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High speed rail funding leaves one coast for the other

A major windfall in federal funding offered to Florida for a new high speed rail effort, just might end up in America’s other sand-and-sun tourist destination — California.

Arguing that local matching funds and future operating and maintenance costs would be an albatross around Floridians’ necks, Florida’s Republican leadership recently rejected the $2.43 billion Washington offered for that state’s long planned fast train project. Now, according to Rich Connell of the Los Angeles Times, the race is on to get that money and California is hoping for a healthy slice, if not the whole pie. Both the Boston-Washington D.C. Northeast Corridor (NEC/Acela) and proposed Midwestern lines with a hub in Chicago are also potential suitors for the funds.

Back on the West Coast, project boosters within the California High Speed Rail Authority, according to Tim Sheehan  of The Fresno Bee, say that Florida’s funding, together with dollars already committed, would enable the construction of new, grade-separated tracks from Bakersfield at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley  all the way to Merced, about 165 miles north and practically due east of San Jose.

The LA Times piece claims that officials are growing more optimistic that this mega-project will actually come to pass as the proposed groundbreaking date draws near. The Bee, meanwhile contends that officials are growing nervous about committing too much of the $9.95 billion in voter-approved bond money too soon.

Its entirely unfortunate that projects of this scale and importance have become political footballs. Ever since President Obama announced high speed rail as a priority, his political opponents have looked for excuses to ridicule, delay and spike it. In California, by contrast, the design and construction also appear politically driven. Officials plan to build the cheapest parts first — long expanses through flat rural land — and leave the expensive parts for last. Keeping that plan carries risks. If ascendant congressional Republicans succeed in choking off any future federal high speed rail funding, California really would end up with an expensive train to nowhere.

A more sensible construction plan would start at both Los Angeles and San Francisco, thus delivering ultrafast service for daily commuters in the state’s two most populous urban areas.

The financial efficacy of the project may merit legitimate questions.  Cost estimates have been criticized as too low and ridership projections as too high. Both may be true. But if 20 years ago when gasoline was bouncing around the $1 a gallon mark someone told you that it would be north of $4 a gallon in 2011, would you have believed them? If the trend line holds true, by the time high speed rail begins revenue service, gas could be four times what it is today or $16 a gallon. Outright rejection of high speed rail could prove the heaviest albatross of all.

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