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Lance Simmens

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High-Speed Rail on Right Track

Posted: 04/13/2012 3:23 pm

The California High-Speed Rail Authority is listening and has heard the complaints, criticisms, and suggestions of local and state officials, individual citizens, and communities, and concluded that many of those concerns are valid. Subsequently, the Authority has put forth a revised business plan that makes significant changes in the draft document released just five months ago for consideration by both the Board and the public.

The revised plan adheres to a pledge by Gov. Brown to construct the country's largest infrastructure project better, faster, and cheaper. It is better because it fully utilizes existing rail infrastructure, in response to community concerns about building additional dedicated track and widening right of way in dense urban areas. It is faster because it makes investments in local rail improvements that will benefit commuters while the system is being built. It is cheaper because by making these modifications and reducing the time it takes to make the system operational the overall cost is reduced significantly.

Thus, in a decade, Californians will be able to travel on a high-speed rail system that will connect the two mega regions in the North and South through a growing Central Valley. This connectivity will bring enormous economic benefits in both the short-and long-terms to all regions of the state. In the short-term it will mean 100,000 job-years of employment over the next five years in the Central Valley, a region with the highest unemployment in the state. In the long-term it will continue to position California as a leader in the twenty-first century global economy by having the option of a world-class transportation system.

High-speed rail will help address the infrastructure and transportation demands of a state that is expected to see its population rise from 38 million currently to between 50-60 million by mid-century. High-speed rail will be a viable and competitive option to meeting the mobility needs of an expanding population but will also do so by enhancing Californians' quality of life. By reducing the need to build additional highways or aviation facilities to accommodate such growth, huge environmental benefits will accrue: such as reducing 320 billion vehicle miles traveled over the next 40 years, saving 3 million tons of carbon emissions annually, reducing by 146 million hours annually time spent sitting in traffic, and reducing automobile fuel use by 237 million gallons each year.

The revised business plan addresses several criticisms leveled at high-speed rail head on. For instance, much has been made of the cost and the lack of a dedicated funding source for a project the size and scope of which has never been seen before in this country. While federal stimulus dollars ($3.3 billion) have been secured for the initial build out of the Central Valley component, the State Legislature is being asked to appropriate $2.7 billion from voter-approved Proposition 1A passed in 2008. While additional federal funding is anticipated to be available to help complete the project, proposals to use Cap and Trade funds as a backstop until these funds are secured helps address concerns about funding uncertainty. Once operational it is expected that private sector investment will help offset the costs. Thus, a funding source has been identified. In addition, because the project will realize cost savings due to its accelerated construction schedule and the reduced costs associated with blending services with existing rail lines, the total costs are projected to be $68.4 billion. In a previous plan a fully dedicated track system from San Francisco to Los Angeles was projected to cost in excess of $98 billion.

The adjustments made in the revised plan show a willingness on the part of the High-Speed Rail Authority to be responsive and responsible. What it means to Californians is that they can be assured that the project represents a wise investment of scarce public resources, an investment that will reap tremendous benefits now and in the future. In 17 years you will be able to board a train in Los Angeles' Union Station and arrive in San Francisco's Transbay Transit Center at a cost of 83 percent of an average airfare. In today's dollars, the cost would be $81 one way.

The revised business plan also addresses many financial concerns, such as whether or not the projected ridership numbers will yield an operating profit without a subsidy. A world renowned panel of experts has worked with the Authority on a number of scenarios using realistic, credible, and conservative assumptions to validate that indeed the numbers stand up. In each of the scenarios presented, a high, medium and low set of ridership assumptions based on different yearly projections the number of riders surpasses the number needed to break even, in other words the system will operate on a profit and not require an operating subsidy.

Some have questioned whether the revised business plan will meet the requirements laid out in Proposition 1A. In other words, will blending operations with local rail systems allow the system to achieve the two-hour, forty-minute travel time stipulation by traveling at speeds of at least 200 mph from Los Angeles to San Francisco? The answer is yes. It has always been a given that when entering dense urban areas the trains will need to reduce speed, this is true whether you use blended tracks or dedicated tracks. The revised business plan comports with the requirements in Proposition 1A and is therefore consistent with what the voters approved in 2008.

Some have opined that they support the concept and not the project. The revised business plan has carefully incorporated solid suggestions made by lawmakers and the public in order to assuage those concerns. There will be some who continue to oppose the project but it will not be because of a lack of responsiveness to costs or legality. This plan represents an honest effort to respond to the needs and concerns of all Californians, and it will not please everyone. But it is the right thing to do, at the right time, and in the right way.

 
 
 

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