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Calif. bond would launch bullet train project

(The Associated Press circulated the following by Steve Lawrence on September 24.)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A century and a half after California built its first railroad, the Golden State may be about to launch the most ambitious rail project undertaken by any state—a nearly 800-mile system of bullet trains that can top 200 mph.

On Nov. 4, California voters will decide whether to authorize the sale of $9.9 billion in state bonds to help pay for a high-speed rail line linking Anaheim, Los Angeles, Fresno and San Francisco. Planners say it would be the first leg of a system that would complement air travel and eventually include stations in Sacramento, San Diego and Oakland.

Planners say the first trains could be running within six years in some corridors and that the entire 800 miles of track could be completed by 2020 if sufficient financing is available.

"This is the next big thing that's going to transform the state," said the project's executive director, Mehdi Morshed, a former state bridge engineer who likens high-speed rail to construction of the transcontinental railroad and California's freeway system. "I think this will be the beginning of a very big transformation in transportation, not only in California but the nation."

A Field Poll taken in mid-July found that 56 percent of voters supported the bond measure, Proposition 1a. So far, no opposition group has surfaced to pay for a campaign against it.

"We thought about it," said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, who signed ballot arguments against the proposition. "I checked the cushions behind the sofa and couldn't find $500,000 to jump-start the campaign."

The measure's supporters had raised more than $580,000, most of it from construction and engineering companies, by Sept. 23, far below what they hope to take in.

Despite the lack of organized opposition, the project faces some potential problems that could weaken support.

The state's poor economy and seemingly endless budget deficits could discourage voters from agreeing to take on more debt, although supporters tout the project as a way to create jobs. Paying off the bonds over 30 years with interest would cost about $19.4 billion, according to the state Legislative Analyst's Office.

Also, the primary route chosen to carry trains through the coastal mountains from the Central Valley to the San Francisco Bay area, the Pacheco Pass southeast of San Jose, has drawn criticism from environmentalists who say it would encourage sprawl.

One group, the Planning and Conservation League, has filed a lawsuit arguing that a more urban and northerly route through the Altamont Pass would be the better choice.

There also is the possibility some voters will be confused when they receive two somewhat different analyses of the proposition in voter guides sent out by the secretary of state's office.

That happened because lawmakers and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger decided to add some oversight requirements to the bond measure, but they didn't move fast enough to get those revisions in the primary voter guide. That forced the secretary of state to put together a supplemental guide with the revised language.

Over the years, Schwarzenegger has been hot and cold on the project. He twice supported legislation that postponed the bond measure going to the ballot, but last year wrote an op-ed piece saying high-speed rail would be a "tremendous benefit" for California.

His spokesman, Aaron McLear, says the governor hasn't taken a position yet on the bond measure. Schwarzenegger did agree to sign the bill adding the oversight requirements, which supporters said would help persuade voters to support the bonds.

The bullet train project has been on the drawing boards for 14 years. A commission formed in 1994 recommended construction of a high-speed train system linking the state's biggest cities.

Legislation passed in 1996 created the California High-Speed Rail Authority, the nine-member board that has been overseeing planning for the trains.

Lawmakers approved the bond measure in 2002 and initially put it on the November 2004 ballot. They later postponed the vote until 2006 and then to this year out of concern that California had more pressing infrastructure needs.

The proposition includes $9 billion for high-speed rail and $950 million for conventional commuter and intercity rail, including trains that would connect with the bullet train system.

The entire 800-mile system is estimated to cost about $45 billion, with the authority counting on federal funding, private investments and some local government money to help cover expenses.

About 30 companies or consortiums have expressed an interest in investing in some fashion, Morshed said.

Supporters, citing use of high-speed rail in Europe and Asia, tout it as a proven way to supplement highways and air travel, ease oil use and air pollution and fight global warming as California's population climbs toward 60 million by the middle of this century.

But opponents label the project a boondoggle and say the bond money would be better used for water projects, to expand the state's highway system or to spend more on existing commuter rail service. They warn of big cost overruns, contending the price tag could hit $90 billion.

"We're not against high-speed trains, per say," said Coupal, of the taxpayers group. "At some point, California might be ready, after a little bit more study, to look at different transportation systems and a high-speed rail line might be part of the mix."

He argues that California doesn't have the population density to support a profitable high-speed rail system and that the trains would need state subsidies to keep running.

But Morshed says the authority's ridership projections are based on train use in California and throughout the U.S., not on ridership in more densely populated countries such as Japan.

The authority predicts the high-speed trains, unlike commuter rail, wouldn't need operating subsidies from the state because their fares would be competitive with the cost of an airline ticket.

"Just look at evidence in other parts of the world," Morshed said. "In every one of those countries, the commuter rail and urban rail and buses are subsidized. In every one of them, the high-speed train service makes money."

Rep. Jim Costa, the Fresno Democrat who was the author of the bond measure when he was in the state Senate, said he is confident Congress will authorize federal funding for the project.

"There's a bipartisan mood in Congress that believes that high-speed rail is part of the investment in our national infrastructure," he said.

The project's planners are hoping to get about a third of their money from Washington.

Tina Andolina, legislative director for the Planning and Conservation League, said the environmental group supports development of high-speed rail but felt a court challenge was necessary because the group opposes using the Pacheco Pass as the primary route between the Central Valley and the San Francisco Bay area.

The lawsuit, filed in August in Sacramento County Superior Court, says the environmental impact report that supported the route's selection was inadequate. It asks the court to block any steps toward developing the rail system until the authority adopts an acceptable EIR.

Morshed said the authority picked the less-developed Pacheco Pass because it would be a faster and more direct route to Southern California and avoid fights with cities in the Altamont corridor over construction of multiple tracks for high-speed rail.

He said high-speed trains might also use the Altamont Pass, but they would operate at slower speeds and require fewer tracks than full high-speed service.

Despite the lawsuit, an Oakland-based group that includes several environmental organizations, including the Planning and Conservation League, has endorsed the bond measure.

"If Proposition 1a doesn't pass it would be the death knell for high-speed rail for at least a decade and probably forever because it's just going to get too expensive to build," said Stuart Cohen, executive director of the group, the Transportation and Land Use Coalition.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

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