New High-Speed Rail Plan Turns Urban Sections Into Commuter Rail

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Political reality is scaling down California’s proposed Anaheim-to-San Francisco high-speed rail project and transforming it into a faster commuter train system in urban areas, according to critics of the system’s latest business plan.

Voice of OC reported two years ago that urban opposition to the noise and other major neighborhood disruptions, including elevated tracks, was forcing basic changes in the rail plan, particularly the stretch between Anaheim and Los Angeles.

The latest business plan, unveiled Monday by the California High-Speed Rail Authority at a news conference in Fresno, dropped the projected $98.9-billion cost by $30 billion.

The reduction came largely from cutting costs in urban areas around Los Angeles and San Francisco, where trains now are scheduled to run at slower speeds and blend with existing commuter systems. The train system will reach speeds of about 200 miles an hour only in sections of the Central Valley.

The transformation has been in the works since last fall when the $98.9-billion price tag and plans to leave urban areas out of initial construction caused a statewide uproar.

But officially changing the business plan to include the “blended approach” drew a strong reaction from former state Sen. Quentin Kopp, once a member of the High-Speed Rail Authority board.

“I call it the great train robbery,” Kopp told the Los Angeles Times, “because they plan, if they can get away with it, to take money out of high-speed rail and bestow it on to commuter rail systems.

“This isn’t high-speed rail,” he said. “High-speed rail runs on dedicated tracks.”

The high-speed rail project, approved by voters in 2008, has been repeatedly criticized, not just for greatly increased costs but for being poorly managed and for providing unreliable estimates of ridership and other factors.

But the blended approach has won supporters for the project in urban areas because of the opportunity to improve commuter service. The High-Speed Rail Authority Monday issued a list of individuals and groups statewide who have endorsed the latest business plan.

In Orange County, backers include Lucy Dunn, president of the Orange County Business Council. Last week Gov. Jerry Brown reappointed Dunn to the state Transportation Commission.

The latest plan also is backed by Robbie Hunter, execuitive secretary of the Los Angeles-Orange County Building & Construction Trades Council, according to the rail authority.

Bloomberg News reported Monday:

Under the redrawn plan, California would route the main track down the backbone of the state from Merced, about 120 miles south of Sacramento, the capital, to the San Fernando Valley, north of Los Angeles. It would then connect to the population centers of Los Angeles and San Francisco by modifying existing commuter and freight lines to handle high-speed trains.

The new cost estimates, according to Bloomberg, would drop the $98.5-billion price tag to $68.4 billion, still about twice the 2008 estimate.

In the next few weeks, Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to ask the state Legislature  for permission to spend some of the $9 billion approved by voters to begin construction.

— TRACY WOOD

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