High-speed rail detour is smart, if tricky politically

A view of a high-speed train moving through a wind farm in the proposed high-speed rail network.
A view of a high-speed train moving through a wind farm in the proposed high-speed rail network. Newlands and Co. Inc.

For all of the lawsuits, delays and debate over California’s high-speed rail project, truly getting it rolling has always come down to a tug-of-war between the laws of politics and the laws of engineering.

For now, the laws of engineering seem to have the upper hand. The California High-Speed Rail Authority last week released a new business plan that calls for the first real stretch of tracks to be built from Kern County north through the San Joaquin Valley and then west to downtown San Jose. Eventually, with a hope and a prayer for federal funds, the line would extend up into San Francisco and down into Bakersfield.

It’s an about-face from previous plans that called for the first leg to run south from Merced to Bakersfield, then east to Palmdale and the San Fernando Valley and finally Los Angeles, where the bulk of California’s population awaits on the other side of a lot of mountains.

Although the decision to change course is likely to give the south state a case of sour grapes, it actually makes sense – and not just because we’re sitting in Northern California and have a vested interest in the economic opportunities that would surely follow high-speed rail into the depressed Central Valley.

When you look at the engineering, building tunnels through the geologically tricky Tehachapi and San Gabriel mountains, while doable, is dauntingly costly. Building tracks to the Bay Area would be much cheaper – an estimated $20 billion, compared to an estimated $31 billion for the L.A. leg. The revised plan for the whole, statewide system, at last count, was about $64.2 billion, down from $67.6 billion.

Construction also would go much faster, with the rail authority promising service along the 250 miles of tracks within a decade. The ridership and revenue from the Bay Area also could persuade the private sector to provide financing to help pay for the rest of the route.

“The math is pretty clear,” rail authority board chairman Dan Richard said in a conference call Thursday. “It’s longer and more expensive to get to L.A.”

Logical as all of this may be, this revised route is far from a done deal. The plan still must survive a 60-day public comment period and then the Legislature in May. That’s where the pull of politics comes in.

It didn’t take long after Thursday’s announcement for the crush of condemnation to begin from Southern California politicians who expected the train to come their way to alleviate the region’s horrific gridlock and carbon emissions.

“I am concerned by the High-Speed Rail Authority’s change to starting construction in Northern California,” Assembly Speaker-elect Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, said in a statement. “This project is meant to connect the north and the south. Neglecting the south would be unacceptable.”

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, of Los Angeles, was less harsh. In a statement Friday, he said he met with rail authority officials and touted a deal for $4 billion in transit investments in Southern California.

Of course, some lawmakers don’t want high-speed rail at all. Republican George Runner, vice chairman of the state Board of Equalization, released a statement within minutes, calling the decision an act of desperation tantamount to “kicking the can down the alley.”

“The Tehachapi Mountains won’t disappear because the authority decided to change plans,” Runner said.

The biggest threat, though, is the possibility that, without support in the Legislature for the reauthorization of Assembly Bill 32, essential cap-and-trade dollars could expire in 2020. There are also unresolved lawsuits from farmers and residents, and environmental hurdles to clear by the end of 2017.

Many questions remain, particularly about funding. But if the laws of politics can get on a parallel track with the laws of engineering, then this newly prioritized line will mean great things for all of the Central Valley, and maybe, someday, all of the state.