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Report: Trains would cost less, be better for Calif. environment

(The Associated Press circulated the following article by Steve Lawrence on January 27.)

LOS ANGELES -- A high-speed rail system linking California's major cities would be less than half as expensive and more environmentally friendly than building out highways and airports to meet the state's travel demands, a draft environmental impact report says.

The 2,000-page document, scheduled to be released Tuesday at news conferences in San Francisco and Los Angeles, looks at three options to deal with the state's transportation needs as intercity travel increases as much as 63 percent over the next 20 years.

Under the first scenario, the state would build only those highway and airport projects currently in the planning stages. Under the second, the state would build those projects and add an additional 2,970 miles of new highway lanes, nearly 60 new airport gates and five runways at a cost of nearly $82 billion in today's dollars.

The third option calls for a 700-mile high-speed rail system to supplement the currently planned highway and airport projects with trains running at top speeds of more than 200 mph. The trains would cost $33 billion to $37 billion in today's dollars and carry as many as 68 million passengers a year by 2020, according to the report.

"Our conclusion is, and data shows, that basically the high-speed train is the best of the three options," Mehdi Morshed, executive director of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, said Monday.

The first option would result in "almost a chaotic situation ... where we have extreme cases of gridlock," he said.

The second alternative "would cost more than twice as much as high-speed trains, if we could do it, and would have substantially more impact on wetlands, farmlands, air quality and other environmental impacts that we are concerned about."

The authority, headed by a nine-member board, is proposing construction of a high-speed rail system that would link the San Francisco, Sacramento, Fresno, Los Angeles and San Diego areas.

A $9.95 billion bond measure on the November ballot would provide part of the funding for the first leg of the system, between Los Angeles and San Francisco. But Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is urging lawmakers to postpone that vote, and a key legislative supporter of high-speed rail, state Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, supports a delay until 2006, saying voters might be more willing to take on additional debt when the economy improves.

The project is likely to run into opposition, the draft report acknowledges, although its ridership projections are based on "investment grade" estimates that could draw private financing, Morshed said.

The unveiling of the draft report clears the way for a 90-day public comment period and a series of public meetings that the authority will hold to get reaction. The next step will be preparation of a final report in which the authority and the Federal Railroad Administration could recommend a preferred route for the trains and station locations and suggest additional steps to ease environmental damage.

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

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