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First leg of California high-speed rail project chosen, critics call it a 'train to nowhere'

Citing a need for jobs and fast-approaching federal deadlines for funding, the California High-Speed Rail Authority board on Thursday unanimously approved construction of the first leg of the project -- a 65-mile section in the Central Valley that would not operate trains until more of the system is built.

Costing at least $4.15 billion, the segment would run between Borden and Corcoran with stations in Fresno and Hanford, which are located in an area of the state hit so hard by the recession and declines in agriculture that it has been dubbed the New Appalachia.

Included in the effort are tracks, station platforms, bridges and viaducts, which will elevate the line through urban areas. The initial section, however, will not be equipped with maintenance facilities, locomotives, passenger cars or an electrical system necessary to power high-speed trains.

Board members said the public should not view the initial section in isolation and that the intent of the authority is to phase in train service as the rail network is expanded in the future to major population centers.

"The system is to be built in segments," said Tom Umberg, a former state legislator from Orange County and vice chair of the high-speed rail board. "We wouldn't be here if we thought we would only build one segment of the system."

The overall project calls for a 500-mile link that would operate trains up to 220 mph between Anaheim and San Francisco. Extensions to Sacramento and San Diego would be constructed later.

The authority board voted 7-0 to approve the starter segment. Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle, the board's chairman, was absent. Richard Katz, a Los Angeles County transportation official, resigned from the board last month.

How long the track would remain dormant is uncertain. Future funding for the $43-billion project could be threatened by growing concerns about the $1.3-trillion federal deficit and mounting Republican opposition in Congress to several billion dollars in federal assistance already approved for the project, but not yet allocated to it.

There are also concerns about the authority's ability to attract private investors and funding from local governments along the route.

Though some residents and civic leaders in the Central Valley spoke in favor of the project at Thursday's board meeting, some strong backers criticized the initial segment, saying it did not connect major cities and ran afoul of provisions of the voter-approved ballot measure to build a high-speed rail system, such as locating a station in Merced.

Given the uncertainties about the project's long-term funding, some cities that were left out of the first leg expressed concern about how long it would take for future extensions to reach them.

Merced Mayor Bill Spriggs argued that the greatest population and unemployment in the Central Valley was north of the proposed segment. Joblessness in some areas of the Central Valley is as high as 25%, among the highest unemployment rates in the nation.

Officials there fear that they "will be left out for a long, long time," Spriggs said.

Stockton Mayor Ann Johnston described the bullet train as a "fabulous" project, but expressed dismay that the initial segment did not link Merced and Fresno, two university towns . She told the board that the initial leg should not "go from one unknown location to another unknown location. The decision you make must make common sense."

Supporters of the initial route took umbrage at the suggestion that the first investment in the state's high-speed rail system was going into an area of little transportation consequence.

"This is not a train to nowhere," said Visalia Mayor Bob Link. "Fresno is one of the largest cities in California."

Former Los Banos Assemblyman Rusty Areias made an impassioned plea for the project, which could create thousands of jobs and pump money into the Central Valley's economy. " 'Nowhere' will never share in the prosperity of this state until you do something about its relative isolation. You have to do something about [that]. Until you do, it will remain the New Appalachia."

Rapidly creating jobs and avoiding community resistance in the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas were part of the rationale for targeting the Central Valley for the first segment, said Rob Kulat, a Federal Railroad Administration spokesman. The high-speed rail authority had considered building the first section in either the Bay Area or from Los Angeles to Anaheim.

"We think it's a good place to start," Kulat said of the initial section. "It's a starting point for the larger development and it has to be really seen in that context. It's the first of many more to come."

The selection of the first segment was made as deadlines loomed to secure the federal money that has been approved for the project. High-speed rail officials say they must finalize the authority's grant agreements and submit the final paperwork to the railroad administration by the end of December -- a deadline that has raised further questions about the project.

State Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), who chairs the Senate committee that oversees the high-speed rail project, said the authority board is acting prematurely to meet the federal deadlines and without answering critical questions raised by the state auditor, the Legislative Analyst, the attorney general and the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Berkeley, which called the project's ridership projections unreliable.

