High-speed rail project shaping up to be a ghost train

Leave it to some of our state transit officials handling California’s bullet train dream to show the public exactly what it means to be railroaded.

For those of you who have been doing important things like holiday shopping this week, the leaders of the state’s multibillion-dollar high-speed rail plan came up with the grand idea to put the first tracks in a 54-mile area between two towns you’d have difficulty finding on a map.

Does Borden ring a bell? How about Corcoran? (That’s a little easier if you or a friend have ever been to prison.)

And how about $4.15 billion for this Central Valley design to run a high-speed train between two cities that have a population of 25,000?

If you came up with the term boondoggle, you wouldn’t be alone. A congressman from Madera, U.S. Rep. Dennis Cardoza, has sent a letter to state and federal transportation authorities call it a “gross misuse” of taxpayer funds.

And critics are having a field day, terming the proposed rail line the “train to nowhere.”

For months, officials from the California High-Speed Rail Authority have been having meeting over where to start the much-vaunted bullet train, which ultimately is supposed to speed passengers from San Francisco to Anaheim. But the talks were focused on whether to build the first segment between Fresno and either Bakersfield or Merced.

You know, places that actually have people, or as we like to say in transit circles, potential passengers. As it turns out, the Borden to Corcoran route chosen by the agency Thursday won’t even have trains yet — just tracks and trestles. Think of it as a kind of training-wheel development period for the authority’s engineers.

The high-speed rail plan has come under attack from nearly every corner of California, with officials in various cities and towns upset over suggested routes that would impact commercial areas as well as bumping out whole neighborhoods. Peninsula Assemblyman Jerry Hill said he would push legislation this week that would no longer allow members of local transportation authorities to sit on the high-speed rail agency after a recent disclosure that some Southern California officials accepted consulting fees from firms vying for the right to build the estimated $43 billion system.

That is the kind of political chicanery we can expect from a massive development project that has already had millions in cost overruns. But general stupidity to start the project in the middle of nowhere — that’s a surprise. After some Peninsula groups threatened to file a lawsuit to block construction of the opening segment of the rail line, federal transportation officials ordered the authority to start the project in the Central Valley, where it had access to more open land. They were also concerned about losing about $3 billion in federal stimulus money — fears that we can now conclude were justified.

The concept of linking Borden, which is so small that the U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t even do population estimates for it and Corcoran, known primarily as home to one of the state’s most violent prisons, seemed to mystify even other members of the rail authority after the agency’s CEO, Roleof van Ark, sprung it on his transit colleagues.

We can appreciate wanting to have a relatively unobstructed space to make the initial phase of the rail line go more smoothly. Still, leaving out any major population centers is like running a ghost train in the country’s most populous state.

All this is happening, of course, just as San Francisco is taking a wrecking ball to its Transbay Transit Terminal, in hopes that the new one will be greeted by high-speed trains sometime during our lifetime. Now there may be some serious questions about the future of a bullet train jetting through the Golden State, since state voters may be wondering about the officials who are handling the $10 billion in bond money they approved in 2008.

Public opposition over eminent-domain rights to land needed for the train route is one of the reasons the authority acted as it did. But you’re not going to evade controversy by starting a $43 billion project in an alfalfa field.

Still, you will invite a lot more critics to hop on board.

Ken Garcia appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@sfexaminer.com.

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