As part of the $9.95 billion bond approved by voters in 2008 to start building the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles system, improvements were promised to regional rail, including Altamont Commuter Express, which shuttles workers daily between Tracy and San Jose.
A new economic draft of the high-speed rail plan hasn’t changed that commitment, according to the commission’s Stacey Mortensen.
“We’ve been working together for some months (with the High-Speed Rail Authority) and had some input into the business plan, and we’re developing a list of improvements for the Altamont Commuter Express,” she said, following the April 2 release of the updated draft.
The first priority of the new plan is to construct rail from the Los Angeles Basin north over the Tehachapi Pass to Bakersfield, as opposed to previous proposals to start building high-speed tracks between Merced and Fresno.
It also calls for improving Caltrain in the Bay Area, Metrolink in Los Angeles and ACE in the Central Valley, and eventually “blending” those systems with high-speed rail.
A completion date ranging from 2020 to 2028 has been tentatively set, a timeline that depends on available funding.
According to the High-Speed Rail Authority, which oversees the system’s planning and construction, the new approach reduces the estimated cost of building a high-speed system from about $100 billion to $68.4 billion.
The authority predicted the money would come from a variety of private, state and federal sources.
According to authority spokeswoman Janis Mara, $3.3 billion in federal funding was identified for construction of the first high-speed rail segment between Merced and the L.A. Basin, in addition to the $9 billion approved by California voters.
“Also, many private investors have indicated an interest in helping to fund the project,” Mara wrote in a Wednesday statement, adding that no private investments had yet been made. “This is expected to occur after the initial operating section is developed and the system will be operating at break-even or better, based on ridership and revenue.”
Mortensen also said those who rely on train service around Tracy and Mountain House should see benefits as part of the proposal. She said the goal was to enable passengers to ride from Merced to the Bay Area without transferring, even before high-speed service is fully operational.
Improvements to ACE could include grade separations and stretches of dedicated rail lines.
ACE shares tracks with Union Pacific over the Altamont Pass, which limits the system’s flexibility and speed, Mortensen said.
She added that the revised plan did not change the goal of having the downtown Tracy Transit Station as a stop on the line.
“We’re still committed to routing it through the city,” Mortensen said, adding that acquiring the Union Pacific tracks from Lathrop through Tracy was “probably the first piece we’ll be focused on.”
System in state of flux
The draft also underwent a “comprehensive and well-vetted economic impact and benefit-cost analysis,” according to the authority, to address worries that the high-speed system would operate at a loss if it were ever built. New authority-authored estimates show positive cash flow for 10.5 million, 8.1 million or 5.8 million riders a year.
Poignant criticism has come from University of California, Berkeley’s Institute of Transportation Studies, which in 2010 stated that the ridership study was critically flawed.
Even after the railway’s revised economic plan was published, there was no short supply of critics.
The Los Angeles Times reported Monday, April 9, that the expert hired to ensure the accuracy of the authority’s ridership estimates previously worked for the company that produced those estimates. The news report added that Frank S. Koppelman, who has taught civil engineering at Northwestern University, was hired by Cambridge Systematics Inc. on two Midwest projects and maintained “a close relationship with one of the firm's top executives.”
The report quoted Koppelman as saying, "In my mind, there is no conflict of interest. I have no doubt in my ability to do a clear-cut job for the authority."
Those seeking elected office have also taken shots at the proposal as too expensive. Among them is Republican Assemblyman Bill Berryhill, who is trying to defeat Leroy Ornellas and Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani, an avowed high-speed rail supporter, in the 5th Senate District, which includes Tracy and Mountain House.
“This revised plan looks nothing like what the people of California were promised when they voted to approve $9 billion in high-speed rail bonds,” reads a statement from Berryhill, who once was more enthusiastic about the possible benefits of high-speed rail. “In fact, this new incarnation of the project is nearly twice as expensive as what voters were led to believe.”
Galgiani, a Democrat, continues her support for the high-speed project, championing it as a major jobs-creator for the Central Valley, an area that lags behind the state rates of per-capita income and employment.
She said in previous statements that, aside from generating jobs, the project was vital to improving transportation, reducing pollution and facilitating economic development throughout the region.
Ornellas, a Republican who sits on the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors, recently criticized the cost of high-speed rail in California, saying earlier this year that he wouldn’t be surprised if the actual cost of construction climbed above $200 billion.
He also worried that once built, the system would be unlikely to operate without a sizeable subsidy from a state budget that the Legislative Analyst’s Office expects to face a 2012-13 total deficit of $13 billion.
“One of the things that’s a concern, too, is that there’s no private funding identified,” Ornellas said. “The fact that the private sector isn’t jumping on board with this thing speaks volumes.”