The members of California's High Speed Rail Authority have announced major changes to the structure and cost elements of the massive program. Whether the modifications pass muster in the state legislature next week remains to be seen, but the Authority has at least opened the door for critics to take an important second (or is it third or fourth?) look at the proposed project.
With respect to structure, the new plan envisions a build-out process that will begin in the Central Valley per the federal government's requirement and move south into the greater Los Angeles area. By tapping into a large population, the project should be able to generate traffic and revenue within 10 years, sooner than previously expected.
Cost, the most critical factor, has a revised price tag of $68 billion. That's $30 billion less than the
previous estimate but still $25 billion higher than the amount pitched in the original proposition. Much of the reduction will come from using existing tracks in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. The service may a bit slower because of competition with other rail traffic, but the savings may be well worth the trade-off.
Clearly, the Rail Authority has done a good job in creating a more efficient, less expensive plan for building the high speed rail system.
But is it enough?
The original bond passed by the voters in 2010 provides $9 billion for the system and the Feds have kicked in another $3.5 billion, but those numbers combined are a long way from the new projected cost of $68 billion.
So, where do we get the money? This is the central question that remains without an answer. From the state?
We're broke and in the midst of massive cutbacks to woefully under-funded programs.
From the Feds? They're broke and very divided. Despite the Obama administration's commitment to high speed rail, the Republican-led House of Representatives wants to spend fewer transit dollars on high speed programs in the northeast.
From the private sector? So far, there's been no interest in any joint partnership.
There are many laudable reasons to develop high speed rail in California, ranging from less pollution to tens of thousands of high-paying jobs to passenger convenience. But unless we have a firm grasp on the funds necessary to build the project, going forward may be a disastrous move.