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'Train To Nowhere' Might Derail High-Speed Dreams

Twenty years from now, while we scoot up and down the state on 200 mph trains, we could look back on the current "train to nowhere" episode and laugh at the furor over the project's starting point.

Or, twenty years from now, as we crawl up and down Interstate 5 and Highway 99 in bumper-to-bumper traffic, we could look back on the "train to nowhere" episode and cry over a decision that killed high-speed rail's chance of ever succeeding.

Or, twenty years from now, we may simply look back at the "train to nowhere" episode and smile, comfortable that we never sent tens of billions of dollars down that rat hole.

As you probably know, the California High-Speed Rail Authority board last week decided to build the first section of the proposed 800-mile system on a 65-mile stretch from the outskirts of Madera to Corcoran. The appointed state board was under pressure from the Obama Administration and Congress to start building ASAP in the Central Valley or face losing nearly $3 billion in federal funding.

The authority has received harsh criticism for the decision, and the authority's defense has not helped reduce the vitriol and confusion. On one had, officials say the 65-mile stretch is nothing more than an easy place to start building and will never be a stand-alone route.

"It's not about the first 100 yards, the first mile or even the first 50 miles," said Roelof van Ark, the authority's CEO. "It's about the finish line – building the nation's first true high-speed rail system, connecting California's great cities."

On the other hand, authority board members and some locals have protested that a line connecting Madera and Tulare counties with stops in downtown Fresno and Hanford does go somewhere.

"The Central Valley is not nowhere," board member Lynn Schenk told Greenwire.

What's more, the authority is working on a federally mandated backup plan, in which the new tracks could be used for conventional Amtrak service if the high-speed system never materials – a move that further undercuts the first argument.

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Update: On Monday, December 20, the High-Speed Rail Authority board voted unanimously to extend the first phase about 55 miles southward from Corcoran to the north edge of Bakersfield. The extension was made possible in part by $616 million in additional federal funds, which became available when Ohio and Wisconsin shelved plans for their own high-speed rail systems. Exactly how far into Bakersfield the rail line will reach remains undetermined. The 55-mile extension will require the Legislature's consent to release state bond funds to match the federal grant.


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It's true that the state has to start building the proposed, 800-mile, high-speed train route somewhere. But even pretending that the 65-mile line through farm fields could provide legitimate service is problematic. It is a train to nowhere, and high-speed rail proponents know it.

"The decision to spend $4.3 billion on an isolated 65-mile stretch of track in the sparsely populated Central Valley, far removed from any large population concentration, could instead become a huge embarrassment for the [Obama] Administration," wrote Ken Orski, editor and publisher of Innovation NewsBriefs and a high-speed rail believer. "If Congress fails to authorize further funds to extend the line – a highly likely possibility in a Republican-controlled House of Representatives  – the project will end up truly as  ‘a high-speed train to nowhere.' Like Alaska's ‘bridge to nowhere,' the Central Valley rail line will become a target of jokes and ridicule, and a symbol  of wasteful government spending on a project that makes little common sense to the average citizen."

Orski is saying that the California board's decision could be so bad that it forces a premature end to the federal government's high-speed rail initiative.

Richard Tolmach, president of the nonprofit California Rail Foundation, has been a frequent critic of the authority despite his support of high-speed rail. During a hearing before the authority board formally chose the Madera to Corcoran segment, Tolmach told the board it would become "a laughingstock in Congress."

If this is what high-speed rail advocates are saying, it's no wonder that project skeptics and opponents are beside themselves. The Sacramento Bee's Dan Walters, who has never jumped aboard the high-speed rail plan, called the train to nowhere a crazy, pork-barrel project intended to bolster the re-election bid Fresno Congressman Jim Costa (he barely won).

High-ranking House Republicans from California who have opposed the project from the outset are not laughing. Rather, they are demanding the federal government get back its money before it's spent.

The authority might be in a no-win situation. If it doesn't start building the project somewhere by 2012, it could lose $2 billion in economic stimulus money from the federal government. And if it doesn't start building in the Central Valley, it could lose another $715 million federal grant. Furthermore, Central Valley segments will be the easiest to build because they traverse mostly wide-open spaces.

But when California voters approved a $9.95 billion bond for the project in 2008, I'm quite sure they were not envisioning a system that serves the farm towns or even the mid-sized cities of the San Joaquin Valley. During the campaign, the project was presented as a way to move people quickly between the Bay Area and Metropolitan Southern California. If the authority had chosen Merced to San Jose, or Bakersfield to Burbank as the first segment, there would be no discussion of a train to nowhere. The short first segment could provide legitimate service to housing and employment centers, and function as an advertisement for the rest of the project.

Since the 2008 campaign, we have learned that the High-Speed Rail Authority's passenger forecasts were inflated and that project construction will cost a great deal more than earlier estimated. In addition, residents of cities on the Peninsula have raised hard questions about the impact of bullet trains flying through the middle of their communities.

In other words, California's high-speed rail project could use bolstering right about now. Building the first segment from a dairy to a state prison doesn't help at all.

– Paul Shigley

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