By Melinda Welsh

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This article was published on 02.01.07

2 hours to L.A.—why not?

Instead of embracing high-speed rail as a key part of California’s transit destiny, the governor seems to be orchestrating a prolonged death for the bullet train

The year is 2020. It’s Friday after the workweek from hell, and John Bowie can’t wait for 5 p.m. to roll around. An Analyst II at the state Department of Education, John is set to sprint to the Sacramento rail station, jump on a bullet train and hang out with friends over beers in the café car during the two hours it takes to get to Los Angeles. When the train pulls into Union Station, John will catch the Metro or walk over to the Staples Center and watch the newly reorganized Sacramento Kings slug it out playoff-style with the L.A. Lakers. After the win (hey, the game went into overtime again!), John will hop back on the 220-mph bullet, snooze ’til Sacramento, arrive home by 1:30 a.m. and crash to sleep knowing he’s in no danger of missing his daughter’s soccer game the next morning in McKinley Park.

The whole journey there and back again took a fraction of the hassle, time and energy it would have taken to fly. No standing in line, no security screenings, no seat assignments, no baggage check—and, wow, more spacious seats. It cost him $48 roundtrip. If John had driven to Los Angeles for the game, it would have taken six times the energy and cost him plenty more in gas and an overnight stay. Plus, he would have missed his daughter’s game.

Welcome to transportation’s future.

Or so it should be.Somehow, though, instead of embracing high-speed rail as a key component of California’s transit destiny, the state’s politician-in-chief, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, seems to be orchestrating a prolonged and tortured death for the bullet train.

This is despite the fact that a state agency designated to oversee the project already has spent 10 years and $30 million studying the trains, engineering routes, conducting environmental-impact reports and devising a business plan for a state-of-the-art, high-speed-transit system that would stretch from San Francisco to San Jose, Sacramento to the Central Valley, Los Angeles to San Diego.

The distinguished-looking Mehdi Morshed, with his shock of white hair and earnest demeanor, is executive director of the agency in question: the California High-Speed Rail Authority. On the eve of the release of the governor’s new budget, he didn’t mince words when asked about Schwarzenegger and high-speed rail: “If he comes out to terminate it, that’s a disaster for California,” he said.

The people of California seem to agree. When last asked in 2003, two-thirds of the state’s citizens favored high-speed rail; earlier, in 1999, 62 percent even said they would pay for its construction.

It’s no secret, meanwhile, that many countries around the world have utilized modern rail technology for decades, recognizing it as faster, cheaper and more environmentally friendly than other modes of transport.

So what’s the holdup here? For that matter, why can’t a single state in the union get a high-speed-rail system out of the gates? Worthy efforts have been launched—especially in Texas and Florida—but they have been killed by politics, quashed by the highway lobby or simply ignored to death.

Now that the same thing seems to be happening in California, the question must be asked: Why on earth can’t high-speed-rail projects move forward in America?

Once and future trains

It was a cold, bright and squealing Saturday morning as crowds of Sacramento families flocked to Cal Expo for a recent model-train show and exhibit on California’s “railroad heritage.” The giant halls were alive with the vibration of children. “Trains … trains!” one boy shrieked to his guardian as he neared the entrance tent. Unexpectedly, those visiting the recent “Great Train Expo” seemed mostly to be polar opposites in age—either under 7 or over 70. Yes, grandfathers were everywhere—maybe even some who’d worked on trains long ago—and they were holding hands with delighted grandchildren. The young literally strained at the hands of the old, thrilled to be in the vicinity of trains. An old-fashioned locomotive whistle blew every few minutes outside the expo hall, causing the children to go apoplectic.

What is it about kids and trains?

But the show was not about these children inheriting a future with rails in it. This was about nostalgia for the grand American railroads of the past. Not a mention was made about trains in their more modern incarnation, i.e., high-speed rail. It seemed a made-in-America omission. Indeed, the rest of the world, for more than four decades, has become quite cognizant of the value of modern high-tech trains.

It was 1964 when white-and-blue Shinkansen high-speed trains first rolled out of the station in Japan. Now, four decades later, that transit system is lauded as a giant success (it actually turns a profit), and constantly is being upgraded and expanded. In Europe it’s much the same. France launched its premier TGV (train à grande vitesse) high-speed line in 1981; Germany’s InterCityExpress lines opened a decade later. Other high-speed-rail networks worldwide can be found in Spain, Italy, Sweden, Great Britain, China, Australia, etc. To summarize: Thousands of high-speed trains—including some maglev super-high-speed trains that use magnetic levitation and travel at over 400 mph—transport people across many continents every day, as regular as clockwork.

Even Iran has a high-speed-rail project moving forward.

But not in America—not in California.

