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Calif. High Speed Rail Isn't Quick To Take Off


High-speed rail once seemed inevitable, the next step in the evolution of our country's transportation network. With the recession, those hopes are fading. Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin have all scrapped their proposals for high speed rail. In California, there's still a lot of enthusiasm.

But as Amy Standen of member station KQED reports, the plan for a bullet train linking L.A. to San Francisco is now in danger of derailing.

AMY STANDEN, BYLINE: A few years ago, an interviewer asked former State Senator Quentin Kopp whether he was optimistic about high speed rail in California. He said...

QUENTIN KOPP: I am convinced. I'm a believer. It's feasible.

STANDEN: But Kopp, who once served on the board of the High-Speed Rail Authority, now says he has serious concerns.

KOPP: It is certainly not the project which I had in mind and others had in mind. It's a different kind of system.

STANDEN: It's a common sentiment these days, especially since officials announced recently that costs for the train have swelled to $98 billion. That's triple what voters were told to expect in 2008. And the basic concept itself, multiple trains that would take you from L.A. to San Francisco in fewer than three hours, has become a goal, rather than a guarantee. Kopp says he fears that will be a deal breaker.

KOPP: It's not going to be attractive, in my opinion to riders. And you need riders.

STANDEN: Ridership gets to the real heart of this controversy: Who will pay for high speed rail? So far, the state has enough money - in voter-approved state bonds and in stimulus cash - to break ground on the initial stretch of rail. But to finish it, they'll need a lot more.

Planners are counting on $55 billion from the federal government over the next decade. But that's going to be a tough sell, especially after Congress voted earlier this month to eliminate high-speed rail funding in 2012. The state is also counting on private investors - banks or venture capitalists - that would be willing to help cover the costs. But where are they?

ASSEMBLYMAN DAVID VALADAO: I was told, in my office, that we are going to have private investment early on.

STANDEN: That's Assemblyman David Valadao, a Republican, at a recent high speed rail hearing.

VALADAO: And people were lining up to do this. And now the business plan has changed and it's different in the book than what I was told. Why would I have faith in the system as it is now?

STANDEN: The investors are out there, responded Roelof van Ark, CEO of the High Speed Rail Authority, really.

ROELOF VAN ARK: The people that want to fund these projects do speak to us, and they still continue to speak to us.

STANDEN: Van Ark and other officials say they believe investors will eventually pony up. Why? Because they'll see that railways, unlike roads, can actually turn a profit through ticket sales. Here's Mike Rossi, chair of the High Speed Rail Authority.

MIKE ROSSI: These things last for 100 years and they cover their operating, maintenance and capital refreshment. I don't know any road that does that.

STANDEN: But that's only true if people actually ride high speed rail. And this is a concern, particularly since the first section to be built isn't near L.A. or San Francisco. It's in the largely agricultural Central Valley.

RICHARD WHITE: I mean, it's what's gotten the project so much ridicule. It's the bullet train to nowhere.

STANDEN: Richard White teaches at Stanford University and he's written about the history of railroads in this country. White says from a financial standpoint, there are just too many things already starting to go wrong with the high-speed rail plan.

WHITE: This one is a state which essentially is failing to fund its university system, is failing to fund K through 12 education. To propose to spend $100 billion on this is frankly ridiculous.

REPRESENTATIVE JIM COSTA: We built Hoover Dam in the middle of the 1930s in the midst of the Depression.

STANDEN: Congressman Jim Costa represents the Central Valley, where the first leg of the rail would be built.

COSTA: We didn't need the water then. We didn't need the electricity then. But we knew we would need the water and we would need the electricity.

STANDEN: Whether Californians may someday need high-speed rail isn't so much the debate these days, it's whether the state can afford it today.

For NPR News, I'm Amy Standen in San Francisco.


MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Amy Standen