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Los Angeles: a beacon of hope amid high-speed rail fog?

Headwinds  are building against California’s planned high-speed rail system, with congressional opponents attempting to kill funding, and new reports generating ever more negative rhetoric. That’s the  bottom line in Carolyn Lochhead’s piece in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Meanwhile, though significant cuts to transportation funding — both for road construction and maintenance as well as mass-transit are likely in the coming transportation bill, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has introduced an innovative financing scheme aimed at speeding up transit construction.  Villaraigosa’s initiativemay become a nationwide program, according to Rick Orlov of the Torrance Daily Breeze.

Criticisms at the policy end of high-speed rail are hardly new. Here’s a standard sample: The project is too expensive . . .  the studies were too expensive, incomplete, and manipulated . . . Americans use cars . . . we don’t have the population density . . . “treehuggers” want it, so it must be bad . . . it will never make money . . . tickets will be so expensive no one will use it . . .  private financing hasn’t appeared.

But the real kiss of death, it seems, was President Obama’s support. Republicans, seldom-generous patrons of mass transit, have of late become obsessed with derailing California’s bullet train.


House Republicans want to kill the entire venture. They zeroed out all funds for high-speed rail in their budget and voted last week to redirect rail funds, including the $368 million allotted for California, to flood-control projects in Missouri.


But a spokesman for Governor Jerry Brown responded that many of the legislative salvos are merely part of the D.C. aesthetic.


[The spokesman] acknowledged that the federal commitment is part of a “very complicated picture with a lot of political battles putting pressure on our ability to move forward.” But he emphasized that there is “no project, no issue, no department where there are not treacherous conditions right now as far as federal support is concerned due to the shenanigans in Washington.”


In contrast, a bold financing initiative originating from Los Angeles is gaining steam. Unveiled as Los Angeles’ “30/10 plan,” it involved passing a 30-year sales tax surcharge for transit projects, then convincing federal officials to lend Los Angeles the projected proceeds up front. This would allow Los Angeles to fast-track construction and repay the federal treasury incrementally over 30 years. Villaraigosa claims this accounting approach will enable the build-out of 30 years’ worth of transit extensions in ten years.

L.A.’s concept dots most of the i’s and crosses most of the t’s in the federal transit rubric. The sales taxes mean the projects must have some level of local political and financial support, and the bulk of federal aid is eventually returned.  There’s much to like about California’s visionary rail plan. If planned, built, and managed well, it should prove a more than worthwhile investment.

While there are many unanswered questions along with debatable assumptions, there is one truth that is self-evident.  The average Angeleno might travel to San Francisco once or twice a year, but they make 260 round trips to work. While a bond measure for improving light or heavy rail systems in California’s five largest cities wouldn’t have generated the excitement — or for that matter the state-wide political support — that a comprehensive bullet train network did, it probably would prove more successful at getting more cars off  California’s congested freeways.

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