And as this state’s population prepares to swell to 50 million by 2025 (that’s about 12 million new people), nobody doubts that a giant strain will be placed on the existing transportation network. This means increasingly congested highways, more crowded airports (especially at peak travel times), increased air pollution and, naturally, plenty more greenhouse-gas emissions that cause global warming.

Solutions have been attempted.

Governor Jerry Brown tried putting bullet trains on the state’s agenda many decades ago and, in 1978, his transportation guru Adriana Gianturco (now Gianturco-Saltonstall) led the charge for a California bullet train. Faced with mighty opposition from inside and outside the Legislature, the project ultimately went nowhere. When asked recently on her observation about the lack of a California bullet train, Brown’s former director of the state Department of Transportation said it’s “just outrageous” that California doesn’t yet have high-speed rail. “It could all be built-up by now,” said Gianturco-Saltonstall. “Now here we are with nothing.”

Having just returned from three months travel in Europe, Gianturco-Saltonstall was freshly aware of the contrast between America and Europe in regards to public transit. “High-speed rail is just a part of life there; it’s no big deal,” she said before asking the million-dollar question:

“Why is it they can do this and we can’t?”

Trains and vision

Despite that first failure in the ’80s, high-speed rail managed to re-emerge as an issue in the mid-’90s, as California politicians and transportation engineers again began exploring the idea of linking the state’s major cities with fast trains.

It helped that California wouldn’t need to develop the technology. By now, that work already had been done in other countries.

In 1996, Governor Gray Davis created the CHSRA and its nine-member board to oversee construction and operation of a high-speed-rail system. For the next few years, the agency reviewed potential corridors for a 700-mile network that would connect the state’s biggest cities. In 2000, a business plan was drawn up. It soon was clear that a projected 68-million passengers a year could ride by 2020. From the beginning, nobody doubted that the build-out of high-speed rail in California would be a sizeable investment. When the process began, the estimate was $25 billion; it’s now closer to $37 billion. This would constitute one of the largest public-works projects in the history of the world.

With the continued blessing of the Legislature, the Authority plowed ahead. The trains would be high-speed, steel-wheel-on-steel-wheel and would draw electric power from overhead wires connected into the commercial power grid. (Whenever the trains brake, that puts electricity back into the grid.) The trains would operate on a dedicated right-of-way speed of up to 220 mph (less fast in urban areas) with an express travel time from downtown San Francisco to Los Angeles of 2.5 hours; from Sacramento to Los Angeles of 2 hours, 8 minutes, etc. (See chart on page 23.)

The system—which would grow in its number of train “sets” over the years as rider numbers increased—would have multiple cars with a variety of options for travelers, such as a café car, business workstation, a “quiet car,” etc. It was decided that the system would be financed by a partnership between the public and private sectors. (A group called the Association for California High Speed Trains serves as the private-sector arm of this partnership and its board consists mostly of people from “eligible member” firms—like Parsons, HNTB Corporation or DMJM—who tend to be transnational-engineering, architecture or design firms that likely will vie to be involved in the build-out of the system.)

Among other things, it was found that construction of the line would create 300,000 jobs, a whopping 10,000 of them ongoing career positions. It was found that high-speed rail would reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 10 billion pounds by 2020. As for cost, projections were that riding the fast train would take roughly less than half of what it would take to fly, depending on whether a person was riding for business (this would cost more) or pleasure.

“For California, [the Authority] took the idea of high-speed rail from concept and vision to reality,” said civil engineer and longtime transportation planner Morshed, clearly proud of the work his agency has overseen since its birth. Though not quite a full-blown reality, obviously, it certainly can be said the CHSRA has brought the project as far as it could go, short of actual build-out. “I don’t think you could have a project of this magnitude go any faster,” he said.

In 2002, Governor Davis signed legislation that would put a $9.9 billion high-speed-rail bond measure in front of voters in 2004. This proposition would have begun the purchase of right-of-ways and the eventual construction of the system. But that vote was postponed due to alarm at the state’s growing deficit.

Unfortunately, that first stall began a year-after-year cycle of stops and starts, rekindled-and-then-dashed hopes for those who dreamed of making the bullet train a reality for California.

Planes, ______, and automobiles

It took Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible to properly introduce bullet trains to America—at least on the popular-culture level. Tens of millions flocked to the theaters to watch Cruise (as IMF agent Ethan Hunt) race at full-throttle from London to Paris on a TGV high-speed train. (Somehow Cruise winds up on top of the speeding TGV train doing battle with a double-crossing agent in a helicopter.) Anyway, the image of high-speed rail became printed into the minds of regular Americans. For those who hadn’t traveled abroad (that’s most Americans), the concept of fast trains was now something real. The U.S. transportation paradigm before always seemed to have been about freeways. Just get in your car and drive!

