State high-speed rail project slowing to a reasonable speed

From its inception, California’s high-speed rail project had two troublesome aspects: It was a dreamy solution in search of a problem, and it could become a money pit draining taxpayers’ money better spent on other, more cogent needs.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority, whose credibility has been shredded by countless missteps, unveiled a much revised “business plan” Tuesday that largely deals with the money-pit issue.

It slows down and stretches out the construction schedule and merges the high-speed system with existing lower-speed commuter rail services in urban areas — thus mitigating at least some of the local opposition. And it promises to avoid open-ended financial commitments for construction or operational subsidies, even though the total cost has more than doubled from initial estimates.

Whether a 200-mph bullet train is a rational approach to California’s transportation issues is still problematic, since local rush-hour congestion is the biggest problem. But at least the newly revised plan scales back the pie-in-the-sky ridership figures that the rail authority was peddling, but no one was buying.

Gov. Jerry Brown appointed two advisers, Michael Rossi and Dan Richard, to the CHSRA board recently, and by all accounts, they rewrote much of the plan to deal with its many political and financial problems. Chairman Tom Umberg called it “a new time, a new day and a new beginning.”

The new version would still begin with a $6 billion, 130-mile section roughly between Fresno and Bakersfield, financed with a federal grant that specifies that route, evidently for local political reasons. It’s been dubbed “a train to nowhere,” and standing alone, that’s not an inaccurate epithet.

Its fate depends on what would, or would not, happen next.

As envisioned, the next section would extend service either southward to the outskirts of Los Angeles or northward to San Jose. That looms as a major challenge because it would require an additional $20 billion, most likely from the federal government.

However, support for high-speed rail in Washington is scant outside the Obama White House.

The extension, the plan says, would make it an operational high-speed system that would generate enough ridership and fare revenue to pay its operational costs. And that track record, in theory, would entice private or foreign government investors to finance extension to San Francisco on the north and Anaheim on the south, and eventually to Sacramento and San Diego.

Will it all come to pass?

The plan doesn’t promise success, and it also doesn’t over-commit the state. Its numbers seem to be much more realistic, and it appears to quiet at least some of the local opposition, especially on the Peninsula. So we’ll see.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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