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California’s High Speed Rail on trial

California taxpayers approved Proposition 1A in 2008 to kickstart a high-speed rail system. On June 1, 2013, a trial began to decide the legality of the project as currently planned. The plaintiffs argue that taxpayers are not receiving what they voted for back in 2008. Construction was supposed to start next month. Basically, the arguments come down to four issues:

  1. Does Prop. 1A require that all funding for the project be identified before any construction can start? Currently there is a $55B shortfall in funding. For that matter, there is not enough funding yet for the first operable segment in the Central Valley.
  2. Have all the necessary permits been obtained? The California High Speed Rail Authority is dealing with multiple layers of reviews, and now faces a review by the federal Surface Transportation Board – a requirement the CHSRA did not seem to realize might exist until March of 2013.
  3. Can a trip between San Francisco and Los Angeles be completed in under 2 hours 40 minutes? Prop. 1A clearly imposes this requirement but the “blended” approach now chosen by the CHSRA means that trains will operate at slower speeds on some segments.
  4. Will taxpayers subsidies be necessary to operate the system? Prop. 1A specifically prohibits taxpayer subsidies for operating the system. If a trip takes longer that the mandated 2 hours 40 minutes more train sets will be required to meet the projected ridership projections. Slower trips will also make train travel less competitive with the airlines.

The first segment of the high-speed rail system must be completed by September 2017 or California risks losing $3B in federal funding. This would be a devastating impact to a project expected to take tens of billions of dollars more to build than originally envisioned back in 2008.