California High Speed Rail On Track In Spite Of Uncertainties

It should have been a moment of celebration; the recent vote by California lawmakers to back the first phase of a high speed rail line in the state.

The legislative vote, which was passed thanks to the support of Democrat senators and just signed into law by the state’s governor, will free up $8 billion for the first stage of an ambitious project that envisages trains traveling at 220 MPH on a route linking the San Francisco Bay Area with Los Angeles and San Diego, while passing through inland cities like Fresno. But the celebrations will be on hold for now.

high_speed_rail

image via California High Speed Rail Authority

Even in the office of California Governor Jerry Brown, who risked much political capital on the plan, the time for cracking open the champagne is still some way off.

Brown still has to convince detractors, and a California electorate feeling the impact of long-term recession, that the rail plan is a viable investment and not simply a costly white elephant.

Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA), told EarthTechling that the $8 billion figure comprises $4.7 billion from state bonds (raised after California voters approved creating $10 billion in bonds for the project in 2008) and a further $3.3 billion of federal money granted to the state by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Wilcox said that majority of the funding freed up by the senate vote – some $6 billion — will go towards the project’s first phase, construction on the system’s opening segment in the Central Valley. The remaining money will go towards improvements to the current rail network that will allow it to be integrated with the high-speed link when it comes on line. Those improvements include $600 million for the electrification of the Caltrain corridor in the San Francisco Bay Area.

But the recent injection of cash doesn’t make the realization of the railway a fait accompli. Although the numbers sound big, they need to get a lot bigger. The entire bill for the 800 miles of track linking California’s two most populace cities is estimated at about $68 billion.

With the financial burden of this set to be borne by the California taxpayer, critics of the plan say now is not the time. Recent media reports have stressed the heavy toll the economic downturn has had on ordinary Californians.

Joe Simitian, the Democrat Senator for Palo Alto, one of the only Democrats to vote against funding the rail network, said it was wrong that Californians should be asked to fund this massive public work at a time when the state is struggling with budget woes that have forced it to cut services.

Speaking in a state senate debate ahead of the vote Simitian, who initially backed the rail plan, said: “Any of us who talks to our folks knows that they’re asking the same questions. They’re saying, ‘Really? You made these cuts. We’re threatened with more. And you want to build a high-speed train?'”

With the exception of Simitian, opinion about the rail plan was split down predictable party lines  — all the Republican lawmakers voted ‘no.’ This reflects the ideological differences that continue to divide the two main parties: Fiscally conservative Republicans advocating that the country tighten its purse strings set against Democrats who see government investment in public works as a way to grow the economy out of recession.

Governor Brown, firmly in the last camp, called the senate vote “bold” and said work on the railway would help “get Californians back to work.” Other Democrats who supported the railway expressed the idea that they were investing in the state’s future and that this was too big a chance to let slip.

But even if its backers find the all funding, the raliway still faces a number of legal hurdles. The act just voted in requires a detailed funding plan, an accountability plan and environmental clearances for the entire project.

This last point could prove tricky since there are currently a dozen lawsuits pending, brought by agencies throughout the Central Valley against the CHSRA, which claim the railway will violate state environment laws.

It’s true, however, that all the controversy, especially the hand-wringing over cost, has distracted attention from the enormous gains the project will bring.

If all goes well, by 2033 California will boast North America’s first ever true high-speed rail network, capable of delivering commuters from L.A. to San Francisco in less than four hours.

Paul Willis has been journalist for a decade. Starting out in Northern England, from where he hails, he worked as a reporter on regional papers before graduating to the cut-throat world of London print media. On the way he spent a year as a correspondent in East Africa, writing about election fraud, drought and an Ethiopian version of American Idol. Since moving to America three years ago he has worked as a freelancer, working for CNN.com and major newspapers in Britain, Australia and North America. He writes on subjects as diverse as travel, media ethics and human evolution. He lives in New York where, in spite of the car fumes and the sometimes eccentric driving habits of the yellow cabs, he rides his bike everywhere.

    • Frustrated

      How can we go on spending on uncertainities while we see the realities of our education system crumbling before our eyes? How about using a portion of this big cat spending on creating ample water supplies for this state before it literally turns Brown? If the rail can go fast enough, one will never need to look at the blight between L.A and S.F.

    • This is the best idea California could have ever come up with.   Great!