Strong criticism about the financial viability of the High-Speed Rail project is making it more likely that its funding plan will either be delayed or scrapped. A broadside from a Peer Review Committee last week said flatly that the Legislature should not approve the $2.7 billion the Rail Authority is seeking to start construction on the first segment, between Fresno and Bakersfield in the Central Valley.
And this week, state Sen. Joe Simitian began to lean more toward the "no" side, telling the Weekly that unless something changes, he cannot support the bond issue this year, which the Authority says it needs to capture $3.5 billion in federal funds. Simitian said he is not prepared to make a decision yet that would be based on two bad choices: Either accepting the Rail Authority's plan to spend $6.2 billion in the Central Valley for the first segment or putting an end to the high-speed rail project if funds are not approved.
Instead, Simitian said he is trying to find exactly what the state would get for $6.2 billion; to determine whether the project meets guidelines contained in Proposition 1A and whether the federal guidelines are flexible enough to permit a delay in making a go-ahead decision on the first segment. Rather than rush into something that he and others cannot support, Simitian said he will urge the High-Speed Rail Authority to take another year to bring in a better proposal.
We appreciate the Senator's position, but we believe there is plenty of information available now that adds up to overwhelming odds against releasing any funding.
Other legislators are heading that direction. Republican Assemblywoman Diane Harkey, R-Dana Point, introduced a bill this week to stop the project, based on a critical report by the state auditor as well as the Peer Review Committee's call to stop funding. Many Republicans in the Legislature oppose the project and some Democrats are joining them. Harkey also noted that a recent Field Poll found support among voters is dwindling for high-speed rail, with a large majority saying they would like to vote again on the project.
The City of Palo Alto is already on record as a firm opponent, following the City Council's call in late December for the Authority to terminate the project after a new business plan showed the project's cost had more than doubled to about $100 billion and would take until 2033 to complete, 13 years beyond the original estimate.
Then came the highly critical Peer Review report last week that shows how it might be possible to build a $6.2 billion, 130-mile rail segment in the Central Valley that has no trains, is not high-speed and brings little, if any, efficiency to the few passengers that might use it.
Simitian said the first segment would use up 25 percent of all state funds and 100 percent of the federal funds with no further funding identified by the Rail Authority, a point echoed by the Peer Review panel.
"The fact that the funding plan fails to identify any long term funding commitments is a fundamental flaw in the program. Without committed funds, a project of this nature could be forced to halt construction for many years before additional funding could be obtained. The benefits of any independent utility proposed by the current business plan would be very limited versus the cost and the impact on state finances."
As we have said in this space before, now is simply not the time to risk billions of dollars of state or federal money on this pie-in-the-sky project. We urge Sen. Simitian to use the remaining months of his time in the Legislature to bring this project to a halt. We see little if any hope that more funding will materialize from private or government sources anytime soon, if ever.
We worry that if the Rail Authority receives approval to spend $6.2 billion to begin the first segment in the Central Valley, there will be tremendous pressure to keep the project going until it reaches the Caltrain corridor on its way to San Francisco. This should not be allowed to happen. Sen. Simitian and other Bay Area legislators should lead the way to end this project.