Dan Walters

Late-blooming measure would fast-track bullet train’s ‘bookends’

A Palo Alto commuter boards Caltrain in San Jose before it heads to San Francisco. The commuter system, which has been merged into the state bullet-train project, is diesel-powered but Caltrain is pushing for electrification.
A Palo Alto commuter boards Caltrain in San Jose before it heads to San Francisco. The commuter system, which has been merged into the state bullet-train project, is diesel-powered but Caltrain is pushing for electrification. San Jose Mercury News file

Years ago, when the details of California’s bullet train project were being refined, it became evident that it was really two projects.

One was the much-touted, 200 mph bullet train itself that was supposed to whisk passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco in a mere 160 minutes.

The other, much less public but important to powerful interest groups, was upgrading commuter rail service in Southern California and between San Francisco and San Jose.

Initially, they were to be on separate tracks, so to speak, even though some insiders believed that the $9.95 billion bullet train bond issue’s real purpose was improving commuter rail for the two regions.

Eventually, the bullet train and commuter rail projects were formally merged by the High-Speed Rail Authority into a “blended system” under which the two would share tracks, rather than merely sharing corridors. It was a way, it was said, to hold down costs and placate opponents on the affluent San Francisco Peninsula.

The commuter rail projects were dubbed “the bookends” and, with the merger, the state is planning to spend at least $1.1 billion on them, including electrification of the diesel-powered Caltrain that links San Francisco and San Jose.

However, having been folded into the overall bullet train project, they also share its legal and financial challenges.

A big one is a provision of the 2008 bond issue, underscored by a subsequent appellate court ruling, that an “independent consultant” must certify that the project meets all the bond issue’s legal criteria before a “final funding plan” is approved.

It’s highly doubtful that the bullet train can meet those criteria, particularly the 160-minute running time between San Francisco and Los Angeles, even if the state somehow cobbles together enough money to build a useable segment. And that doubt could doom the bookends as well, since they are now part of the overall system.

Backers of the $2 billion Caltrain electrification project are especially eager to proceed and see its connection to the troubled bullet train as a potential albatross. Therefore, they and Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, D-South San Francisco, are pushing a late-blooming “gut-and-amend” bill to allow the bookends to get bond money and be built without certification by an independent consultant.

Late last month, the bill was rushed through the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, whose chairman, Jim Beall, is from San Jose and a strong proponent of electrification.

The only Democrat to oppose it was Sen. Cathleen Galgiani of Manteca, the Legislature’s chief bullet train advocate, who worried aloud that Assembly Bill 1889 would allow ancillary projects to drain bullet train bond money.

Some critics say AB 1889 may violate the 2008 bond issue, but even if it’s a legal change, it indicates that those who suspected that the bookends were the major reasons for the bond may have been correct.

Meanwhile, without waiting for the bill to pass, Caltrain’s board awarded more than $1 billion in electrification contracts last week.

  Comments