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Prospects dim for billions in federal high-speed rail funding

Courtesy California High-Speed Rail AuthorityAn artist rendition depicts a proposed high-speed rail in California.

WASHINGTON – California’s futuristic plans for 220-mph bullet trains linking the Bay Area with Los Angeles and beyond are facing a moment of truth.

Prospects for a $19 billion federal infusion – covering more than 40 percent of a $43 billion system that would be the nation’s largest single investment in transportation infrastructure in decades – dim each day as Washington scrambles madly for trillions of dollars in savings to raise the national debt ceiling.

If completed, California’s system would be the first truly high-speed rail network in the United States. Bullet trains would race down the San Joaquin Valley, linking Sacramento to San Diego and tying into the Peninsula that links San Francisco and San Jose.

More than $250 million has been spent so far, but the real money will kick in with the scheduled start of construction between Bakersfield and Fresno in 2012, whose is estimated to cost $5.5 billion.

House Republicans want to kill the entire venture. They zeroed out all funds for high-speed rail in their budget and voted last week to redirect rail funds, including $368 million for California, to flood-control projects in Missouri.

At the same time, a string of highly critical reports from outside panels have questioned the project’s feasibility.

This month, a panel charged with reviewing the California project warned that it lacks a viable business plan and urged a reassessment of cost, ridership estimates, anticipated funding and risks before committing the state to billions of dollars that it does not have.

“Our plan is to move forward, but obviously we are keeping a very close watch on the situation in Washington,” said Gil Duran, spokesman for Gov. Jerry Brown. “It’s not something we can do alone.”

Duran acknowledged that the federal commitment is part of a “very complicated picture with a lot of political battles putting pressure on our ability to move forward.” But he emphasized that there is “no project, no issue, no department where there are not treacherous conditions right now as far as federal support is concerned due to the shenanigans in Washington.”

Critics said it is time to pull the plug.

Future federal funding of the magnitude California is counting on is “a pipe-dream” said Robert Poole, director of transportation policy for the libertarian Reason Foundation in Los Angeles. “That’s just an astonishingly large amount of money given the federal budget deficit situation.”

Poole noted that President Obama’s call for a $53 billion, six-year investment in high-speed rail identified no funding source.

Acknowledging that California’s project is at risk, San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee joined the mayors of Los Angeles, San Jose, Sacramento and Fresno last month in blistering defense of California’s plans, saying no one knew in the 1950s where the money would come for the Interstate Highway System, but it was built nonetheless.

“A project of this scale in the United States never gets 100 percent of its funding immediately,” said Brian Stanke, co-founder and chairman of Californians For High Speed Rail, a nonprofit group that backs the plan. He cited the BART extension to San Jose, which is proceeding without full funding. “That’s considered very normal and no one says the sky is falling.”

State voters in 2008 approved a nearly $10 billion bond issue to build a high-speed rail system. The Obama administration is a big fan, allocating more than 40 percent of all available federal high-speed rail funding to California, more than any other state.

California has received $3.5 billion in federal money for its project from the 2009 stimulus and a large appropriation from the last Democratic-controlled Congress. It has also received a portion of federal high-speed-rail funds abandoned by Republican governors in Florida, Wisconsin and Ohio.

The system is counting on another $12 billion from private investors. But none have ponied up yet, partly because of uncertainty over federal funding.

New cost estimates for the project are due to the legislature in October.

Jeffrey Barker, deputy executive director of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, which is in charge of the project, said the project has plenty of funds on hand to start. “We’re farther ahead already with our federal funding than we ever imagined we’d be,” he said.

Supporters insist that California must build the project. The state is expected to add as many as 11 million more residents by 2025, reaching a population of 48 million. The alternatives to high-speed rail – more and expanded freeways, bigger airports and expansions of urban mass transit – will be just as costly, they argue.

“For every two train tracks, one running north and one running south, you would have to widen a freeway by six lanes to carry the same amount of people,” Barker said. “Imagine the impact that has on agricultural land, on cities, on sprawl. And still you’re stranded in the Central Valley with no new transportation options.”

But Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Alpaugh (Tulare County), has proposed legislation that would redirect rail money to improving Highway 99 between Sacramento and Bakersfield. Expanding Interstate 5 would also be a better investment, Reason Foundation’s Poole argued, because it would be supported by gasoline tax revenues.

Alain Enthoven, professor emeritus of public and private management at Stanford University and a critic of high-speed rail, predicted that the project will fail.

“It’s a huge risk and probably will lose a lot of money,” he said. “In our current fiscal straits, both federal and state, we just don’t have the money to spend on that, especially when we’re cutting high-priority health and social services for poor kids and education. I’d hate to see cutbacks to universities which are so important to our future economic growth and the welfare of society.”

Carolyn Lochhead is a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. E-mail Carolyn Lochhead at clochhead@sfchronicle.com. This story resulted from a partnership among six California news organizations following the state's high-speed rail program: The Fresno Bee, The Sacramento Bee, California Watch, The Bakersfield Californian, The Orange County Register and the San Francisco Chronicle.


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