May 4, 2004 - From the July, 2003 issue

High-Speed Rail's EIR Out In Fall, Bond Measure On Nov '04 Ballot

One of the pillars of Mayor Hahn's $9 billion plan to remodel LAX is the annual passenger cap of 78 million. With constrained capacity at LAX and arguably less efficient access to the terminals vis a vis the proposed Manchester Square check-in facility, the timing for a high-speed rail option for inter-regional travel in California appears to be ripe. In November 2004, state voters will have the opportunity to approve a $10 billion bond measure to support the initial construction of the project, which holds the promise of travel from LA to San Francisco in less than three hours. MIR recently spoke with Mehdi Morshed, Executive Director of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, to discuss the bond measure, route alignment and economic benefits of inter-regional high-speed rail in California.


Mehdi Morshed

In November 2004, the voters in the State will be asked to approve $10 billion for the California High-Speed Rail project. Could you bring our readers up to speed on the status of this rather bold north/south infrastructure investment proposal?

Just like any other project in the country, you have to start the process by doing an environmental impact report and an environmental impact statement on the project. We've been engaged in that activity for two years now with the Federal Railroad Administration, our federal partner on the environmental impact statement. By the end of August, we plan to have a draft environmental impact report statement out to the public for review and comment. At the conclusion of that comment period, we will prepare a final document incorporating what we hear from the public hearings. And in that final document, the expectation is that we will have every segment identified and station locations for every segment along the route.

With a complete environmental document, we can proceed to the engineering and right of way acquisition. A completed environmental impact report will also provide us with a clear understanding of where the train is going to go, what the impacts of the project will be, what are the consequences of building the project, and just about any additional information that one wants to know about the project.

Mehdi, for context, take a step back and sketch for us the void and the purpose of this proposed high-speed rail line. What's the route and what's motivating the proponents to endorse and support such a politically challenging and relatively expensive effort?

First of all, the purpose of the high-speed rail is basically to provide a fast and efficient mode of transportation between major urban areas of the state and to serve as the interregional travel mode, not an intra-regional travel mode. In other words, it's not intended to relieve our commute congestion. Its primary aim is for improving travel between the Central Valley and the north and the south of the state, as well as between the Bay Area and Los Angeles. The trips that are generally too long to drive and too short to fly will be served well by this train.

It will serve all the major population centers of the state for 2020 and beyond. That includes, from the north, the Sacramento area, the entire San Francisco Bay Area, the Central Valley cities of Stockton, Merced, Modesto and Bakersfield. And then, in Southern California, it's the Los Angeles region, Orange County and down to San Diego. So you can visualize that the train will serve the markets where the population is and where it will be in the future.

You describe a bold idea which requires a long-term public vision. What are the political and financial challenges that today confront the High Speed Rail Authority and the Governor?

Well, any bold idea faces similar challenges. The question is, "Do we have the patience for the project to be done and completed?" That's one of the challenges we always have. When you have a great idea, people always want it right away. Of course, it also takes an enormous amount of resources. When you are competing with all of the other needs of the state, finding the resources is a challenge itself. However, we think it's one challenge that we can overcome because without this project, California will be severely limited in its mobility in the years 2020 and beyond.

What are the critical questions that ought to be asked by the public to be more fully informed about this project ?

The public should learn as much as possible about the project. The more informed the public is, the better off we all are. We are trying to do everything we can to put all of the information out there. In addition to the great benefits we have been discussing, the public needs to know that this is going to create noise in the neighborhood, it will cost money and it will use electricity. The public should be aware of the trade-offs in order to fully support high-speed rail in California.

Many intra-regional transportation organizations and advocates will have to compete for scarce dollars against this inter-regional high speed rail project. How does the authority plan to mitigate competition for scarce dollars among allies and proponents of rail and mobility?

Even though it's a competition with resources that other agencies want, we need to work together to create a complete transportation network for the state. While many will focus on intra-regional trips and the commute to work every day, it is important to look at the population that wants to go outside the region as often as we do these days.

The challenge of inter-regional trips is highlighted by the resource constraints facing our primary airports. For example, LAX or SFO both are extremely valuable transportation resources. These airports are going to have a hard time expanding. The problem they're faced with is that one-third of their capacity is taken up by about 5% of the passengers. And those 5% are making these short inter-regional trips. So, if you take those trips off their hands and move them onto a train, the airports automatically increase by one-third their capacity for longer trips, which the airports want to serve and need to serve. So that's the kind of thing every transportation official is faced with. It is not an either/ or proposition. We need all of those things in order to provide the kind of mobility that people are used to and are going to demand in the future.

What's the estimated budget for the project? What will be the most likely sources of funds? Obviously, the proposed $10 billion bond is one source. Where else will the Authority look?

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It's a $25 billion project and that is a big sum of money. However, when you put in the context of what the state of California is going to be spending over the same period of time, over the next 20 years, on various modes of transportation, it's about 10% of what we will be spending totally on transportation.

We will look at the funding just about anywhere where there is funding. As mentioned before, there is a $10 billion general obligation bond on the ballot in November 2004. Obviously, we'll be looking at the federal government for funding. We will be looking for other transportation money that may become available, both at the state and federal level.

Who presently, within the state and nationally, are chief proponents of this proposal?

At the state level, the proponents are numerous: the airport operators in both major markets, the environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and the regional planning agencies are all in favor. And, it's one of the few cases where the labor unions, the environmental groups and the business community all support the same project. Most of the time, the environmental groups are fighting the transportation projects.

At the federal level, there is a considerable amount of pressure from Congress to put money into these types of rail projects. This is mostly directed towards the northeast states, Florida, and from many states in the Midwest. However, no one in the country is planning the kind of service we're planning. They talk about high-speed rail, but they are trying for a 100-120 mph service. That kind of service won't work for us in California.

Summarize for us what this high speed rail system will offer?

We're planning for a 220-mph service. Basically, we have to be able to compete with air travel on the San Francisco to Los Angeles corridor. In order to do that, you need to be going around 220-mph to have a trip time of two hours. If you have a trip time of four or five hours, no one will ride it and then we'll have a money loser.

Speaking of money losers, many analysts have argued that rail projects don't typically really pencil out. On the other hand, these projects do have intangible benefits, such as giving the public options for travel and for greater mobility. How does the authority plan to assess the costs vs. benefits of the California High Speed Rail project?

An economist did a cost-benefit study of the high-speed rail project and determined that for every dollar we spend on it, the state realizes two dollars in benefit. But the benefits come in many different ways. As far as the actual dollars and cents of what the public will be spending, our estimate is that the train itself will generate surplus revenues over its own operating and maintenance costs. This is in contrast to metro transit service where you have to build it and then you have to subsidize the operation and maintenance. On our line, operation and maintenance will be covered by the fare box. Actually, the fare box will generate some surplus revenue that can be used to support a further expansion of the system.

Earlier this year, the Governor proposed to fold the High-Speed Rail Authority into Caltrans as a way to save money. What's the status of that proposal and what your thoughts are about it?

Well, that proposal was removed from the governor's budget by the governor in his May revise and doesn't seem to have any support in the Legislature. The plans are for the high-speed rail project to remain independent under the High-Speed Rail Authority.

An interview like this wouldn't be complete without asking you about how the current state budget stalemate affects the authorities' plans and time table.

As of now, it doesn't have any significant impact on our plans and activities. Our needs for the next fiscal year are rather moderate, except for the $4 million that's already covered and included in the budget before the Legislature. Most of the budget proposals coming forth haven't touched that $4 million because it's a relatively small amount and we need it in order to finish the work we started.

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