CA: Despite Newsom's high-speed rail plan, some on project's board have other spending ideas

Discussions at Tuesday's state Assembly Transportation Committee hearing in Fresno highlighted the uncertainty existing within the state Legislature surrounding Gov. Gavin Newsom's vision of California's high-speed rail project.

The Fresno Bee

Nov. 13--Discussions at Tuesday's state Assembly Transportation Committee hearing in Fresno highlighted the uncertainty existing within the state Legislature that fully building out Gov. Gavin Newsom's vision of California's high-speed rail project is the best way to proceed. 

That difference of opinion is not only among legislators within Newsom's own Democratic party, but members of the California High-Speed Rail Authority's board of directors.

The 119-mile route segments now under construction for the project span from Madera, just north of Fresno, to a rural orchard near Shafter to the south -- an estimated cost of $15.6 billion.

What Newsom wants is a 171-mile operating line of electric-powered trains from Merced to Bakersfield as an interim step toward a statewide bullet-train system. To do that will require another $4.8 billion to not only extend the tracks and signal systems, but to buy the trains and build the electrical system to power those trains.

Assembly Member Laura Friedman, D-Burbank, gave voice to rumblings among legislators that some of that money may be better spent on improvements that will ultimately be needed for high-speed rail in other parts of the state.

She discounted what rail authority CEO Brian Kelly and others described as the value of completing Merced-Bakersfield as a fully electrified high-speed line to demonstrate that it can be done.

Instead, she said it is more important to invest in segments in more populated areas that can demonstrate value by increasing ridership significantly over existing levels.

"There are two ways of looking at what viability means," she said. "There's the one that is the easiest train to build in the fastest amount of time, and there's the one that actually gets people to change their behavior."

"I don't think you change culture by demonstrating that you can run a fast train," she added. "I think you change culture by giving people who need to get somewhere a way to get there quickly and that's more convenient than driving."

While the rail authority's early-train operating consultant, DB Engineering, has conducted a preliminary benefit analysis of spending the additional $4.8 billion in the Valley compared to projects in the Bay Area or Southern California, Friedman said she wants to see a quantitative look at what those options would mean in terms of increasing ridership in each of the three regions.

"Assuming that our goal is to build from San Diego to San Francisco ... the way we get there is by increasing ridership anywhere on the line where you have a large population saying, 'OK, we're now in on the train ... and we demand that you give us that whole system," she said.

Daniel Curtin, a member of the Rail Authority board since 2015 and a Sacramento resident, advocated for a different way of thinking among his board colleagues that includes acceptance of incremental improvements in train service through the Valley with 125-mph diesel trains running on the new line now under construction, rather than spending billions more on electrification and new trains.

"The question not being addressed is simply this: is it better to ride a 170-mph train from Bakersfield to Merced and then have to get off and wait for a different train ... if your destination is San Jose or Sacramento?" Curtin said. "Or is it better to have a one-seat ride through the Central Valley from Bakersfield to Merced then on to San Jose or Sacramento on a 125-mph train? ... The one-seat ride is always the answer, always."

Curtin added that operating 125-mph diesel trains on the dedicated tracks could be done several years sooner than electrified 200-mph trains and cost "billions of dollars cheaper" than the electric train.

Without money needed to build tunnels through either Pacheco Pass to connect the Valley to the Bay Area, or through Southern California mountain ranges to reach Los Angeles, "building (overhead electric) catenaries and maintenance facilities and buying high-speed trains is unnecessary," Curtin said.

Instead, he suggested working with other rail systems -- in the Valley, the Bay Area and Southern California -- "to build as much of the high-speed rail corridor as possible with the money we have: $15 billion in the Central Valley and much smaller, targeted and locally matched investments in the 'bookends.'"

"That way it's possible we could have three usable segments that benefit all Californians and bring the benefits to the public earlier rather than later," he said. "No doubt the Central Valley will have vastly improved rail transit that will operate at least at 125 mph, and hopefully a one-seat ride."

Kelly said he believes the rail authority is constrained by requirements of the law, its federal grant agreements and a limited budget. Federal stimulus grants, he said, include requirements that the money be spent in the Valley rather than other parts of the state. And Proposition 1-A, the 2008 ballot measure that authorized $9.9 billion for high-speed rail, requires that the system be capable of carrying trains at speeds of up to 220 mph.

"The idea to divert money from what we're doing now and spend it on regional services, to me, is not consistent with the mission of high-speed rail. That's my opinion," Kelly said. "Danny (Curtin) has a different one. I think it's a good idea to have the conversation, to figure out what you want to be left with in the state of California."

"If you divert the money to other places, and you're left with incremental speed improvements on largely diesel services ... and a 119-mile line between Madera and Poplar (Avenue, northwest of Bakersfield) sitting in the Valley, that's what I think would be tragic," Kelly added.


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