It has taken a decade for “common sense” and “California High-Speed Rail” to be used in the same sentence, but maybe that time has finally come.
The Legislature is considering reallocating some amount of high-speed rail funds to regional commuter rail systems. Earlier this year, the California High-Speed Rail Authority estimated a high-speed rail system from Los Angeles to San Francisco will cost $100 billion and take 14 years to build. Since Proposition 1A’s passage in 2008, the project’s cost estimates bloated and timelines stretched. Private sector financing has not materialized, and the federal government’s contribution has become another pawn in California’s legal chess match with the current administration.
Despite funding uncertainty, HSR started building the “Valley Line,” a 119-mile-long, conventional diesel-powered rail system that is impractical because it would connect the greater Wasco/Shafter metroplex (population 45,000) to Madera (population 61,000), and redundant because taxpayers already subsidize Amtrak’s underutilized Central Valley passenger rail system.
There’s no hiding that this proposed Valley Line is a quintessential government white-elephant project. Each endpoint is 120 miles from its ultimate destination in San Francisco or Los Angeles with seismically active mountain ranges in the way, and it will demand massive operating subsidies.
So, the fractional Valley Line is infeasible and no credible funding plan exists for a high-speed system — what is to be done? First, the Legislature should not authorize any further bond sales for the Central Valley line until HSR can articulate a rational financial plan.
The authority has approximately $10 billion in remaining funding, mostly in bond capacity. However, the Legislature can choose to not authorize more bond sales. As a native of the Central Valley, I know economic development there is a laudable goal but selling bonds and paying interest to build a dysfunctional rail system is not a rational mechanism to create jobs there.
Second, the Legislature should reallocate remaining high-speed rail funds to existing regional commuter rail agencies like Caltrain, Altamont Corridor, Metrolink, Coaster or even to the nascent Dumbarton Rail project.
These regional agencies are well-positioned to deliver a bevy of projects that are useful now for regional rail optimization and necessary later for high-speed operation if a statewide system is ever built. Smaller projects such as grade separations, electrification, station upgrades and noise/safety barriers can be built now by agencies who possess hard-earned experience successfully managing passenger rail construction and operation. Instead of waiting for benefits of a hypothetical high-speed system in the future, these simple, less visionary, incremental improvements can be built now and used over subsequent decades. Some have pointed out that Proposition 1A requires bond proceeds to only be spent on a high-speed rail system. The Legislature could restrict reallocated CHSRA funds for use on regional rail projects like grade separations which are necessary for eventual high-speed operation. If the Legislature lacks fortitude for this action, then they can place the question on the 2020 ballot and let voters decide.
Third, after reallocation and until a feasible funding source for high-speed rail exists, the Legislature should reduce HSR’s $40 million annual budget, 240 staff positions and hundreds of consultants and put those dollars into regional rail infrastructure as well. One thing is unambiguous, if the Legislature fails to act now, the CHSRA will proceed apace burning $10 billion on the “Train to Nowhere” that does nothing to clean the air or reduce highway traffic.
Meanwhile, Caltrain operates with 42 Peninsula at-grade rail crossings. Potential collisions between trains and automobiles are higher with at-grade crossings. Additionally, local surface traffic will be delayed as Caltrain increases service levels to eight to 10 trains per hour. Many Peninsula at-grade crossings are projected to have guards down for 30 minutes every hour.
Caltrain estimates the cost to build grade separations at $11 billion. Why not use HSR funds for this purpose? Assuming HSR funds are spread around the state and local funding match was required, the Peninsula could enjoy an entirely grade separated, electrified commuter rail system. Precedent exists for reallocation — Caltrain’s electrification is supported with just over $700 million in HSR resources.
Wisely investing limited funds to maximize benefits is what taxpayers expect their governments to do. The Legislature must douse the bonfire of taxpayer money before those funds are gone and we have nothing useful to show for it. Reallocation is an easy way for our state leaders to demonstrate common sense.
John Pimentel is former deputy secretary for Transportation in California where he worked with the first California High-Speed Rail Commission in the early 1990s. He currently develops sustainability projects in renewable energy and water efficiency.