Viewpoints: Here’s a better high-speed rail plan that California can afford

In a remarkably candid interview in the Sept. 9 Sacramento Business Journal, California High-Speed Rail Authority CEO Jeff Morales admits that a straight-shot line from San Francisco to Los Angeles could conceivably have been built privately.

He notes dismissively that such a line “would have bypassed all those population centers” in the Central Valley and Antelope Valley. All those population centers, however, constitute less than 10 percent of California’s population. So why would the authority plan to build a route through these cities at enormous cost, if they don’t have that many potential passengers?

The answer is simple: These cities contain huge swaths of vacant land perfect for sprawl development. Morales unwittingly disclosed how the authority has changed the fundamental nature of the project: What had been sold as a self-sustaining profitable business has morphed into crony capitalism with generous government support.

Adding 100 miles of detours to serve favored land parcels will waste tens of billions of dollars. It will harm high-speed rail’s competitiveness with air travel, and require faster speeds, which use much more energy.

Besides the massive undisclosed subsidy to developers, the current plan cannot possibly work financially. There’s no conceivable source for the $26 billion shortfall for a line just to get from Merced to the San Fernando Valley. Neither federal nor private investment is forthcoming. Cap-and-trade revenue cannot fill the gap, either, even if that proposal survives a legal challenge.

The burning desire to spend its $6 billion in and near Fresno led the authority to play fast and loose with the requirements of Proposition 1A, the 2008 high-speed rail bond. Two courts have ruled that the authority failed to meet bond measure requirements.

The Train Riders Association of California believes that the authority has no prospects for building a larger system. That’s why achieving a working high-speed rail line in California will require discarding the current wasteful plan.

The state needs a much less costly plan, built around private investment, which benefits passengers now – not 20 years in the future. Here’s what our association proposes:

• Spend federal stimulus money to upgrade the existing Amtrak corridor between Sacramento and Bakersfield to 110 mph. That would provide fast service up and down the San Joaquin Valley, without noise to cities and disruption to agriculture that the current project would bring. The mission to connect these population centers to the rest of the state could be accomplished by spending a tiny fraction of the planned $6 billion.

• Use cap-and-trade funds to upgrade the San Diego-Los Angeles Amtrak corridor to 110 mph. These investments in the state-subsidized Amtrak system will provide significant improvements in mobility at an affordable cost. San Joaquin Valley residents would be able to board in Fresno, for example, and disembark in Los Angeles or San Francisco less than three hours later, without changing trains. Existing stations would continue to be served by Amtrak, with tickets that cost much less than high-speed rail.

• Create an open bidding process for private investment in high-speed rail. We believe that experienced operators should direct the development of new routes. Past interest by operators suggests that access from Bakersfield to Los Angeles via the Grapevine is far superior to the authority-proposed detour through the Mojave Desert via Palmdale. Similarly, operators are likely to prefer access to the Bay Area via Altamont Pass, rather than Pacheco, as that route would add significant revenue from Sacramento.

We are concerned that the current approach will fail miserably, making it politically impossible to ever improve rail service in California. We want rail to succeed and become an essential part of the state’s transportation system.