Fiona Ma for State Assembly
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The future is on track

Voters narrowly approve high-speed rail bond measure after a perilous run-up to the election

On the day after the election, retired judge Quentin Kopp was finally able to exhale and enjoy his martini, even though there's still much work to be done in the coming years creating a high-speed rail system for California.

"I feel relaxed for the first time since June," Kopp, the proud father of high-speed rail in the state, told the Guardian at the Thirsty Bear brewpub in San Francisco shortly after arriving to an enthusiastic ovation from the large crowd of project engineers and contractors who had gathered to celebrate on the night after the election.

Proposition 1A — the $10 billion bond measure that finally launches high-speed rail in California, the most expensive and ambitious public works project in state history — got the nod from about 5.4 million voters, or a too-close-for-comfort 52.3 percent of the total. Combined with federal, state, local, and private funding, the measure will finance the San Francisco-to-Anaheim segment of a system that is eventually planned to stretch from Sacramento to San Diego.

The previous few months had been an emotional roller coaster for Kopp and other high-speed rail supporters. "It was like The Perils of Pauline," said Kopp, who sponsored the project as a state legislator representing San Francisco in the mid-90s and now chairs the California High-Speed Rail Authority, the agency charged with building the project.

Last year, Kopp had to overcome the resistance from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who sought to delay the bond measure for a third straight year (see "The silver bullet train," 4/17/07). This year, Kopp had to fight through many setbacks, starting with Schwarzenegger-allied CHSRA board member David Crane's insistence on the creation of a detailed business plan before the project could go before voters.

To incorporate that plan into the bond measure required new legislation, Assembly Bill 3034, which replaced the former Prop. 1 with the new Prop. 1A and included new fiscal standards. Meanwhile, the CHSRA in July voted to choose Pacheco Pass over Altamont Pass as the preferred Bay Area alignment, triggering controversy and a lawsuit (see "High-speed rail on track," 7/16/08).

Although high-speed rail still appeared to enjoy strong support in the California Legislature, AB 3034 was stalled by partisan bickering and appeared doomed to miss a key legislative deadline. Kopp and supportive legislators, mostly notably Assembly member Fiona Ma, managed to get the legislation through, only to again be stymied when Schwarzenegger announced he would sign no legislation until a budget was approved.

Kopp persuaded the governor to make an exception for AB 3034 and things started to look good, with the measure ready for voters and polling data showing a healthy margin of support. "Then the financial markets collapsed and we lost 10 points," Kopp recalled. That apparent voter anxiety over big-ticket expenditures was compounded by campaign fundraising drying up and newspapers in regions outside the initial project area urging readers to vote against the measure.

"From there, it was tight all the way," said Kopp, noting that by election night, "I didn't think it would pass."

But on the positive side, the campaign against the measure was weak, particularly after the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association blew its wad in June on an ill-fated ballot measure which attacked eminent domain laws and rent control. The closeness of the poll numbers caused the thousands of contract employees who will work on the high-speed rail project to take active roles campaigning for Prop. 1A.

Peter Gertler, national transit director for HNTB Corp., the engineering firm working on the peninsula section of the project, helped organize his colleagues to hit the streets and phones. "We were very nervous. I didn't go to bed until 4 a.m.," he told the Guardian. After doing street-level campaigning, Gertler said he learned, "Overwhelmingly, everyone thinks this is a good idea."

Gertler said voters in California approved almost all the public transit measures on the ballot, signaling a new recognition of its importance: "Something fundamentally has changed."

He said the combination of high land values and the narrow corridor on the peninsula will present challenges in getting the section up and running — challenges that abound through the project area — but they're confident in the project's ultimate success.

"There are always going to be problems. This is the largest project in the history of the state," Kopp said. "The hard work is just beginning. But this was a foundational step."

The bond sales will likely be delayed by the current turmoil in the financial markets, but Kopp expects to get $50 million in the next state budget to complete the engineering work on the project. Construction could begin as soon as late 2010 and be completed in 2018, with some segments ready even earlier. The segment between San Francisco and San Jose could be operational by 2015, allowing trains to travel at speeds of up to 150 mph and complete the trip in just 30 minutes.

"It'll come in pieces, but at some point it'll really come together," said Brent Ogden, vice president of AECOM Transportation, one of the project's contractors, who is working on the regional rail connection over Altamont Pass. While not part of the main project, for which Prop. 1A set aside $9 billion, the Altamont connection is eligible for part of the $1 billion in the measure earmarked for regional connections.

"The first job for the Altamont is figuring out what it's going to be," Ogden said, adding that it could upgrade existing Altamont Commuter Express Rail lines and come on line even before the larger project.

Even if California and the rest of the country are in for a prolonged economic recession or even a depression, Kopp said the project would still likely move forward, noting that all the great public works projects — from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Hoover Dam — were built during the Great Depression and helped to revive the economy by creating jobs and stimulating economic activity.

"We need projects," Kopp said. "We need to rebuild and expand the infrastructure of America."

HIGH-SPEED RAIL FACTS AND FIGURES

•About 230 trains per week will travel between Transbay Terminal in San Francisco (where there will be about 9 million annual boardings) and Los Angeles' Union Station (about 10.8 million boardings). Trains will reach 220 mph and the trip will take two hours and 38 minutes.

•Fares will be about half that of air travel and generate about $2.4 billion in revenue to cover $1.3 billion in costs by 2030, thus generating about $1.1 billion in annual profits for the state once the project is paid for.

•The project will generate about 160,000 construction jobs and is projected to create 450,000 permanent jobs by 2035, including those indirectly created by the project.

•Even if there are unforeseen problems obtaining the full $33 billion in funding for the project, Prop. 1A could be a major boon for the Bay Area, funding improvements in Caltrain's peninsula corridor and possibly a new rail line over the Altamont Pass.

•"The high-speed train system will reduce California's dependence on fossil fuels and foreign oil — a reduction of 12 billion pounds of CO2 and 12.7 million barrels of oil per year by 2030."

•"High-speed trains will alleviate the need to build — at a cost of nearly $100 billion — about 3,000 miles of new freeway plus five airport runways and 90 departure gates over the next two decades."