"You don't want to lose the federal funds, but you don't want to make a poor decision in a panic mode," said Lowenthal, who fears the agency could create an "orphan" length of track that will never be used by high-speed trains. "The route could be appropriate, but lots of issues still aren't resolved. I'm concerned about the process."


Some area office-holders can't serve on bullet-train panel as well, California atty. gen. says

E-mails reveal clashes over high-speed rail project

Richard Katz resigns from California's high-speed train board

-- Dan Weikel and Rich Connell

Comments () | Archives (29)

Here's how this gets exploited by the cronies of Big Oil, i.e. the GOP: we spend billions of track that can't be used without additional investment. The GOP kills off that additional investment, leaving this track unused. The GOP blames Dems for building a "Train to Nowhere" conveniently ignoring that they're the reason it goes nowhere.

It would be much smarter to ensure that the initial leg can be used. Start from the end of a BART, Metro, or Caltrain line, and build something usable with the already-allocated funding.

A railroad from nowhere at all to nowhere in particular - The first transcontinental railroad

Sound familiar? Look how that turned out...

Only a politician would see reason in spending $40,000,000,000 to compete with $125 air travel.

Why not build a short high speed segment between either Los Angeles and San Diego or between Sacramento and San Francisco and then expand from there? That would certainly benefit the greatest number of people in the shortest distance of track constructed. Why would anyone ride a bullit train between one moderate sized central valley city and another? No reason. But between SF & SAC or LA & SD, you betcha!

Wow. $4 billion for something that won't even run. Really??? Maybe they can rig up a Chevy Volt to run up and down the tracks at least.

These critics of the train can't be satisfied no matter what. People like in Palo Alto try and block the train at every opportunity, then when they choose not to start construction there, they complain! Where would you start to build the system? In the middle of a city where everyone tries to sue you and a bunch of NIMBYists are constantly wasting time and money, or out in central California where the land is cheap and there's absolutely no opposition.

What a great way to have a zero-carbon-footprint train.... No locomotive! Yet another goof-up sure to please the "cult of carbonism."

You're kidding, right? Are you people demented? California has truly lost its mind.

The whole project is a waste. When done, it will still cost more and take longer to use the train than fly. This is another phony green boondongle. The only reason it exists is so that local politicians can steal some of the $40+ billion it is projected to cost.

In my opinion, most of the great leaps in the California economy since World War II, aside from the Federal Government Sponsored defense industry, were the result of Private Technical innovation and the confluence of first-rate entrepreneurs who created Silicon Valley and such State of the Art firms as Intel, and, Apple Computer, and those wonderful online services Google and Ebay. This Federally-funded high speed rail link boondoggle marks a disturbing departure from all of those serendipitous "miracles" that created a California economy second to none in the USA and needless to say, in the world as well. Private enterprise brought relatively quick rewards in prosperity, but this piecemeal rail project will not result in overall economic benefits for the state for decades to come, certainly no quick return on all those Federal Funds poured into a rail line bereft of equipment and services. Back in the 1970s a huge, multilevel freeway overpass was constructed in South San Jose and then, for whatever reason, the project was abandoned for several years with this disconnected eyesore sticking out like a saw thumb: us natives dubbed it THE SAN JOSE MONUMENT" , TAKE HEED CENTRAL VALLEY

This is a wasteful project because it is being built using antiquated steel-on-rail, ground-level train technology that is more costly to build and operate, more dangerous, and MUCH slower.

Google "Transrapid".

311 MPH (not a measly 220), totally silent, and naturally separated from ground level so there's no disruption to or collision with ground traffic, and we can keep using the land beneath. No ultra-expensive bridges and viaducts needed to elevate the line through urban areas. Just build it right next to the 5 freeway, on State land we already own.

THAT is what we should be building.

Unfortunately, the French TGV lobbyists have been the driving force behind CA's high speed rail from Day 1.

First of all, a train that stops in small towns like Fresno or Hanford is by definition not a high speed train.

