Who Said Building a Railroad Was Easy? 

This could be the make-or-break year for the state's proposed high-speed rail system

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Cost and route aside, even the most ardent small government advocate would be hard-pressed to come up with a compelling argument against the benefits of high-speed rail in the state. California is the world's twelfth largest producer of greenhouse gases. By 2030 its population is expected to increase 30 percent to 50 million people, far exceeding the capacity of the state's already congested highway and airport networks.

Under the proposed 700-mile rail network, bullet trains would cruise from Sacramento to San Diego, hitting key metropolitan areas in the Central Valley, Orange County, and Inland Empire. A ride from San Francisco's TransBay Terminal to Los Angeles' Union Station would cost roughly $55 and take about two and a half hours. LA to San Diego would take one hour and fifteen minutes, and it would be under an hour from Sacramento to San Jose. The system also would service most of the state's major airports and link to already existing regional rail networks. Following completion of the San Francisco to Anaheim route, the project's extension to Sacramento and San Diego would take an additional four to five years with adequate funding, according to the authority.

Once built, the authority estimates that the system would require no operating subsidies, even generating surpluses to the tune of $300 million per year. This assertion is based partly upon the track records of high-speed rail systems in Europe and Japan, most of which have been completely self-sufficient after initial construction costs. And, despite the shock value of its price tag, more than thirty years' construction of the system would actually cost less than half as much to build as would expanded highways or airports needed to accommodate the same traffic levels, according to the authority. In fact, the agency's implementation plan notes that one Japanese high-speed rail from Tokyo to Osaka generated enough of an operating surplus in its first decade to completely cover the costs of construction.

The authority projects that the system would have more than triple the energy efficiency in transporting passengers as air and auto travel, significantly reducing the state's dependence on foreign oil. A ridership forecasting study estimates that, by 2030, the train would carry more then 100 million riders a year, save 22 million barrels of oil, and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by up to 17 billion pounds. It would run entirely off electricity and actually regenerate some of its own energy. There even has been consideration of installing windmills alongside certain routes, directly powering the system with renewable energy in a move toward zero-emissions.

In short, it would seem that the whole thing would be right up Governor Schwarzenegger's alley. An environmental leader, he was lavished with global acclaim last year for championing and signing into law AB 32, a landmark piece of legislation mandating a 25 percent cut in statewide greenhouse gas emissions over the next fourteen years. More recently, he has faced off with the federal Environmental Protection Agency over California's right to impose emission standards for cars and light trucks. Early this month, the state filed a lawsuit.

In recent public statements and editorials, Schwarzenegger has said he strongly supports high-speed rail. But he also successfully urged lawmakers to postpone the $10 billion bond measure when it was slated for the ballot in 2004, citing more pressing budget needs. In 2006, he again proposed shelving the rail measure to avoid competition with bonds that could fund his proposed Strategic Growth Plan for the state, which included zero funding for the project.

"I feel like a yo-yo, because every year we go through this cycle," said Morshed, who by now is accustomed to his lack of job security. "One year we are up, one year we are down. When we are up, I expect a downside, but when we are down, I don't always know if there'll be an upside."

David Crane is one of Schwarzenegger's top economic advisers and his most recent appointee to the authority's nine-member board. An outspoken free-market advocate, Crane has served as Schwarzenegger's mouthpiece on the project, underlining the need to secure private-public partnerships and federal support. He argues that state, federal, and private sectors should all commit to contributing equally to the project before the taxpayers are asked to fork over any more dough.

"There is no question that California would benefit greatly from a network of high-speed rail lines connecting communities throughout the state," Crane wrote in an e-mail interview. "The question is how to succeed in getting there. In our view, the chances of success are greatly reduced if voters are asked to approve or fund a bond without assurances that participation by private sector and federal partners is highly likely."

The Schwarzenegger camp, which has repeatedly insisted on seeing a more comprehensive financing plan from the authority before committing any more of the state's budget, initially proposed postponing the measure once more in 2008, according to Assemblywoman Ma. Recently, though, Schwarzenegger's stance has been markedly more nebulous. According to spokeswoman Sabrina Lockhart, he "has not taken a position on this particular issue." Ma says the recent shift in rhetoric is a clear result of pressure Schwarzenegger feels from mounting statewide support. One instance occurred last July, when the Fresno Bee accused him of "photo-op environmentalism," lambasting him for failing to adequately fund the project. The editorial came out just two months after Schwarzenegger wrote a letter for the same publication extolling the virtues of high-speed rail in California, pending private partnerships.

In short, it's the classic example of a public infrastructure project that everyone likes, but no one may be willing to support.

Things looked particularly bleak for the project in the heat of last summer, as legislators engaged in what seemed to be an infinite battle over the state budget. The authority optimistically requested $103 million toward further engineering and design. Schwarzenegger, however, offered just more than $1 million. For a massive public infrastructure project, that's tantamount to contributing about four bucks to your kid's Ivy League college fund.

"If that had occurred, I would have resigned and recommended to the legislature that it shut down the authority," said Quentin Kopp, a retired judge and former state senator whose legislation established the authority and who now serves as board chairman. In the end, the legislature allotted $20.5 million, enough to at least keep the torch burning.

"We realized he was trying to kill the project, that he had other priorities like jails, water, and healthcare," adds Assemblywoman Ma. "If he's the 'green governor,' what better way to meet AB 32?"

Part of the uphill battle in gaining political support in Sacramento is the project's long time span. In 2006, Schwarzenegger even referred to the project as "visionary ... but far in the future."

Kopp notes: "Politicians, you will find, have very short outlooks on life. If a politician figures he won't be there to break ground, interest declines."

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