Thursday, February 17, 2011




From almost the moment in 2008 that voters passed Proposition 1A and authorized $9.9 billion in state bonds for a high speed rail (HSR) system spanning much of the state, opposition became loud and determined.

In places from Palo Alto to Washington, D.C., there has been screaming about things like bait-and-switch, poor route planning, false estimates of ridership and the charge that this will just plain be another government boondoggle.

Those crying out against the plan have included city councils and congressmen, farmers and residents of cities to be bisected by 15- to 40-foot-tall viaducts that will carry trains whooshing along at a top speed of 220 mph.

There have also been allegations of conflict of interest against HSR board members who serve on other boards and city councils, including the authority’s chairman Curt Pringle, a former Republican speaker of the state Assembly who is the longtime mayor of Anaheim. Coincidentally or not, Anaheim is a major stop on the planned system.

All this provides a sense of urgency for project backers, who want desperately to get something solid on the ground to show voters before someone qualifies another ballot measure cancelling out the 2008 vote.

Enter the stretch from the practically non-existent hamlet of Borden in the southern part of Madera County, just across the San Joaquin River from Fresno County, to Bakersfield. That’s where the rail authority plans to build its first segment, one that won’t even be used until other stretches link it to big cities in either Northern or Southern California. By itself, then, this stretch will serve no one.

The moment the planned first segment was announced, critics began deriding it as a high-speech path to nowhere.

But the choice was probably dictated the moment the Obama Administration last fall earmarked $715 million in federal money for Central Valley high speed rail development. Those dollars need to be spent, or at least committed, quickly or there’s the threat that the new Republican majority in the House might try to make them go away, along with another $600 million added later. It still might happen. There was no chance the HSR authority would simply kiss off what amounted to a gift of more than $1 billion toward the $4.3 billion total estimated cost of the segment.

The authority also knew it would almost surely get bogged down in lawsuits and other objections to its plans for the more congested, higher-use stretches of the rail line, designed to reach from San Diego and Los Angeles to San Francisco, with an eventual spur into Sacramento.

Never mind that building segments between San Diego and Los Angeles or from San Jose to San Francisco could serve myriad passengers right away, before the largely rural area now chosen, whose main urban component, if it’s built, would cut through downtown Fresno.

The agency isn’t talking about its real motives, but another one surely was to let the rest of California – and Congress and Obama – see as many as 80,000 new jobs generated by the time ground is broken on this part of the project, scheduled for no later than Sept. 12 because of deadlines for use of federal stimulus money.

There’s also the fact that Bakersfield Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the new No. 2 man in the GOP’s congressional hierarchy, has talked about forcing the HSR authority to give back $2 billion in stimulus funds. Commit them to this quickly, and that might no longer be possible, even assuming President Obama would let it happen.

In short, this segment won’t serve anyone soon, but it would be a “fact on the ground,” allowing high speed rail proponents to say that stopping work before the entire thing is built would waste what’s already been done, even if the tracks could be converted for use by normal trains.

It now seems likely that the high speed rail authority will get that much done. But the volume of opposition, and its merits – questions about everything from eminent domain issues and effects on farming to apparently inflated ridership and revenue estimates and whether Chinese loans or investment should be allowed at some point – clearly call for the authority to reconsider parts of its plan and go for something a bit more modest.

Perhaps the planned Pacheco Pass segment, running over the Coast Range along Highway 152, and connecting San Francisco Peninsula segment, too, should be reconsidered in favor of a northern terminus near Livermore, with tracks running over the Altamont Pass beside Interstate 580. The terminus could be linked to special Bay Area Rapid Transit trains running non-stop into San Francisco, or possibly stop in Oakland en route.

That would largely mimic what Amtrak does now, with buses running from its trains in Emeryville to San Francisco. It would also save billions of dollars in land and construction costs, not to mention untold years of lawsuits.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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