BY HARRISON SHEPPARD and SUE DOYLE, Staff Writers
LA Daily News
SACRAMENTO - Supporters of a $40 billion high-speed rail line in California are revitalizing their decade-long battle for a 700-mile route that could help relieve the state's jammed freeways.
The plan for the transit corridor has languished for years, unable to overcome weak political support and strong criticism of its hefty pricetag.
But last week's record-breaking run by a French TGV train that hit 357mph has revived interest in the route that could whisk passengers between LosAngeles and San Francisco in less than three hours.
"I think this is the future for California," said Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, one of several state lawmakers who traveled to France to witness the speed record.
"I think people are sick and tired of long commutes, tired of not knowing whether their plane is going to come in on time, tired of the high cost of gas and airline tickets," Ma said in a phone interview, shortly after riding on the record-breaking French train.
"I think Californians are frustrated with all that. High-speed rail, to me, is the solution."
The California High-Speed Rail Authority is set to hold public meetings in Los Angeles this month on a proposed Southern California route that promises 27-minute rides between Union Station and Palmdale.
And California voters next year could be asked to vote on a bond measure that would provide about $10billion to build a statewide high-speed rail system.
Still, the plan faces significant challenges.
"I think it's a ridiculous boondoggle," said Robert Poole, director of transportation studies at the Reason Foundation in Los Angeles.
"The entire huge cost of building the system would be paid for by the taxpayers of California. That's true of no other large-scale infrastructure. If we build another north-south highway, it would be paid for by gas tax and tolls. ... It makes no sense to me whatsoever from the taxpayer or traveler standpoint."
Poole thinks the Rail Authority is being overly optimist in projecting ridership of 100million by 2030 and operating revenue of $1billion a year.
Californians, he said, prefer driving their cars regardless of traffic, and airlines already offer quick north-south routes at a reasonable price.
Slashing the budget
Meanwhile, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed slashing the Rail Authority's budget next year to just $1.2million - down more than $13million from this year's level.
Kicked off the ballot in 2004 because of the state's shaky economy, funding for the train was bumped off again in 2006 when lawmakers instead pushed for billions of dollars in bonds to fund freeway improvements.
Now, Schwarzenegger wants to postpone the ballot measure for a third time, instead proposing more borrowing for prisons, schools, courts and natural resources.
Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Sabrina Lockhart said the state does not have the bonding capacity to include high-speed rail.
The proposal has a history of stops and starts after an initial private effort in the early 1980s was abandoned for lack of funding.
After riding high-speed rails overseas, former state Sen. Quentin Kopp in 1994 introduced a bill to establish a commission to study the state's need for the supercharged rail system. That gave birth to the California High-Speed Rail Authority. The state agency has struggled for political support ever since.
The current route plan would zip passengers between San Diego and Sacramento at speeds up to 220mph, with stops and extensions throughout the Inland Empire, Orange County, Los Angeles County, Central California and the Bay Area.
Cheaper than planes
In Los Angeles, stops would include Union Station, Sylmar, Burbank and Palmdale Airport.
A trip from Union Station to San Francisco is estimated to cost about $70, about 70percent of the airfare, said Mehdi Morshed, executive director of the rail agency.
Unlike conventional trains that run on diesel, high-speed trains run on electricity that's continuously fed through overhead electrical lines and on specially built tracks. The state agency wants to run it off existing power grids.
Trains could carry up to 800 passengers, and the agency is now homing in on where it wants to lay the tracks where an estimated 100 trains a day could run.
Attendance was sparse at two recent public meetings for the rail system at the Glendale Public Library. With a tight budget, the state agency has little money for publicity so the few meeting attendees were mainly high-speed rail groupies.
"I can't wait for it to happen," said 73-year-old Vic Scheffer, who has followed the rail line's tribulations for the past four years. "Anything on wheels and rails, I'm excited about."
Some tout highways
But critics contend the project is not a good investment for the state.
Norm King, director of the Leonard Transportation Center at Cal State San Bernardino, said there is no assurance the system would draw private investors, averting the need for taxpayer subsidies.
"If we want to transfer people who are now paying their own money to take a trip from L.A. to San Francisco to be heavily subsidized by the taxpayer, I guess it is a good thing," King said.
King said money would be better invested in highway projects because roads would create more congestion relief to residents than a high-speed rail could ever provide.
Kopp said it's a misconception to think that a high-speed rail would need subsidies. He said private money will come after investors see the reality of the project, which will arrive when voters approve a bond. He cited successful high-speed rails in Japan and France.
"They are money-makers," said Kopp, board chairman for the state agency. "They are run privately."
Pointing to China, Argentina, South Korea and Taiwan - countries where high-speed rails run or are being built - Kopp said America's resistance to the innovative system is keeping it behind the times with transportation.
State Sen. George Runner, R-Lancaster, whose district would include the potential line's station in Palmdale, said the high-speed rail would boost economic development in the region, particularly the long-sought expansion of Palmdale Airport.
But he also warns the current plan may be too expensive and ambitious.
Runner said he would prefer to see shorter regional lines financed with bonds that are repaid with revenue from fares.
"I'm certainly supportive of the concept and the issue of high-speed rail," Runner said. "The hurdles we have before us right now are the expense, and I think we're adrift in terms of what the strategy is."
Ultimately, whether the plan can surmount current challenges will depend on the economy during the next two years and whether opponents and competitors emerge, said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a Los Angeles-based nonpartisan research organization.
"If there is no other competition, the economy is OK, and a lot of money is spent educating the voters, then I think it has a chance," Stern said.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority has scheduled public meetings on the high-speed rail proposal. The sessions all will be held 3to 5p.m. and 6to 8p.m.:
Tuesday, Sylmar Recreation Center, 13109 Borden Ave.
Thursday, Palmdale City Hall, 38300 N. Sierra Highway.
April 17, Los Angeles River Center & Gardens (Atrium), 570W. Ave. 26, Los Angeles.
For more information, go to http://www.cahighspeedrail.ca.gov.
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