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Calif. budget crisis threatens to derail high-speed rail project

(The Associated Press distributed the following article on May 17.)

SACRAMENTO -- Californiaís high-speed rail project seems to be stuck on a siding, held up by a shortage of money to complete an environmental review and by disagreement over when to ask voters to approve nearly $10 billion in bonds to begin construction.

Thereís also considerable debate over where the speedy trains should run.

"Itís on some level of life support," says Richard Silver, executive director of the Rail Passenger Association of California, a rail advocacy group. "Thereís no one thing thatís killing or injuring it. Itís an accumulation of different things that are all conspiring against it."

The California projectís problems come as Florida Gov. Jeb Bush tries to sidetrack a voter-mandated high-speed rail project in his state and rail advocates search for a reliable source of federal funding for high-speed and "intermediate-speed" trains in several areas of the country.

The 700-mile, $30 billion-plus California project seemed to be off and running in September 2002 when then-Gov. Gray Davis signed legislation putting a $9.95 billion bond measure on the November 2004 ballot.

Sale of the bonds would provide about half of the funds needed to build the first leg of the project, from San Francisco to Los Angeles through the San Joaquin Valley. Supporters envision the rest of the money coming from the federal government or private investors. Later segments would stretch the line to San Diego and Sacramento.

But since that September 2002 bill-signing ceremony the project and the state have been beset by money problems.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority, the agency overseeing planning for the bullet trains, is $720,000 short of the amount needed to complete an environmental impact report, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzeneggerís Department of Finance is refusing to authorize boosting the budget to pay for it.

The state itself is battling multi-billion-dollar budget deficits, and in March voters approved a $15 billion bond measure to ease the stateís cash-flow problems.

Thatís raised concerns that voters wonít be in the mood to plunge the state deeper into debt by approving the rail bonds in November.

"At this point it seems like all the parties -- most of the parties -- agree that it should be put off," says Sen. Kevin Murray, the Culver City Democrat who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee.But thereís disagreement over whether the proposal should be moved to the ballot in 2006 or 2008.

The Schwarzenegger administration is backing legislation that would delay the vote until November 2008, saying other transportation projects have a higher priority.

But putting the vote off that far into the future would raise the cost of the project and force planners to redo or upgrade environmental studies, critics say. Also, some potential routes and station sites might no longer be available by then.

"2008 is just so far in the future you almost have to start all over again," says Silver.

Murray has a bill that would postpone the vote until 2006, but he says heís not wedded to that date. He says lawmakers have to figure out when the proposal is most likely to pass and when the state can afford to pay the interest on the bonds.

"I think there is bipartisan support for the project in general, but it is about timing," he says. "We just have to figure out when is the best time."

Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, a project supporter, says that if lawmakers agree to postpone the vote until 2008 Schwarzenegger should promise to support the funding needed to update the environmental reviews and agree to campaign for the bond measure.

They only have about a month to make a decision. The cutoff date to put measures on, or take them off, the November ballot is June 24, state election officials say. But Murray says the Legislature has been able to stretch that deadline a little in the past.

The project is also being hit with criticism about where the tracks are likely to run, raising the possibility the bonds could have trouble passing in areas that are unhappy about the trainsí routing.

Silver said he spoke recently with a group of people who said they wouldnít vote for the bonds unless the first line went to Redding, a city of about 87,300 residents roughly 140 miles north of Sacramento that isnít targeted for high-speed service.

"I was just blown away by the intensity of the arguments up there," he said. "You have that in cities up and down the state, but thereís just not enough population to make it worthwhile in some of these places."

The route debate seems to be particularly intense over how to get the trains over, or through, the coastal mountains to the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas. The Train Riders Association of California, another rail advocacy group, is sharply critical of how the project is shaping up, in part because the planners favor a southerly Bay Area route out of San Jose for the trains instead of following Interstate 580 through the Altamont Pass.

"We certainly do not want to see the bonds go ahead in 2004," says Alan Miller, the groupís executive director. "The environmental impact report is in such disarray. It excluded major parts of the state. It excluded routes that are viable. Itís just got so many holes in it and is being attacked from so many directions. To give them money at this point would just be to throw money at a bad project."

Silver says his group also "screamed bloody murder" when consideration of the Altamont route was dropped, until he decided that route would be more expensive and difficult to operate.

Mehdi Morshed, the authorityís executive director, says Millerís group has criticized a number of other rail projects. "We have our work reviewed by people in Germany, France and Japan who actually have experience in operating these systems, and they agree in what we are doing," he says. "Thatís all we can say."

He says a high-speed rail system will have to be built eventually to serve a population thatís projected to grow by nearly 24 million people over the next 36 years.

"I have no doubt the project will be done," he says. "The question is going to be timing. When do we do it? The longer we wait, the more expensive itís going to be."

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

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