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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While eager to ride the train in his own lifetime, Kopp said he isn't daunted by the lengthiness of the process, noting the enormity of the task at hand. After all, BART, a model train set compared to a statewide system, took nearly twenty years to get from initial study to implementation. Kopp, who recently sent the governor a letter inviting him to co-chair the bond measure campaign, is optimistic it will make the ballot, noting that Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez has committed to ensuring it remains as is, which would mean that only a two-thirds vote from both houses could remove it.

If voters approve the bond measure, Kopp adds, the floodgates could swing open, ushering in private investment and federal matching funds. The authority already has begun interviewing a slew of financial funds that invest in transit projects.

Like most high-speed rail advocates, Kopp agrees with Schwarzenegger that public-private partnerships are essential to funding the project. In particular, he believes the system should be privately operated, to help relieve California of economic responsibility for the rail after initial construction. He believes a logical candidate for such operation would be Southwest Airlines. Kopp points to several regular rail lines in Europe that have been successfully operated by private airlines, including the UK's Virgin Rail.

Southwest Airlines certainly would have incentive to care about high-speed rail in California. The airline currently runs almost hourly flights from Los Angeles and San Diego to the Bay Area, and some project advocates worry that it will try to destroy any potential competition. That was the case in 1991, when Southwest waged legal war against a proposed high-speed rail connecting San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas, effectively killing that project. But Kopp notes that many airlines are now shying away from such often-unprofitable short-distance flights in favor of more lucrative longer routes. Still, the California authority has yet to hear a peep from Southwest, which did not respond to repeated interview requests for this article.

In spite of Kopp's support for private operation in the long run, he argues that state government has to be willing to make the first move. If it doesn't, he believes, nothing will happen, and private investors will be unlikely to commit support to a project of this scale that hasn't first won public support. A perfect example is the financing plan that Schwarzenegger wants to see before supporting more funding. Morshed says such a comprehensive plan is only possible after more engineering and environmental work has been done, and that is only possible with more funding.

"The governor has stated many times that he favors the development of high-speed rail in California," said Congressman Jim Costa, a Fresno Democrat who has sought federal funding for the project. "However, it is extremely counter-productive to cut funding to the agency which has laid the groundwork. Since this is a state project, the governor needs to ... take the initial lead on funding high-speed rail. The federal government will then assist with this project, as they have with many other major infrastructure projects."

Elected officials feel little pressure from the public to make this thing happen because most Americans have no concept of what high-speed rail is, said Stuart Cohen, executive director of Transportation and Land Use Coalition, an Oakland nonprofit agency that has worked with the project. Many think of long-distance rail transportation as waiting for hours for Amtrak, the nation's antiquated and economically bereft train system. "It seems like a fantasy," he argues, "but in other countries, like France and Japan, it's just the way people get around."

Indeed, the United States is one of the world's few industrialized nations with no real high-speed rail system. (The Amtrak Acela, which runs along the Eastern seaboard, is sometimes called high-speed rail, but its top speed of 150 miles per hour is significantly slower than that of true high-speed rail systems.) Japan led the way, and began operating its first of many trains in 1964. In much of Western Europe, high-speed rail has become a simple fact of life, and Assemblywoman Ma called attention to its ubiquity last year when she was on a test ride of a French train that set a new speed record of 357 miles per hour. China recently built a magnetic levitation train from downtown Shanghai to the airport, and now a number of other developing countries are planning their own systems, including Turkey and Mexico, which is designing a route from Guadalajara to Mexico City. It's proven not only to be the safest transportation system, but by far the most efficient, rarely requiring government subsidies after initial construction and, in many instances, gaining net revenues.

Of course, most of these countries are more mass-transit-oriented and have higher population densities, two major precursors for strong government support of rail projects. But some argue that California will soon be just as crowded.

While few question that Schwarzenegger is justified in demanding a sound financial plan for the project, some rail proponents point to major inconsistencies in the governor's transportation-funding decisions. "We're subsidizing mobility all the time," Cohen said. "It's quite a double standard to say this project needs to find other money."

He points to the 2006 election, in which Schwarzenegger successfully campaigned for Proposition 1B, a $20 billion transportation infrastructure bond, the largest ever considered in California. Intended to reduce congestion in the state, 50 percent of the pot goes to highway construction or expansion. Money will be repaid over thirty years by drawing from the state's General Fund.

While the high-speed rail system's projected $40 billion price tag is the biggest point of resistance, Cohen argues that highway and airport expansion projects often end up costing much more in the long term since they remain infinitely dependent on continued subsidies. For instance, he notes that just expanding Highway 99 from four to six lanes, a project earmarked in last year's bond, will cost $6 billion. And that does not include the hidden environmental costs of higher emissions and more sprawl.

"High-speed rail is seen as expensive, but it's cheaper than building roads to move the same number of people," Cohen said. "It's a larger failure of the people of California and legislators to have a vision of what we want twenty to thirty years from now. We're going to pay for mobility one way or another."

Cohen asserts that without high-speed rail, mobility in the state will soon be severely impaired. He remains cautiously optimistic that this year the project will get the boost it needs, especially if the public is adequately educated about the issue. But there are still strong opposing forces.

"The deficit will give some cold feet about infrastructure investment," he said. "On the other hand, the global warming issue is rising in importance by the day, and this achieves dramatic greenhouse gas reduction. We have to see which of those forces is stronger."

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