But it hadn’t always been that way. In fact, it wasn’t until after World War II that a combination of cheap oil and automobile advancements combined to take America’s transportation emphasis off railroads and on to the construction of a complex interstate highway system and the building of airports. (Interestingly, in post-war Europe and Japan, the emphasis was on rebuilding the existing transportation infrastructure, i.e., the railways.)

The oil, automotive and airline industries grew evermore powerful and became opponents, naturally, of transportation modes that competed with driving and flying. Also lobbying for highways and airports was another powerful interest group: the real-estate industry. Gianturco-Saltonstall said much of the push to kill California’s first attempt at high-speed rail came from an entrenched “highway lobby,” especially those who owned and developed land. “People with money want to develop property,” she said. “You put a highway in, and you can subdivide the land and sell it. You’re not going to sell it without a highway to get people there. … These are powerful people. The transit lobby is just not powerful.”

Take Amtrak as an example. It began passenger-rail lines in 1971, but operated near bankruptcy from the start and, these last years, has been under the gun year-to-year in Congress to achieve break-even “self sufficiency.” (Airlines have lost something like $36 billion since 9/11, but Congress doesn’t exactly expect them to break even any time soon.) Amtrak has received government subsidies, but they pale in comparison to those given to highway construction and airlines. For example: In 2005, Congress authorized $35 billion to go to new highway construction while Amtrak received around $1 billion.

Still, Amtrak did manage to take one step into the world of faster trains. In December of 2000, it launched the Acela, a “tilt train” system that began service in the Northeast Corridor, connecting Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York and Boston. However, this train isn’t considered true “high-speed” rail since it moves at a top speed of only 150 mph and rarely hits anything near that velocity because it was built using Amtrak’s existing and antiquated infrastructure.

But a few other states in the country have made significant runs at building dedicated, super-fast-rail systems. In the early 1990s, Texas transportation officials set up a Texas High Speed Rail Authority with a dream to unite Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio in a network of trains. It would cost $5.6 billion. The consortium designated to build and operate the system was supposed to raise all the money from private donors.

Then along came Southwest Airlines. The Dallas-based flyer dominates air traffic between the Texas cities in question and was not about to roll over to a potential competitor. This was war! The company organized an aggressive public-relations and lobbying campaign to prevent the company from meeting its fund-raising deadlines. By 1994, the project was unable to raise the money required, so existing investors backed out. The Texas Authority eventually was shut down. Score one for the airlines.

(When SN&R asked Southwest spokesperson Marilee McInnis whether the airline would take sides if a California bullet-train bond ever got to the ballot, she said, “Southwest … could never support the use of public money to subsidize such a system.” Still, she reported that the company was not at this time involved in lobbying or spending money related to a 2008 ballot proposal.)

Then there’s Florida. In November of 2000, Florida voters approved an amendment to the state constitution to construct a rail system that would link its largest urban areas—Miami, Orlando and Tampa—at a cost of $6 billion. In 2001, the Florida High Speed Rail Authority was created (also with a board and small staff similar to the California model). This project came even closer to reality than the one in Texas.

But surprise! Along came newly elected Governor Jeb Bush with his family’s famous ties to the oil industry. He opposed the rail plan and shocked his state when one of his first acts as governor was to kill the budget for the bullet train. He went on to lead a repeal of the constitutional amendment.

“Florida was ahead of us on high-speed rail,” said Morshed, shaking his head at the thread of politics that often determines the future of such projects. “Within two weeks of Jeb Bush being governor, it was over.”

The velocity of change

It was just weeks to go before California voters would head to the polls in the recent November election; Governor Schwarzenegger sat opposite his opponent Phil Angelides in a televised debate at the CSUS campus. The governor, in his fighting prime, seemed ready to articulate an answer to any question the moderator could come up with. Strangely, just one seemed to flummox him.

Stan Statham: “What’s [your position] on that high-speed-train proposal that’s been out there for so many years?”

Governor Schwarzenegger: “Well, I just want to say that the Legislature did an extremely good job on this on a bipartisan basis. … We need to re-build our transportation infrastructure! We’re dedicated to the infrastructure and to the bonds passing, and spending $20 billion on new highways, new roads, new tunnels, on-ramps and off-ramps …”

Statham: “Thank you, governor. But the question was about rail …”

Angelides: “May I answer the question?”

Statham: “Do!”

And so it goes. Though candidate Angelides went on to profess his support for high-speed rail, Schwarzenegger never uttered a clear position. He has remained virtually silent on high-speed rail ever since.

But his actions (and new budget) speak volumes.

