Wednesday, July 13, 2011

High Speed Rail Authority: Assuming the "Train to Nowhere" is a Great Idea, Here's Where We're Going Next

The San Jose Mercury News has the latest episode in the saga of the great California boondoggle that will not die: the state's High Speed Rail Authority is responding to criticisms about its "train to nowhere" plan, in which the first stretch of the line will be built between the tiny Central Valley communities of Corcoran and Borden. Now, HRSA is clarifying where the construction will proceed after that: the first major city to be serviced by high speed rail might be San Jose. Or maybe Palmdale, or San Fernando.

Of course, for HRSA, responding to criticisms about the "train to nowhere" doesn't mean actually moving away from it: the plan is still to spend $6-$8 billion on the Corcoran-to-Borden stretch. After that, the rail authority will build out the line before it begins service. This second phase of construction will either move northwest to the Diridon Station in San Jose, or south to the edge of the Los Angeles region. HRSA won't make up its mind as to which direction to move in until next year. Which makes sense: they still have to figure out details like how much the project is going to cost, where the bulk of its funding will come from, and who will actually operate the line once the trains are up and running. The latest estimates put the cost of the San Jose extension at $7 billion, whereas the costs of the southern extension are believed to be around $5 billion. Sharp readers will note that HRSA doesn't currently have this money.

It's not clear which of these options is more problematic. On one hand, with the city of Palmdale suing HRSA in federal court over the planning of the southern stretch of the line, it's not clear that the choice of Palmdale versus San Fernando would pass without incident. On the other hand, the San Jose option is significantly more costly, and the plan to extend the train from there to San Francisco faces stiff opposition from Peninsula homeowners; HRSA has ceased planning activities there while exploring the option of using the Caltrain tracks for high-speed trains. Which will leave the state's taxpayers wondering if $15 billion (at the low end of cost estimates) is a fair price to pay for two-hour transit from San Jose to Bakersfield.

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