High-speed rail meets roadblocks

Jan. 10, 2012, 2:45 a.m.

Concerns about the feasibility of funding California’s high-speed rail (HSR) project led a peer review group to conclude last Tuesday that the state legislature should not approve the release of billions of dollars of state bond money to fund the first phase of construction.


The California High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group, consisting of renowned transportation and financial experts, was commissioned by Proposition 1A to advise lawmakers on the rail plan, which would connect Northern and Southern California by a 520-mile-long high-speed bullet train that would travel between San Francisco and Los Angeles in two hours and 40 minutes.


Since first being approved by voters in 2008, the rail plan has come under increasing fire for inaccurate estimates of cost and potential ridership. Last November, California’s High-Speed Rail Authority released a new business plan, which estimated that the train would cost around $98 billion, almost triple the $33 billion estimate that voters were given when the plan was first approved.


A study published in October 2010 by Stanford management professor Alain Enthoven, former World Bank analyst William Grindley and Silicon Valley financial consultant William Warren concluded that based on the history of high speed rail projects around the world, “there is little if any chance the system will pay for itself.” The study further reported that the train would be lucky to draw 10 million riders, a mere fraction of the 90 million figure that was initially sold to voters.


According to Enthoven, in an email to The Daily, the California High-Speed Rail Authority recently published a 2012 draft business plan that raised their estimated costs for the segment connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles “from $43 billion to some $98.5 to $117 billion.” Enthoven wrote that “this is based on 15 percent completion of engineering work, far from enough to have a truly reliable estimate. Histories of other mega projects suggest the total eventual costs could exceed $150 billion.”


Enthoven is currently studying the 2012 business plan and aims to complete an analysis by Jan. 16.


Last November, Palo Alto City Council members were unanimous in their opposition to the proposed high-speed rail. The council voted 8-1 to charge its Rail Committee with drafting a request to the state legislature to either abandon the project or put it in the Nov. 2012 ballot for reconsideration.


According to an article in the San Jose Mercury News, Larry Klein, a Palo Alto city councilman and the sole dissenting vote, said that the council “knew enough and that further input from the Rail Committee wasn’t necessary to take a formal stand.”


Klein, who chairs the city council’s Rail Committee, wrote in an email to The Daily that he voted in dissent because he wanted the full council, which was already unanimously against the rail plan, itself to take action rather than refer the matter back to the state legislature.


Klein said that “voters now realize that what they voted for was a mirage. As the recent field poll shows, the voters would today overwhelmingly reject the HSR proposal. The estimated cost hasn’t really increased. Many people knew the original estimated costs–using the HSR Authority’s own internal numbers–were unrealistically low. What has changed is that the HSR Authority, faced with a barrage of criticism, finally acknowledged more reasonable cost numbers.”


The city council last acted on the matter at a meeting on Dec. 19, when its Rail Committee drafted a formal written opposition to the rail project. The position, adopted by the full city council, was transmitted to state legislators and Governor Jerry Brown, among others.


“It basically cites HSR’s exorbitant cost, its overestimated ridership, the misleading information provided the voters in 2008 and the environmental damage HSR would cause as the reasons for our opposition,” Klein wrote.


The project has encountered other setbacks as well. In November, a state judge ruled that that the High-Speed Rail Authority would have to reopen and revise its environmental analysis after a lawsuit was brought forth by a coalition that included Menlo Park, Atherton and Palo Alto.


The cities, in coalition with various nonprofit groups, first challenged the Rail Authority’s selection of the Pacheco Pass as the placement of the San Francisco-Los Angeles line three years ago, contending that that the rail authority failed to sufficiently analyze the traffic impacts of the proposed line at Monterey Highway south of San Jose.


The ruling created an additional setback for the rail authority, which was forced to further revise its program-level Environmental Impact Report.


The high-speed train project is of particular interest to Stanford, which owns 36.2 acres of land along the rail corridor in Menlo Park and Palo Alto. A statement issued by the University in June 2010 details Stanford’s various interests in the alignment of the train. Primary among those concerns are “improved operation and viability of Caltrain,” “the economic effect of taking or impacting University lands” and “the transportation effect/impact of any newly created physical barriers between Stanford and the surrounding communities.”


On the possibility of a high-speed train station in Palo Alto, the statement, while acknowledging the potential economic benefits and increased ease of travel to Palo Alto businesses and to some of the businesses currently on Stanford-owned lands, brings up that Palo Alto and its neighboring areas “have very little available traffic and parking capacity for such a facility.” The statement expressly states, “a station for HSR would not, in our view, constitute a priority justifying further reduction of this limited capacity.”


Stanford Director of Land Use and Environmental Planning Charles Carter, who represents Stanford on the City of Palo Alto Rail Corridor Task Force, said that the University’s fundamental position remains unchanged.


“Protecting residential uses, improving connections through the corridor and identifying opportunities to develop supporting civic and commercial uses in the corridor were the big ideas, along with design enhancements to the primary roadways in the corridor to make them ‘complete streets’ that serve all modes of travel,” Carter said.

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