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The state Legislature approved the initial funding necessary to finally put high-speed rail in motion in California, but the project still faces numerous obstacles that could stall it for years, including legal challenges over environmental review, diminishing public support and unanswered questions about future financing.
So far, environmental review of the first 130-mile section of the project has barely begun, and farmers already have pitchforks in the air and tractors lined up at the courthouse door (well, lobbyists and lawyers anyway) protesting negative impacts to farmland that lies along the proposed rail route through the Central Valley. Hannah Drier writes in the Huffington Post that lawsuits have been filed to block the project claiming the train would render 1,500 acres of fertile land unfarmable and disrupt 500 agricultural businesses – and more lawsuits are expected to be filed in the coming months.
WANING PUBLIC SUPPORT
Jim Carlton and Max Taves write in the Wall Street Journal that rail authority officials estimate as many as 100,000 construction-related jobs each year would be created by the high-speed rail project, and there is potential for nearly a half million permanent jobs over the next 25 years.
That might have been a good selling point when the project hit the 2008 ballot, but a recent Field Poll indicates that public support for the project has since dwindled. According to the poll, if the project were put to a public vote today, 56 percent of likely voters would oppose it, while just 39 percent would pass it again.
Michael Cabanataun writes in the San Francisco Chronicle that poor community relations have “soured between skeptical farmers and local leaders, overshadowed hopes of economic development and fueled opposition that could slow or stop arrival of the fast trains.” Those skeptical farmers are likely some of the plaintiffs in the anti-HSR lawsuits mentioned earlier.
If public relations don’t improve and fences can’t be mended, the once-infatuated voters who put high-speed rail on track may not be so inclined to approve future financing that will be necessary to keep building the line.
When the project is finally complete, the line will stretch from Los Angeles to San Francisco (and will include a leg to Sacramento) and will cost $68 billion – that’s $58 billion more than the $10 billion originally projected.
Republican leaders who voted against funding high-speed rail this week said there were too many unanswered questions about future financing for the project, especially in the current economic climate in the state. Sen. Ted Gaines (R-Roseville) went so far as to say the project would push California “over a financial cliff” in a statement to media.
Despite having initial funding in place, high-speed rail in California could end up being a train to nowhere, Dan Walters wrote in a recent Sacramento Bee article. Even if the rail authority builds the initial segment, Walters wrote, “it's almost useless unless the state can line up financing to connect it to the Bay Area. There is absolutely no money in the pipeline for that connection from either governmental or private sources.”
Could high-speed rail wind up as a “techno-evolutionary dead end,” as Pat Morrison said recently in the L.A. Times? Time will tell. Before a single track is laid down, however, high-speed rail has a long way to go.
Melissa Corker is a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press. Follw her on Facebook and on twitter @MelissaCorker.