Saturday, April 14, 2012




          It’s beginning to look like California will get bullet trains after all, but it won’t be quite as grandiose a system as what the state’s High Speed Rail Authority at first wanted or what voters approved in the 2008 Proposition 1-A.

          This apparent new reality can still be thwarted, of course, if an initiative now circulating that aims to scrap the entire system should qualify for either this fall’s ballot or the next scheduled general election in 2014 or if the Legislature votes to delay sales of the bonds from 1-A.

          But there’s a new air of realism about the authority’s ideas, starting from when Gov. Jerry Brown cleaned house thoroughly during the first year of his newest term. For sure, all the environmental and economic issues raised in this column and elsewhere are now helping shape bullet train construction plans.

          For one thing, rather than spend all of the first $6 billion or so of project money on a section of rail through the Central Valley that could not be used much for many years to come, the idea now is to put a good part of that money into places where it will create immediate improvements.

          It’s not that either the Los Angeles or San Francisco areas will see bullet trains flashing through their suburbs at close to 200 mph anytime soon, if ever. But the newest revamp of the high speed rail business plan calls for at least $1.5 billion in upgrades to existing Caltrain and MetroRail trackage and trains in the next three to four years.

          That would both improve existing train service and make the rails fit for high speed trains when they arrive. It also serves another purpose: The better commuter train service becomes, the more Californians will get used to riding the rails routinely. That’s important because the more accustomed people are to using trains, the more likely they will be to ride bullet trains around the state if and when the service starts. That’s vital to future bullet train financing, which has rested from the start on a presumption that once California’s $9.9 billion in bonds, plus some billions more in federal aid, are spent, private investors will move in. They won’t, until and unless they’re convinced ridership will actually reach the optimistic levels often predicted by the rail authority.  

          All this means there’s no more talk of 40-foot viaducts running up the San Francisco Peninsula, cutting communities in half. Less talk about the same kinds of elevated tracks through the San Joaquin Valley.

          In fact, the entire “train to nowhere” label critics have brought to bear since the rail authority board announced in 2010 that its first segment would connect a rural point in Madera County with another open area in Kern County might disappear if the authority follows through on extending that first segment to run from Burbank to Merced, via Palmdale, Bakersfield and Fresno, which would make that segment at least somewhat useful immediately on completion.

          At the same time, a staff report from the state Senate’s Committee on Budget and Fiscal Review implies that repayment of the already-authorized bonds doesn’t have to burden the state budget nearly as much as some have complained.

          Current estimates (the actual amounts will vary according to the rating of California bonds at the time these are sold) place the yearly bond repayment burden at about $700 million. Of course, it will be several years before all the voter-approved state bonds are sold, and repayment amounts will be lower until then.

          But the Senate report notes that $915 million yearly in truck weight fees is available right now for debt service on transportation bonds. If the Legislature wants, it could use all that money for these bonds without touching the rest of the general fund budget.

But it will never need all the truck money, which the report notes has never been ticketed solely for road maintenance – a common misconception. Rather, that weight money can be spent on highway safety, traffic reduction, clean air improvements, passenger rail and seismic retrofits.

Bullet trains fit into at least two of those categories aside from high speed rail itself – traffic reduction (train passengers will not be driving) and passenger rail. So the money for repaying the bonds is already there if future Legislatures and governors choose to spend it on this. That means the bullet train bonds don’t need to impact other spending, one fear expressed by critics.

          All of which leaves high speed rail just about where it should be at this time: free to proceed if legislators let it, unless lawsuits somehow stop it – and so far there are none looking potent enough to do that.

     Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit