Mountain View Voice

Opinion - September 13, 2013

Trackless train still sputtering along

Despite opponents lobbing multiple legal attacks, the state's high-speed rail juggernaut continues to roll ever closer to breaking ground for a segment to nowhere in the Central Valley.

Even with a business plan that offers more promises than solid funding sources and a ruling by Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny that the rail authority violated state law and "abused its discretion" as it attempts to begin construction of a 140-mile segment of the line between Bakersfield and just north of Fresno, its backers manage to push ahead. Ever since voters approved the $9 billion plan for the controversial San Francisco to Los Angeles high-speed train in 2008, opponents have kept the rail authority hopping to avoid lawsuits, survive the lack of further federal funding by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, and critical assessments by various oversight agencies.

Judge Kenny's decision last month argued that while the rail authority had the funds to construct the first set of tracks, it did not the list funding sources for a segment that can actually be used, as required by law. Last year the state Senate, with then-Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto opposed, narrowly authorized $2.6 million in bond funding and to accept $3 billion in federal funding to build the first segment of the project. But, Kenny argues, the rail authority's listing of potential federal funding sources for operating the line is hardly a sure thing, although he did not attempt to shut the project down.

And the authority can hardly be happy with the provisions of a bill just signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown that will make it very difficult to build additional tracks for high-speed trains on the Peninsula. At one time, the rail authority had hoped to add two tracks next to the existing Caltrain tracks, which would have moved the tracks perilously close to homes along the right-of-way.

In another ruling, Judge Kenny ordered that portions of the environmental review for the 400-mile line be rewritten, but the good news for the authority was that the court reaffirmed its preferred route, through the Pacheco Pass, despite criticisms about the ridership projections the rail authority used to back up this decision.

Nevertheless, huge questions remain about the viability of the high-speed rail line, a tremendous undertaking that is very seductive at first glance but fails to meet many other challenges, including a woeful lack of dedicated funding. Already, as part of the Senate vote, portions of the $9 billion authorized by voters have trickled away, some to electrify the Caltrain line and some to support rail projects in Southern California.

It remains possible that when it is completed the Central Valley segment could link up with a north-south rail route, but at the outset, the link will not even be able to carry high-speed trains. And at this point, it is highly possible that other segments of the line, including on the Peninsula, could not be built and put into service for 20 or 30 years, if ever.

With a total price tag of $68 billion or more and very little likelihood of more federal funding, it will fall on the state to support this behemoth project. At this point, it makes no sense to proceed with a Central Valley segment when there are such limited prospects for ever completing the project to link San Francisco to Los Angeles by high-speed rail.

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