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High speed rail brags it’s a 10,000 job gravy train as feds take dim view of funding request
Dennis Wyatt 2022
Dennis Wyatt

High speed rail, California voters were told in 2008, was a no brainer.

Just approve a $9 billion bond to get things rolling and the private sector investors would jump on board to become partners to finance the rest.

It was a big lie.

There wasn’t a single nibble, let alone a bite.

Last month the federal government refused to partake as well.

The Department of Transportation rejected  $1.2 billion in competitive grants the California High Speed Rail Authority applied for from two different programs under the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. 

That’s right. The federal government that sees $163 billion in potential COVID relief fraud losses as simply a cost of doing business, isn’t buying into the high speed rail project.

Don’t worry, the high speed rail folks tell us.

They’re applying for funding from the $36 billion Federal-State Partnership for Intercity Passenger Rail that will be doled out over the next five years. But before the first filing deadline comes up this April,  two-thirds has already been earmarked for the Northeast Corridor from New England to Washington, D.C.

The remaining $12 billion will be up for grabs in an application process. However, California High-Speed Rail Authority must compete against other passenger rail projects for the money.

It is growing clearer with each passing year that the California High Speed Rail Authority’s basic premise is flawed.

It’s not that there is anything wrong with high speed rail per se.

What’s wrong with California’s vision is the business plan.

It wasn’t forged from the crucible of burning transit needs.

Instead, it was wrapped heavily in a green solution as opposed to a transit solution. Toss in the Buck Rogers aspect and voters were sold a bill of goods.

Expensive, high speed rail pencils out only when the ridership is there day in and day out.

It exists in Japan. It exists in China. It exists in Europe. It exists in the Northwest Corridor.

Where it doesn’t exist is in the California.

Yes, we have almost 40 million people.

Yes, we have a need for more intercity rail.

But the day-to-day travel volume between the Los Angeles Basin and the San Francisco  Bay Area to financially justify high speed rail as envisioned in 2008 isn’t there.

Realistic volume projections is why there is private funding for high speed rail between Las Vegas and the edge of the LA Basin.

The decision to start the initial 119-mile stretch of high speed rail from a point just north of Madera to Shafter north of Bakersfield was spurred by the need to start spending money so as not to lose what federal  funds they had already secured.

It was picked not because it could get a first phase of rail service up and running within a decade or so, but because it was the easiest segment to build.

And it was done to keep the gravy train going that this week bragged about hitting the 10,000 job mark.

Note, these are construction-related jobs that go away.

Sooner than later, the state needs to rethink what it is doing.

Only a complete sap believes the high speed rail project from San Francisco to Los Angeles will deliver on any promises whether it is a true 220 mph trip, the ticket being under $100 one-way, that is will be built on time or anywhere in the general vicinity of the price tag du jour.

If you think the project is going to come under $120 billion then you have no idea what they are up against when they build the Merced to San Jose leg via the Pacheco Pass. The 13.5-mile long tunnel that will go as deep as 1,000 feet in spots is needed to keep trains zipping along at 220 mph has to slice through the fault that — according to seismic experts — has the ability to take out both San Francisco and Los Angeles which would make “The Train to Nowhere” an apt moniker.

Experts who have dealt with real life challenges such as building the tunnel beneath the English Channel have scoffed at cost estimates the state is using for the Pacheco Pass tunnel that must forge not only the San Andreas Fault that not too far away in 1906 opened up the earth and swallowed cows but also some of the trickiest soil on earth. It is a geological mixture sporting sandstone riddled with weak shale known as the Franciscan Complex that was the result of the Pacific Plate slipping under the North American Plate to push what is now known as the Diablo Range skyward.

The cost of crossing beneath Pacheco Pass was never fully vetted before the high speed rail authority made what in retrospect is looking more and more like a fatal decision to not go over the somewhat lower Altamont Pass instead.

The rail authority pegged the cost of building the 54-mile segment from Chowchilla to Gilroy at $5.6 billion. Some of the world’s foremost tunnel experts contend the tunnel alone is likely to run between $5.6 billion and $14 billion. There is little doubt the segment’s cost has been grossly underestimated.

There is a now a very good chance emerging that the rail project will run out of funding and therefore political steam before getting the critical starter system is in place.

The state can come up with a more cost effective way at a somewhat lower speed to get people off highways based on the work that’s been done so far.

Slowing down high speed a bit and rethinking the end routes can change the dynamics for the better.

The problem with the California High Speed Rail vision is the basic premise has always been Euro-centric instead of copying Japan’s model. High speed rail works will for travel in Europe given the numerous nations and their relatively small size that makes flying between many points a large consumer of time in comparison. Japan’s bread and butter for high speed ridership are daily commuters.

San Francisco is the soul of the Bay Area — not the economic heart. That distinction belongs to San Jose, the nearby Silicon Valley, and stretches of the East Bay that pump out by far more new well-paying jobs.

The first step would be to go the hybrid route as has been suggested with high speed rail transferring to Altamont Corridor Express trains to make the connection directly to San Jose and the rest of the Bay Area.

Envisioned ACE track realignment and improvements over the Altamont Pass to allow trains now going 10 mph to move at 150 mph going from the San Joaquin Valley to the Livermore Valley to cut the travel time to San Jose from Lathrop/Manteca by 75 minutes allowing you to be in San Jose in under an hour.

The increased train frequency would better tap the growing commuter base from Merced to Tracy that could make travel by rail far more feasible, less expensive, and in turn reduce the biggest source of auto pollution which is cars on stop and go traffic commuting to and from work as opposed to someone zooming along 75 mph between San Francisco and Los Angeles using Interstate 5.

Doing the Altamont Pass upgrades would get high speed rail off the ground and enhance the ability to get people out of their cars in much greater numbers.

It’s time to rethink the entire concept of linking cities in California by faster and more efficient rail and not simply roll out high speed trains.