California’s “Train to Nowhere”

Posted by Ken Orski on Monday, December 6th, 2010

Innovation NewsBriefs
Vol. 21, No. 30

On December 2, the California High Speed Rail Authority approved  a staff recommendation to  begin construction of California’s 500-mile high-speed line with a 65-mile segment of track in Central Valley, from Borden in Madera County (pop. 57,000), through Fresno  to Corcoran (pop. 14,500) north of Bakersfield.  Roelof van Ark, the Authority’s CEO said this segment would make “the best use of the $4.3 billion currently available construction funds.”  But the Board’s decision unleashed a storm of criticism and controversy.

Congressman Dennis Cardoza, representing the congressional district in which the project is to be located, strongly condemned the decision as wasteful and seriously flawed. “It defies logic and common sense to have the train start and stop in remote areas that have no hope of attaining the ridership needed to justify the cost of the project,” he stated in a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo.  State Sen. Alan Lowenthal who chairs the Senate committee that oversees the high-speed rail project, accused the Authority’s board of acting prematurely, “in a panic mode,”  to meet a federal deadline.

And indeed, the Authority was under a deadline to pick a route and enter into a funding agreement with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) by the end of the year. FRA  further specified that all federal funding awarded to the project must be dedicated to a single operable line segment  in the Central Valley. By choosing a relatively isolated area for the first stretch of track, FRA hoped the project could avoid the kind of community resistance and delay that the project had encountered in the more densely settled San Francisco Bay and Los Angeles areas

But the decision to spend $4.3 billion on an isolated 65-mile stretch of track in the sparsely populated Central Valley, far removed from any large population concentration, could instead become a huge embarrassment  for the Administration.  If Congress fails to authorize further funds to extend the line—a highly likely possibility in a  Republican-controlled House of Representatives —the project will end up truly as  “a high-speed Train to Nowhere.” Like Alaska’s “Bridge to Nowhere,” the Central Valley rail line will become a target of jokes and ridicule, and a symbol  of wasteful government spending on a project that makes little common sense to the average citizen.  It will strengthen the congressional critics’ contention that the U.S. DOT cannot be trusted with wisely managing its discretionary spending authority and does not deserve to retain its power to make “executive earmarks.”  And by enabling  “the Train to Nowhere” with a $715 million grant, the Administration casts doubt on the soundness of  the entire federal high-speed rail program and its decision-making process.

C. Kenneth Orski is a public policy consultant and former principal of the Urban Mobility Corporation. He has worked professionally in the field of transportation for over 30 years, in both the public and private sector. He is editor and publisher of Innovation NewsBriefs, now in its 21st year of publication.

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