Saturday, October 21, 2017

Dumb high-speed rail project just got dumber


When the first California bullet train pulls out of San Jose one day, a crucial part of the journey will be a 13.5-mile tunnel beneath the winding peaks and valleys of Pacheco Pass.

Trains will run at top speed along a straight and level route beneath the Diablo Range, shooting through the nation’s longest and most advanced transportation tunnel.

But the massive scope and complexity of the tunnel are at the heart of new concerns about the viability of the state project.

A Times analysis has found that tunnel construction could exhaust the $5.5-billion budget for the entire 54-mile segment from Gilroy to Chowchilla.

Some of the world’s top tunnel experts put the cost of the tunnel at anywhere from $5.6 billion to $14.4 billion, reflecting the high cost of boring through tricky geology and seismically active areas.

The Gilroy-to-Chowchilla route also requires a 1.5-mile tunnel just east of Gilroy, itself a major infrastructure project.

“This is not good news for taxpayers of California,” said William Ibbs, a UC Berkeley civil engineer who has consulted on similar rail projects around the world. “Tunnels are expensive.”

Engineers at the California High-Speed Rail Authority are cautious but not worried. “We don’t see any problem,” said Scott Jarvis, chief engineer...

But if construction costs grow and exhaust the project’s budget, it could jeopardize plans for building the initial operating segment from San Jose to the Central Valley.

State officials acknowledge that unless they demonstrate a financially successful starter system, private investors will not commit money to help build the rest of the line to Los Angeles.

At best, the rail authority’s existing funds are stretched thin. It has $21 billion to build the starter system.

The funds include $6.8 billion from a 2008 bond, $3.2 billion in federal grants, $5.3 billion from California’s greenhouse gas fees through 2024, and $5.2 billion from bonds issued against greenhouse gas fees after 2024.

The plan to issue bonds supported by future greenhouse gas [cap-and-trade]fees is the weak link.

Michael Thom, a public finance expert at USC, said those funds are not “a reliable source of revenue….I can’t imagine a reason why a rational investor would take that risk.”

The rail authority initially planned to start building from Los Angeles but abandoned that plan in 2016 because it was too costly — ironically because of tunnels under the San Gabriel and Tehachapi mountains...

The rail authority’s optimistic timetable estimates that the entire Los Angeles-to-San Francisco system, passing through Palmdale, Bakersfield and Fresno, will start running in 2029, requiring a 1.3-mile tunnel under the heart of San Francisco and potentially 36 miles of tunnels under the Southern California mountains.

The need to build the starter system’s 13.5-mile tunnel was identified earlier this year...

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How Trump won 2

Kevin Drum

...Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin are, of course, the three famous “firewall” states that Hillary Clinton lost by a whisker. In two of them, which lacked new photo ID laws, black turnout was down slightly. Nationally, black turnout was down by seven points, returning to 2004 levels.

But in Wisconsin, black turnout was down a stunning 29 points. This is not only because Wisconsin passed a very strict photo ID law, but because it made sure to go above and beyond in enforcing it illegally...

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