Some senators want dramatic shift in bullet train plan

Now, some Democrats in the state Senate want to hit the reset button again.

They have proposed dramatically shifting the high-speed rail project's focus by cutting back on planned construction in the Central Valley andinstead spending billions on immediate rail improvements in Los Angeles and San Francisco. 

It is not clear whether what lawmakers call "Plan B" – a proposal devised by state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, chairman of the Transportation and Housing Committee  – has a real chance of being substituted for the governor's proposal. The issue will be settled soon, as the Legislature is expected to vote this week or next on whether to issue $6 billion in bullet train construction bonds.

The Senate Democrats' skepticism about the present high-speed rail plan was first reported by the Los Angeles Times

Boosters say Plan B would spend money now to achieve high-impact upgrades of rail service in the state's busiest transportation corridors while building infrastructure that would accommodate bullet train service later on.

According to rail advocates who have been briefed on the idea, Plan B's top priorities include:

  • A $2 billion tunnel through downtown San Francisco to bring commuter rail service – and, eventually the bullet train – into the city's new Transbay Transit Center from the Caltrain station more than a mile away.
  • $1.5 billion in Los Angeles-area rail improvements, including a redesign of Los Angeles Union Station's rail access and construction of rail overpasses. Together, the projects would speed rail service for hundreds of Amtrak and Metrolink trains each day and end chronic traffic bottlenecks.
  • A $1.5 billion Central Valley bullet train line between Fresno and Madera – but with no immediate connections to Merced or Bakersfield.

In a statement, Dan Richard, chairman of the state High-Speed Rail Authority, asserted that Plan B couldn't be done.

"There are no legal, practical or contractual ways to move the money out of the Central Valley," he wrote. "The Authority's revised plan already makes major investments to rail across the state."

Californians for High Speed Rail, an organization that promotes the bullet train project, expressed alarm at the Plan B idea, warning that federal rail authorities might pull back $3.3 billion in promised project aid if the approach is pursued.

California voters approved the bullet train project in 2008. It would link San Francisco and Los Angeles with trains traveling more than 200 miles per hour and provide what advocates call an eco-friendly transportation alternative to air and car travel. Once it is built, the rail line will turn a healthy profit, the state High-Speed Rail Authority has promised.

Construction of a 100-mile Central Valley segment is supposed to get under way as soon as the Legislature approves the sale of the bonds.

But some critics say the state has no idea where most of the construction money for the project will come from. Other critics call the Central Valley line a "train to nowhere" that would provide little benefit to most Californians.

Still others say the project's revenue forecasts are unrealistically upbeat and mask the reality that the bullet train will need heavy annual subsidies.

Meanwhile, the project faces lawsuits from opponents who claim construction would wreck residential neighborhoods on the San Francisco Peninsula and prime farmland in the Central Valley.

After installing a new management team at the state High-Speed Rail Authority and whacking its budget, the governor embraced the project.

The state Assembly is expected to approve Brown's plan. But in the Senate a group of Democrats who had become uneasy with the project's costs and priorities began searching for an alternative plan, according to interviews.

In addition to DeSaulnier, they include Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, long a critic of the project's finances, and Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, who has opposed the project on environmental grounds.

Also interested in the alternative is state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco. According to a spokesman, Yee supports high-speed rail but thinks it unwise to begin construction in the Central Valley.

A big advantage of Plan B is that it's "shovel ready," said Nadia Naik, co-founder of Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design, a group that opposes the present project.

The San Francisco tunnel project already has its environmental permits, according to a spokesman for the transbay center. The Los Angeles Union Station project underwent federal environmental review years ago, said Paul Dyson, president of the Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada.

By contrast, the bullet train's permits are tied up in litigation.

"They're having problems getting anything through the environmental process," said Richard Tolmach, president of the California Rail Foundation and a project critic. "There are five lawsuits now and more coming."

Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)

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