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Bullet train coming to California ballots

Governor Schwarzenegger is supportive, but a $16 billion state deficit may inspire voters to say 'no' in November.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 9, 2008

Los Angeles

Like thousands of other college students in California, Jessica Jardine treks regularly from her home in Los Gatos in the north to university life in Los Angeles, in southern California. It's a five- to six-hour drive one way nearly every six weeks or a Southwest Airlines commute – which takes only an hour in the sky, but requires plenty of time getting to and from the airports.

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In November, Ms. Jardine will be able to vote on a 220-m.p.h. bullet train, which would zip serenely from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 2.5 hours.

"I would love to take a train, relax, use the time reading, talking on the phone, doing homework," says the University of Southern California graduate student.

If Californians approve the $10 billion bond proposal – enough to provide initial financing for the $42 billion system that could link north and south through the agricultural Central Valley –they will likely see the zooming trains in about a decade.

The price tag may sound ominous in shaky financial times. But the project could turn out to be half the cost of alternatives, proponents say. They calculate that the additional 13.5 million people expected to reside in California within 20 years will result in 90 million to 115 million more intercity or region-to-region trips. Supporting the travelers would require at least $82 billion in upgrades, including 2,970 additional miles of freeway lanes, 90 new airport gates, and five new runways.

"The only money ever spent by Californians [on this project] will be $10 billion, and we think that will make it highly attractive to voters even in these tough financial times," says Rod Diridon, executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute in San Jose, Calif.

The third ballot attempt

Previous statewide votes on the train were readied, then taken off ballots in 2004 and 2006. In 2004, the reason was a large state deficit that required a bailout bond measure, and in 2006, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger placed one of the state's largest infrastructure bond measures before voters. He and other state legislators did not want any romantic notions of speeding bullet trains competing for voters' attention.