Will the failing economy stop plans for the bullet train - again?
Thursday, October 23, 2008
An electric-powered, high-speed train crisscrossing California would be a big leap toward a greener economy and less-congested roadways. But economically anxious voters will have to commit the cash now for a two-hour trip from Gilroy to Los Angeles later.
Proposition 1A, which is on the Nov. 4 ballot, would allow the state to issue nearly $10 billion in bonds to get the $45 billion project rolling. The rest of the financing would come from matching federal and private funds. Gilroy would be the closest high-speed train stop to Monterey County. Combined with planned rail connections to Monterey and Salinas, locals would be able to zip up to San Francisco or down to L.A. without a worry about driving.
Naturally, the ambitious but highly priced bond measure has its critics, who say the state shouldn’t go further in debt given its bleeding finances. But supporters say this is the time to get to work on the bullet train despite the chaotic economic situation.
“Right now we ought to invest our money where we know there will be an economic return,” says Supervisor Dave Potter, who also chairs the Transportation Agency for Monterey County board. “When times are tough, the best thing to do is get projects out there putting people to work.”
If and when it is completed in 2030, the rail system could spur an estimated 160,000 construction jobs and another 450,000 permanent jobs sprouting from the bullet train’s potential boon to the California economy.
TAMC has endorsed the much-delayed proposition along with the Sierra Club, Democratic elected officials and labor unions. Opponents include the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, California Chamber of Commerce and Monterey Peninsula Taxpayers Association.
“The state can’t balance the budget and they want to add more payments and interest,” says Ron Pasquinelli, president of the local taxpayers group. “Our basic position is, get your own house in order first and then worry about doing all this stuff.”
Indeed, adding an estimated $647 million a year in bond repayments to the state’s budget is not a savory prospect. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently had to ask the federal government for a $7 billion loan to make payroll just in case nobody bought the state’s short-term bonds. (California did end up attracting enough investors for the first installment of the loan.)
COUNTY SUPERVISOR AND TAMC BOARD CHAIR DAVE POTTER IS AN ARDENT SUPPORTER OF PROPOSITION 1A.
A Field Poll taken in July predicted a positive result for Prop. 1A, with 56 percent of surveyed voters planning to vote yes. But that was before the budget impasse, the federal bailout and the stock market crisis all became daily headlines.
Mehdi Morshed, executive director of the state High Speed Rail Authority, says the train project will stimulate the slumping economy, noting that both the Golden Gate Bridge and Bay Bridge were built during the Great Depression. “Usually when the economy is not performing well, it’s time to start investing in infrastructure to support the economy,” Morshed says.
If the bond measure passes, the next two years will be primarily spent on planning and obtaining rights of way, which won’t tax the state’s General Fund and will give the economy time to recover, Morshed says. In addition, the bulk of the bond money requires matching federal funds before it can be spent.
But critics say the train system will have a much larger price tag, adding that the state has grossly exaggerated ridership projections and lowballed ticket prices. The state expects up to 117 million riders in 2030 and fares to cost $50 for a two-and-half-hour trip from San Francisco to L.A.
The project’s first phase– a line from San Francisco to Anaheim– would not be completed for at least a decade. The 800-mile system, which will stretch from Sacramento to San Diego, won’t be done until 2030.
The proposition would also provide $950 million to upgrade connecting services with the bullet train, such as Caltrain.
TAMC is working with Caltrain to extend commuter service to Salinas, Castroville and Pajaro by 2011. This would equal a 55-minute ride from Salinas to Gilroy and 45 minutes from Castroville to Gilroy, says Christina Watson, senior transportation planner for TAMC. By revamping the old Del Monte branch line with bus rapid transit or light rail, Peninsula residents could take an hour-and-15-minute public transit ride from Monterey to catch the high-speed train in Gilroy, Watson says.
From there, locals won’t have to worry about finding a parking space in San Francisco after a 45-minute ride from Gilroy to the city. Tourists from across the state could zip along at 220 miles per hour and connect to Monterey.
And there are numerous environmental benefits to high-speed rail (although some critics warn of potential damage to adjoining wetland areas). The state estimates it would reduce California’s carbon emissions by 12 billion pounds a year– the equivalent of removing more than 1 million vehicles from state roads. The train would be completely powered by renewable sources such as wind and solar power. (Cue a sleek, purple-and-yellow train flowing through windmills.) In a warming world, a high-speed train that would require one-fifth the energy as car travel should appeal to voters.
Rita Dalessio, chair of the Sierra Club’s Ventana Chapter, says $10 billion is a big investment now, but in the long run it would be more cost-effective than expanding airports and building more freeways. “We can’t keep going the direction we are going, which is widening roads and encouraging more automobile traffic,” Dalessio says.
Even anti-tax groups aren’t saying high-speed rail is an awful idea, but rather the plan is flawed and the proposition is ill-timed. Potter acknowledges that the economic timing may be bad but repeats his job-creation mantra.
“Is there ever a right time to come forward with new expenditures? That’s hard to say,” Potter states. “But if there is ever a right time when we need more jobs, this is it.”