Bullet train coming to California ballots

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

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.

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.

This year, the state has a budget deficit of $16 billion, which could dampen enthusiasm for the train, but the California High-Speed Rail Authority, the proposal sponsor, has secured promises of federal matching funds and funding from public/private partnerships, and a 30-40 percent profit margin.

Though critics say the plan simply mimics the great high-speed trains of Europe, Japan, and China – but without the proven need or demand – proponents say changing life and work styles require the state to embrace new transportation options.

"The whole definition of 'commuter' is changing," says Mehdi Morshed, executive director of the California High-Speed Rail Authority. "The old model is people going to factory jobs from 8 to 5 … now people are driving 150 miles from one place to another two to three times a week for work, recreation, travel, once-a-week meetings – this generation is changing, and so will the next."

Critics say the funding and profit-margin projections are smoke and mirrors, put out by politically sophisticated backers.

"To believe this makes economic sense, you'd have to be foolish," says James Moore, director of the transportation and engineering program at USC. In Europe, he says, the cost of gasoline is higher, so trains make more economic sense for longer trips. "In the US, autos cover shorter trips better and airlines capture longer trips – that doesn't leave room for high-speed rail to compete. The economic plan crumbles at the touch."

Economic, environmental impacts

But Governor Schwarzenegger is pushing the idea for several reasons, including creation of jobs, the lowering of greenhouse-gas emissions per passenger mile, and taking cars off the road.

And he says the revised economic model will appeal to voters.

"This is really going to happen this time," says Sabrina Lockhart, a Schwarzenegger spokeswoman.

Yearly grosses from the rail's starter line – from San Francisco, to San Jose, to Merced, Fresno, Bakersfield, and Anaheim – would be $3 billion according to the authority, producing $1.2 billion in payback profit to bond and private investors. The train would also go up to Sacramento and down to San Diego via Riverside.

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