Published Saturday, January 30, 2010, by the Palo Alto Daily Post
Slow down speeding train plan
You could almost hear the giddy enthusiasm when a reporter for another local newspaper wrote that the $2.25 billion the feds are giving to the high-speed rail project is "a huge boost that virtually guarantees construction will begin in backyards along the Caltrain tracks within two-and-a-half years."
That's exactly the spin the California High-Speed Rail Authority wanted reporters to take from the announcement of the grant this week. The authority wants you to believe that the $43 billion project is inevitable (so why bother fighting it?) and will happen faster than expected.
By the numbers
The reality is different:
* The grant was less than half of what the $4.7 billion the state had requested, and far less than the exaggerated predictions of rail authority officials. The feds are not excited about this project as much as are the rail promoters in Sacramento.
* If there was any time you'd expect to get federal funding for high-speed rail, it is now. Washington is still in a spending mode. Voter anger over the $12.2 trillion deficit hasn't reached Capitol Hill, so this should be the time when Congress funds dubious "bridge-to-nowhere" boondoggles like this one. Yet, the feds only coughed up $2.25 billion for a project that is counting on eventually getting $17 to 19 billion in federal funds.
* If Republicans gain control of the House this fall, as many are predicting, they'll probably, turn off the spigot of taxpayer dollars for train and mass transit programs. This $2.25 billion could be all the federal money California's high-speed rail gets for a long time.
Even if the feds had promised this week to fund the entire project, the rail authority still can't get started because:
First, it has no environmental impact report;
Second, its business plan appears to violate state law because it promises that taxpayers will subsidize the railroad's operation. The Legislature has specifically banned subsidies or "guarantees," as the plan put it. This is a big problem.
Third, it doesn't have Union Pacific's permission to use its tracks or land south of San Jose.
Still, the rail authority is going to keep on spinning this story to make it sound as if everything needs to happen quickly because the railroad is coming.
So, on March 4, when the authority releases the alternatives analysis for the train's route on the Peninsula, the public will get just 45 days to submit comments and attempt to reach an agreement.
That's a ridiculously short amount of time for a series of complex decisions that will affect the life of every resident on the Peninsula.
And even with the alternatives analysis, we still will have a lot of unanswered questions about ridership projections, costs, how private funding will work, how much money local governments will have to pay, etc.
Given how few of the other pieces of this project are in place, there's no reason why we can't have a much longer public comment period -- at least six months, maybe a year -- to give people more time to reflect on the alternatives analysis and learn about this project in detail before making a decision.
Besides, with little chance of additional federal funds and a $20 billion state deficit, high-speed rail will be in the slow lane for a long time to come.
[BATN: See also:
Letters: Inflammatory HSR eminent domain reporting; stop HSR now
Palo Alto mayor: HSR eminent domain may spur voter revolt
Burlingame HSR foe fears partial (10-20 miles) HSR will be built
Anti-HSR Palo Alto, Menlo Park officials feign ridership worries
Letter: Daily Post inaccuracies counter misleading HSRA numbers
Column: Daily Post & yellow journalism on Peninsula HSR?
Legislators question HSRA officials closely on HSR backup funding
Column: After accusing Peninsula of NIMBYism, SJ wants HSR tunnel
Daily Post Editorial: A plan to kill HSR