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In California, Obama's High-Speed Rail Network Slowed By Authority's Miscues

Paresh Dave |
May 9, 2011 | 7:57 p.m. PDT

Deputy Editor

Obama's initial announcement of the high-speed rail plan in April 2009. (Creative Commons)
Obama's initial announcement of the high-speed rail plan in April 2009. (Creative Commons)

They are the women who ditch their heels and relax into walking shoes at the end of the day. They are the men who prefer light messenger bags or rolling briefcases. They are the people found at L.A.'s Union Station who commute to and from work everyday by train.

"The 5 to the 73 to the 405 to the 710,” San Juan Capistrano resident Kirk Rose said while shaking his head and putting down his messenger bag. “The chances of an accident on one of those freeways and a three-hour drive turning into a five-hour one are not worth it.”

Rose is one of 7,000 riders who board an Amtrak train on an average day along the rail corridor between San Diego and Los Angeles—the nation's second-busiest.

With California projected to absorb 20 million new residents in the next 40 years, a majority of state voters and President Barack Obama have demanded a sexy alternative to what likely will become clogged railways, freeways and airways along that coastal route and the Central Valley.

The aim is to construct a high-speed rail network connecting Anaheim to San Francisco, San Diego to Sacramento, Los Angeles to Palmdale and San Francisco to Sacramento. It would be a network faster than anything this country has ever seen, cultivating a new community of occasional train riders who bring with them on longer trips their whole families, carry-ons and checked baggage.

But two years since Obama introduced his blueprint for regional high-speed rail networks in the country's most congested corners, he's in jeopardy of having none of them start construction before he faces re-election. The projects have had to cede to objections from spending-conscious Republican politicians and have suffered from an uncoordinated public relations campaign to defend the idea.

Proponents of high-speed rail say gas prices are soaring and the number of people who view freeway construction as grossly illogical is rising. On the other side, some transit advocates wish Obama had prioritized building smaller light-rail projects in big cities.

“High-speed rail wouldn't change anything for me,” said Fullerton resident Charlie Do. He belongs to the group that commutes by train every weekday. Do would have to travel an extra 20 minutes south from his home to reach the nearest planned high-speed rail station.

“I would take high-speed rail maybe to San Francisco twice a year if it was cheaper than airfare,” he said.

Costs and ridership are where the debate begins here in California. The state's High-Speed Rail Authority received about $8 billion in bonds for the high-speed rail project. Voters approved the money by a five-percent margin in the same election that carried Obama into the White House. The Obama administration has granted the Authority another $3 billion and counting, including a fresh $300 million infusion on Monday. A series of smaller grants could be announced in the coming months.

A report by the state Legislative Analyst's Office to be released Tuesday afternoon after legislators are briefed on its content is expected "discuss some major challenges the state faces in developing the project and new approaches that could increase the odds of its success."

The Authority stands by a projection that 30,000 riders will travel between L.A. and San Francisco each day by 2030. Transportation experts, including those at the University of California, Berkeley say the figure is derived from flawed methodology.

If the ridership projections are off, then so would be revenue calculations. Voters banned the system from receiving any public subsidy for operations.

The Authority says ticket sales would generate $2.3 billion in 2030 if they charged half the cost of airfare for the same trip. As of 2008, the San Francisco to L.A. ticket was planned at $68. Extra costs set aside, Southwest Airlines tickets come for about half that cost.

Legislators and opponents want the Authority to correct the projections. The Authority responds that waiting around for a new study would cause it to lose federal funding. Various media reports since December have noted a federally imposed September 2012 deadline to begin construction.

An official at the Federal Railroad Administration said this week there's no such deadline. An Authority spokeswoman pointed to a cooperation agreement with the FRA signed at the end of 2010. The document mentions September 2012 as a goal—not an absolute deadline.

Spokespersons for the agencies also pointed fingers at each other when asked which of their bosses made the decision to begin construction in the Central Valley between the outskirts of Fresno and Bakersfield. Though the funding agreement handed down by the FRA requires the segment to be constructed first, the FRA official said it was put in there after the state authority's approval a few days earlier.

Either way, the decision has been heavily criticized for not touching a denser region such as San Diego to Los Angeles. One of the projects biggest supporters defended whoever made the decision.

“We might as well build where we can do the most,” said Daniel Krause, the executive director of Californians for High-Speed Rail. “It's flat, so there's not a lot of engineering tricks or costs.”

The Central Valley start also could be a smart political move for the authority in two ways. It creates jobs in a Republican-dominated area, and it makes it hard for legislators to defund the project until the middle-of-nowhere segment connects to the coastal metropolises.


California first started toying with the idea of high-speed trains the first time Gov. Jerry Brown was in office in the late 1970s. The authority was born in 1991. It grew teeth in 2008 when 53 percent of California voters approved Prop 1A (the bond measure). Legislators said after all that waiting around, the authority was somehow unprepared to handle a big infusion of cash.

“We need you to start stepping up and solving problems and not keep putting up new impediments,” Sen. Joe Simitian said at a hearing last week to Authority officials. The Bay Area Democrat supports the project.

The Authority is not completely at fault. The state only funds 19 full-time positions at the Authority. This summer, lawmakers could finally authorize more positions.

The Authority covers the deficiency with private contractors. For example, it relied on a patchwork of public relations firms across the state to help facilitate hundreds of community meetings. Without a solid plan from the outset, the authority and its contractors struggled reacting to negative commentary.

Every large project has its detractors. What makes this situation unique is the diversity and magnitude of claims because there's never been a project this big.

There are the farmers who think dividing their land would render it useless. There's even a factory for disposing of dead cows that says high-speed rail would put it and dairy farmers out of business. In Menlo Park, there's a handful of elderly homeowners who don’t want the project in their backyard. Martin Engel, who created an anti-high-speed-rail blog and posts almost daily to explain why the project is unnecessary, is one of them.

“Building a whole new system is terribly expensive,” he said. “The real demand is in big population centers, not here.”

There's now a handful of bills moving through the Legislature to give the state's regular bureaucracy more control over designing the project. Lawmakers frame it as lending a hand to the authority.

One proposal, which Krause supports, is adding a pair of internationally acclaimed high-speed rail experts to a board of directors filled with what many see as political lackies. One would be an expert on the engineering side and the other on the business side.

David Crane, an authority board member and former advisor to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said he wishes the Legislature made it absolutely clear that the buck stops with the governor.

“Layers of oversight adds to nobody having oversight,” he said. “People should be able to point their finger at someone who is elected by the whole state.”


In the City of Fresno, former political science professor Gary Nachtigall follows the high-speed rail project closely. He's certain his family's trips to San Francisco every couple of months would be by high-speed rail instead of car if the network existed. Nachtigall and his family should be the sort of faces featured in regional ad campaign to maintain positive momentum for the project. Instead, Krause admits the authority's growing pains have dominated in the media.

Whether or not the families of Nachtigall, Rose of San Juan Capistrano or Do of Fullerton will ever have the luxury of reaching San Francisco by train is in the hands of an authority that is slowly stabilizing itself.

Legislators and voters only will accept so many more missteps and so much more miscommunication. Those in power recognize Obama's desire to stick a shovel into the ground near Fresno at the end of next summer, two months before the presidential election. He finally could prove some action on his promise that in America, “We do big things.”

“High-speed rail is a game-changer,” Krause said, borrowing from Obama's lexicon. “Without taking bold steps, we will never have the transformational effect we need for the future.”

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