Is this Summer Make or Break Time for CA High Speed Rail?

By Noel T. Braymer

The California High Speed Rail Authority has signed a construction contract for work in the Fresno area. Final construction plans are being made, some land has been cleared around Fresno and the process of buying right of way around Fresno is underway. This spring the Authority plans to award a second major construction contract for most of the new railroad south of Fresno to a point near the  Kern County Line north of Bakersfield. What is unknown is when or even if the 4.5 billion dollars from Prop 1A bond money approved so far by the legislature out of 9.95 billion will be released by the courts. Of this money 2.6 billion dollars is the State’s share for the current 5.8 billion dollars for construction in the San Joaquin Valley. The Federal share for construction is 3.2 billion dollars. Another 1.9 billion dollars is for the Prop 1A bond money planned to help fund several projects around the State for projects to help feed passengers to the future High Speed Rail network.

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This is from a Power Point Presentation given to  the LOSSAN Board on March 17, 2014. Click on all images to enlarge.

The Brown Administration has gone to the Appeals Court to rule on this current lawsuit which is holding up release of the State Bond money. It is unknown how soon the court will act and come to a final decision on this case. This could happen sometime this spring.

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Back in January of this year, State Assemblyman Jeff Gorell ( R-Camarillo) announced he was leading an effort to place on the November ballot a measure to overturn Prop 1A which would effectively kill the California High Speed Rail project. This is the latest of several attempts to overturn Prop 1A at the ballot box. At least one previous attempt was accepted by the Secretary of State to collect signatures for a ballot measure back in 2012. Like most attempts to place measures on the ballot this 2012 effort went nowhere. Assemblyman Gorell’s measure has been accepted by the Secretary of State and has until the end of July to turn in just over a half million signatures from verified California registered voters in order to qualify for the November election.

At the end of March the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) published results of a poll of Californians made in March on many issues. One of the topics was High Speed Rail. Here is a summery of this poll’s findings from PPIC


Californians were asked about another big project:a high speed rail system. In 2008, voters passed a $10 billion state bond for its planning and construction.Today, when read a description of the system and its $68 billion price tag, 53 percent favor it and 42 percent oppose it.Likely voters are less supportive (45% favor, 50% oppose) Majorities in the San Francisco Bay Area (63%), Central Valley (57%),Orange/San Diego (54%) and Los Angeles (52%) are in favor. Inland Empire residents are divided (45% favor, 46% oppose). When opponents of high speed rail are asked how they would feel if the cost were lower support rises (69% adults, 60% likely voters). Asked about high speed rail’s importance 35 percent of adults and 29 percent of likely voters say it is very important to the future quality of life and state’s economic vitality

What is interesting about this Poll is it reflects the same level of support shown when Prop 1A passed in November 2008. Prop 1A passed by a 52.62 percent margin. Most of the yes votes came from the Bay Area, around Sacramento and Los Angeles County. In the San Joaquin Valley in 2008 it was supported by the counties with the largest cities like Kern, Fresno, and Merced. The 2008 election had larger than usual voter turnout, even for a Presidential election which greatly helped to get Prop 1A passed. In this recent PPIC poll the issues of greatest concern for Californians were jobs and the economy, not opposition to High Speed Rail.

If construction can get underway this summer, support of the High Speed Rail project will increase. Voters are more likely to support a “winner” and if they see money being spent in their communities. This PPIC Poll suggests that people are not opposed to High Speed Rail as such, as concerned about the costs or lack of benefit to them.

Governor Brown has proposed to spend up to 6 billion dollars of Cap and Trade money to match with 4 billion left in the Prop 1A Bond money to build 85 miles of High Speed Railroad between Bakersfield and Palmdale. This won’t include electrification or electric High Speed Trainsets. There is some money to double track in the San Fernando Valley between Los Angeles and Palmdale. But to achieve running times under 3 hours between Los Angeles and the Bay Area will require major tunneling between Sylmar and Palmdale.

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Having a passenger railroad connection between Southern California through the San Joaquin Valley to the Bay Area is an important first step. The California High Speed Rail project is expected to be run for profit like most passenger railroads around the world. Private financing is critical to completing this project. That won’t happen until there is a viable passenger rail service in place with an income stream to pay investors to finance major improvements.

As imperfect as the current High Speed Rail Project is, it is the only game in town. It is the only one with the support of the Governor. If the current Prop. 1A bond money is stopped: that kills the 3.2 billion dollars in Federal Funding for the project. Money is tight in government as it is, largely due to the “Tea Party” . Transferring this 13 billion in existing money and possible 6 billion in Cap and Trade to other rail projects won’t happen. Literally we would be back to square one, trying to pass a ballot measure to get the support for a State Wide Rail Passenger project. There is popular support for better rail passenger service in California. Most ballot measures for more rail service pass in California. When these measures don’t pass it is because they barely miss the 2/3 majority needed for a tax increase. If the High Speed Rail project stalled this summer it won’t end progress for rail passenger service in California. But it will delay it for years.


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