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Why California's high-speed rail is off track

Dream vs. reality: A rendering of California's high-speed rail project that is supposed to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles
Source: California High-Speed Rail Authority
Dream vs. reality: A rendering of California's high-speed rail project that is supposed to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles

Imagine being able to travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles in less than three hours by train instead of over six by car. From the comfort of your high-speed rail carriage, you'd see the countryside whiz by at 220 mph, much like passengers do in countries such as France and Japan.

This fantasy was what Californians overwhelmingly voted for in a ballot measure known as Proposition 1A. It calls for spending $68 billion on a north-south high-speed rail project that will bring jobs and economic benefits to the state while easing traffic and pollution. Yet five years later not a single piece of track has been laid in what has become a controversial project—one that a majority of Californians now oppose and others believe is already dead.

Fifty-two percent say they oppose the bullet train and consider it a waste of money, while just 43 percent support it, according to a recent USC Dornsife/L.A. Times poll. Back in November 2008, however, a majority of voters supported Prop 1A. How did this reversal of fortune happen?

The usual suspects of cost revisions, politics, litigation and delays have hit the ambitious project hard. Critics have assailed it for proposing a so-called "blended approach," in which the bullet train will travel on existing commuter track during some portions of its journey. They say that isn't what was sold to voters, and a group has sued the California High-Speed Rail Authority, which is trying to begin construction without the state funding issues being resolved.

On Friday, Nov. 8, a case was heard by Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny in which project backers argued federal money can be used to start the project. Kenny had previously ruled in August that the project was not in compliance with Proposition 1A without a complete plan for funding in place. $3.2 billion in federal grants are now available. A decision is expected within 90 days.

(Read more: Altered route recommended for high-speed rail leg)

Grassroots resistance

"This project is extremely unpopular with the farmers in the Central Valley," said Stuart Flashman, a San Francisco attorney involved in several lawsuits disputing the environmental review, funding and what the bullet train will provide. Although he represents two property owners who say the track will make their lands virtually impossible to use, as well as Kings County itself, their Prop 1A suit finds major faults with the substance and implementation of the railway.

"Under California law, a bond measure is essentially a contract between the voters and the government," said Flashman. "The High-Speed Rail Authority is attempting to unilaterally modify the contract, and that violates the state constitution."

The authority, however, said it never changed the terms. It promises the railway will offer what the bond measure called for: single-seat travel (meaning no transfers will be necessary) along 520 miles of track linking San Francisco and Los Angeles in two hours and 40 minutes.

"In the peninsula area the intention was never to build new dedicated track for high speed; it was always to use the corridor that existed, if at all possible," said Lisa-Marie Alley, deputy director of public affairs for the authority. "By doing the blended approach, we're cutting down the cost and we're going to be able to build the system in a more timely fashion. There was never a plan to run trains at 220 mph in urban areas like San Francisco or L.A."


Delays the norm

Alley insists the project is not behind schedule. Engineering work has just begun for the first 30-mile segment of track in Fresno, ground is to be broken in early 2014, and service will commence in 2029.

"Within a year we have done a significant amount of work up and down the state. Contractors have opened offices in Fresno; they're hiring people; we're working on property acquisitions; we're finalizing permits; we're doing a lot of pre-construction activity that's vital to allow us to move forward with construction."

"The timeline is absolutely going to shift; there's no doubt about that," said Robert Puentes, an infrastructure analyst at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C., who agrees that the California bullet train will be seen as a test case for other proposed high-speed railways.

"L.A. and San Francisco are economically connected, and they have that sweet spot for distance—too long to drive, too short to fly," Puentes said. "This has all those right ingredients. So if they can't get it done in California, it's going be very difficult to do in places like the Northeast, Chicago or places where you're going through multiple jurisdictions, multiple states and trying to prove a concept, as opposed to building on success in California."

That doesn't faze some observers who take a historical view of the project. "There's a long tradition in the U.S. that every major infrastructure system takes about 20 years to catch on, and the cynics were just as cynical about canals and the interstate system," said Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association, an NGO with an infrastructure-promotion arm called America 2050.

"What we're talking about here is a real game-changer," he said. "It's going to be very expensive to build this system, but we have to make the investments and then not see the benefits for a decade or a generation or longer, but then it will pay back for centuries."

—By Tim Hornyak, Special to CNBC.com

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