California High Speed Rail facing serious, growing opposition

Despite spending a whopping $12.5 million in the past two years on public relations, the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) has yet to start construction or even decide where all the tracks will go. Given the concerted opposition to HSR now coming from California municipalities as well as the House of Representatives, it now appears doubtful that it ever will be built.

It is a clear sign of desperation by CHSRA to have spent so much on PR trying to win support for this wobbly project. If it was an easy sell, they wouldn’t need so much PR. But it’s not. Projected costs are way over budget and rising. There is determined opposition both in the San Jose corridor and the Central Valley. The federal government has stopped virtually all funding, something which the project assumed would be there and which it desperately needs.

Some of the PR money went to well-connected politicos of both parties. This is not a criticism of their competence. Who better to convince politicos of your point of view than other politicos? Members of both parties are opposed to HSR too. If anything, opposition is geographically placed not political. Those in areas directly affected by HSR plans tend to oppose it.

The opposition is much more than simple NIMBYism. We are, after all, talking about trains going 200 mph, sometimes through densely populated urban areas. Building and homes near the track will have to be removed and streets re-routed. CHSRA made a serious blunder in assuming that opposition in the Central Valley would be minimal and could be mostly ignored because after all, they’re just yokels who live in the country. But then, city types often do underestimate rural folks. As some Net humor on rural vs. urban says, “You drive a $60,000 car? We’re impressed. Some of us have $300,000 vehicles we only drive two weeks a year.”

Construction could take years and the costs are extremely steep. Further, many now believe that voters were given inaccurate information when they voted for HSR in 2008. This includes the important city of Palo Alto. Their city council has bluntly called on the state legislature to abandon the project because it is too expensive, has no discernable funding for the $100 billion it needs, and has no coherent business plan. Ouch.

The Kings County Board of Supervisors is concerned by the amount of agricultural land that HSR would use and basically just told Visalia to back off on plans to get grant money to study putting a station in Kings County not Tulare County (where Visalia is.) Further, they say CHSRA is trying to start construction without addressing concerns from the Valley or working with local governments.

Republican members of the House are calling for an independent audit of the HSR program by the highly respected and non-partisan Government Accounting Office, focusing on cost and ridership estimates as well as funding. It seems probable that GAO will do the audit. The biggest problem for California high speed rail is that costs are now estimated at $98.4 billion, more than twice the original estimate. But only $13.5 billion has been allocated. No one has a clue where the rest of the money will come from, especially since the federal government has stopped funding it.

(crossposted from IVN)