion.

Seems if a train set is going to be bought, everyone should get to play.


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