California wants $4.7 billion in high-speed rail stimulus

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has applied for more than half the $8 billion allotted for high-speed rail. State officials say California's plan is the most shovel-ready.

California's decade-old dream of a bullet train is inching closer to reality.

On Friday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger applied for $4.7 billion of the roughly $8 billion of the federal stimulus funds set aside for high-speed rail projects.

The state has a good chance of snagging the money, say officials and some observers. With a high-speed rail authority formed as far back as 1996, California is further ahead in its plans than most states including in identifying key routes and completing design plans and environmental impact statements.

Most importantly, perhaps, state voters in November approved a $10 billion bond measure for a high-speed train line that guarantees the federal government that its investment will be matched dollar for dollar.

"They will get twice their investment back in jobs and economic stimulus in California," says Jeff Barker, deputy director for the California High Speed Rail Authority. Governor Schwarzenegger estimates California's plan can provide 130,000 of President Obama's goal of saving or creating 150,000 jobs through rail projects.

The state's high-speed rail plan aims to eventually run from San Francisco to Los Angeles in less than three hours, but initial phases include links from San Francisco to San Jose and Los Angeles to Anaheim.

Beating the competition

Still, California will face intense competition from other states, most notably from Florida, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Chicago.

Since the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, 40 states have submitted 272 applications for high-speed rail grants, totaling $105 billion in projects, according to the US Public Interest Research Group. Mark Paustenbach, chief spokesman for US Department of Transportation, says announcements may be made within a month.

In April, Mr. Obama announced a plan for a national high-speed rail network that identified 10 priority intercity rail corridors, including California, the Pacific Northwest, the Gulf Coast, Chicago Hub Network, Florida, and New England.

Vice President Biden raised Florida's hopes when, according to the Miami Herald, he told reporters June 3 that the state stood a good chance of securing stimulus money for two routes: Miami to Tampa via Orlando or Miami to Jacksonville via Orlando.

Florida has applied for $2.5 billion of the stimulus money.

However, most states' proposals are for trains with slower speeds, such as Virginia's plan for a 90 miles per hour (m.p.h.) train, says Mr. Barker. California touts its project as "the only true high-speed train," with top speeds close to 220 m.p.h. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Mr. Barker's last name.]

"Most other states are just talking of getting their existing Amtrak lines up to 125 m.p.h. capabilities," says Barker. "We don't think that's what the President is shooting for."

And while Florida has done a lot of studies and ground work on a high-speed rail system in the past, the state agency's application is the first concrete move since Gov. Jeb Bush (R) cut off funding for the idea in 1999, he says.

California's advantages

By contrast, "California is already much further along in knowing exactly where its routes will go, down to within 10 ft., and we already have our programmatic EIR [Environment Impact Review] completed," says Emily Rusch, state director at the California Public Interest Group (CALPIRG).

Planning and engineering for an 800-mile system has been creeping forward in California for more than 13 years, the initial routes of which include Los Angeles to Anaheim, San Francisco to San Jose and the Central Valley, and Merced to Bakersfield.

There is also high public support. The bond measure was placed on the ballot by an unusual bipartisan coalition of more than two-thirds of the legislature and with strong support from Schwarzenegger. The $40 billion-plus price tag sounds ominous in shaky financial times, but proponents claim alternatives are twice that cost.

"Labor, business, environmental and government leaders across the state are united in support of this historic proposal because it would lay the foundation for California's 21st century transportation system, create nearly 130,000 jobs and improve our mobility, quality of life and environment," said Schwarzenegger in a statement Friday.

The train system is not just a luxury, he and others argue. California expects to see its population grow by 13.5 million within 20 years, resulting in 90 million to 115 million more intercity or inter-regional trips. Without the train, supporting those 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.

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