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Lack of Money Threatens to Slow State's High-Speed Rail Plans

The California High-Speed Rail Authority finds itself living something of a double life these days.

Created by the Legislature in 1996 to develop a plan for building, operating and financing an intercity, high-speed rail system, the authority has received great interest since the September 11 terrorist attacks. A month earlier, former Santa Clara Supervisor Rod Diridon, one of the state's loudest voices for rail transit, took over as head of the authority's board. Gov. Gray Davis appointed Diridon to the board in June.

At the same time that momentum appears to be building, the authority is going broke. This fiscal year, it requested a budget of $14 million. It received only $1 million � not even enough to keep the agency's doors open for a full 12 months. The authority has grabbed a few million dollars from Caltrans and from earlier bond funds. But with the state facing a fiscal year 2002-03 deficit estimated at $12 billion, there is little reason to see a brighter budget future for the rail agency, which already has a December 2003 sunset date.

Prior to the September 11 terrorist attacks, high-speed rail was something of a pipe dream for train buffs. The authority estimated that constructing a 700-mile-long system linking San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento would cost $25 billion � more than the cost of every serious California airport expansion project combined. But when the nation's airports closed for three days in mid-September, people learned how few travel options existed.

"We're hamstrung when one element of our system breaks down," Diridon said.

More than two months after the attack, the number of air passengers remains approximately 10% to 20% below pre-September 11 levels. Analysts are unsure if this drop is an aberration or a permanent shift in travel patterns.

Geoffrey Gosling, a research engineer at the University of California, Berkeley, Institute of Transportation Studies, said data that become available this month and next should tell experts a great deal. Holiday air travel is not something that can be postponed to a more convenient time. So if those numbers are down, the decreased demand on what had been an overburdened air system could be considered permanent, he said.

There is no doubt that interest in high-speed rail travel blossomed on September 12. The nation's lone high-speed line � Amtrak's Acera service between Boston and Washington D.C. � immediately attracted twice as many passengers as before. In Congress, Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, introduced a $71 billion national high-speed rail bill.

"There has been a very noticeable increase in interest, not just from the media, but from the general public," said Dan Leavitt, deputy director of the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

Since its creation five years ago, the authority has settled on approximate corridors for a train that could travel 200 mph. The train would run on dedicated rail lines through the Central Valley, while it would probably share existing, upgraded rails in urban areas, Leavitt said. Significant portions of the system could be complete in 10 years, with the entire system in place by 2020, Leavitt projected.

The agency has accumulated a huge amount of data and is in the midst of preparing environmental impact reports for portions of the 700-mile-long route, Leavitt said. But the authority needs about $20 million more to complete the necessary planning and first tier environmental work.

State Sen. Jim Costa (D-Fresno), who authored the bill creating the authority, has pushed to add funding. Diridon said he has received numerous inquiries from state and federal lawmakers who want to provide more money.

"It's like the cavalry coming over the hill," Diridon said. "They are asking us why we are moving so slowly."

So far, the authority has not picked up more funding. But Diridon, director of the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University, said he intends to use every trick he knows to get money flowing to the authority.

Diridon, Leavitt, Costa and other believers say high-speed rail is vital for California. Because of population growth and limitations on increased automobile and air capacity, California is facing a future transportation crisis, Leavitt said.

"We have the world's finest freeway system, and we have the world's finest air transport system. But with the exception of [Amtrak's] Northeast Corridor, we have not invested in intercity rail," Leavitt said.

Every other western country has, or is building, a high-speed rail system. "I think we're catching up with the rest of the world," Diridon said.

While train diehards are sure of high-speed rail's benefits, others are not sold. Marlon Boarnet, a professor at UC Irvine's Department of Urban and Regional Planning, concedes that he is not convinced.

"Before September 11, I was quite skeptical about high-speed rail," Boarnet said. "Could it compete with high-frequency air shuttle service? I think one of the questions out there now is whether the economics of air travel have been permanently changed."

A 1998 study by David Levinson, then with UC Berkeley's transportation institute and now a professor at University of Minnesota, found that the cost of air travel between San Francisco and Los Angeles is about half the cost of automobile or high-speed rail travel. The study accounted for infrastructure, fuel and vehicle costs, as well as social costs such as accidents, noise and air pollution.

"[T]he most cost effective high-speed rail configuration in California would be as an alternative to highway, rather than air, transportation," Levinson wrote. "Any new high-speed rail line should complement rather than compete with air transportation. Perhaps design alternatives that favor shorter distance markets (such as Los Angeles-San Diego or San Francisco-Sacramento) would be more advantageous."

While those 100-mile trips would certainly be part of the system, high-speed rail backers emphasize the desire to provide 2 1/2-hour service between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and between Los Angeles and Sacramento. They argue that a 2 1/2-hour trip from downtown to downtown makes high-speed rail very competitive in the marketplace with air travel.

But Boarnet, of UCI, wonders how many of the people traveling from the Bay Area to metropolitan Los Angeles really need to get from downtown San Francisco to Union Station in Los Angeles. Most people's trip would not be over, he said.

Not surprisingly, supporters and skeptics also differ on whether a high-speed rail system could operate without a subsidy.

Despite its lack of money and a staff that can be counted on one hand, the High-Speed Rail Authority continues to plug along. During its November meeting, the board settled on alignments and station locations for further investigation in four corridors: Bay Area to Merced, Bakersfield to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to San Diego via Riverside, and Los Angeles to San Diego via Orange County. The board could decide on preferred alignments and station locations for the Sacramento-to-Bakersfield line as soon as January.

Importantly, the board in November also settled on a system where trains traverse steel tracks. The board dismissed a proposal for magnetic levitation trains, which have gone more than 300 mph in tests overseas but have not been put to wide use yet.

 

Contacts:

Dan Leavitt, California High-Speed Rail Authority, (916) 324-1541.

Rod Diridon, High-Speed Rail Authority, and Mineta Transportation Institute, (408) 924-7560.

Geoffrey Gosling, UC Berkeley Institute of Transportation Studies, (510) 642-9064.

Marlon Boarnet, UC Irvine Department of Urban and Regional Planning, (949) 824-7695.

High-Speed Rail Authority website: www.cahighspeedrail.ca.gov

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