Derailing the Bullet Train

A decade ago, shortly after California voters narrowly approved a $9.95 billion bond issue to finance a statewide bullet train system, an official involved in early planning for the project confided a dirty little secret.

While a 200-mile-per-hour bullet train was the sizzle sold to voters, he told me, the unspoken motive was getting more money to expand commuter transit services in the San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California without having to directly ask voters.

The bond issue set aside $950 million for such auxiliary transit systems on the theory that they would feed passengers into a bullet train system.

By and by, as construction of the initial bullet train segment in the San Joaquin Valley stalled due to mismanagement, cost overruns and stiff local opposition, advocates of the regional urban transit projects began to chip off pieces of the other $9 billion in bonds that voters had approved.

The most aggressive raids were led by sponsors of upgrading the Caltrain service between San Francisco and San Jose from diesel-powered trains to electrification – especially after bullet train officials stopped trying to build a separate line down the San Francisco Peninsula due to adamant local opposition and agreed to “blend” with Caltrain.

An amendment to the 2012 state budget allowed bond money to be used for “bookend” projects, meaning Caltrain and Southern California’s Metrolink service, and a 2016 bill, patched together in the final days of that year’s legislative session, legitimized the raid on bullet train funds even further.

Now, as the bullet train project gasps for air, more diversions of voter-approved bullet train bonds may be in the offing.

Gov. Gavin Newsom says he wants to concentrate on finishing the San Joaquin Valley segment, with extensions to Bakersfield and Merced, which would cost about $20 billion, and then connect it to the Bay Area via conventional rail service. A train that now runs between San Jose and Stockton, known as the Altamont Express, would be extended to Merced.

However, the Los Angeles Times reported last week, “Key California lawmakers have devised a plan to shift billions of dollars from the Central Valley bullet train to rail projects in Southern California and the Bay Area, a strategy that could crush the dreams of high-speed rail purists.

“Assembly Democrats see greater public value in improving passenger rail from Burbank to Anaheim, relieving congestion on the busy Interstate 5 corridor before the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and putting additional money into San Francisco commuter rail.”

Improving transit in the state’s most congested urban areas, advocates of the new scheme contend, is more important than the patched-together system that Newsom has proposed.

“I like the concept,” Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon told The Times. “Any project that doesn’t have a significant amount of service to the largest areas in the state doesn’t make much sense.”

It’s difficult to argue with that logic, especially since the bullet train project has utterly failed to attract the many tens of billions of dollars needed to become a reality.

Were the new legislative proposal to prevail, one presumes that the current construction, running from Chowchilla to an orchard near Shafter, would be completed and used for regular-speed Amtrak service. But it would leave Fresno and other San Joaquin Valley cities without the high-speed service they had once been promised.

The plan now gaining traction in the Legislature would acknowledge reality and could hasten an end for the ill-conceived, mismanaged bullet train, even Newsom’s much-abbreviated version.

It’s about time.

This article was originally published by CalMatters.org

Comments

  1. Once again the registered voters of California directed the state to use money for a specific ballot measure by approving it at great expense. Only to provide money for the State Assembly to spend and they see fit. That is not the way democracy should function. They legislators would have been removed from “office” and band from holding a public position for a period of time. It’s unbelievable how they literal break the law by making laws the override the voters!

  2. us citizen says

    Those of us who voted NO on this could see the fiasco before it was even started. Makes me wonder, just how this really got passed. More fraudulent voting?

    • Kudos to your magic crystal ball, I’m surprised it passed given the cost and controversy. It’s more like fraudulent/misleading ballot measure? (To give the State more money to waste.) Whether for or against the “train speeding train to nowhere”

  3. It’s not who votes that counts it’s who counts the votes.

  4. Gotta Gedada Displace says

    mWHO can find out if ANY ACTUAL TRAINS (You know, the part that MOVES ?) have ever been BUDGETED (with EXISTING funds !), ORDERED, or CONTRACTED ??? Over HALF an HOUR playing Voice Mail Bingo to the HSR Authority number GOT ME NOWHERE ! (MUCH LIKE THEIR alleged “TRAINS”) iNFO, ANYONE ???

  5. Mr Pickle says

    WHERE is Ca Leadership on this issue of wasted money??? This issue is pure crap and a waste of taxpayer money. ONE party rule and ill informed voters. No wonder this state is in the toilet………… and getting worse with high taxes and crazy fees on EVERYTHING.

  6. Does it surprise anyone that Democrate GARBAGE would try suck a thing?? The Socialist NAZI’s ARE NOTHING MORE THEN SCUM

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