Backtrack to last year when the governor’s clear priority was on the passage of the $43billion package of infrastructure bonds he’d put before voters. He surprised no one when he moved to postpone the high-speed-rail bond vote again, this time bumping it from 2006 to 2008. (Remember, the vote already had been deferred once, from 2004 to 2006.)

Also, in his budget that year, for 2006-07, the governor cut funding for Morshed’s agency to a fraction of what it needed to keep the rail project moving forward. When the Legislature pushed instead to provide the agency $13 million “to begin project implementation,” Schwarzenegger did not veto. Indeed, the governor’s decision not to veto was taken as a good sign by Morshed and high-speed-rail supporters. It served as a shot of adrenaline and the agency was able to proceed with environmental-impact reports and, importantly, to bring on Parsons Brinckerhoff (a global company involved in designing some of the world’s largest public-works transportation projects) to manage the system’s construction.

During its early stages, the Authority was charged with work (like planning) that was less expensive. But the phases over the next years were going to be where “the money starts accelerating,” said Morshed. For 2007-08, the Authority requested $103 million in the state budget to keep environmental and engineering work on schedule and begin the purchasing of right-of-ways.

But bad news was coming.

In his January 10 budget, instead of the $103 million, Schwarzenegger set forth a paltry $1.2 million for the Authority, i.e., basically enough to keep the office doors open. The CHSRA would become overseers with nothing to oversee. Worse yet, Schwarzenegger laid out a plan to put two more large infrastructure bonds before the voters in 2008 and 2010, thereby maxing out the state’s borrowing capacity and bumping the bullet-train bond off the ballot indefinitely.

“We’re obviously disappointed that he doesn’t want to fund a continuation of our work,” said Morshed after the unveiling of the governor’s budget. “This is like … if you’re building a home, you hire a contractor and get ready to pour the foundation. You pour a little bit of concrete in—and then you’re told to stop.”

A response from the governor’s office stated that, though high-speed rail “could eventually be shown to be a cost-effective piece” of the state transit system, “the benefits are not sufficient to outweigh the immediate needs.” Therefore, he has proposed to “defer the High-Speed Rail bonds indefinitely.”

Senator Dean Florez, a longtime high-speed-rail supporter, said he was “very disappointed” with Schwarzenegger’s new moves against high-speed rail, especially given his new move to curtail carbon emissions that cause global warming. “He’s giving extremely mixed messages. … You can’t say you’re for cleaning the air and then scuttle high-speed rail.” Florez said he was surprised that a governor who has “a propensity to take everything out to the voters” doesn’t seem to want citizens voting on the future of high-speed rail.

Despite the governor’s lack of support, for now, the rail bond remains headed for the 2008 ballot unless the Legislature pulls it off. According to Florez, the governor’s next move likely will be to arrange legislation to try removing it from the ballot in favor of his other bond proposals.

But both Florez and state Senator Darrell Steinberg said they’ll fight to get more funding for the CHSRA this coming year, as well as resist any move by Schwarzenegger to remove the 2008 rail-bond measure. Strategically, Steinberg believes the high-speed-rail issue should be “re-framed,” in any case, to increase its chances of success. “If it’s seen as just a transportation project, given the high cost, it’s always going to be an uphill battle,” he said. “We should frame it more as this incredible economic-development opportunity,” for the state, he said, citing the jobs that would be created building and running the system.

Still, however it is framed, term limits also may come to play a role in whether the 2008 rail bond stays on track. Basically, term limits ensure that a politician who votes for the bullet train now won’t be in office when the system actually goes live. This can reinforce an approach that neglects major public-works and long-term projects.

Ultimately, nobody wants to be responsible for closing down a dream.

You don’t want to be the governor, or the Legislature, to kill high-speed rail,” said Kris Deutschman, head of communications for the Authority. “No one’s ready to pull the trigger.”

Morshed agreed. “Nobody wants to kill it,” he said, “but nobody big is championing it, either. Whether leadership will rise to the occasion or not, I don’t know.”

Despite the start and stop and stall in California and the United States, plenty of other countries around the world continue to embrace fast-rail systems. New projects are under development in Mexico, Argentina, South Africa and South Korea. Just last month, after a quarter-century of planning and construction, Taiwan began commercial runs of its sleek new rail system. Also, timed to open right before the 2008 Olympics, here comes a new, super-fast-rail system in China.

What will it take for high-speed rail to get built-out in America … in California? Maybe it’s something to do with the Cal Expo grandfathers and the model trains and those exhilarated kids going wild each time a train whistle blew. What is it about kids and trains? Maybe their enthusiasm is just about sleek machines and movement. Or maybe it’s about the sheer expectation of movement, even speed, in pursuit of a worthy destination. Perhaps, in the end, somehow bottling this elixir is the only way American rail advocates ever will manage to succeed in their quest to make high-speed rail a reality in the U.S.A.