Regularly scheduled service on California's bullet train system will not meet anticipated trip times of two hours and 40 minutes between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and are likely to take nearly a half-hour longer, a state Senate committee was told Thursday.
The faster trips were held out to voters in 2008 when they approved $9 billion in borrowing to help pay for the project. Since then, a series of political compromises and planning changes designed to keep the $68-billion line moving ahead have created slower track zones in urban areas.
But Louis Thompson, chairman of the High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group, a state-sanctioned panel of outside experts, testified that "real world engineering issues" will cause schedules for regular service to exceed the target of two hours and 40 minutes. The state might be able to demonstrate a train that could make the trip that fast, but not on scheduled service, he told lawmakers. If public demand for the service supports additional investments, travel times could be improved after the currently planned system is built, he said.
Critics of the project have long disputed whether travel times between the Bay Area and Los Angeles will meet the mark of two hours and 40 minutes. Projected trip times for the bullet train are a point of contention in a court fight that could block the state's access to the voter-approved bond funds.
Rail authority officials said after the hearing, held by the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, that they would meet the requirements of state law, but did not specifically say that trains would operate at the faster travel times. State law requirements may be open to legal interpretation. Language approved by voters says the system must be "designed to achieve" trip times of 2 hours and 40 minutes.
Thompson's assessment came as lawmakers consider a proposal by Gov. Jerry Brown to allocate $250 million in greenhouse gas taxes to the controversial project next year, and a third of all the revenue from so-called cap and trade revenue in future years. If all of the greenhouse gas fees were allotted to the bullet train system, it would leave a shortfall of up to $16 billion in required construction funds, Thompson said.
Sen. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord), the transportation panel chairman, warned rail officials that they may not have the votes needed to pass Brown's request. DeSaulnier said he would probably vote against it himself.
Jeff Morales, chief executive of the high-speed rail authority, downplayed the risks to the program, arguing that the agency's business plan provides a sound path forward to complete the system. He added that federal programs could provide future grants and said that the project has helped create 6,700 jobs.
William Ibbs, a UC Berkeley civil engineering professor who has consulted on high-speed rail projects around the world, predicted that the program will cost substantially more than the $68-billion estimate.
Paul Dyson, president of the Rail Passenger Assn. of California, told DeSaulnier's committee that the state's plan to start service between Merced and Palmdale is "completely wrong" and will attract a fraction of the riders the state expects. Instead, the state should have begun building the system between Union Station and Bakersfield, which would bridge an existing gap that separates Los Angeles from the rest of the state's existing passenger rail network, he said.