Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - November 4, 2011

Editorial: A fatal HSR financial plan

The state's High-Speed Rail Commission's is making a noble effort to bring some veracity to the business plan they hope will guide development of a high-speed train project between the Bay Area and the Los Angeles Basin.

Major changes were made to the previously published and highly criticized plan, including the admission that in the best case, the ultimate cost of the project will more than double to nearly $100 billion, a number that could go as high as $117 billion if certain scenarios take place. Under this plan, the system will not be complete until 2033, 13 years later than previously forecast.

But this new-found cost realism does not lead to financial viability.

Outside the $10 billion in state bonds and $3.4 billion in federal grants, very little of the remaining funding needed has been identified. The plan is counting on up to $20 billion in private capital that is little more than wishful thinking.

Just over two months ago, we said in this space that high-speed rail was in deep trouble due in part to its funding challenges at the federal level, where it faces the almost impossible task of seeking major support from a Republican-controlled Congress that is not eager to pass anything that can be seen as raising the federal deficit.

The new business plan only makes this challenge more formidable. How can Californians responsibly support this gargantuan project when the state is borrowing just to finance day to day operations?

In its 240-page revised business plan, the commission did scale back its ridership projections, although we still have a hard time understanding how the high-speed trains can possibly carry 28.9 million passengers a year — more than 80,000 a day.

And the report abandoned plans for adding a parallel set of tracks on the Peninsula, which means that the high-speed trains would share Caltrain tracks between San Jose and San Francisco.

But the bottom line is that high speed rail is inevitably dependent on mostly government financing, and is simply not affordable. There is nothing wrong with the vision of high-speed rail, which could reduce pollution and the need to build or expand new roads and airports. But with the economy shattered at the state and national levels for the foreseeable future, legislators must act to end this project, either by simply not approving the sale of the bonds, or sending the issue back to the voters.

A good start on Cubberley

With the city's lease of the former Cubberley High School site expiring in just over two years, there is much to be done by the school district and city to determine the 35-acre site's future.

The City Council Tuesday night set in motion a solid process that is designed to immediately get top city and school district administrators putting together options with appropriate check-in and involvement of policy-makers and community members.

The challenge is immensely complicated and the financial stakes enormous.

The city owns eight acres of the former high school site, and leases the rest from the school district for what adds up to about $6 million a year. The school district has indicated that it needs the site back for school use due to rising enrollment, but this would mean a loss of $6 million in rental income and the dislocation of the current artists and community and other users of the site. In addition, the use of playing fields and the city's eight-acre parcel are in question.

The three committees named by the City Council Tuesday to work on a new Cubberley master plan are charged with answering these and other thorny questions. The process will include high-level staff members from the city and school district, elected officials and community representatives, and meetings will be open to the public.

The schedule calls for the development of a plan over the next 14 months, not a lot of time in a community that frequently gets entangled in lengthy process. City Manager James Keene and School District Superintendent Kevin Skelly will need to make this project one of their top priorities in the next year, with an emphasis on good communication and outreach to the community.

Neither the city nor school district can afford to blow this opportunity to develop a creative plan for Cubberley that will make it a vital and exciting community asset for decades to come.

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