Mountain View Voice

Opinion - January 13, 2012

Time for another look at high-speed rail?

Ever since voters approved Proposition 1A in 2008 to fund a high-speed rail system to run from San Francisco to Los Angeles and San Diego, Mountain View has looked at ways to accommodate the trains at the city's transportation hub at Evelyn Avenue and Castro Street.

But as the project's expected cost skyrockets and its completion date extends many more years, it may be time for the City Council to take another look at the impact such trains would have on the rail corridor and transit center, as well as the state budget.

Last year, much of the discussion took place when the plan was to squeeze four more tracks into the city's narrow rail corridor and whether it is possible to build a grade separation that would route Castro Street/Moffett Boulevard under the tracks. The rail authority's latest plan is for slower trains that can travel on the existing Caltrain tracks, although it is not clear if the current crossing gates will be adequate for high-speed rail.

All of this thinking could be moot if next month the Legislature withholds approval when Gov. Jerry Brown asks for authorization to sell more than $2 billion in bonds that would enable work to begin on the first segment in the Central Valley. Under a new business plan, the Authority estimates the project will cost about $100 billion, more than twice the original estimate, and take nearly twice as long to build, with completion scheduled for 2033. And then last week the Authority's own peer-review panel recommended that the Legislature refuse to authorize sale of the bonds in February, which could turn many legislators against the project.

Nevertheless, Gov. Brown and a continuing push by the state's labor unions are keeping the pressure up on the Legislature to authorize selling the $2 billion in bonds. But state Sen. Joe Simitian, who has been highly critical of the project's sloppy business plan, remains unconvinced, and told the Voice this week that he is not happy with "two bad choices" of approving the segment or ending high-speed rail.

Last week's broadside against the project by the High Speed Rail Peer Review Group said the Rail Authority's new business plan does not have adequate funding information, does not answer the critical question of which operating segment will be built first and includes a phased-in construction plan that violates state law.

The report, written as a letter to the Legislature, focused on the revised spending plan, which has identified only about $6 billion in committed funding for what now is estimated to cost $100 billion. The rail authority says it will make up the difference from federal grants and private capital, which would be solicited after the first major segment is completed, a strategy the report found to be vague and insufficient.

"The fact that the plan fails to identify any long-term funding commitments is a fundamental flaw in the program," the report said. "Without committed funds a mega-project of this nature could be forced to halt construction for many years before additional funding could be obtained. The benefits of any independent utility proposed by the current Business Plan would be very limited versus the cost and the impact on state finances."

Whether cost concerns or other factors about the rail plan will move the City Council to speak out before the Legislature votes next month is anybody's guess. In our view, this a project that has very little chance of succeeding, even over a much longer construction cycle. A high-speed rail system would be a magnificent asset for the state. Unfortunately, there simply is no way we can afford it.

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