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COLUMBUS, Ohio (CGE) – As the battle royal over whether his most important bill to date lives or dies at the ballot box in two weeks, Ohio Gov. John Kasich may not be as happy with the outcome of this year’s General Election on the hot-button topic of collective bargaining for some Buckeye public sector workers as he would be after digesting the details of a report issued Tuesday by California’s High Speed Rail Authority (HSRA) that, by fessing up to the fatal shortcomings associated with 220 mph trains flying between San Francisco and Los Angeles, vindicates his decision to scrub the very slow-speed passenger train his Democratic predecessor governor lashed himself to the tracks on, to his detriment.
According to Redding.com’s coverage of the report, California voters, who approved by a thin majority spending more than $9 billion worth of bonds to pay for a high-speed rail system linking California’s major metropolitan areas, are being told something they hadn’t been told before, namely, the truth, about not only why the $36-85 billion conventional train technology proposal won’t happen any time soon but what other options there are for those very precious dollars.
As Tom Elias, the reporter on the story put it, “…you could say the entire idea of a bullet train in California is now on a new track — call it a backtrack or a slow track.” That, according to Elias, is the “upshot of a new report to the Legislature from the High Speed Rail Authority, which has been widely lambasted” for its plan to build the first segment of its system in the San Joaquin Valley, roughly between Bakersfield and Merced.
Required by a new state law, the HSRA report puts the bullet train authority on record for the first time saying there are “plausible, acceptable alternatives to 220 mph trains for spending the bond money and the billions of dollars already committed to this project by the federal government.”
Recall that in the stimulus spending sweepstakes of early 2007 that was the $8 billion plan to fund high-speed rail lines around the nation, California came away with the biggest award of the dozens of plans states put forward to convince Obama Administration transportation and rail officials to give freely of funds that would never be enough by themselves to fund even one truly high-speed rail line anywhere in the continental USA. Florida was second, Wisconsin third and Ohio, which was awarded $400 million was fourth.
Early on his administration, former Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland tied himself to the idea that a 39 mph train, running from Cincinnati in southwest Ohio to Cleveland in the northeast with stops in between in Columbus and Dayton and in smaller stations, would create thousands of jobs, be a boon to students and seniors, take cars off the road and wouldn’t leave Ohio orphaned in a network of rail lines all leading to and from Chicago, the nation’s capital of rail.
Then-candidate Kasich laughed at Strickland’s idea to spend the $400 in federal funds on a project that even the biggest booster of them all, Jolene Molitoris, the first woman to lead Ohio’s sprawling Department of Transportation as a result of her appointment to the post by Strickland, said would necessarily need a state subsidy of at least $17 million, for untold years, to make ends meet. Soon after he was elected, Gov-elect Kasich told Obama Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to take his $400 million back. Not only did Lahood recall the money, but he redistributed it to other states who wanted it to augment their smaller sums. Indeed, California was one state that said send it their way.
In Ohio as it was in California, true believers for passenger rail said ridership would be way up. In Ohio, one estimate that backers waived before audiences as if it was gospel, said a half-million Ohioans would ride the train in just the first year alone. In California, ridership figures were higher by multiples. The CA HSRA’s report admitted what others knew was true in their gut, that the ridership numbers were fudged by special interests who could only benefit if the project moved forward. Californians were told that a “delay (of) the next phase of system development (would have to wait) until the performance of the existing system can generate sufficient revenues to support future expansion.” The inflated ridership numbers, needed to convince CA voters to pass the big bond issue, were outted for what they were, unrealistically optimistic.
Commenting on the report, Federal Maglev leader Rick Canine said California should toss in the towel on its high-speed train, for reasons of money and technology. “California can’t do it,” he told CGE. “They (HSRA) chose the wrong technology and the wrong business case,” he said, adding, “They expected to run the system on ridership alone, which does not work in Europe and it would not work in California.”
Canine’s magnetic levitation train technology, both proven decades ago and eligible for federal train funding, can do everything the bullet train and Strickland’s turtle-train could do, but do it in spades and at speeds exceeding 300 mph. During the debate on high-speed trains over the past three years, Americans learned that while Europe’s standard for high-speed is 150+ mph, the standard in here starts at the much slower speed of 125 mph.
Elias wrote that it’s remarkable that the “until-now hidebound rail authority so much as acknowledges there’s a possibility of building something other than what its 2008 ballot proposition called for. Yes, this does amount to a bait-and-switch on voters who were told they could get a real bullet train for about $36 billion, with the bulk of the money to come from private investors and national government.”
Strickland and Molitoris refused to acknowledge, let alone explain, why the many hurdles – a larger number of which coincided with concerns expressed in California – thrown at the 3C by its determined critics were not valid. Kasich derailed the train immediately, although he’s a fan of freight rail, as he’s shown in his support for a new train project in northwestern Ohio.
According to the report, “there is no interest in the project from private investors without federal investment guarantees or proven high ridership.” You don’t have to live in either Ohio or California to understand that those things don’t exist now, and won’t, as long as Republicans who oppose high-speed rail hold a majority or even a significant minority in either house of Congress.
So whether Gov. Kasich will be laughing or crying following Election Day this year, he can always smile knowing he wasn’t alone in doubting what status quo rail technology special interests had cooked up on the public’s interest in or calling to slow- or medium-speed trains.
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