A daily bulletin of news & opinion

29 November 2009

Donations, please. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger this week called on President Barack Obama to provide funding for the state’s high-speed rail link between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It’s a reminder that although voters have signed off on the project, obstacles remain.

Currently making headlines in the region: environmental reviews. As might be expected of a proposal to send 220-mph trains through burgeoning urban centres, the process is fraught.

Take the wrangling in Palo Alto, a vibrant, affluent Silicon Valley town south of San Francisco. After the high-speed rail concept was endorsed in a statewide 2008 poll, some city leaders came out in unabashed opposition. The line, likely to run alongside existing tracks close to downtown, will be unsightly and further divide the town, they said. A tunnel is an option, though it would be expensive. At a recent workshop, some residents suggested creating a local tax – an additional 1 per cent sales tax, for example – to pay for it. Other Bay Area towns are playing host to similar debates. A few are suing.

In San Francisco, the site of the station is still undecided. It was long assumed that trains would pull into the Transbay Terminal, which is near the Bay Bridge and serves buses and local public transport. The city is planning a commercial centre around a revamped terminal, to include the tallest skyscraper in the city. But in September, rail authority officials said they were legally obliged to consider other sites, such as a nearby station hosting Caltrain commuter services.

At the other end of the line, in Los Angeles, trains are due to use Union Station, an elegant, old-world terminus completed in 1939. Getting approval for modifications, such as aerial tracks, could be complicated, as it is on the National Register of Historic Places. What’s more, trains are to pass close to the concrete-enclosed Los Angeles River, a blighted landmark that has benefited from revitalization efforts, notably new green spaces and recreation areas. Locals have expressed their concerns.

And then there’s the question of funding. A 2008 estimate put the total cost of the Los Angeles–San Francisco line at $34bn (the high-speed rail authority does not have an exact figure for the extensions to the state capital, Sacramento, or San Diego). As part of the 2008 poll, voters approved a $10bn bond sale, and officials have applied for $4.7bn of the $8bn that Obama earmarked for high-speed rail projects in his economic stimulus package. The state has pledged to match the amount it is awarded. But that still leaves billions of dollars to be secured. Rail authority planners say they are banking on financial aid from local and federal authorities, and that $10bn to $12bn will come from the private sector.

On its web site, the rail authority is anxious to banish the ghost of another high-speed train scheme, one with infamously vast cost overruns. The Californian undertaking, officials say, will not be a second Channel Tunnel. There’s much to be said for that point of view. The issues the project is tackling right now are political rather than technical; there are no radical engineering solutions required. If that continues to be the case, Californians should be able to avoid a nasty budgetary surprise.


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