OFTEN THERE IS a wide gap separating a concept from reality. Such is the case with California's high-speed rail project. Conceptually, fast, comfortable, fuel-efficient, intercity, passenger rail transportation makes a lot of sense as fuel prices rise and reductions in carbon dioxide emissions are mandated.
However, there are a number of inconvenient realities that come between California's dream of high-speed rail service and actually constructing it.
The latest roadblock is a court ruling that the High Speed Rail Authority's environmental impact report is "inadequate." The court's conclusion is hardly surprising considering that the EIR failed to address Union Pacific's decision not to allow the trains to run along its tracks from Gilroy to San Jose.
When the high-speed rail project was first proposed, supporters assumed it would use the Union Pacific's tracks. Without Union Pacific's right of way, an alternate route would have to be considered, affecting the Monterey Highway or requiring the taking of additional private property.
As a result of the court's ruling, the rail project is likely to be considerably delayed as a new EIR is written and the additional time and costs of buying land or battling Union Pacific in court are considered.
Alternate routes, such as one over the Altamont Pass, which some rail advocates favor, are even more costly and also would require a new EIR.
The court ruling comes at a critical time for the rail authority, which is relying on substantial federal money for the project. Time could run out on the authority's ability to tap into a share of $8 billion in federal stimulus funds slated for rail projects.
Even if California were to get most of that $8 billion, it would be far short of the estimated $40 billion needed to build a high-speed rail system from the Bay Area to Los Angeles.
Voters approved a $9.95 billion rail bond measure last November. The rest of the money is supposed to come from the federal government and investors. Delays can only increase the costs and discourage investors.
But that is hardly the only problem with the high-speed rail project. The business plan is inadequate. There is no accurate estimate of ridership, fares, operational costs and investor interest. Also, the $40 billion cost estimate is dubious.
Voter approval of the rail bond measure does not mean the bonds should be sold anytime soon. Before any of that money is raised, the rail authority at least has to know exactly where the rails will be laid and write an accurate EIR.
In the meantime, perhaps a realistic business plan and updated cost estimates could be pieced together.
With so many other greater capital project needs such as fixing the Delta, highway repair and school renovations that require large amounts of funding, California should sidetrack its highly questionable high-speed rail project.