Wednesday, March 31, 2010 |California’s proposed $42 billion high-speed rail line, which is supposed to whip millions of passengers up and down the state at up to 220-miles-an hour, is so poorly thought-out at this point that even supporters say the plans might have to be completely overhauled.

“The (ridership and construction cost) numbers keep changing,” complained Sen. Alan Lowenthal, chair of the state Senate’s Transportation and Housing Committee. “I want to see real numbers.”

The Long Beach democrat, a supporter of high-speed rail, is among an increasing number of policymakers and experts who are worried that voters who approved the 2008 high-speed rail ballot initiative are becoming victims of a classic bait and switch.

“If history is any guide, rail projects have drastically over-estimated the ridership and drastically underestimated the cost,” said Eric Morris, a doctoral researcher in urban planning at UCLA and a supporter of passenger rail transit.

In this case a large part of what was billed as a revolutionary fast track from Southern California to the Bay Area and beyond is starting to look like a very expensive commuter rail system. A system that could end up a permanent burden for taxpayers despite campaign assurances that it wouldn’t be.

Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s board, said such concerns are overblown and that the train will be built and run as intended without taxpayer subsidies for its operation.

Among the things that make Lowenthal and others uneasy is a current business plan that estimates almost one-third of the expected 41 million annual riders will stay within the Los Angeles basin or in the San Francisco Bay area. And one that appears to compete with existing lines for fares.

Ridership is only one issue facing the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s board and state government officials as they confront the reality of starting potentially the biggest new public works project in the U.S.

They also must deal with the rail line’s impact on local communities (like Buena Park), the accuracy of financial estimates and the need for a professional staff accountable to state taxpayers rather than teams of temporary consultants.

There are also questions about the rail authority’s qualifications to oversee the high-speed train system. One alternate proposal would replace the current rail authority with a state agency to oversee and coordinate all passenger rail issues.

And GOP Assemblywoman Diane Harkey of Dana Point has introduced a bill that would stop the train altogether.

“While high speed rail may benefit certain areas of the state, the lack of specifics as to cost, subsidies, financing, and ridership, added to the state of the state’s finances, should cause the Legislature to reconsider its overall value to the people of the state of California,” said her staff summary of her bill blocking construction of the rail system. “Public resources might be better spent on a steady supply of water, roads, prisons and schools.”

A performance evaluation of the High-Speed Rail Authority by the State Auditor is scheduled for release next month and the authority is continuing to update its ridership and financial estimates.

High-speed rail has been discussed in California for at least 30 years. The current rail authority worked hard to win public support and saw its hopes ratified when voters approved the $9 billion ballot proposition in 2008. This year, the project was awarded an additional $2.5 billion in federal stimulus funds.

Members of the rail authority “were out there trying to sell a dream, a vision,” said Lowenthal. But now, he said, “this is an orphan agency out there all alone” with little oversight. He said the Legislature needs to ensure that plans for actually building the train system are realistic and don’t harm existing commuter rail programs.

Pringle said the rail authority can and is offering those assurances.

“I totally feel we can live within the structure of the law,” he said, adding “most, if not an overwhelming majority of high-speed train systems operate without a subsidy. This is not a commuter system.”

Experts like UCLA’s Morris talk like they’re watching the first act of a play they’ve seen over and over. Overblown ridership estimates, he said, sometimes were intentional ploys. But in other instances, they were the result of an “optimism bias…an honest misreading of things because you’re excited about things and you think it might work.”

Prof. Eric Heikkila of USC’s School of Policy, Planning and Development, another passenger rail supporter, sounds a similar warning. “It seems that for rail projects around the country before the fact,” he said, projections “have been, in many cases, wildly optimistic.”

A Senate Transportation Committee staff analysis noted Taiwan financed and constructed a $19 billion, 208-mile high-speed rail line using private resources.

The private company was supposed to operate the rail line for 35 years and then turn it over to the government. Service began in 2007, according to the staff report, and by 2009 had only 87,000 riders a day when ridership forecasts had predicted 280,000.

In the end, the government had to bail it out financially, exactly what voters were promised won’t happen in California.

The Taiwan experience, the Senate staff report said, “suggests that an overly optimistic original forecast was made.”

Similarly, the Senate report noted, Eurostar service between London and Paris was forecast to carry 25 million riders a year in 2006 while actual ridership by 2008 was only eight million passengers. And just as construction was ready to begin in 1996, private partners got cold feet and backed out, meaning the government had to step in to pay the bills.

Government funding also plays a big role in keeping the trains operating in the U.S. — an Amtrak spokesperson said federal and state subsidies underwrite the costs of operating all of its systems.

That is not the plan in California. The current California high-speed rail business plan relies on income from rider fares and financial participation from businesses and investors, but details haven’t been worked out yet.

High-speed rail supporters, including Lowenthal, counsel patience with the project, saying if “done right,” it has benefits now and for the future

“In the long-run high-speed rail will enhance mobility for all Californians and in the short-run it has the potential of providing badly needed jobs during very difficult economic times,” said a January 19 staff report for a joint review of the high-speed project by the state Senate Transportation and Housing Committee and the Senate’s budget subcommittee on transportation.

But once construction is completed in 2035, planners haven’t figured out how high-speed rail will pay for itself. So far, according to the rail authority’s most recent business plan, the most profitable system appears to rely on about 12 million of the expected 41 million annual riders staying inside the boundaries of the Los Angeles basin or traveling among stops in the San Francisco Bay area.

Under that plan, the project could not only end up much less than it was originally billed to be – both in terms of routes and speeds — but also could damage existing rail systems, like Metro-Link.

If that really is what the rail authority ends up recommending, said the staff report, it’s a “major policy decision” that needs careful public scrutiny.

But Pringle said “when the whole system’s up and operating, we’ll have a tremendous operating income” to keep it going. He said specifics will be spelled out in future business plans.

Top speeds between Anaheim and Los Angeles and within other built-up areas most likely will be around 110 miles an hour, there would be no stops between Anaheim and Los Angeles (unless a station is built in Downey) and the 29-mile trip would take roughly 20 minutes, compared to 40 or 45 minutes by MetroLink.

Cost of an Anaheim-to-L.A. ticket, under the most recent plan, would be about $9 compared to $8 for MetroLink.

Hearings around the state are working to resolve conflicts with communities like Buena Park, which was surprised to learn from a high-speed rail consultant last fall that its planners intended to tear down part of an award-winning condo complex adjacent to the rail tracks.

“He said it was either that or (take out) the train station,” said Mayor Art Brown, the Orange County representative on the MetroLink board. Since then, cities between Buena Park and Los Angeles have gotten together to work as a unit in dealing with high-speed rail issues. It’s possible that for Buena Park, the solution may be for the rail authority to tear out the existing train station and build a new one. No one has estimated that cost.

The High-Speed Rail Authority is moving to increase its own accountability by hiring fulltime professional staff and lessening the role of outside consultants. Mehdi Morshed, the agency’s executive director and a longtime Senate transportation expert, is retiring this month.

And, over the next several months, reports, including a final environmental impact study, will be completed, helping the rail authority decide whether to go ahead with the project.

UCLA’s Morris points to the lessons taught by Robert Moses, the legendary New York public works czar who built bridges, tunnels, sports stadiums, highway systems and much, much more.

“Mr. Moses had always realized that if he could somehow start a project, money and legal authority would always be found to finish it rather than leave it half-done,” said his 1981 obituary in the New York Times.

”’Once you sink that first stake,” he was fond of saying, ‘they’ll never make you pull it up.’”

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