Court ruling could make bullet train affordable, sensible

By Thomas D. Elias

Whether it’s the possibility of a magnetic levitation train or the hyperloop proposed by Elon Musk, the route of potential alternative designs for California’s putative bullet train invariably follows Interstate 5 from just west of Bakersfield to the San Francisco Bay area.

That’s why the Thanksgiving week ruling by a Sacramento Superior Court judge forbidding the state’s High Speed Rail Authority from tapping billions of dollars in voter-approved state bonds for the project represents an opportunity and not a setback.

Cries for a new popular vote on the bonds went up immediately after Judge Michael Kenny’s decision, but that’s unlikely anytime soon. So, the best course now is to make this project sensible, and the way to do that is to look hard at its potential routes.

From the start, the route chosen by bullet train officials has made little sense. Steep gradients on the north side of the Tehachapi mountains probably mean that the path will swing through the Antelope Valley cities of Palmdale and Lancaster, roughly tracking Highways 14 and 58 between Los Angeles and Bakersfield.

But from there north, it makes little geographic or economic sense for the train to traverse some of America’s most fertile farmland, with stops in Fresno and Merced, then head west along Highway 152 over the Pacheco Pass to San Jose, before swinging north again into San Francisco.

The simplest alternative would be to follow I-5 to its junction with Interstate 580, then go west to Livermore, where passengers could quickly transfer to waiting special BART trains for the final run to and under the San Francisco Bay.

Anyone who’s driven the I-5 knows that’s a far more direct route. Plus, the freeway’s wide median for most of that distance affords the project plenty of space at minimal cost, saving taxpayers billions of dollars in land-acquisition expenses.

This would also spare farmers new disruptions, while allowing trains to run their fastest for longer distances.

But what about passengers who might want to get on or off the trains in San Joaquin Valley cities? What passengers? The experience of several European bullet trains is that most passengers stay on for the full run, not shorter increments.

Until now, the High Speed Rail Authority has never seriously considered changing the route and, despite Kenny’s ruling, the authority is not doing so yet.

But it just might if it looks in detail at what was behind the court ruling: the current funding plan for the entire project does not comply with the voter-approved proposition’s requirement that the rail authority line up funding for each segment and have all environmental approvals in place before using any bond money. Yet, the authority’s stunning first response was to note that nothing in the decision prohibits the sale of bonds, but only using the money raised.

So far, the $10 billion in state bonds and another $3.3 billion or so in federal funds for the first leg are all the project can count on out of a project cost of $31 billion. But the I-5 and I-580 route would substantially cut costs, possibly making the entire thing affordable. Which would make the Kenny ruling an opportunity, not a problem.