High-speed rail project trying to limp along

The Associated Press
Friday June 22, 2001

SACRAMENTO — Facing a bare-bones budget, California’s high-speed rail planners are trying to scrape together enough money to keep the project limping along over the next 12 months. 

The Legislature’s budget-writing committee approved only $1 million for the project in the fiscal year that starts July 1. 

That’s enough to cover staff costs but it leaves little or nothing to continue the 2 years of environmental studies needed before the state can begin building the 700-mile, $26 billion system. 

“It’s one of those years you limp along but you’ve got to run faster to catch up,” said Medhi Morshed, executive director of the state’s High-Speed Rail Authority, the nine-member board that’s overseeing the project. 

The proposed system would link Sacramento, the San Francisco area, Los Angeles and San Diego with trains that could reach speeds of more than 200 mph. 

Lawmakers put $5 million in the current state budget to begin the environmental reviews, and the authority hired teams of engineering and environmental firms to do the work.  

The authority asked for $14 million in the next budget to continue those studies. 

But warnings of looming deficits put the Legislature’s budget writers in a cost-cutting mood. 

“Everyone got axed,” Edward Graveline, the authority’s acting chairman, said Thursday.  

“It wasn’t just us. ... It’s regrettable but I don’t think it’s insurmountable. I do think we can make progress.” 

Morshed said the authority should be able to augment its budget by getting about $500,000 in voter-approved bond money from the state Transportation Commission. 

That money is already earmarked for environmental reviews of a high-speed train line between Bakersfield and Los Angeles, according to Morshed. 

The authority could also do some more environmental work on a potential coastal route between San Diego and Los Angeles by teaming up with the state Department of Transportation, Morshed said. 

The department is planning to expand conventional rail passenger service between the two cities and needs environmental reviews too. 

“If we can come to terms with what they need, we can continue working on that corridor,” Morshed said. 

The authority also plans to generate more planning money by leaving vacant two staff positions, and it hopes to get as  

much as $8 million from the 

federal government. 

Morshed said he didn’t know what the prospects were for getting federal assistance.  

“The (federal) budget crunch time has not arrived so I don’t know if anyone’s focused on it,” he said. 

Assemblyman Dean Florez, D-Shafter, said California could get $15 million or $16 million in federal support over a two- or three-year period.  

He also said there might be discretionary funding in the state Department of Transportation budget that the authority could tap. 

State Sen. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said Sen. Dianne Feinstein was working on lining up federal support for the project. Costa said he also plans to try to get the backing of U.S. Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta, a former California congressman. 

Graveline said some counties “that recognize the imperative of having high-speed rail” might be willing to chip in planning funds if the state repaid them. 

“That’s been a common practice with highway projects,” he said. “We’re just getting creative about how we can continue to operate.”