New Business Plan Wins Fans at HSR Hearing
The revised 2012 Business Plan is not yet finished or published, but already it is getting positive reviews – including at last night’s hearing in Mountain View. Senator Joe Simitian tried to set up a show trial to make the high speed rail project look bad in front of a NIMBY crowd. But supporters turned out in big numbers to hear California High Speed Rail Authority board president Dan Richard turn in a strong, credible defense of the project that appeared to neutralize many of the criticisms:
Promising “improvements” to the state’s controversial bullet train plan, the new head of the project told a Senate hearing in Silicon Valley on Tuesday he now believes building high-speed rail would cost less than the alarming estimate of nearly $100 billion.
“I believe the number’s coming down,” Dan Richard told a packed auditorium Tuesday night. “Obviously the $98 billion was sticker shock for a lot of people.”
Using existing tracks like Caltrain and speeding up the construction schedule would bring down the costs of the project, Richard said in defending the much-criticized plan that Gov. Jerry Brown has appointed him to revive. He also promised quicker upgrades to Bay Area and Los Angeles commuter lines that would share the track and upgrading the initial leg of track in the Central Valley.
Richard said the project’s first segment in the Central Valley — dismissed by some as a $6 billion “train to nowhere” — will be tweaked to offer more “immediate benefits,” but he offered no specifics.
He also vowed to spend some $750 million in state funds in the next few years to help electrify the Caltrain line and $1 billion for similar commuter rail upgrades in Southern California, laying the foundation for bullet trains in those regions. The state’s new plan will call for launching train service sooner by breaking the 520-mile line into “bite-sized” segments that can be built quicker. Previous estimates had delayed full service between San Francisco and Los Angeles to 2034.
A cheaper project with a shorter timeline. That’s hard to argue with. Simitian tried, but Richard’s strong performance combined with the fact that HSR supporters showed up in enough numbers meant that Simitian’s hopes that the hearing would help undermine the project were completely dashed.
Richard’s pledge of a lower total cost and for funding to help improve urban rail projects, including Caltrain electrification, went over quite well with many elected officials in the room and others in the audience. Even Simitian had a hard time challenging these statements.
The two remaining criticisms appear to be that the CHSRA hasn’t found all the funding to build from SF to LA, and that building in the Central Valley doesn’t make sense. But critics are beginning to lose those arguments too. Hardly any major transportation project begins construction with every dollar in hand. Insisting that they do will bring almost all major projects in the state to a halt. Further, President Obama and Congressional Democrats have been clear that they support HSR funding, and if they win the 2012 elections many of the concerns about how to fund an initial operating segment will go away.
As to building in the Central Valley, the only way that’s a bad thing is if connecting SF to LA is not part of the plan. Of course, that’s the entire point of the project. Soaring gas prices and changing air travel trends make it a necessity that high speed intercity rail be built to connect the two largest metropolitan areas of the state, and the Central Valley is a natural route for that connection. Starting construction there makes perfect sense, along with interim upgrades to urban rail.
There’s no way to know yet exactly how the legislative vote on HSR funding will go. It’s money that voters have already approved, so in that sense legislators’ decision has been made for them. But last night could have only helped the cause of high speed rail. Simitian and Alan Lowenthal are going to have to find another angle of attack. I’m sure they’ll try, but so far they have failed to land a knockout punch.