Friday, November 4, 2011

Dan Walters of the Sacramento Bee, on the new California High-Speed Rail Business Plan

The reason for posting Dan Walters' column on the high-speed rail is because it is Dan Walters who, as we have said numerous times, is the elder statesman of political journalism in California, based in the State Capital. 

Usually, Mr. Walters is an acute observer of the train project and a critic of its politics and financial models intended to sustain it.  However, in this column while I have no disagreement with most of what he says, I do have reservations about the following conclusion: 

"The plan doesn't promise success, and it also doesn't over-commit the state. Its numbers seem to be much more realistic, and it appears to quiet at least some of the local opposition, especially on the San Francisco Peninsula."

Unlike Mr. Walters, having my ear to the Peninsula ground, I hear an even noisier uproar about this new plan. Various groups, official and otherwise, are raising many objections to the plan's numbers, the ridership ones being particularly egregious.  And the rising costs are evoking many "I told you so's." With this new plan, people are really becoming fed up.

I would go so far as to suggest that there is now great concurrence about the unacceptability of this project in its entirety, regardless of what the final route or alignments are.  It has become ever more apparent that the residents, citizens and community members of each of the towns along the Caltrain rail route on the Peninsula feel that they have been taken for a ride by the rail authority -- and it's not on a luxury train.  

It is now understood, better than ever, that this train may never be completed, and therefore should not be initiated.  We know that the ridership projections are grossly inflated for marketing purposes and that the new train ticket prices are artificially depressed as a projection, but when reality eventually sets in, they will be as high as they are in other HSR countries, the most expensive train tickets that one can buy. 

Nor will this train, despite it's persistent and grandiose promises, produce surplus revenue. But to the contrary, like most other HSR train systems, it will become a tax burden on the state and the taxpayers, requiring endless subsidies in order to operate. 

In short, I wish that Mr. Walters would have recognized that the Peninsula is more adamantly opposed to this rail project than ever.  As evidence of this claim, I suggest reviewing the recent output of various official organizations such as the Palo Alto City Council and its rail sub-committee, and that of citizens' organizations such as CARRD, CCHSR, and the others. 

And I hope that the Sacramento Bee Editorial position on this train project continues to affirm that of ours on the Peninsula. 

WALTERS: The passing track for high speed rail

By DAN WALTERS | Posted: Friday, November 4, 2011 5:00 am | No Comments Posted
From its inception, California's high-speed rail project had two troublesome aspects: It was a dreamy solution in search of a problem, and it could become a money pit draining taxpayers' money better spent on other, more cogent needs.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority, whose credibility had been shredded by countless missteps, unveiled a much-revised "business plan" Tuesday that largely deals with the money-pit issue.

It slows down and stretches out the construction schedule and merges the high-speed system with existing lower-speed commuter rail services in urban areas ---- thus mitigating at least some of the local opposition. And it promises to avoid open-ended financial commitments for construction or operational subsidies, even though the total cost has more than doubled from initial estimates.

Whether a 200-mph bullet train is a rational approach to California's transportation issues is still problematic, since local rush-hour congestion is the biggest problem. But at least the newly revised plan scales back the pie-in-the-sky ridership figures that the CHSRA was peddling, but no one was buying.

Gov. Jerry Brown appointed two advisers, Michael Rossi and Dan Richard, to the CHSRA board recently, and by all accounts, they rewrote much of the plan to deal with its many political and financial problems. CHSRA Chairman Tom Umberg called it "a new time, a new day and a new beginning."

The new version would still begin with a $6 billion, 130-mile section roughly between Fresno and Bakersfield, financed with a federal grant that specifies that route, evidently for local political reasons. It's been dubbed "a train to nowhere," and standing alone, that's not an inaccurate epithet.

Its fate depends on what would, or would not, happen next.

As envisioned, the next section would extend service either southward to the outskirts of Los Angeles or northward to San Jose. That looms as a major challenge because it would require an additional $20 billion, most likely from the federal government.

However, support for high-speed rail in Washington is scant outside the Obama White House.

The extension, the plan says, would make it an operational high-speed system that would generate enough ridership and fare revenue to pay its operational costs. And that track record, in theory, would entice private or foreign government investors to finance extension to San Francisco on the north and Anaheim on the south, and eventually to Sacramento and San Diego.

Will it all come to pass?

The plan doesn't promise success, and it also doesn't over-commit the state. Its numbers seem to be much more realistic, and it appears to quiet at least some of the local opposition, especially on the San Francisco Peninsula.

So we'll see.

DAN WALTERS writes for The Sacramento Bee. Contact him at

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