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California’s High-Speed Rail Project Continues Despite Criticism

Hannah Madans |
February 15, 2012 | 4:22 p.m. PST

Associate News Editor

courtesy California High-Speed Rail Authority
courtesy California High-Speed Rail Authority
California’s high-speed rail project is already projected to take longer and be more costly than originally projected, but the obstacles facing it are not yet over. Governor Jerry Brown is trying to push the project trough the Legislature this year, though.

In January chief executive Roelof van Ark and the project’s board chairman Thomas Umberg both left the project. The two announced their resignation a few months before the project was supposed to start.

Van Ark was an engineering manager with experience in international high-speed railways. Umberg was a former state legislator.

Bullet train board member Matthew Toledo also resigned.

Brown has since appointed Dan Richard to the California High-Speed Rail Authority Board. Lance Simmens, ’s Deputy Director of Communications said Richard’s involvement has ‘helped generate an enormous amount of enthusiasm for building a business case for why this project should carry forward.”

“There’s been an enormous resurgence of energy and a new change in direction in the authority since Mr. Richard took the chairmanship,” Simmens added.

These resignations came a week after an independent review panel released a poor critique of the rail project and recommended that the state did not give it billions of dollars in bonds to help fund the construction of the initial 130-mile Central Valley section.

The review said the current plan was “not financially feasible.” The cost of the project tripled from original estimates of $43 billion and is now expected to cost around $98.5 billion dollars.

The report says the project has become “increasingly risky.”  State Auditor Elaine Howle said the project’s managers did not give viable funding alternatives if planned funding does not go through.

Howle said that in the Rail Authority’s 2012 business plan the cost estimate for the project is between $98.1 billion and $117.6 billion. The rest of the report, though, refers to the project as costing $98.5 billion, which is on the lower end of the estimated cost.

The report also said that these cost estimates did not include Phase One’s operating and maintenance costs.

Furthermore, the report points out that the project currently has only 10 percent ($12.5 billion) of the necessary funds.

It is also unknown where funding will come beyond the first 100 miles of the track

The rail is currently scheduled to be built in the Central Valley for first, but some think it should start in more urban areas of California.

It is scheduled to start in the Central Valley, however, because the federal government gave $3 billion for use for the first 130-mile leg north of Fresno to south of Bakersfield in the Central Valley. The Central Valley is one of the least populated areas in California.

Federal funds, however, are limited to that particular area which is why the project will begin there. The California High-Speed Rail Authority accepted the money, so they can start the project if lawmakers approve the initial state debt. If they fail to do so, the federal money will be forfeited.

“There are two reasons why it makes sense to start there,” Simmens said. “First of all, the property that you can obtain there is cheaper. And, second of all, you need a relatively flat, long stretch of track to use to test and operate the high-speed trains which are capable of doing an excess of 240 mph.”

Taxpayers initially agreed to a ballot measure that allowed for the rail to be built, but no public opinion polls say that voters would now reject the project if give the option, repots the L.A. Times.  Nearly two-thirds of people want lawmakers to put the package back on ballots and nearly 59 percent would reject it, according to Reuters.

The main concerns most taxpayers have is affordability. Many also think where the rail will run should be rethought.

In addition to the line being built in the Central Valley, major upgrades are conventional lines in L.A. and San Francisco regions. The upgrades would be blended into the ultimate goal of the project: a 500-mile high-speed 220 mph rail from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

Brown said that doing so would reduce future inflationary costs and the state would be able to lower the current price tag, which he told the L.A. Times was “way off….It’s going to be a lot cheaper.”

Some individual counties are also opposing the project. On Feb. 7 the Kern County Board of Supervisors voted to oppose the current high-speed rail plans. Supervisors Mike Maggard, Jon McQuiston and Zack Scrivner all votted in opposition of the project.

They opposed the project largely because the latest California High-Speed Rail Authority plan identifies just $12.5 billion in funding, according to Bakersfield Now.

The rail will need a lot of land to build on. The O.C. Register estimates that 1000s of families and businesses will have to move. The state authority has not yet know how much private land will be needed for the project or how much property acquisition will cost.

One area the O.C. Register says will likely be affected is the Tejon Ranch. The large, historic ranch  is the largest piece of continuous land in California, occupying 422 square miles.

During a plan proposed in May, the line would pass right by the area’s mountain resort.  Teojon Ranch Co. said it would oppose this plan.

Last month the California High-Speed Rail Authority decided to go with a further east route. The Tejon Ranch has not opposed this plan.

All plans suggested thus far would, however, pass through agricultural land. Soil in the Central Valley is high in nitrogen and phosphorous, which is good for farming high-quality pomegranates, pistachios and almonds.

“We have an agriculture working group established in the Central Valley and we are working very closely with farmers to determine what the impacts are and what the needs are and we are going to continue to work very closely with farmers to make sure, once again, that they are made whole and that there is as little disruption to their activities as possible,” Simmens said.

Famers told the O.C. Register that no amount of money could replace that kind of land. Famers also said that faming around the rail will come with high costs.

The high-speed rail will be walled off by fences or barriers. To cross the rail, there will be designated crossings. If the rail cuts through a farmer’s property, he/she will have to drive four to seven miles to get from on side of their field to the other, MEL Farms’ general partner Frank Oliveira told the O.C. Register. As a result, taking 100 ft. away could  cost 170 ft. because of the space needed to reverse equipment and bury irrigation systems.

Some people in the Central Valley, however, are in favor of the project, saying that it would attract new business and boost local tourism.

Brown has defended the project since its conception. Richard, the many who Brown appointed to replace Umberg, had helped Brown rewrite the project’s business plan.

Brown also wants the construction timeline to be accelerated to reduce inflation, reports the Sacramento Bee. He also wants to merge the new system with standard trains to reduce right-of-way and construction costs.

Still, the project remains highly controversial and it is still unclear where the money for the project will come from and when it will be complete.

Reach associate news editor Hannah Madans here.



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