CAHSR Paints Rosy Picture, but Rail Line Is Still Political Hot Potato

After years of being beat up on conservative talk radio and in numerous other press outlets, the California High Speed Rail Authority finally hit a positive streak running several months this year. The organization broke ground on a major part of the program in Fresno, cleared a legal hurdle, passed a new business plan that pivoted construction to the Bay Area and Central Valley, and can now report that there will be high speed rail trains running in California within a decade.

The above video, created by the authority, covers these accomplishments and some lesser ones (We held hearings! We celebrated Earth Day!) and CAHSR is feeling, perhaps for the first time since funding for the first portion of the line was approved by voters in 2008, that they have the momentum needed to see this project through.

But that doesn’t mean that everything is in place. Even CAHSR’s promotional video concedes that funding to complete the line south from Bakersfield through Greater Los Angeles down to San Diego is uncertain.

The state’s cap-and-trade program has produced hundreds of millions of dollars every year for transportation and housing projects, including the California High Speed Rail program. But the program is currently set to expire in 2020.

Despite Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton’s observation that Governor Jerry Brown’s best hope to get the line funded is the election of Donald Trump, Brown’s immediate plan is to extend the expiration date for the state’s cap-and-trade program to 2050. Whether that will be possible remains uncertain – some legislators, mostly Republicans, argue that cap-and-trade is a tax and requires legislative approval. A ruling from a state lawsuit is expected later this year or in 2017.

And that’s assuming that the state can even sell cap-and-trade credits. As Streetsblog USA noted in May, sale of cap-and-trade credits has been much lower than expected.

None of which is to say that CAHSR hasn’t had a good first half of 2016. There’s still a decade of outreach, debate, fundraising, and construction before the trains hit the tracks, but for now CAHSR finally seems to have the wind at its back.

  • DrunkEngineer

    There will be high speed rail trains running in California within a decade.

    LMAO… CHSRA has missed all schedule milestones. You really think they can achieve start-up service by 2026?

    • Agreed. Well, maybe a 2-mile stretch in the Central Valley.

      Given that the Caltrain DTX is pretty much a back burner project at the moment due to funding mismanagement, don’t expect trains to rush into downtown SF by 2026.

  • CAHSR has been poorly executed from day one. The initial ballot measure didn’t raise enough money to build the whole system. Contrast that to LA County’s Measure R transit sales tax which was on the same ballot in 2008. Measure R has resulted in rail lines being finished while CAHSR is struggling to sell a financial plan that relies on cap and trade revenues which are clearly inadequate while making wild promises about private investors building the line and the line not needing operating subsidies.

    They should have raised a dedicated tax for this from day one or not done it at all. I love transit, but I know weak finances when I see them. Just be honest about what it would take to do this right. I think people would respect that more.

    • chairs missing

      Perhaps… if only we held highway projects to anywhere near that kind of standard.

      • I agree. Highway projects should be held to exactly the same standard. For better or for worse, highway projects do have dedicated tax revenues that cover a substantial part of their construction costs (despite the well-known issue that federal and state gas taxes haven’t been raised for inflation since the early 1990s and that some federal general fund revenues are used for transportation), which is a better fiscal situation than CAHSR is in.

        I voted against the CAHSR bond precisely because I knew the financial plan was totally inadequate. The Authority has failed to sell this project in an honest way, and until they square with the public about the financial commitment that is necessary to see this through and operate it, they will continue to struggle.

        It’s sad because HSR could be a really useful transportation option. It’s great for the environment. It’s worth paying taxes for.

        Also, you can thank Prop 13 for the fact that it only takes a majority vote to borrow money but it takes a 2/3 vote to raise a tax, even though taxing ourselves is the fiscally responsible option for financing transportation infrastructure. Otherwise, how do we pay off the money we borrow?

        • neroden

          Prop 13 is such a crock; it should be considered unconstitutional due to that 2/3 requirement.

        • JustJake

          Don’t touch Prop 13. The state has more than $5.5 trillion in taxable property that will produce, even with the 1 percent Proposition 13 limit, more than $55 billion in revenue this year and more than $60 billion when taxes for bonds and other debts are added.
          That’s 12-plus times as much as the $4.9 billion collected in the year after Proposition 13 was passed in 1978, far surpassing the less than 10-fold increase in personal income since then or the nine-fold increase in state government revenue, principally from income and sales taxes.
          The stark contrast is a reality check to those who contend that Proposition 13 destroyed California’s public finances. Even with its limits, property-tax revenues have been a powerful and growing revenue source, thanks to ever-rising property values and new construction to serve an ever-growing population.

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