Mountain View Voice

Opinion - August 12, 2011

The slow death of high-speed rail

Back in 2008, Mountain View voters and the City Council liked the idea of bullet trains zooming at more than 200 miles an hour between the Bay Area and Los Angeles, providing an alternative mode of travel that would be economical and more environmentally friendly.

A majority of voters around the state thought so too, passing Proposition 1A with 52 percent of the vote and setting in motion what today has become what almost everyone agrees is a colossal, mismanaged mess just barely staying alive.

But the likelihood of that happening is withering as the economy remains stagnant and Congress appears headed toward massive cuts in federal spending. At the state level, Sen. Joe Simitian and other legislators have publicly questioned the authority's business plan as well. These and other recent developments have sounded the death knell for this project. Consider the following:

• In a study made public last week, a highly-respected peer-review group of professors and transportation experts that report to rail authority CEO Roelof Van Ark said the authority has been using a flawed forecasting model to predict the number of passengers that will use the high-speed trains.

• The agency's public relations firm, Ogilivy Public Relations Worldwide, resigned about a month ago after fulfilling less than half of a 4-1/2-year, $9 million contract.

• Another public relations faux pas was the unexpected departure of Jeffrey Barker, the rail authority's deputy director in charge of communication, who failed to provide a timely response to a public information request from a watchdog group, allowing it to drag on for months. The organization was seeking release of the critical peer-review report, and was successful only after filing a chronology of its request with the authority. The report was released the following day, the same day that Barker resigned, saying he is going "to pursue other endeavors."

• On the economic front, the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives, including the budgeting process, has left little doubt that further federal support for high-speed rail will be drastically cut or eliminated altogether.

By any yardstick, the high-speed rail project is simply far too financially ambitious for the state to undertake at this time, when basic services have been cut to the bone and additional cuts could be on the way as a result of more federal belt-tightening. The idea of paying debt-service on nearly $10 billion in bonds makes no sense in this fiscal environment.

High-speed rail supporters have enormous obstacles to overcome in order to get this project back on track. They need a convincing business plan, a new management team, and most importantly, reliable funding sources that don't commit the taxpayers to unaffordable subsidies of construction and operation.

HSR is looking more and more like a pipe-dream. It's time for the legislature to take the initiative and either provide the leadership to unwind this project, presumably through passage of another state ballot measure that counteracts the requirements of Prop. 1A, or by finding and embracing a new financing model.

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