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Will high-speed rail in California change direction?

Planners promoting California’s high speed rail system are apparently on the hunt for some serious cost savings.

Two recent stories about the ambitious plan to link Los Angeles with San Francisco via 220-mile per hour trains suggest the project may be facing serious financial questions — just as the naysayers have crowed all along.

Officials are re-opening discussion of the alignment between Los Angeles and Bakersfield, with an eye towards a shorter, cheaper route,according to Tim Sheehan of The Fresno Bee.

Meanwhile, near the northern terminus, officials are considering abandoning plans to build a separate set of tracks exclusively for the high speed rail and are instead considering sharing existing tracks with a commuter service that began operation in the 19th century. According to Mike Rosenberg of the San Jose Mercury-News, officials with the rail authority’s board of directors yesterday postponed their decision until their next monthly meeting. A handful of well-heeled residents in the tony suburbs south of San Francisco, have been launching legal challenges since the project was announced. They also regularly litigate against the existing San Francisco-San Jose Caltrain service.

These latest developments seem to cast a shadow on projections that the planned system could be built for about $40 billion, the amount cited when voters were asked to approve $9.95 billion in bonds to help finance the project. The possible retrenchment is especially worrying as California’s high speed rail initiative has picked up billions in additional federal funding after Republican governors in other states shunned federal funding for similar systems in Wisconsin, Florida and Ohio.

If cost savings are achievable, they may prove penny wise and pound foolish. The planned Tehachapi route out of the Los Angeles basin passes through the fast growing exurbs of the Antelope Valley, where presumably many potential commuters reside. Using the more direct ‘Grapevine’ route, following Interstate 5, may make for a faster ride and less costly construction, but the sparsely populated Angeles National Forest is unlikely to draw many riders.

Likewise, sharing tracks with Caltrain and its numerous stops will limit the frequency and hobble speeds for the high speed system.

Officials should review the entire project and honestly lay out their goals. Realistically, commuters are likely to be the most regular users, not leisure or business travelers riding end to end.

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