Monday, May 23, 2011

Should California Put Its High-Speed Rail Project on Hold?

Should California Put Its High-Speed Rail Project on Hold?: "

cal-hsrCalifornia’s fast train recently got a $300 million boost from its federal friends, but the high didn’t last long. Soon the state’s high-speed rail authority drew criticism by announcing it would reconsider the agreed-upon route of the planned line from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Now an independent report from the California Legislative Analyst’s Office suggests the authority may be unfit to handle the project at all:

We have concluded that the current governance structure for the project is no longer appropriate and is too weak to ensure that this mega–project is coordinated and managed effectively. …

[W]e recommend that the Legislature remove decision-making authority over the high-speed rail project from the HSRA [the high-speed rail authority] board to ensure that the state’s overall interests, including state fiscal concerns, are fully taken into account as the project is developed.

In addition to new leadership, the report recommends a full reconsideration of where construction should begin. The report suggests starting with a line stretching outward from a major city, like Los Angeles, so that if all goes wrong a commuter line can at least be salvaged from the effort. Present plans call for the first segment to be built in the Central Valley, between Fresno and Bakersfield — prompting cries that taxpayers are funding a “train to nowhere.” Many of those cries have come from the Washington Post, which sees the new report as a chance to abandon the project altogether:

Fifteen years have passed, and millions of dollars have been spent on studies since the state first passed a law creating a high-speed rail program. Yet after all that, no one really knows whether it’s worth doing. If no one has come up with a convincing rationale by now, maybe there isn’t one.

California’s own newspapers adopted a more measured response. The San Francisco Chronicle acknowledged the wisdom of postponing construction to consider some aspects of the line more thoroughly, but still concludes that canceling the project would be a “myopic mistake.” Similarly, the Los Angeles Times believes the project’s “benefits still outweigh the costs” but embraces the recommendation of a new starting point:

The only practical way out of this mess is to follow the legislative analyst’s advice and start over, renegotiating terms with the federal government and building the initial segment in a more populous area, such as between San Francisco and San Jose or between Los Angeles and Anaheim. That way, even if the rest of the line is never built, we’d still end up with a heavily used urban rail line.

Such a change might make sense to writers in Los Angeles or San Francisco, but others who have followed the project closely defend the Central Valley as a logical starting point. Yonah Freemark writes that the idea of starting construction in Los Angeles “misunderstands the value of high-speed rail.” Without the speedy stretch of track in the center of the state, writes Freemark, the system would be reduced to a “series of improved commuter lines.” The California High-Speed Rail blog, which calls the Central Valley “the spine” of the project, makes a similar point.

If California truly wants a statewide rail system, then reconsidering the starting point of its fast train is a very slippery slope. At best it undermines billions in federal funding secured by the project to date; at worst, it represents an attempt by the state’s two chief cities to exploit federal money for what amounts to a local project. Such a move would also set up the system for a Florida-like failure. After all, Florida’s abandoned fast train was ultimately intended to be statewide as well, but a chief criticism of the Tampa-Orlando opening segment was that the distance between those cities, just 85 miles apart, was not great enough to compete with car travel — thereby reducing it to a monorail for Disney World. The distance from Los Angeles to Anaheim (home, of course, to Disneyland)? About 25 miles.

Image: California High-Speed Rail Authority


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