As doubts cloud California high-speed rail, plans in other states gain support

McClatchy Washington BureauMarch 7, 2014 

— When California Gov. Jerry Brown last week announced his bid for re-election, he renewed his push to build “the nation’s only high speed rail system.”

But California has some competition in unlikely places.

Both Texas and Florida have plans for systems that would connect their major population centers with fast trains. But unlike California’s plan, which relies heavily on government funding to start rolling, their efforts will be funded by the private sector.

While the $68 billion California project has earned nearly universal opposition from Republicans, GOP elected officials are lining up behind the Florida and Texas proposals.

Brown and President Barack Obama had both held up the California project as a model of the country’s infrastructure future. But with legal and political uncertainties clouding the effort, Florida and Texas could have their trains running years sooner.

Supporters of high-speed rail who gathered in Washington last month for their annual summit expressed frustration over the problems plaguing the California project. But they were encouraged by the developments in two states that had tried, but failed to build high speed rail systems before.

“We’re excited to see projects brewing across the country,” said Andy Kunz, president and CEO of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association.

In January, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx threw his support behind the Texas Central High-Speed Railway. The privately-funded effort would build a 200-mph train to connect Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston by 2022 at an estimated cost of $10 billion. A future phase could connect those cities to Austin and San Antonio.

DOT would handle the environmental impact reviews for the project, but would not provide any funding.

“They like our project and they’re supporting us,” said Robert Eckels, president of the Texas Central Railway and a former county official in Houston. “It’s easy for them to like to the project because we’re not asking them to pay for it.”

Eckels said his project also has an expert partner in the Japan Central Railway, which built Japan’s high-speed rail system. It’s now been in operation for 50 years.

Texas’ previous attempt to build a high-speed rail system was met with fierce opposition in the 1990s from Dallas-based Southwest Airlines. But at that time, Southwest was a regional carrier in Texas, and fuel prices were low. Now, Southwest, which Eckels said was neutral on the proposal, crisscrosses the country and higher fuel prices make short-haul flights less profitable.

The Dallas-Houston route has some similarities to the planned line through California’s Central Valley: it’s flat and straight across primarily agricultural land, and the construction costs are lower.

Entering urban areas pose challenges for both projects. But California’s terrain and geology add to the burden. The line must cross mountain passes at its northern and southern ends where construction will be expensive. It will also need to be built to reflect California’s earthquake risks.

The high cost of entering the Bay Area and southern California on a dedicated line caused the system’s planners to route the trains over existing conventional rail lines to reach Los Angeles, San Jose and San Francisco.

“It is a more complex system to build,” Eckels said.

The cost of the 520-mile system had ballooned to $98 billion before planners decided to use existing Metrolink and Caltrain lines, shaving $30 billion from the price tag.

But the “blended” approach has opened the project up to criticism that voters are not getting the system they were promised.

The trains would zip along at 200-mph in the Central Valley, and slow considerably in the urban regions anchoring the two ends of the system. While 125 mph is faster than most conventional rail service, it’s well below what most of the world considers high-speed rail. But older rail lines, hemmed in by development and intersected frequently by roads, and home to slower freight and passenger trains, can’t support anything faster.

A proposal in Florida to begin operating a passenger train between Orlando and Miami faces similar challenges. The privately backed All Aboard Florida train would use an existing freight route for most of its run. It would take about three hours to make a 240-mile trip that takes three and a half or four hours by car in normal traffic.

The $1 billion project would have the trains moving sometime next year.

The train would not be high-speed rail in comparison to what’s planned in California and Texas. It would pass through many developed areas, including Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and the Treasure Coast. That will limit speeds to the 90 to 125 mph range.

Florida was originally one of the states to receive money from Obama’s High Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail Program, part of the 2009 economic stimulus. But in 2011, Republican Gov. Rick Scott turned down $2.4 billion to build a high-speed line from Tampa to Orlando, fearing that state taxpayers would be on the hook for future costs.

“The truth is that this project would be far too costly to taxpayers,” Scott said at the time, “and I believe the risk far outweighs the benefits.”

Now, Scott is an enthusiastic backer of All Aboard Florida. So is Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., former chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and a critic of Obama’s high-speed rail program.

“Hopefully we can fast-forward this private sector passenger rail project that will not cost the taxpayers a penny,” Mica said in 2012.

Scott has even pledged $215 million in state funds to build a rail station at Orlando International Airport.

California received some of the funds Florida and two other states rejected in hopes of completing the San Francisco-Los Angeles spine by 2029. But now, the project is held up in court.

Last fall, a judge in Sacramento put the brakes on the project when he determined that it didn’t meet the criteria to tap $8 billion in bonds approved by California voters in 2008.

Republicans in Congress, including California Rep. Jeff Denham, chairman of the House railroad subcommittee, are attempting to block federal funding for the project.

The project has even lost the backing of Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, creating a high-profile split with Brown. Newsom faces a challenge from Ron Nehring, a former state GOP chairman.

“We’re in a period in politics of temporary insanity that precedes every election,” said Rod Diridon Sr., executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University and former chairman of the California High Speed Rail Authority board.

Meanwhile, the project’s foes in California are attempting to collect more than 500,000 signatures by the end of July to bring the issue back to voters on the November ballot. And if recent polls are any indication, they might be inclined to pull the plug.

But amid these setbacks, even the most committed supporters of the California project welcome the proposals in other states.

“The more, the merrier,” Diridon said.

Email: ctate@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @tatecurtis

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