Rebranding High Speed Rail

Katy Grimes: Another great idea from a few of California’s elected Democrats proposes a “blended system” integrating high speed rail with existing Caltrain service. Instead of saving California billions of dollars by chucking the plans for high speed rail right out the door, Democrats want to repackage the plan and resell it to Californians.

A press release sent out today from Congresswoman Anna Eshoo (D-Palo Alto), State Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) and Assemblymember Rich Gordon (D-Menlo Park), called on the California High-Speed Rail Authority to “rethink its plans for the San Francisco Peninsula. They proposed a blended system that integrates high-speed rail with a 21st Century Caltrain system. Such a system would cost less, provide both high-speed rail and improved Caltrain service, and be contained within the existing Caltrain corridor without elevated tracks, greatly reducing the impact on  downtowns and neighborhoods.”


The press release also states, “To date, however, the California High-Speed Rail Authority has failed to develop and describe such a system for the Peninsula and South Bay.  For that reason, we have taken it upon ourselves today to set forth some basic parameters for what “high-speed rail done right” looks like in our region.”


We start with the premise that for the Authority to succeed in its statewide mission it must be sensitive and responsive to local concerns about local impacts. Moreover, it is undeniable that funding will be severely limited at both the state and national levels for the foreseeable future.

They admit “if we can barely find the funds to do high speed rail right, we most certainly cannot find the funds to do high speed rail wrong.”

California can barely find the funds to pay its state workers and suppliers.

The state does not have the money to fund high speed rail, unless supporters are expecting the same top 5 percent of taxpayers who fund everything else in the state to carry this additional burden. But that hasn’t stopped the majority party from continuing to push for the pie-in-the-sky dream… or the sky-high price tag that goes with it.

While I am doubtful that the state’s Democratic legislators or Gov. Jerry Brown are doing much listening, Brown’s fellow governors are. Scott Walker in Wisconsin and John Kasich in Ohio both campaigned on ridding their states of the absurdly expensive, waste of taxpayer money known as high speed rail. And both governors have done just that. Between the two states, $1.2 billion of federal stimulus money had already been allotted, but they turned it down and asked the President to repurpose the money.

The Columbus Dispatch reported, “Kasich also wrote to Obama yesterday, asking him to make provisions for Ohio to use the $400 million in federal stimulus money awarded to the state for passenger rail on highway-infrastructure or freight-rail needs instead.

Apparently the White House referred Kasich’s request to the U.S. Department of Transportation, and Secretary Ray LaHood responded to the Governors:

“None of the money provided to Wisconsin may be used for road and highway projects, or anything other than high-speed rail,” LaHood wrote.

Other states have requested Ohio’s and Wisconsin’s share of the bootie. But Kasich said in his letter to Obama that if Ohio can’t use the money, it should be used to reduce the $1.4 trillion federal deficit.

Why can’t California elect a governor like Kasich?

Kasich even cancelled the $25 million contracts with consultants to study the environmental effects of the train service. And while the Ohio governor took heat for turning down the $400 million in federal money for that project, he never wavered from his argument that the rail would have been a waste of money because “it would have resulted in a slow-speed, north-south transportation link with no practical value.”


And according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, “The $1.195 billion originally designated for those high-speed rail projects in Wisconsin and Ohio will now be used to support projects in the following states:

  • California: up to $624 million
  • Florida: up to $342.3 million
  • Washington State: up to $161.5 million
  • Illinois: up to $42.3 million
  • New York: up to $7.3 million
  • Maine: up to $3.3 million
  • Massachusetts: up to $2.8 million
  • Vermont: up to $2.7 million
  • Missouri up to $2.2 million
  • Wisconsin: up to $2 million for the Hiawatha line
  • Oregon: up to $1.6 million
  • North Carolina: up to $1.5 million
  • Iowa: up to $309,080
  • Indiana: up to $364,980

Ray LaHood apparently doesn’t have quite the fiscal conservative chops that Kasich and Walker are blessed with.

Sadly for California, neither does Brown. Cutting off state employee’s cell phones and living frugally while increasing union pensions, and approving additional high speed rail spending, is going to bankrupt California.

The high speed rail system would almost be considered a silly idea, except for how much it is costing the state.

The rail project was awarded $3.6 billion by the federal government, and the High-Speed Rail Authority applied recently for even more money from the feds. But more federal funding is not a sure thing. According to many, $9 – $10 billion is only the startup cost for the rail project. The High-Speed Rail Authority estimates the costs in excess of $40 – $60 billion.

What’s worse is that several rail experts put the actual cost estimates of the rail project somewhere between $60 billion and $116 billion (that’s $60,000,000,000 to $116,000,000,000 — nine zeros!).

“An essential first step is a rethinking of the Authority’s plans for the Peninsula and South Bay,” reads today’s press release from Simitian, Eshoo and Gordon. They are right about that, but the rethinking that needs to be done involves defunding the entire project as Republican Assemblywoman Diane Harkey (Dana Point) tried to do – but her bill AB 76 , was killed the first committee hearing.

We are surely doomed.

(California Legislative Analyst’s Office Reports Related to High-Speed Rail)

APRIL 18, 2011

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