Staying on track

Top political leaders defend high-speed rail from right-wing attacks

Construction of the first high-speed rail section, in the Central Valley, is slated to get underway this year

After weeks of attacks from critics of the high-speed rail system now being built in California — a campaign that even came home to San Francisco City Hall last week, when Sup. Sean Elsbernd challenged Mayor Ed Lee on the issue and called for a hearing — Gov. Jerry Brown and other supporters have stepped up efforts to keep the train from being derailed.

With seed money from a $10 billion bond measure that California voters approved in 2008 and an initial federal grant of $3.3 billion to help build the Central Valley section of the track, the California High Speed Rail Authority is working on construction of a bullet train that would carry riders from San Francisco to downtown Los Angeles in about 2.5 hours, traveling at speeds of up to 220 mph. That project is slated to cost nearly $100 billion, and the next phase would extend service to Sacramento and San Diego.

But Republicans in Congress and the California Legislature began to balk at funding the project last year. Earlier this month, a report by the California High-Speed Peer Review Group recommended that the Legislature indefinitely delay issuing $2.7 billion in rail bonds, citing the uncertainty of future funding sources and problems with the project's business plan.

"It does not take a rocket scientist to see the future of high-speed rail is in serious doubt," Elsbernd said at the Jan. 10 Board of Supervisors meeting, where he used the monthly mayoral question time to ask Lee, "What is Plan B with Transbay Terminal if the high-speed rail money does indeed go away? What do we do?"

The Transbay Terminal is now being rebuilt downtown. The first phase includes a $400 million "train box" being built with high-speed rail funds, and the next phase will require billions of dollars more to build train tunnels into the station from the current Caltrain terminus at 4th and King streets.

"I'm committed to seeing the full implementation of high speed rail, which includes having a northern terminus at the Transbay center," Lee replied, refusing to entertain the idea that the bullet trains won't be coming into San Francisco, a stand he communicated to state officials in a recent letter. "I want to state my unwavering support for the notion of high-speed rail. It is the future of transportation in this state."

Lee acknowledged that cost estimates for the project have gone up and there are uncertainties over future funding, but he said the state will need to make the investment either way. "California is growing and those people need to move up and down the state. The question is do we make transportation investments on bigger, wider highways and airport runways? I'd say no, that this perpetuates a car-dependent culture."

Instead, Lee says the state must find a way to build high-speed rail, whatever the obstacles. But Elsbernd called for a hearing on the issue before the Board of Supervisors, telling the Guardian that he supports the project, "but high-speed rail is in trouble and we need to acknowledge that."

Meanwhile Gov. Brown — who has rejected calls to delay issuing the rail bonds — was working behind-the-scenes to get the project back on track. Sources say he asked for CHSRA Executive Director Roelof van Ark and CHSRA Board Chair Tom Umberg to resign, which they did at the Jan. 12 meeting, with Brown appointee Dan Richard becoming the new chair.

Richard and fellow new Brown appointee Mike Rossi spearheaded the creation of a proposed new business plan for the project that was unveiled in November. While it addresses some of the criticisms of the project, it raises fresh concerns about whether the bullet trains will arrive in Transbay Terminal.