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Budget slows California’s speedy trains

(The following article by E.J. Schultz was posted on the Fresno Bee website on January 29.)

SACRAMENTO -- The state’s perpetually delayed high-speed rail project faces yet another funding setback. And this one could be fatal, dashing the dreams of bullet-train enthusiasts, including many in the Valley.

Gov. Schwarzenegger, in his 2007-08 budget, proposes slashing funding for the High Speed Rail Authority from $14 million to $1.2 million, leaving the group with enough just to keep its doors open.

“There’s really no public purpose for me and my staff to be in office unless you want to move forward with the project,” said Mehdi Morshed, the authority’s executive director, who wants the governor and lawmakers to approve $103 million for the project next year. “If you don’t want to move forward with the project, then close it down and save yourself some money.”

With his focus on road building, the governor also wants the Legislature to indefinitely delay a $9.95 billion rail bond slated for the 2008 ballot. That would clear the way for $29 billion in bonds the governor wants to put on the ballot to pay for courthouses, schools and dams — the second phase of his “strategic growth plan” that will spend billions on roads but nothing on high-speed rail.

“In our plan that we put together, it didn’t fit in,” Schwarzenegger said in an interview last week. “It doesn’t mean that it is not going to fit in in the future.”

The electric-powered railroad would be similar to the bullet trains prevalent in Europe and other parts of the world. Trains traveling up to 220 mph would speed the length of the state, zooming through the Central Valley with stops in Bakersfield, Fresno, Merced, Modesto, Stockton and Sacramento. An express trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles would take just less than 2 1/2 hours.

Construction costs are estimated to approach $40 billion. But Morshed said the longer the state waits, the more expensive it will get.

Tracks dedicated to the system for the most part would be built next to existing tracks. More than 1,000 grade crossings — where the railroad goes under or over roads — are needed.

In order to build the crossings, the authority needs to secure rights of way. But that gets harder and more expensive each passing year, especially in high-growth areas like the Valley, where land is getting sucked up for other uses, Morshed said.

Next year, he said, $40 million is needed to start buying rights of way and $63 million for planning and engineering.

Though its future is in doubt, the authority is pushing forward. At a scheduled board meeting today, members will consider entering into three contracts for engineering work, including for the Fresno-to-Palmdale and Fresno-to-Sacramento routes.

Established in 1996, the authority has spent about $30 million so far to plan the route and do environmental reviews, Morshed said. The authority’s budget has $702,000 for salaries and benefits this year. Three full-time employees and one part-timer are on staff, with plans to hire three more full-time staff members in the next month.

All that money would essentially be wasted if the project were halted, Morshed said.

“Basically you get up to speed, [then] they tell you to stop,” he said.

To date, the Legislature has shown little zeal for the project.

Rail bond ballot measures have been delayed twice, in 2004 and 2006. Assembly Speaker Fabián Núñez, D-Los Angeles, said he would be hesitant to push for another delay.

“I did say to folks that are very committed to the high-speed rail that I would work with them to see to it that we put it on the 2008 ballot,” he told reporters recently. “I think that it’s the right thing to do.”

But rail is hardly at the top of lawmakers’ lists, with prison expansion and the governor’s sweeping health care proposal dominating this year’s agenda.

High-speed rail lacks the “very powerful old lobby” of developers, carmakers and airlines that have driven the infrastructure debate, said state Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, a rail supporter whose mother, Fran Florez, sits on the nine-member rail authority board.

“Because people haven’t seen [high-speed rail], touched it or ridden on it, most people, at least in the Legislature, they don’t think it can be done,” Florez said.

For the Valley — which struggles to lure air service — high-speed rail would mean more transportation options, as well as job-creation opportunities from maintenance facilities.

But Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, who led the charge for rail while in the Legislature, said there is a misconception that the project would only benefit the Valley.

“This is far bigger than simply being a Valley train,” he said. “This is a statewide, 700-mile system that would benefit over 80% of the state’s population.”

Consumer appetite could be growing. Intercity rail ridership, operated by Amtrak, has jumped from 2.3 million in 1994-95 to 4.4 million in 2004-05, according to a report released Friday by the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Californians might not be as car-crazy as they are made out to be. As the report notes, residents here drive fewer miles than the average American.

High-speed rail, Costa said, would get cars off the road, improve air quality and create hundreds of good-paying jobs. Schwarzenegger, who has put forth a bold agenda, is missing an opportunity by not including rail, Costa said.

“This project truly matches the dreams and inspiration that the governor has expressed,” he said. “And more importantly, it fits with his concerns on climate warming, it fits with his efforts to provide energy conservation, it fits with his desire to have California as a leader in all of these areas.”

The governor, though, has more immediate concerns.

“I feel that our roads are in such horrible shape — the worst in the nation,” he said. “We needed to fix the roads, we needed to expand the roads, we need to add lanes to our highways and freeways.” High-speed rail, he said, “was not the most important thing at this point.”

Monday, January 29, 2007

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