Local Government
L.A. politicians covet bullet-train funds

L.A. politicians covet bullet-train funds

By Chris Reed.

In a sign of frustration over the state’s transportation priorities, several board members with the high-profile Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority have made the argument that it makes far more sense to use money that Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to spend on a bullet train route in the Central Valley on Los Angeles-area projects instead.

Newsom made international headlines in February when he pulled back from predecessors Jerry Brown’s and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s commitment to have the California High-Speed Rail Agency build a statewide high-speed rail network. Instead of continuing to try to secure all the funds needed for the $77 billion project, Newsom said the state should focus on completing a 110-mile segment from Merced to Bakersfield that is expected to cost $12.2 billion.

Five L.A. Metro board members – Hilda Solis and Kathryn Barger, both Los Angeles County supervisors, Inglewood Mayor James Butts, Los Angeles Councilman Paul Krekorian and Glendale Mayor Ara Najarian – think that’s a bad idea.

At a recent Metro board committee meeting, Solis said that “many, many projects” in the Los Angeles region would be more helpful in meeting state transportation goals.

In a motion they crafted for the Metro board’s consideration, they wrote that the Central Valley segment “has little value for public transportation and limited greenhouse gas reductions. Regional rail transit improvements in the Los Angeles region would be more cost effective with more substantial mobility benefits.”

The Curbed Los Angeles website reported that the five decided not to ask the full Metro board to endorse the motion, evidently after being reassured that the state would help fund some of the local projects that Solis had praised. But the sharp criticism from five board members of Metro – one of the nation’s largest transportation agencies, serving 10 million people in a 1,400-square-mile region – is a powerful reminder that even with Newsom’s scaled-back version, the state’s bullet-train project faces considerable skepticism.

Cost, viability of Central Valley segment questioned

The Central Valley route faces two of the same key criticisms that the statewide project did under Brown.

Its initial cost estimate of $6 billion has more than doubled, just as the statewide plan’s cost soared from $34 billion to $77 billion.

Under Proposition 1A, the 2008 ballot measure providing $9.95 billion in bond funding for the project, every segment is supposed to generate enough revenue to be self-supporting, with taxpayer subsidies banned. But assumptions that linking Merced, population 83,000, with Bakersfield, population 380,000, will lead to ridership that is heavy enough to cover the cost of bullet-train operations is tough to square with the fact that presently, there are only six conventional train trips daily between the cities with an average ticket price of $27.

Questionable assumptions about ridership have been common from the state rail authority. For example, in 2015, the Los Angeles Times reported that the authority projected annual ridership of up to 31 million passengers after the Los Angeles-San Francisco route was complete. That’s about the same number of annual riders as Amtrak, which operates in 46 states.

On Wednesday, the rail authority is expected to release more detailed plans from the Newsom administration for the Merced-Bakersfield segment.

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