Our View: Foes should get on track with rail plan

April 9, 2013 

The Government Accountability Office injected a sense of realism into the high-speed rail debate, detailing in its March 28 report just how large infrastructure projects of this kind work.

But the naysayers led by House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, and Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, don't seem to be listening.

Four points from the report are worth reiterating:

Public funding: "Heavy reliance on public-sector funding is not unusual for a project of this size." Remember the interstate highway system and the transcontinental railroad?

Phasing: Construction will begin in the Central Valley -- a 130-mile "backbone" from Fresno to Bakersfield, with groundbreaking scheduled for this summer -- and proceed to other sections only as funding becomes available. As the GAO report notes, "This type of 'phased' funding is typical for major transportation infrastructure projects."

Private investors: "Based on our past work on high-speed rail, successful projects require significant and sustained financial commitments from the public sector before private investors will participate, and the authority's plan reflects this funding model."

As in Japan and Britain, the California project plans to sell an operating concession, using the proceeds of the sale to help complete construction of the system.

Cost estimates: "Cost and revenue estimates for large projects are, by their nature, imprecise; these estimates endeavor to predict many years into the future within the confines of what is known today." Clearly, estimates will have to be updated continually and refined over time as more information becomes available.

A major issue, it turns out, is post-2010 congressional opposition. As the GAO notes, the Obama administration, as well as the governor, Legislature and voters of California, has committed funding to the project. But sustained congressional support for additional funds is "one of the biggest challenges to completing this project."

McCarthy was quick to prove the point. As soon as the report came out, he issued a statement that he was "developing legislation to stop more hard-earned taxpayer dollars from being wasted on California high-speed rail." Ditto for Denham.

You have to wonder if they would have supported the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 that authorized $25 billion over 10 years to construct the interstate highway system. You have to wonder, too, if they would have supported the Pacific Railway Act of 1862 authorizing bonds and grants of land to railroad companies to construct a transcontinental railroad. At the time, Sen. J.A. McDougall of California, who had been fighting for the project since the 1850s, denounced the "sluggishness" and "timidity" of those who thought the project was "too gigantic to be undertaken" at a time of civil war.

Congress and the president have committed $3.5 billion for the first phase of the high-speed rail construction. From 2015 to 2030, the project expects to seek an additional $38.7 billion in federal funds -- averaging $2.6 billion annually.

For their part, California voters approved nearly $10 billion in state bond funds for the project. Legislators approved the first bond sales of $2.6 billion for the Central Valley backbone and $1.1 billion for upgrades in the San Francisco Peninsula and Los Angeles basin.

The next phase would connect Bakersfield with Palmdale, key to triggering enough ridership for the state to auction off the route to a private operator.

It is perfectly suitable for members of Congress to press for improvements to the high-speed rail project.

Repeatedly attempting to kill it makes no sense.

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