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Wednesday, September 5, 2007

California Supertrain Progress is Slow
High-speed train's near standstill
Sacramento Bee, February 1, 2007
In 1993, Arnold Schwarzenegger was starring in "The Last Action Hero." California politicians, meanwhile, were creating a commission to ponder the prospect of building an environmentally sound, cost-efficient, up-and-down-the-state high-speed rail system.
Now it's 2007. Arnold Schwarzenegger is starring in "Governor."And after 14 years, $30 million, two oversight panels, a couple of postponed bond votes and a whole bunch of planning, the dream of a high-speed rail system in California is on the verge of being slowly but inexorably starved to death.
"It's very frustrating," said Quentin Kopp, who is chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority. The authority was created in 1996, after a predecessor commission decided a passenger train system within the state did indeed make sense economically, environmentally and technologically.
What's frustrating Kopp is the bread-and-water budget for the authority that the Schwarzenegger administration has proposed for the budget year that starts July 1.
The rail folks have asked for about $104 million. Most of it would be used to pay for design and engineering plans and to purchase rights of way for a system that supporters say would zip along at speeds of up to 220 mph, carry up to 68 million passengers a year and require no taxpayer subsidies to operate.
But the proposed budget the guv trotted out Jan. 10 contains a bit over $1 million for the authority -- or just enough for it to pay a small staff and the rent on an office across the street from the Capitol.
That's the bureaucratic equivalent of treading water, at a time when the project at long last is ready to begin picking up steam.
At an authority meeting Monday, for example, trustees unanimously approved $298.4 million in long-term engineering contracts for Sacramento-to-Fresno, Fresno-to-Palmdale and L.A.-to-San Diego segments. But there is only $2.5 million in the current fiscal year's budget to begin paying for them.
Even $104 million is chump change for a project that could take a decade to finish and cost $37 billion in state and federal funds.
A $10 billion bond proposal that would give the project its first serious money -- and has already been postponed twice in the past three years -- is scheduled for next year.
But the guv wants to postpone the vote again, so it doesn't interfere with the $29 billion bond package he's proposing for the same ballot.
Rail board members and staff are politely apoplectic at the thought of more delay.
"That (proposal) is obnoxious," said trustee Rod Diridon, who with Kopp has been a leading advocate of rail systems for several decades. "We gave in 2004, we went along in 2006. It's our turn now."
To ensure that, however, the bullet train boosters will need to enlist sizable support in a Legislature that is replete with rookie members who are new to the debate.
And politicians being politicians, it's tough to rally support for a project that will not be completed until well after they leave office.
As Kopp put it, "They might be there for the groundbreaking, but not too many will be there for the ribbon-cutting."
That includes the guv, who clearly wants to leave a lasting legacy to the state, but who, like others before him, can't seem to resist quick fixes that will earn applause now instead of appreciation later.
So why not just put the whole idea out of its misery rather than throw it a million-dollar budget crumb? Because someday California may wish it had a high-speed rail system, like France or China or Mexico. And not even a "Last Action" hero wants to have his fingerprints on the budget gun that killed it.

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