This train should stop in downtown San Diego, Anaheim, downtown Los Angeles (w/ an easy metro connection to west LA), the San Fernando valley, downtown San Jose, downtown San Francisco, Oakland, and downtown Sacramento, major airports in between, and absolutely NOWHERE else.

We cannot allow narrow, parochial interests to undermine one of the most important investments in California's history, an investment that I believe will generate tremendous value for California's economy, but only if it's done right.

As a businessperson in southern California, there would be few things that could save me more time and get me closer to my clients and employees than a < 2 hour train ride to the bay area, a 45 minute trip to San Diego, and easy airport connections.

A Rail tradition is to name Trains and Coaches after notables, icons or vistas.

The "Empire Builder","The Southwest Chief" and the Green Line's" Norwalk" come to mind.

So what do you name a train that runs from somewhere near Corcoran State Prison to a bit north of Fresno?

The Helter-Skelter Express?

Da Doo Rah Rah Train of Sound?

(sorry Charlie and Phil--pls don't make parole.)

Nominations are now open.

(oh, sorry, The Train to Nowhere has already been widely accepted as the Green Line sobriquet)

If you look at the route that is planned for this train, you will see that it is full of twists and turns because the state could not buy land in a straight line. Because of this, it won't actually travel at high speeds for much of the distance between L.A. and San Francisco because of this, unlike comparable trains in France and Japan for instance. The project is inherently flawed and a huge waste of money.

That calculates out to 63.846 million dollars per mile!!!!! Are they INSANE????? How much will a ticket cost?

This has nothing to do with "big oil" or the GOP. Every member of the the California High-Speed Rail Authority board who UNANIMOUSLY approved construction is a present or former DEMOCRATIC politician.
State Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach),
Tom Umberg, a former state legislator from Orange County and vice chair of the high-speed rail board.
Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle
Merced Mayor Bill Spriggs
Former Los Banos Assemblyman Rusty Areias
Visalia Mayor Bob Link

I cant wait till this is complete!! Yes it will be more expensive and take longer than flying, but it will be a beautiful view of the California coastline. Plus, pregnant women and people with medical problems will be able to travel. I am sure those last minute travelers will appreciate not having to book months in advance in order to secure the lowest price.

It doesn't matter what section is constructed first as long as it puts people back to work.

It doesn't sound like a waste to me, if it is bringing money and work into the poorest part of the state. At least they are doing something. God bless them for that.

It's "Kolleeforniya", what else do you expect???

If you think you will be able to fly from LA to SF for $125 (BTW, the current going rate is $139 with advance purchase) for the foreseeable future, you better think about what gas and jet fuel are going to cost when everyone in China and India starts living the "non-negotiable American way of life" by all driving cars like we do. You will be wishing that there was an alternative that didn't use fossil fuels. Use your brain, think ahead more than the next quarter.

Remember that Californians, in their insanity, voted for this!!! Our state is broke and broken, and hey, this looks neat, let's vote for a bond to get a high speed rail built. One that would have to rely heavily on Federal dollars if the project ever got off the ground in the first place. Do you people even realize how much this thing is going to cost in the end?

This reminds me of an episode of the Simpson's from the 4th season when they built a monorail system in Springfield.

What a joke.

When you start building a house, you start by leveling the plot and laying the foundation.

Do you call it " the floor to nowhere" because by itself, the foundation is useless?

And when the wall are put up, without a roof, do we call it a useless home, because it offers no weather protection?

No, we call it "under construction"

Okay, which politician owns the land were this train is supposed to be built? Anyone checking?

The decision SHOULD have been to build a line that at least linked Bakersfield or Fresno with Sacramento. At least then we would have demonstration of a high speed train.

Instead an idiotic decision was made by a committee - and we will have a political stunt.

Building in the SF Bay Area is impossible due to local politics on the Peninsula. The high speed train will NEVER be built to San Francisco - give that up now. The route should go Redding to San Diego.

More proof Americans can't build anything anymore. South Korea recently built a world class high speed rail network tying into the world class Seoul subway system. That just cannot be done in the USA.

maybe illegals could get free tickets to ride on it!

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