On Wednesday, the High Speed Rail Authority released its latest project update which scales back the original route going from San Francisco to Los Angeles, in favor of building a 171-mile stretch of regular speed rail from Merced to Bakersfield. As the estimated price tag to connect the Bay Area and Southern California balloons north of $80-billion, the Authority believes this new "building block" approach will give the state more time to raise funds and expand the system. But critics and even supporters of high speed rail are less convinced, saying this isn’t what the public signed up for.
HIGH SPEED RAIL AND PROP 1A
Environmental attorney Stuart Flashman has litigated several cases against the High Speed Rail Authority on behalf of municipalities, preservationists, and rail industry professionals. He believes the Authority’s latest proposal violates both the spirit and the letter of Prop. 1A, the $10-billion high speed rail bond measure approved by voters in 2008.
"[In 2008] voters were very skeptical and the legislature knew they were very skeptical. So [the legislature] said here's what we're going to do, we're going to put in a lot of protections to make sure this isn't a boondoggle," Flashman said.
One such protection in the bill authorizing Prop. 1A states, "The planned passenger service by the authority in the corridor or usable segment thereof will not require a local, state, or federal operating subsidy."
According to the Authority’s report, rail service from Merced to Bakersfield would not have enough riders to cover operating costs, requiring a monthly subsidy to the tune of millions. Flashman believes this is a clear violation of Prop. 1a and potentially illegal if the state goes through with the plan.
"It’s certainly not what the voters thought they were voting for," Flashman said. "There’s very strong legal exposure here and I don’t think the legislature can get [the High Speed Rail Authority] out of this."
Flashman said he and government watchdog groups will be watching closely to see if the state proceeds as planned.
"We have to talk to the clients. It’s worth [filing another lawsuit] but we have a case that’s currently pending."
BRINGING HIGH SPEED RAIL TO THE BAY AREA
State Senator Jim Beall [D-San Jose] serves as an Ex-Offio board member at the High Speed Rail Authority. Beall disagrees that the new plan violates Prop. 1A, but he still calls the proposal unacceptable because it leaves out Silicon Valley.
"I'm not too happy with [the update]. They're going to build from Merced to Bakersfield and I think that's what the Governor wants to do. But I want him to do this stuff in Silicon Valley too,” Beall said. “I think if we do that, we'll make the project closer to reality."
Beall believes he can still salvage the project and bring high speed rail to the Bay Area by 2030. He wants to extend the state cap and trade program through 2050 and apply for additional federal grants to help finish the job.
But getting more money from the feds could be a challenge. In February, the Federal Rail Authority revoked a $900-million grant to help lay rail in the Central Valley due to the Authority’s inability to build on schedule.
Longtime critic Assemblyman Jim Patterson [R-Fresno] is calling for California’s Attorney General to investigate how this massive project got derailed.
"The problem I have with the way high speed rail goes about this is that they change definitions. This is a shell game," Patterson said. "The final nail in the coffin here was [NBC Bay Area’s] exhaustive investigative reporting."
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