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A rational approach to rail

New priorities — start in urban areas, build on what's in place — could propel the bullet train.

February 06, 2012|George Skelton | Capitol Journal
  • Metrolink trains fill Union Station. The governor has promised therell be state money for Metrolink, presumably to pay for upgrades. He talked about laying a high-speed line from Bakersfield to Palmdale and linking it with Metro.
Metrolink trains fill Union Station. The governor has promised therell… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )

From Sacramento — California's proposed bullet train is being recalibrated. And designers may finally be on the right track.

Sensitive to growing public and political opposition, high-speed rail officials seem to be coming to a rational conclusion: It makes good sense to begin service ASAP in urban areas where people might actually ride the trains.

Construction still would start next fall in the rural San Joaquin Valley, the thinking goes. But simultaneously there'd be major upgrades to conventional lines in the Los Angeles and San Francisco regions.

Those upgrades would amount to initial blending of the Southern California Metrolink and Bay Area Caltrain systems into the ultimate 500-mile high-speed rail line from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

By using existing right-of-way and accelerating construction — therefore reducing future inflationary costs — the state can lower the price tag from the current jaw-dropping estimate of $98.5 billion, triple what voters were told when they approved the project in 2008. At least that's the theory.

Gov. Jerry Brown, the bullet train's most enthusiastic supporter, hinted at the changes in an interview with KABC-TV in Los Angeles on Jan. 29. Calling the nearly $100-billion tag "silly," he insisted: "That's way off…. It's going to be a lot cheaper."

We'll be anxiously awaiting the governor's new figure. It could be unveiled along with the project's redesign in a few weeks.

So far, only about $13 billion in financing has been identified: roughly $9.5 billion in state bond authorization and $3.3 billion in federal grants.

The feds are insisting that all their money be spent in the Central Valley, contending now's the best time to buy land there. Also, the initial 130-mile flat stretch over farm fields will be a good place to test the 220-mph bullets, even if there aren't many riders between Fresno and Bakersfield.

Brown in the TV interview for the first time talked about augmenting available rail funds with cap-and-trade fees the state plans to collect from industry in its controversial effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The governor has penciled in $1 billion from such fees in his latest budget proposal. Cap-and-trade "will be a source of funding going forward in high-speed rail," he asserted.

The governor also promised there'll be state money for Metrolink and Caltrain, presumably to pay for upgrades. He talked about laying a high-speed line from Bakersfield to Palmdale and linking it with Metro.

"I'm trying to redesign it in a way that, in and of itself, will be justified," he said, presumably meaning that if the money well runs dry, what already has been built will be useful.

In truth, Brown just wants to build a bullet train — any bullet train, anywhere — to burnish his legacy. OK, he's also a visionary and definitely not a "declinist," the governor's new word.

The man who really knows what's going on is Dan Richard, a former Bay Area transit official, retired utility executive, infrastructure financier and the governor's handpicked new chairman of the state High-Speed Rail Authority.

"It would be beneficial — and not just politically — to find ways to advance [rail] investment in the urban areas," he says. "It makes sense, but we don't want to get into fights about taking money from the valley."

Richard says he has been negotiating with Southern California officials for a $1-billion package of Metrolink upgrades between Los Angeles and Palmdale. The locals also would have to put up money, he says.

In the Bay Area, there's discussion about upgrading — even electrifying — train service along the peninsula between San Francisco and San Jose.

"We're looking at ways to make the first steps of the project more usable," Richard says.

One smart thing would be to junk the proposed tracks from San Jose south to Gilroy and east over the sparsely populated Pacheco Pass to Merced.

Reroute the line through the densely populated East Bay over the Altamont Pass into fast-growing Stockton, hooking up to tracks headed north to Sacramento and south to Merced. Pick up some political support and paying riders.

The proposed Altamont route previously was rejected by the rail authority in favor of the Pacheco routing. But the agency's new management is trying to make the project more practical and popular. Example: the recent scrapping of a possible Grapevine route and choosing the Palmdale link.

All this is urgent in Brown's view because he's asking the Legislature, by June, to appropriate the initial big chunk of bond funds, $2.7 billion, to start the valley track-laying. Urban upgrading presumably would cost more.

There's much skepticism about the project's financing — and loud demand that urban residents get an early crack at riding the speedy rails.

State Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), chairman of the Senate High-Speed Rail Committee, says of Brown and the bullet train honchos: "They were tone deaf. Now they're finally beginning to hear the music."

"I think it's wonderful he wants to do this. But show us the means," Lowenthal continues. "I'm into listening, but I haven't seen anything. I just hear from the governor, 'Stay tuned.'

"I'm a supporter, but I'm not going over a cliff."

Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), who sits on the Senate transportation and high-speed rail panels, long has advocated much of the redesign that's in the works.

"If the authority and administration are nimble enough to put a carefully crafted proposal before the Legislature, we're open to hearing it," Simitian says. "But it'll be tough. This is a pretty big ship to turn in a matter of months."

Richard says there's "a pretty big attitude change" at the agency.

Maybe he can turn a boondoggle into a boon.

It's worth watching.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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