THE ISSUE: Voters in 2008 approved Proposition 1A the Safe, Reliable High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act for the 21st Century. The California Legislature must decide by June 30 whether to release $2.7 billion in voter-approved high-speed rail construction funds to begin construction on the first segment and take advantage of $3.5 billion in federal high-speed rail funds.
Should California abandon its high-speed rail project?
Pia Lopez: No
Of course, California should build the transportation network of the future, adding a high-speed rail option to complement car and air travel, reducing roadway and airway congestion and improving local passenger rail service.
California has the most congested urban interstate highways in the nation and a topography that leaves little room to expand. Ditto for our busy airports.
We know from American history that the beginnings of ambitious, risky transportation mega-projects are the hard part. For example, though they were widely ridiculed, a handful of Sacramento merchants in the midst of the Civil War committed themselves to lobby state and federal governments and private investors for a transcontinental railroad 1,500 miles over mountains and deserts.
The first miles were the toughest, as David Haward Bain recounts in "Empire Express": "Somehow 40 miles of track would have to be constructed as quickly as possible before federal aid would commence."
We find ourselves in a similar situation today.
That first 130 miles from south of Merced to north of Bakersfield would use $3.5 billion in committed federal funds with a deadline to start construction by the fall and $2.7 billion in state bond funds.
The full 800-mile system would take passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 2 hours and 40 minutes like the Paris-to-Brussels and Cologne-to-Frankfurt routes in Europe or the Tokyo-to-Nagoya route in Japan.
Mega-infrastructure projects require a long-term mindset. As Gov. Jerry Brown reminded The Bee's editorial board last week, the French medieval Chartres cathedral took more than a century to build a testament to a time when people were in the habit of investing in the future, not just in immediate gratification.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority has been responsive to legitimate concerns in the many critiques of its original plan.
For example, upgrades to Caltrain in the Bay Area and Metrolink in the Los Angeles basin would take place while the initial 130-mile segment in the Central Valley the 220-mph foundation for the system is built. Current 79 mph speeds at the urban bookends would be improved to 110 to 120 mph preparing for high-speed rail entrance.
Brown's first Proposition 1A capital outlay request is important. The usual skeptics will point out an obvious fact: federal and private funds are not yet available for the full 800-mile system. That's true for all mega-infrastructure projects.
Californians have a choice to accept risk or to go with what they know freeway and airway congestion. Highway lanes and runways cost more than high-speed rail.
Now is the time for legislators to decide the state's transportation future.
Pia Lopez is an editorial writer at The Bee.
Ben Boychuk: Yes
Four years ago, when almost nobody contemplated a housing collapse and recession, much less a looming pension and entitlement crisis that threatens to swamp city governments, high-speed rail enthusiasts spoke of a gleaming train that in 2020 would begin moving millions of Californians from L.A. to San Francisco at 220 miles per hour for just $45 billion.
Today, the price tag is closer to $117 billion, the project completion date has been pushed back 13 years, and the train may never ever get out of Fresno.
A legislatively mandated peer review of CHSRA's fanciful business plan estimated true operating costs from 2025 to 2060 could approach $97 billion, nearly three times the original estimate of $1 billion a year.
Turns out, practically every promise and prediction about California's bullet train from price to passenger estimates to potential profitability was an exaggeration, a prevarication or simply utopian speculation.
Now instead of building a true high-speed rail system, the High-Speed Rail Authority is talking about a more incremental, "blended approach" that would piggyback electrified trains on upgraded existing rail transit routes. The Legislative Analyst's Office in December warned that CHSRA's revised scheme might be illegal under Prop. 1A. It may also fall afoul of federal rules governing how states may spend stimulus money.
Pia is entirely too glib when she dismisses "the usual skeptics" and the "obvious fact" that billions in federal tax dollars and private investment aren't available for high-speed rail.
The truth is, that money is not forthcoming any time soon, if ever.
Under one version of the omnibus transportation now winding through Congress, high-speed rail isn't merely zeroed out. The House bill's language also bars California from using other federal money to shore up funding for the project.
Meanwhile, Treasurer Bill Lockyer whose job includes persuading Wall Street to buy $9.5 billion in bonds to pay for this boondoggle says there are "substantial unanswered questions about the project's funding, and until those questions are adequately answered, it's premature to take the plunge." Given the likely answer coming from Congress, it's no wonder investors are playing hard to get.
For too long, California policymakers have in fact chosen immediate gratification over long-term thinking. The result is hundreds of billions in unfunded liabilities, and, incidentally, a crumbling and underfunded freeway system that people actually use.
Given a chance, voters would repeal Prop. 1A tomorrow. But the decision needn't go to the ballot. The Legislature should derail this crazy train before it's too late.
Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's "City Journal." (www.city-journal.org/california)