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Originally published Saturday, October 18, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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California asking voters to get on board the $45B bullet train

For a quarter-century it has been a California dream on one drafting board or another — a bullet-train system so novel, environmentally...

Los Angeles Times

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — For a quarter-century it has been a California dream on one drafting board or another — a bullet-train system so novel, environmentally friendly and fleet that it could reshape transportation in the car-crazy Golden State.

State voters now will be asked Nov. 4 to provide some locomotion by approving nearly $10 billion as a down payment toward the ultimate vision of an 800-mile high-speed rail network.

Promoters of Proposition 1A boast that the $45 billion project, featuring sleek trains reaching 220 mph, would be the nation's most ambitious public-works effort since completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869.

Foes say it would be a fiscal black hole that wouldn't deliver as promised.

With gas prices high, highways congested and airports jammed, it would seem the best of times for a bullet train.

But it seems the worst to some people, with Wall Street in meltdown, California facing a perpetual budget deficit and the lurking specter of September's horrific commuter-rail accident in Los Angeles.

Past surveys have found that as many as two of every three California residents support a bullet train. A poll in July found 56 percent support for financing the project this year.

But that was before the big problems hit.

"After all the crashes — the train crash and the market crash — supporters may have a lot more trouble than they anticipated," said Richard Tolmach, president of the California Rail Foundation, a Proposition 1A foe.

Now or never

California has been down these rails before with nothing to show for it.

In the late 1970s, high-speed rail was a gleam in the eye of then-Gov. Jerry Brown. Coastal denizens in the early '80s shot down a bullet train from Los Angeles to San Diego. Hopes for an L.A.-to-Las Vegas high-speed line have languished for years.

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Elsewhere, it's been a different story. Germany, Spain, Italy and France all have high-speed rail systems. Japan's Shinkansen bullet train started rolling in 1964.

California's most serious attempt began in 1994 with the advent of a state commission to study the idea of linking Northern and Southern California. That spawned the California High-Speed Rail Authority in 1996.

The authority has spent $60 million planning the project. But attempts to fund construction have been stymied by politics and economic reality, with bond measures yanked by lawmakers from the ballot in 2004 and 2006.

This year, promoters concluded, it was now or never.

They are pulling out the stops to promote it, suggesting that high-speed rail will change the very face of the state — getting folks out of their cars, fanning a more rail-oriented style of denser development.

The ballot measure would raise construction money by authorizing the sale of $9.95 billion in bonds. The borrowing would be repaid over 30 years, at a cost of $647 million a year to state coffers.

Most of that money would help finance the $33 billion first phase of the high-speed rail line, linking the San Francisco Bay Area to Los Angeles and Orange County. It would be financed roughly one-third each by the state, federal government and private sector, with construction to begin in 2011 and trains rolling by 2020.

Subsequent phases — paid off by what promoters predict will be at least $1 billion in annual ticket-sales profits — would reach San Diego, Sacramento and Oakland.

As envisioned by the train's advocates, a trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles would cost $55 and take little more than 2 ½ hours. Bakersfield to downtown Los Angeles would take only 54 minutes.

"Fresno could become a bedroom community of Silicon Valley," said Quentin Kopp, the rail authority's chairman.

A need for infrastructure

Backers also say not building the train system would further overburden a state already outstripping its airports and highways. California's population is expected to increase 30 percent and eclipse 50 million by 2030.

"We're behind an 8-ball," said Elizabeth Deakin, a city- and regional-planning professor at the University of California, Berkeley. "We're going to have a big slug of new people, and we need the transportation infrastructure to accommodate them."

Backers said the rail line would be a boon for both the present and future. As many as 160,000 construction jobs would help fuel an anemic current-day economy, they say, and 400,000 more would be created once the system was running.

Metrolink-type collisions wouldn't be an issue, they say, because the train would run on tracks separate from freight lines.

The electric-powered trains would slash greenhouse-gas emissions by 6.3 million tons a year, saving 12 million barrels of oil a year, proponents say.

Those numbers have lured the support of the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, and the promise of an economic boost has lured support from the chambers of commerce in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Fresno and other cities.

"A dumb project"

A diverse band of small-government advocates and rail enthusiasts, however, support high-speed trains in concept but believe the current plan is an ill-conceived disaster about to slam the state.

Several transportation experts agree.

Professor James Moore, director of the University of Southern California's transportation engineering program, calls it "a dumb project" with overblown ridership and construction estimates, inflated profit forecasts and wildly optimistic speeds and travel times.

"It's technologically impossible to do what the High-Speed Rail Authority claims can be done, for any amount of money," he said. "When it comes to predicting the actual cost of systems like this, I just say a zillion and leave it at that."

A report commissioned by the Libertarian think tank Reason Foundation and other foes compared the plans with what is rolling on the ground now in Europe and Asia.

Instead of a profit, the California trains could yield financial losses as high as $4 billion, the report contends, predicting at least 60 percent fewer passengers than promoters project. The trains also would be hard-pressed to achieve predicted average speeds, which are more than 20 mph faster than anything now running. They estimate that travel time from Los Angeles to San Francisco would balloon to about 3 ½ hours, making the line less competitive with air travel.

The final construction tab, they say, would swell beyond $80 billion, and other studies support that conclusion. A Danish researcher who analyzed more than 250 big infrastructure projects determined that new rail lines typically cost 45 percent more than originally estimated.

"I'm a transportation guy, but this is a wasted opportunity that sets the cause of high-speed rail back by years," said Ken Gosting of Transportation Involves Everyone. "It's a pig in a poke, to say nothing of lipstick."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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