Attacks Spur New Look at Statewide Rail Project

Staff Reporter

It's long been considered the ultimate California pipe dream: a 700-mile high-speed rail network from San Diego to Sacramento, also connecting L.A. to the Bay Area. And no wonder, given its projected of cost $25 billion and a buildout time of 10 to 20 years.

But in the last few months, the proposal for a statewide high-speed rail network has gotten a serious look from state officials, especially after Sept. 11. Several concrete steps have been taken by officials to make the project happen, although it remains a long way off.

"After Sept. 11, a lot of people had serious second thoughts about flying," said Richard Silver, executive director of the California Rail Passenger Association. "That's when high-speed rail moved higher-up on people's priority lists."

Specifically, the two-and-a-half hour travel time between Union Station and downtown San Francisco on a high-speed train now compares favorably with door-to-door travel time by flying, especially when factoring the tightened security measures.

Several actions in the last several months are moving the project forward:

& lt; After dismissing the project as a "Buck Rogers fantasy" and slashing funding for environmental review of the project last year, Gov. Gray Davis has inserted the full $8.5 million budget request into his 2002-03 budget, a move that would allow environmental work to be completed by mid-2003.

& lt; The costly magnetic levitation propulsion system has been junked for the more conventional steel wheel-steel rail approach used in France and Japan.

& lt; Multiple route options along each of the rail corridor's eight segments have been narrowed from four or five to just two.

& lt; A new chairman has been put in charge of the state's High Speed Rail Authority, a move that even high-speed rail critics concede is likely to speed up progress.

& lt; Two weeks ago the first-ever bond measure to provide funding for the high-speed rail project was introduced in the state Legislature. If approved, it could go on the November ballot.

That measure, introduced by rail advocate Sen. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, and co-sponsored by Sen. President John Burton, D-San Francisco, and other prominent Senate Democrats, does not have a dollar figure attached. Costa said last week he was still in discussions with state transit officials over how much should be sought.

Obstacles to rail line

To be sure, there are still huge obstacles. The slow economy and a multibillion-dollar budget deficit in Sacramento make this an inopportune time to launch the most massive transportation project in the nation's history. And there remains widespread skepticism that a high-speed rail system would ever pay for itself on an operating basis, let alone cover some of the $25 billion construction cost.

"This is idiocy, political opportunism at its worst," said Tom Rubin, a transportation consultant and former chief financial officer of the predecessor agency to the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

In the months ahead, political squabbling is likely to erupt over the exact route alignments and placement of rail stations, with many cities wanting their own stops.

Right now, there are debates over whether the train should detour through Palmdale or parallel Interstate 5 over the "Grapevine" to Bakersfield as well as whether the train should take the inland route (through Riverside and Temecula) or the coastal route or both from Los Angeles to San Diego.

If not resolved quickly, these disputes could delay or even derail the train project.

Other opposition possible

Finally, there could be opposition from airlines that would fear losing passenger traffic to the high-speed rail network. Especially prone to passenger traffic erosion would be short-haul carriers like Southwest Airlines.

Despite these obstacles, state officials are pushing ahead with high speed rail plans. Indeed the agency in charge of developing the high-speed rail proposal has covered more ground in the last six months than in the last six years, according to rail industry sources. They point to Davis' appointment last summer of Rod Diridon as chair of the California High Speed Rail Authority. Diridon spearheaded construction of light rail projects in Santa Clara County as a county supervisor and transportation director there; he also was instrumental in getting the Caltrain rail system from San Jose to San Francisco built.

A key decision came last November, when the High-Speed Rail Authority ruled out magnetic levitation or mag-lev technology for the high-speed trains. The mag-lev system, which has been tested on a limited basis in Germany, has the train hover over the tracks, propelled forward by a series of powerful magnets. It can reach speeds of up to 300 miles per hour and is much quieter than conventional steel wheels on steel rails.

Authority executive director Mehdi Morshed said using mag-lev would require building a separate set of tracks with substantial buffer zones along the entire 700-mile route. With the steel wheels on steel rails, "you can share the tracks or at least the right-of-way with Amtrak, Metrolink and other passenger rail services," he said.

One of the thorniest problems confronting high-speed rail planners is planning routes through highly urbanized areas like Los Angeles.

"You basically have to use the already existing rights-of-way used by other rail services or you face astronomical land purchase costs," Morshed said.

It's also conceivable that high-speed rail and Metrolink would share the same tracks, which would limit the speed of the high-speed rail trains to a maximum of 90 miles per hour.

Another problem is hooking up the high-speed rail network to local airports. To connect to Los Angeles International Airport, it would be far cheaper to stop at the transportation center in Norwalk and then take the Green Line to the airport than to run a separate high-speed rail line from downtown to LAX. But the Green Line doesn't connect directly to either the Norwalk center or to LAX; those connections would have to be built.

Then there's Palmdale. Regional airport advocates like city Councilwoman Ruth Galanter long have been pushing for an airport at Palmdale and were gratified last month when Mayor James Hahn came out in favor of such a plan. But everyone concedes that a Palmdale airport would only work if there were a high-speed rail connection. Problem is, taking the statewide high-speed rail train on a detour through Palmdale would add half-an-hour to the travel time, not to mention at least $1 billion in costs.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.