The silver bullet train - Page 2

High-speed rail would solve the state's most pressing environmental and transportation problems. So why isn't Schwarzenegger supporting it?

"It's not cost-effective in the short term."

The stand baffles environmentalists and other high-speed rail supporters, who say the project is expensive but extremely cost-effective over the long term (although it gets less so the longer the state delays, with about $2 billion tacked on the price tag for every year of delay).

"If the governor would get up on his bully pulpit and talk about high-speed rail to the California people, we would be starting construction in 2009," Kopp told the Guardian. "What you have is political fear instead of political will."

Asked why Schwarzenegger doesn't seem to understand the importance of this issue — or how it relates to his green claims — CHSRA executive director Mehdi Morshed can only guess. Some of it is the daunting price tag and long construction schedule, some of it is that the governor tends to defer to the Department of Transportation for his transportation priorities, "and they're in the business of building more roads, so that's what they say we need."

But mostly, it's a failure to understand the kind of transportation gridlock that's headed California's way if we do nothing. "It's an alternative to meeting the travel demand with more highways and airport expansions," Carli Paine, transportation program director with the Transportation and Land Use Coalition, told us. But as Morshed told us, "The governor doesn't suffer much on the freeways, and he has his own plane."

The person doing Schwarzenegger's dirty work on high-speed rail is David Crane, an attorney turned venture capitalist who, although he's a Democrat from San Francisco, is one of the governor's top economic advisers and his newest appointee to the CHSRA board. Despite thick stacks of detailed studies on the project, Crane seems to want to return the project to square one.

"There's never been a comprehensive plan for how you're going to finance this thing," Crane told us, noting that the LA-SF link is likely to cost far more than the bonds would generate. "The bond itself is a red herring. You could raise the $10 billion now and still not have a high-speed rail."

Yet supporters of high-speed see the Schwarzenegger-Crane gambit as mostly just a stall tactic. While Crane argues that the private sector funding — which could account for about half his estimated $40 billion in total project costs (other documents say around $26 billion) — needs to be nailed down first, supporters say California must firmly commit to the project if it's going to happen.

"Private capital won't be interested unless they know there is a public commitment," Kopp told us.

"You need to take a leap of leadership. When there is something that makes sense in so many ways, you need to have that initial public buy-in," said Bill Allayaud, legislative director for the Sierra Club California.

Support for that stance also seems to be strong in the legislature, where San Francisco's newest representative, Assemblymember Fiona Ma, has emerged as the point person on the issue. She even went on a fact-finding mission in France, aboard the TGV train when it reached 357 mph to break the world rail speed record.

"We can't do it until we have that public investment," Ma told us, noting that holding detailed financial debates right now is a diversion considering that "this project will pay for itself."

"My assembly caucus is extremely positive about high-speed rail. Right now it's on the ballot for next year, and I think it's going to stay there," Ma said. She isn't sure that she can get the CHSRA the full $103 million it wants this year, "but whatever we can come up with is going to be better than $1 million."

"The governor needs to get on board. This is an important environmental issue," Ma told us.