Derailing the bullet train

A decade ago, shortly after California voters narrowly approved a $9.95 billion bond issue to finance a statewide bullet train system, an official involved in early planning for the project confided a dirty little secret.

While a 200-mile-per-hour bullet train was the sizzle sold to voters, he told me, the unspoken motive was getting more money to expand commuter transit services in the San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California without having to directly ask voters.

The bond issue set aside $950 million for such auxiliary transit systems on the theory that they would feed passengers into a bullet train system.

By and by, as construction of the initial bullet train segment in the San Joaquin Valley stalled due to mismanagement, cost overruns and stiff local opposition, advocates of the regional urban transit projects began to chip off pieces of the other $9 billion in bonds that voters had approved.

The most aggressive raids were led by sponsors of upgrading the Caltrain service between San Francisco and San Jose from diesel-powered trains to electrification – especially after bullet train officials stopped trying to build a separate line down the San Francisco Peninsula due to adamant local opposition and agreed to “blend” with Caltrain.

An amendment to the 2012 state budget allowed bond money to be used for “bookend” projects, meaning Caltrain and Southern California’s Metrolink service, and a 2016 bill, patched together in the final days of that year’s legislative session, legitimized the raid on bullet train funds even further.

Now, as the bullet train project gasps for air, more diversions of voter-approved bullet train bonds may be in the offing.

Gov. Gavin Newsom says he wants to concentrate on finishing the San Joaquin Valley segment, with extensions to Bakersfield and Merced, which would cost about $20 billion, and then connect it to the Bay Area via conventional rail service. A train that now runs between San Jose and Stockton, known as the Altamont Express, would be extended to Merced.

However, the Los Angeles Times reported last week, “Key California lawmakers have devised a plan to shift billions of dollars from the Central Valley bullet train to rail projects in Southern California and the Bay Area, a strategy that could crush the dreams of high-speed rail purists.

“Assembly Democrats see greater public value in improving passenger rail from Burbank to Anaheim, relieving congestion on the busy Interstate 5 corridor before the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and putting additional money into San Francisco commuter rail.”

Improving transit in the state’s most congested urban areas, advocates of the new scheme contend, is more important than the patched-together system that Newsom has proposed.

“I like the concept,” Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon told The Times. “Any project that doesn’t have a significant amount of service to the largest areas in the state doesn’t make much sense.”

It’s difficult to argue with that logic, especially since the bullet train project has utterly failed to attract the many tens of billions of dollars needed to become a reality.

Were the new legislative proposal to prevail, one presumes that the current construction, running from Chowchilla to an orchard near Shafter, would be completed and used for regular-speed Amtrak service. But it would leave Fresno and other San Joaquin Valley cities without the high-speed service they had once been promised.

The plan now gaining traction in the Legislature would acknowledge reality and could hasten an end for the ill-conceived, mismanaged bullet train, even Newsom’s much-abbreviated version.

It’s about time.

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