High-speed rail optimistic about more funding
(The following story by Michael Cabanatuan appeared on the San Francisco Chronicle website on December 26.)
SAN FRANCISCO With the economy in recession, California's plan to ask the federal government for billions of dollars to help build the nation's first high-speed rail system might seem like wishful thinking rather than a feasible financial strategy.
But transportation officials say that California's high-speed rail project seems to be on a fast track to a hefty federal contribution - perhaps as much as $15 billion to $20 billion.
That optimism in the face of a dire economic outlook is the product of the priorities of President-elect Barack Obama's administration; the likelihood of a big federal infrastructure investment; growing concern over climate change; the volatility of gas prices; Californians' backing of the $10 billion high-speed rail bond measure and strong support for the project from the state's potent congressional delegation, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
"It seems like the stars are aligned," said Rod Diridon of San Jose, a member of the High Speed Rail Authority.
Building the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles and Anaheim line that will be the spine of the system will cost between $32.8 billion and $33.6 billion, according to the High Speed Rail Authority's business report. Extensions built later would cost another $12 billion. In addition to the $10 billion from state bond sales, the authority is counting on $12 billion to $16 billion in federal funds plus $6.5 billion to $7.5 billion in private investment and $2 billion to $3 billion in local contributions.
Critics, during the campaign against state Proposition 1A, expressed skepticism about the plan's ability to attract federal funding during a recession. While most opponents now acknowledge that high-speed rail may capture billions from the new administration, they're still skeptical about the project's feasibility.
"So what if we get $12 (billion) to $15 billion? It still leaves us billions short," said Adrian Moore, vice president of research for the libertarian Reason Foundation, which opposed November's high-speed rail bond. "It's still ridiculous to assert that the private sector is slathering to invest in this. They should just ask for the whole $35 billion."
Federal funds could flow from four sources, according to transportation officials - an economic stimulus package, a high-speed rail bill, the Amtrak funding bill and the upcoming transportation spending plan.
The size of the economic stimulus package anticipated from the Obama administration is a mystery but it is expected to involve hundreds of billions of dollars and stress investment in public works projects. While the high-speed rail project meets that qualification, it's still in the engineering and planning stages and construction isn't set to begin until 2012. The stimulus package is expected to favor projects that can start construction quickly, probably in the next two years.
But Quentin Kopp, chairman of the authority board, said the agency is planning to apply for stimulus funding to accelerate construction of some or all of the 600 grade-crossing projects - locations where the rail lines will need to be separated from roadways.
"That work could begin the earliest - within six months to two years," he said.
California could also cash in on a bill introduced by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., that would allow the sale of $23 billion in bonds for high-speed rail projects. At least $10 billion of that money would be dedicated to California and the Northeast.
The Amtrak funding reauthorization bill, signed by President Bush in October, also contains $1.5 billion for high-speed rail projects in 11 corridors around the nation, including California. As the only corridor that's done much planning - and has funding committed - the state would stand a good chance of drawing most of that money, high-speed rail officials believe.
Finally, a new federal transportation funding bill that will govern spending for the next six years is expected to be passed by the incoming Congress, and transportation officials expect high-speed rail will play a big role.
"There is a lot of support for high-speed rail in Congress," said Mark Kadish, a lobbyist for the authority, at a meeting earlier this month.
Obama is also supportive of high-speed rail, and transportation officials believe it fits well into his goals of revitalizing and modernizing the nation's infrastructure, getting people to drive less, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Vice President-elect Joe Biden has commuted between the Capitol and his Delaware home for years on Amtrak's Acela train, the closest thing the nation has to high-speed rail.
According to the campaign's transportation policy, "Barack Obama and Joe Biden support development of high-speed rail networks across the country. Providing passengers with safe high-speed rail will have significant environmental and metropolitan planning advantages and help diversify our nation's transportation infrastructure."
California should find out soon how much money is behind those words.
Monday, December 29, 2008
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