The Loma Prietan - July/August 2010

High-Speed Rail on a Siding?

by Trish Kaspar

We'd love to see high-speed rail (HSR) from San Francisco to Los Angeles, as trains are far more energy efficient than either planes or cars. However, in California 'high-speed' apparently applies only to the trains, not to the project. The project lurches and chugs slowly through badly-thought-out planning, a shaky business plan, inadequate risk management, and improper tracking and oversight by the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA). The project, according to an April 2010 report from California State Auditor Elaine Howe, is very much flawed.

Add to these ingredients a large measure of underfunding, and the program could come to a screeching slowdown, if not a halt. Proposed beginning construction dates, as well as intended completion time, remain "flexible." The auditor's report, in many instances, sends the CHSRA back to the financial drawing board. Other state officials such as Senators Joe Simitian and Alan Lowenthal concur with the report, as does the Legislative Analyst's Office.

Local communities also have gotten on board the criticism express. Recently, mayors of Burlingame and Palo Alto and the former mayor of Atherton spoke at a press conference that introduced a report by French high-speed rail route designers Setec Ferroviaire. This report offers an alternative to the currently CHSRAproposed Pacheco Pass route, which would bisect Peninsula cities on its way south. The French designers suggest an Altamont Pass corridor, wending down from there through the Central Valley. Other alternatives abound, such as options to combine CHSRA and Caltrain, with transfers to Caltrain express lines. Integration with existing airports and transit systems is part of the outline for creating what works best. The scroll of options unrolls, and the rail project rolls on.

Beyond these alternatives, combinations, and considerations, issues such as land use and property acquisition by the CHSRA weigh heavily on the process of achieving an acceptable plan that will satisfy all parties.

Many questions linger about HSR. Will ridership sustain viable HSR income? What's the best way to make the least impact on not just the land itself but the people on both sides of the track? Can Curt Pringle, the new CHSRA chair, solve the problems? Will this get built before Florida's Tampa-to-Orlando proposed high-speed rail line? The list of questions lengthens; let's hope answers emerge as the project continues working--and reworking--its plan.

Trish Kaspar is a member of the Loma Prietan Editorial Board.