DERAILED: California’s high-speed train project going nowhere fast

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The only thing speedy about California’s vaunted plan for a high-speed rail system connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco is the name.

But after decades of fits and starts involving lawsuits, alternative routes, environmental studies, political deals, funding shortfalls and a statewide vote, the time finally may have come for one of the nation’s most ambitious and expensive public infrastructure projects either to zoom ahead or jump the tracks.

“We’re at a crossroads,” said Stuart Flashman, an Oakland lawyer representing King County and landowners affected by the project. “The [California High-Speed Rail] Authority made a series of political deals that deviated very markedly from what it was first set up to do and what the taxpayers voted for. Now, its past has caught up with it.”

In a state famous for its love affair with the car and notorious for its slow-moving traffic, a bullet train has been on California’s agenda since the 1990s. During that time, the project has become increasingly ambitious. The estimated cost has ballooned from $33 billion in 2008 to $68.5 billion. Expanding beyond San Francisco to Los Angeles, the proposed route now includes the Central Valley cities of Merced, Fresno and Bakersfield.

But the high-speed rail authority’s ability to execute that plan has been thrown into doubt yet again by two recent rulings. On Nov. 25, a Sacramento judge indefinitely blocked the authority’s access to $10 billion in state bonds, saying the rail’s latest modifications have strayed too far from what voters approved in 2007.

A week later, the federal Surface Transportation Board rejected a request to allow the start of construction before the completion of an environmental review on the 114-mile stretch from Bakersfield to Fresno.

Adding another layer of complexity to the situation is the role of the Obama administration, which approved matching grants for the project as part of the 2009-10 federal stimulus but whose funds are set to expire in 2017. California’s project received the biggest slice of the more than $12 billion the federal government has doled out to states since 2009 in hopes of encouraging more high-speed rail projects, with minimal results to show.

The setbacks have emboldened the bullet train’s critics, led by Republicans and budget hawks such as the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which says the California project has evolved into an expensive and unworkable money pit.

U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, a Republican who represents Bakersfield, called the court ruling “yet another self-inflicted setback for the California High-Speed Rail Authority and a small victory for California taxpayers.”

“With no private funds, unreliable ridership numbers and the reliance on taxpayers to eventually bail the project out — it should not move forward,” Mr. McCarthy, the third-ranking congressman in the House Republican hierarchy, said in a statement. “My colleagues and I will continue our efforts to deny any federal funds going toward this unworkable boondoggle in the future.”

Wendell Cox, a senior fellow at the Heartland Institute, called the court decision on funding a “victory for the rule of law.”

The decision “means California government officials cannot ignore the state’s laws, even when its leadership finds them politically inexpedient. The ruling forbids the state from arbitrarily casting aside legally binding promises,” he wrote.

The day after the court ruling, two influential Republicans, Rep. Jeff Denham of California and Rep. Tom Latham of Iowa, requested a General Accountability Office review of the federal matching-funds agreements with the state.

Evidence also shows voter support is flagging. A USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences/Los Angeles Times poll released in late September found that seven out of 10 voters want another chance to decide on the project. More than half, 52 percent, said the plan for high-speed rail should be stopped, and 43 percent want California’s most ambitious public works project to stay on course.

“It’s clear that most people who want a chance to vote again want that chance in order to change their vote,” said Dan Schnur, director of the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll and director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.

Gov. Jerry Brown and fellow Golden State Democrats continue to champion high-speed rail, backed by environmentalists who see the system as an opportunity for the state to reduce its carbon footprint by cutting back on car trips.

Dan Richard, who heads the authority’s board, said the setbacks come with the territory and won’t derail the effort.

“Like all transformative projects, we understand that there will be many challenges that will be addressed as we go forward in building the nation’s first high-speed rail system,” Mr. Richard said in the Fresno Bee.

High-speed rail was sold to voters as a train that would travel at 220 miles per hour and deliver commuters between Los Angeles and San Francisco in as little as two hours and 40 minutes. In 1999, the project was reconfigured to include the Central Valley — the first section set for construction runs between Merced and Fresno — and a “blended system” that combines high-speed trains with existing Caltrain commuter trains from San Francisco to San Jose.

Mr. Flashman said that decision had more to do with the political clout of Central Valley lawmakers than the merits of the expansion. He argues that the state should scrap the Central Valley route and return to the original plan for a straight north-south shot along Interstate 5, which would save as much as $31 billion.

Nadia Naik, co-founder of the all-volunteer watchdog group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design, said all the twists and turns essentially are making residents motion-sick.

“Generally, people are just annoyed that we can’t get this done but other countries can,” Ms. Naik said.

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