Guest Editorial by James Janz
High Speed Rail: Do It Right or Not at All
By James Janz
Special to the Mercury News
Posted: 08/29/2010 12:01:00 AM PDT
When California voters approved Proposition 1A for development of a "safe, convenient, affordable, and reliable" high-speed rail system, I am certain they expected it to be a boon to the state because it would be done right. Contrary to the rosy, self-serving picture painted by Rod Diridon in a column last Sunday on this page, the High-Speed Rail Authority has done little right and much that is wrong.
As state Sen. Joe Simitian emphasized at a state budget hearing, "In my judgment, it is more important to get it done right than to be timely and wrong. I understand the [federal] dollars are significant, but they pale in comparison to the tens of billions of dollars that could be misspent if we make bad decisions."
And bad decisions have been made.
For example, the authority’s newly released construction choices present cities, without exception, with the cheapest and quickest-build options, eliminating the only two alignments that will not permanently scar our communities. And the federal stimulus funding application requested funding for an aerial structure for most of the Peninsula. Understandably, cities that worked collaboratively with the authority are angered by this outcome, calling the process a sham and authority members insensitive and apathetic to the public.
Can high-speed rail be done right? Many believe that it cannot. The $33 billion price tag has bulged to $43 billion, while transportation experts peg actual costs at $80 billion to $100 billion. Currently, the plan has only 10 percent of the $43 billion funding, as the state bond funds can only be unlocked with matching dollars.
There is no valid business plan and no valid ridership study, the foundation of a viable business plan. According to the UC Berkeley Institute of Transportation Studies, the model upon which the ridership figures were based is fundamentally flawed. Both the legislative analyst and state auditor have criticized the rail authority for being great promoters but lacking in management performance. State Treasurer Bill Lockyer questions whether bonds can be sold for a project with little private investor confidence.
Why not "just do it?" What about the environment? What about jobs?
A UC Berkeley Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering study reports that it will take 71 years for California high-speed rail to achieve a greenhouse gas break-even point, offsetting the harm caused by its construction. Calculations are based on high ridership, which becomes even more unlikely as one-way ticket prices have zoomed from $55 to $105.
As for jobs -- we need jobs now to address our 12.3 percent unemployment rate, not mythical future jobs. Jobs currently available are for contractors like Parsons-Brinkerhoff, the engineering firm famous for the Boston Big-Dig boondoggle. Design and construction of the trains will likely be in Europe, Japan or China. Our unions should be yelling, "Show me the jobs, here and now!"
Doing this right means creating a system that responds to real transportation needs. It means a system designed and built with fiscal responsibility, that does not divert desperately needed funds from education and other vital services. It means that the system is managed by ethical, responsible and responsive people. Finally, doing it right means not destroying our communities, homes and businesses.
The Community Coalition on High-Speed Rail, the Planning and Conservation League and the Peninsula Cities Consortium -- Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton, Belmont and Burlingame -- are being joined by many others throughout the state saying, "High-speed rail: Do it right or don’t do it."
It’s time for all of us to get informed, get involved and make a difference in the outcome.
JAMES JANZ is president of the Community Coalition on High-Speed Rail (www.cc-hsr.org), a grassroots, non-profit corporation. He wrote this article for this newspaper.