The promise of high-speed rail

Pub date May 8, 2007

EDITORIAL Imagine — there’s a project on the drawing board in Sacramento that would:

Get two million cars off California’s roads.

Eliminate any need for expensive and environmentally damaging new runways at the San Francisco International Airport.

Create tens of thousands of high-paying jobs for economically depressed Central Valley communities.

Generate untold billions of dollars in long-term economic development in the state.

Make the ugly trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles a simple and affordable pleasure.

Represent the single most important contribution California could make to cutting global warming.

Pay for itself in 10 years.

Why isn’t everyone in the state demanding that it go forward immediately?

That’s the strange question about high-speed rail. It makes perfect sense on every level. It’s the sort of project that ought to satisfy every interest group in the state. The environmentalists love it; so does the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce.

Yet Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is prepared to effectively defund the agency that is planning the project, the California High-Speed Rail Authority, and is moving to ensure that the first installment of the money the project needs won’t be in the next set of infrastructure bonds, on the 2008 ballot.

The governor’s position is baffling, and the only explanations his staffers have offered are so factually inaccurate that they’re laughable. The Democratic Party supports it — but this project needs more than just a few statements of support. It needs to become such a priority for the state that the legislature can force the governor to move forward on it.

A high-speed rail line would carry people from downtown San Francisco to downtown LA in a little more than two hours. At current estimates, the trip would cost about $40. The technology is proven; high-speed rail works all over the world. In terms of energy use, it’s about the most efficient and environmentally sound way of moving people around that exists. The demand is clearly there. The total price tag — about $40 billion for a full build-out from Sacramento to San Diego — isn’t cheap, but every estimate shows that the project will pay for itself a decade after the first trains start running. That’s a great deal, even a spectacular deal, for any public works project.

But time is of the essence. Every year of delay hikes the price of the project by $2 billion. The high-speed rail agency ought to be racing at full throttle to get a plan on the next possible ballot — but instead, the governor’s budget is giving the authority less than a tenth of what it needs to keep going.

The nonpartisan legislative analyst says in a recent report that if the governor won’t fund the high-speed rail authority this year, the legislature might as well shut it down.

This is utter insanity. High-speed rail is crucial to the state’s future and needs a lot more champions. Don Perata, the senate president, and Fabian Núñez, the assembly speaker, need to tell the governor in no uncertain terms that the high-speed rail agency must be funded, and the first installment of bonds must be on the November 2008 ballot.