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California seeks $10 billion bond for high-speed rail

(The following story by Steve Schmidt appeared on the San Diego Union-Tribune website on September 9.)

SAN DIEGO, Calif. Even in a state known for dreaming big, the idea's a doozy: a train so swift that it could speed from San Diego to San Francisco in a little less than four hours.

The idea of building a high-speed rail network in California has been debated, studied, ridiculed, celebrated and studied again for more than a decade.

State voters will decide the issue Nov. 4. Proposition 1A asks voters to approve nearly $10 billion in bond sales to spur construction of an 800-mile, electric-powered bullet-train system across the state.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority, created in 1996 to shepherd the project, estimates it would cost between $42 billion and $45 billion to build it over a 20-year period.

If the measure is approved, construction would start as soon as 2011.

The plan includes a San Diego-to-Riverside leg, where planners say trains would run parallel to Interstate 15 at about 100 mph. In rural parts of the state, trains would travel as fast as 220 mph.

State officials expect the private sector to bankroll more than a third of the total cost, noting that private firms have played central roles in the construction and operation of high-speed rail networks overseas.

The government would oversee the system's development, but a private outfit might be allowed to operate it in return for a guaranteed share of fare revenue, authority officials said.

The bond money is not the be-all and end-all, said Quentin Kopp, chairman of the authority. The bond money shows private investors that we're serious.

He said federal transportation funds would cover a third of the price tag.

Critics see a boondoggle in the making, saying the cost is grossly underestimated. They say there are too many uncertainties about the route and other issues.

It's not ready for prime time, said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

The California Chamber of Commerce yesterday announced it would oppose the measure, arguing that other projects should be given higher priority.

James Mills of Coronado, the former state senator who engineered the creation of the San Diego Trolley, said the measure would push the state into an even deeper financial hole.

According to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office, the state would need to set aside an estimated $647 million annually to repay the bonds over 30 years.

Mills is also skeptical it will attract the level of private funding that Kopp and others envision.

I think it's a scam, Mills said. It commits the state to $10 billion and we don't even know if we will get a high-speed rail system for it.

Supporters point out the measure includes financial safeguards, including limits on how much of the bond money can go to planning and administrative expenses.

Friday, September 12, 2008

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