High-Speed Rail: Dead and Loving It


All of California owes a debt to Fiona Ma. The San Francisco-based speaker of the State Assembly, an implacable foe of rubber ducks and recorded music, has scored an unintentional victory as one of the major authors of Proposition 1A, the state's 2008 high-speed rail bond initiative. Thanks to the wording of the law, the California High Speed Rail project now may die a quiet death. 

Last Wednesday, the California Senate voted to place the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA, which is currently a standalone agency) under the authority of the state's Business, Transportation and Housing Agency. On Friday, the state Assembly passed a bill that would demote the CHSRA to an "advisory body" while shifting control of the project to a "Department of High-Speed Trains." 

The creation of a brand new bureaucracy is ominous. But these complementary legislative moves, by a Democratic legislature under a Democratic governor, have all the characteristics of a face-saving admission that the Golden State's high-speed rail project – the last best hope of President Obama and Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood – is either dead or in a persistent vegetative state. 

Some move like this was inevitable after last month's report by the non-partisan Legislative Analyst's Office, which laid out the project's failings in such excruciating detail that at the time I called it the death of the U.S. high speed rail project. 

Clearly, the high speed rail hope isn't quite dead yet. But the California plan, which would have seen a "train to nowhere" begin construction next year between the remote Central Valley towns of Corcoran and Borden, is in dire condition. The Corcoran-Borden route was selected by the Federal Rail Authority specifically for the relative ease with which the state could roll over rusticated local landowners who lack the resources to mount a challenge like the one that has emerged on the wealthy San Francisco peninsula. 

That isn't working out, however, as locals along the Corcoran-Borden alignment balk at the prospect of a 150mph public transit option chugging through their almond groves. While legal challenges may not be successful, they would delay a project on which both D.C. and Sacramento had been hoping to break ground in 2012. Federal funding for the project was originally contingent on the state's having construction underway by September of next year. That condition was nixed when California agreed to the train-to-nowhere alignment, but the feds are still in danger of missing a 2017 deadline for spending ARRA Stimulus funds. 

There's another wrinkle. The legislature has so far gone along with the Legislative Analyst's recommendations, and those recommendations include scrapping Corcoran-Borden altogether, which would mean the September 2012 deadline waiver goes away too. A new deal can always be struck with the federal government, but it's unlikely to be struck quickly. 

As if that's not enough, it turns out we won't always have Palmdale. The original plan was for the southern leg of the HSR alignment to follow the general route of Interstate 5, but a few years ago that plan was scrapped in favor of a track going through the Mojave Desert and the Antelope Valley into Sylmar. (Sorry for the geography dump.) Now the route may be switched back to the "Grapevine" again, after a report has shown that the Antelope Valley route would require rebuilding of the California Aqueduct and/or altering a dam. 

These logistical hurdles are small potatoes, however, compared to the grueling government competition known as Da Coughing Up of Da Funds. Although California voters approved $9.9 billion in new transportation bond debt in 2008, the bond funds can't be used for operation of the railroad, only construction. There is no credible plan for Corcoran-Borden to be a self-sufficient line. For that matter, there is no credible plan for the entire San Francisco-Sacramento-San-Diego high speed network to be self-sufficient. But even my old buddies at the L.A. Times editorial board have conceded that ridership on the train-to-nowhere leg would be "slight." 

And it may turn out that bond funds will not be available – legally at any rate – even to build the train. Which brings us back to our debt to Fiona Ma and her Prop 1a co-authors. In the high speed rail initiative [pdf] that voters approved, Section 2704.08.(c)(2)(J) requires the plan to certify that "the planned passenger service by the authority in the corridor or usable segment thereof will not require a local, state, or federal operating subsidy." Even more directly, subsection (d)(2)(D) orders: "Prior to committing any proceeds of bonds…the authority shall have approved and concurrently submitted…a report or reports…indicating that…the planned passenger train service to be provided by the authority, or pursuant to its authority, will not require operating subsidy." 

California will continue to trickle away general fund money on high speed rail. Since the HSR initiative got underway in 1996, the Golden State has managed to disappear a quarter of a billion dollars without laying any track. In a floor speech, Assemblywoman Diane L. Harkey (R-Dana Point) argues that even the new bureaucratic deep freeze is too good a fate for the misguided HSR project, while the serene Ma fails to keep order in the people's chamber. 

Still, better a trickle of wasted money than a torrent. Right now it is probable Californians will be spared a massive new debt issuance for a few years. And all Americans may be spared having to "invest" a few billion dollars for a train that now looks unlikely to be built.

Update: Forget everything I said. The mayors of Los Angeles, San Jose, San Francisco, Sacramento and Fresno write in a joint letter that the "second guessing" has to stop: "California and the United States need high-speed rail, so let's keep going." Who can argue with logic like that?