In its struggle to gain credibility in the wake of more than doubling the cost to build a high-speed-rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles, state rail authority officials Tuesday offered nearly $1 billion to help electrify Caltrain and a similar amount to a Los Angeles rail system.
It is an appealing offer. Caltrain desperately needs to electrify its aging fleet of diesel engines and upgrade its rolling stock and train control system to serve a growing number of riders. But if the state High-Speed Rail Authority's deal is accepted, Caltrain will effectively endorse blending its Peninsula corridor trains with high-speed trains on a mostly two-track system with passing lanes, which could end any talk of the four track sets in the original high-speed rail proposal which were roundly criticized on the Peninsula.
Under the blended plan, high-speed trains would reach speeds of over 200 miles per hour through the Central Valley and over Pacheco Pass to San Jose, where they would slow to just over 100 miles per hour to make the run on to San Francisco. Until recently, this plan -- originally advanced by state Sen. Joe Simitian, Rep. Anna Eshoo and Assemblyman Rich Gordon, all Peninsula Democrats -- was deemed unworthy by high-speed rail engineers. Then at a hearing held Tuesday in Mountain View, Dan Richard, the newly appointed chair of the high-speed rail authority and board member Jim Hartnett, embraced the idea, calling the Peninsula and Los Angeles segments "bookends" of the system, which will still include construction of a Central Valley segment that critics have called a "train from nowhere to nowhere."
No financial details were available when the new plan was rolled out, but Richard said that officials are rethinking the entire high-speed rail concept "...so that each station (segment) in front of us will have something that is useful -- like Caltrain electrification..." Whether the new approach, which would incorporate some parts of the existing system, will bring down the total price is not known. Last year estimates of the total cost jumped from about $40 billion to $98.5 billion. Rail officials had no answer Tuesday when asked whether there have been any changes in the project's overall cost estimate.
And that is the key question that we hope stays on the mind of every state legislator who ultimately will have to vote on whether to authorize sale of more that $2 billion in bonds to begin the "bookend" portions of the rail project. So far, the rail authority has yet to find any support from private industry to add to $10 billion in state bond funds and another $3.4 billion in a federal grant that must be used to build the Central Valley segment.
Palo Alto City Councilman Pat Burt, who chairs the Peninsula Cities Consortium (made up of Atherton, Menlo Park, Belmont, Burlingame and Brisbane) said he is concerned about the early investment which would be placed with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. He said the "devil will be in the details," and that he has already heard that the cities will not have a voice in any agreement (like financing Caltrain electrification) between the MTC and rail authority.
On the other hand, without help from the rail authority, it could be years before Caltrain ever finds the funds to electrify the rail line, which it desperately needs to accommodate more Peninsula passengers and increase speeds between San Jose and San Francisco.
Richard said the challenge for the authority is to show that construction of the Peninsula segment would provide lasting value even if the entire project does not get funded. A revised business plan "...will have a more rational basis for how the system develops..." he said.
It is no surprise that the thousands of jobs created if the project is built has great appeal to Peninsula and Los Angeles-area legislators. And by beginning work first on the "bookends" the rail authority has overcome a huge hurdle present in earlier plans, which would not have seen trains running for 10 years or so.
Nevertheless, the true test of whether the state wants and can afford high-speed rail must rest on its business plan. With the state and federal governments continuing to struggle to merely pay for day-to-day operations, the idea of adding to our debt load doesn't make sense.
The Peninsula and Caltrain could benefit from this new design, but in our view, that is not enough to justify its approval. Until the authority produces a viable business plan, we urge the legislature to sit tight.