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Still no straight route to confidence in bullet train

It's hard to know if this is perhaps the last, best chance to develop high-speed rail in California or just daydreamers playing with our money.

November 03, 2011|George Skelton | Capitol Journal

From Sacramento — Let's be straight up: I don't know squat about building a railroad, whether high-speed or chug-chug.

And I wouldn't have a clue about how to run a train and turn a profit.

So the new substantially altered "business plan" for the proposed California bullet train leaves me asking: Is this actually doable, or is it still a probable boondoggle?

I'm skeptical.

Sometimes the best business plan is to just pull the plug. Cut the losses. So far, only roughly $500 million of the $9.95 billion in bullet train bonds approved by voters three years ago have been sold.

"If this were a private venture, I would guarantee you the company would say this has gone past the point of making any sense," San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts asserted, according to the Associated Press.

Roberts is upset because San Diego has been sidetracked from the high-speed line for the foreseeable future, as has Sacramento. Check again in a few decades.

The first phase of this project is about bulleting from Anaheim and Los Angeles up through the San Joaquin Valley to San Francisco.

And even after Tuesday's rollout of the 230-page revision many of us are left asking: Is this perhaps the last, best chance to develop high-speed rail in California? Or is it just daydreaming politicians and special interests gleefully playing with someone else's money — ours?

It's hard to know what to believe.

In 2008 when this was on the ballot, voters were told that the completed project — including service to San Diego and Sacramento — would cost about $45 billion. Supplementing the nearly $10 billion in state bonds would be federal grants and private investments.

The first phase — San Francisco to Anaheim — would cost $33 billion and be completed in 2020.

Now we're told that was all wrong. Actually, the cost of the first phase alone has tripled to $98.5 billion. The completion date has been delayed until 2033. There's $3 billion in federal money available but no more on the horizon. And no private investors are in sight. They want to see passengers actually buying tickets.

One tipoff that the original plan was flawed should have been the ballot measure's official title, crafted by the Legislature using happy words gleaned from focus groups: "Safe, Reliable, High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act."

A 53% majority of voters bought it.

That was then, this is now, the California High-Speed Rail Authority assures us. The project is under new management. Trust us.

I'm trying.

Do credit Gov. Jerry Brown. He shook up the rail board and put on some transportation and finance experts, replacing members whose primary agenda was to bring the bullet train to their home towns.

The new board is deservedly being praised for attempting to develop credible numbers.

"At least I think they're trying to be honest with us now for the first time," says state Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), chairman of the Senate high-speed rail committee. "I feel they're trying to put out a professional product."

The board also is being heralded for backing off the pie-in-the-sky, politically improbable notion of sending elevated bullet trains through urban areas,

especially the wealthy Silicon Valley neighborhoods of the San Francisco Peninsula.

Under the new plan, the bullet would be blended with the existing Metrolink network in Southern California and the Caltrain system in the Bay Area.

"It was wasteful to build a duplicative train system," says state Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), a project skeptic who has argued for "baby bullets" in urban areas. He called the new plan "good news" but said he's still not totally sold on the project's financing.

It will be the Legislature's decision whether to appropriate any bond money.

For me, it has always made more sense to spend the bucks on baby bullets up and down the state. Upgrade tracks to allow passenger trains to roll at 100 mph, rather than the bullet's 220 mph. Improve commuter, intercity and statewide service, returning us to the marvelous California train travel that graced the state before jets and interstates.

But this isn't futuristic enough for Brown, although he preaches that we should "live within our means." Arnold Schwarzenegger held the same paradoxical view, advocating that we spend boldly on a bullet train as the state went broke.

Brown uncharacteristically tossed caution overboard in unequivocally embracing the new plan. He immediately proclaimed that the "project will create hundreds of thousands of jobs … avoiding the huge problems of massive airport and highway expansion [and] is solid."

Frankly, he touched on one of the more unconvincing arguments for building a bullet train: that it will create jobs.

There are many public works projects that could create jobs. The state is sitting on billions of unused infrastructure bonds that could provide financing. But the projects need to be worthwhile and cost-efficient.

I'd still like to know why anyone would ride a bus or drive to Bakersfield to catch a bullet train to San Jose. Or — in the other direction — go to Fresno to hop on a bullet for the San Fernando Valley. One of those legs will be chosen by the rail board to be built first. The board predicts there'll be so much profit that private investors will leap aboard.

But first the board needs to build the initial leg from Fresno to Bakersfield. Cost: $6 billion.

This is still a tough sell for me. But the Legislature probably will buy in again. Labor covets the project.

There are some smart people in charge now. And they'd better be right. Their credibility is at stake. So is our money.

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