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Calif. high-speed rail on 'life support'

(The following article by Erin Sherbert was posted on the Stockton Record website on December 20.)

STOCKTON, Calif. -- The cost of the proposed high-speed rail system could be as high as $37 billion, leaving even the most-ardent rail supporters questioning the state's ability to pay that price tag.

The only chance of the rail system becoming a reality in California is if voters approve a $9.95 billion bond measure that is set to go on the ballot in 2006, and if that money is matched by government funds, high-speed rail officials say.

"It's on life support now," said Richard Silver, executive director of the Rail Passengers Association of California, a San
Francisco-based group that supports high-speed rail.

"It's going to be a really hard battle getting it approved."

The bond was supposed to go on the November ballot, but the economic climate prompted the state Legislature to postpone the bond measure until 2006.

The project was an estimated $20 billion when the state was considering the bond measure for this year. It could now cost as much as $37 billion, and some proponents say a $9 billion bond is no longer enough to pay for the system.

The project was delayed this year while high-speed rail officials wait for more funding to come through to pay for additional environmental studies. Project delays will translate into $1 billion annually, officials said.
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"Nobody has addressed the fact that we should have a
$20 billion bond," said Alan C. Miller, executive director of the Train Riders Association of California, a supporter of the high-speed rail.

"That will be a huge issue when 2006 approaches."

Even if a bond is passed, the state will likely need matching federal funds to complete the primary stretch of the 710-mile rail system, which will run 220-mph trains from San Francisco to Los Angeles, with extensions in the Bay Area, Central Valley and San Diego.

The California High Speed Rail Authority Board is set to approve the recommended routes at a January meeting.

Andrew Chesley, deputy executive director of the San Joaquin Council of Governments, warns there's too much competition for both state and federal transportation dollars. He pointed to Texas and Florida, two states that have been unsuccessful at getting a high-speed rail system funded.

"I don't want to throw cold water on what appears to be a popular concept, but a lot of people think it won't happen," Chesley said. "It's so large and such a massive investment of dollars."

But Rod Diridon, a member of the California High Speed Rail Authority, said the rail project is very popular, with economical and environmental benefits he believes will resonate with the voters. As for getting the matching funds, Diridon said that's already being negotiated with the federal government.

"It's not a question of if, it's a matter of when," Diridon said. "There will be congressional support for it."

The benefits the project has to offer are well worth the cost for high-speed rail supporters such as Arthur Lloyd.

"If you want something, you have to pay for it," said Lloyd, a retired Amtrak worker who is still involved in regional transportation issues.

"Japan and Europe have pointed to us and said that we are a third-class country when it comes to transportation."

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

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