Reality may finally be catching up with the vision – or pipedream – of a 200-mile-per-hour train connecting California’s northern and southern regions.
A few weeks ago, the High-Speed Rail Authority released its latest “business plan” that was supposed to tell Californians how the brief stretch of track now being constructed in the San Joaquin Valley can grow into a system stretching from San Francisco and Sacramento in the north to Los Angeles and San Diego in the south.
While the latest version of the plan, drafted by the latest of several management teams, appears to be more realistic about cost and construction schedules than its predecessors, it’s still sorely deficient, as its official reviewers pointed out last week during a legislative hearing.
After a decade-plus of cogitation, they said, the state still doesn’t have a complete scenario for raising the tens of billions of dollars it would take to extend the San Joaquin section into the San Francisco Bay Area via San Jose and southward to Los Angeles.
The plan suggests that the northward extension, which is the first priority, might be built with a bond issue backed by the project’s dedicated share of revenues from the state’s “cap-and-trade” auctions of greenhouse gas emission allowances.
And then, it continues, there would be an operable segment that would generate revenues from riders that could be used to finance the southward extension.
However, the plan contains caveats for the scheme to work, such as extending cap-and-trade from its current end date, 2030, to 2050, and offering lenders some guarantees to back up the notoriously volatile emission auctions.
The reviewers look somewhat askance at such a scheme.
Louis Thompson, one of the nation’s top rail system experts who chairs the project’s official “peer review” committee, sees “little prospect” that fares from the first extension could finance the second. He told legislators that the project, a favorite of Gov. Jerry Brown, is “at a critical point when difficult decisions need to be made,” and cited the need for a “credible long-term plan to finance the system.”
The Legislature’s budget analyst offered a similarly skeptical view of the business plan in its review.
Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor’s staff said there are multiple “issues” such as potentially higher costs than the current $77.3 billion estimate (twice what voters were told in 2008 when they passed a $9.95 billion bond issue), “significant uncertainties” about the bond issue proposal and finally, the lack of a “complete funding plan.”
The review concluded, “It is crucial for the high-speed rail project to have a complete and viable funding plan (and) at this time, no such funding plan exists.
There’s probably enough money to complete the 119-mile San Joaquin Valley stretch, which can be used for Amtrak service, and money is being spent to improve commuter service both in the Bay Area and in Southern California.
After that, the finances are very dicey, and it would be foolhardy to begin any extension without, as the business plan analysts say, a complete and viable financing plan. And if such a plan can’t be produced, we should call it quits on a project that was never grounded in reality.