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A conceptual view of high-speed rail on San Francisco Bay. Cuts in the federal budget could endanger the future of this project. (Courtesy of State of California via The New York Times)

MANY OF the decisions that must be made when government budgets are cut can be painful, but there are some that are easy and obvious. One of the latter is the move by Congress to slash spending on California's high-speed rail project.

Republicans in Congress, even those from this state, rightly view high-speed rail as an easy target. The proposed $2.5 billion for all U.S. high-speed rail spending has been reduced to $1 billion and could eventually drop to zero.

That means the $2 billion a year in federal money that California high-speed rail proponents hoped to get is unlikely to materialize anytime soon, especially with a congressional majority determined to cut overspending by a federal government with record budget deficits.

Unfortunately, another possible victim of the funding cuts is the BART extension from Fremont into northern San Jose. If rail funds are to be reduced, it would make more sense to end all federal funding for California's high-speed rail and preserve funding for BART to San Jose, a project that would boost transit ridership and ease traffic on the clogged highways from the East Bay into San Jose.

The extension could be serving commuters in a few years, while the high-speed rail system is far from likely to carry any passengers for more than a decade even with federal, state and private funding, none of which should be spent on it.

Without federal money, the high-speed rail authority will be forced to seek more private funding than anticipated. Finding private investors to sink money into a rail system that has scant chance of ever being profitable is apt to be even more difficult than securing federal government money from a Congress bent on cutting budgets.

Despite the setback, backers of a high-speed rail system from the Bay Area to Southern California remain determined to press ahead. They still plan to go ahead spending what money they have to build a section of the rail system from Merced to Bakersfield even though that may be the only portion that is constructed for many years.

Instead of going ahead with any section of a highly flawed high-speed rail, it would make more sense to abandon a project that is unworthy of public or private investment.

There is nothing that has gone right with the high-speed rail proposal. Estimates of costs are dubious. Fares were grossly underestimated, then adjusted to levels well above airfare. There is not even a reasonable rough estimate of ridership.

The rail system is almost certain to require huge taxpayer subsidies to attract any private capital needed to make the train viable. But such subsidies are explicitly banned by the 2008 initiative that authorized $9.95 billion in state bond funding for the system.

Conceptually, high-speed rail makes sense. But it should be built in regions of high population density, like Western Europe, parts of China, Japan and the northeastern United States. It also should have a solid business plan and competent leaders.

California's Fantasy Express has none of the above. With federal funds being cut, the message to California should be clear: Scrap the rail project now before more taxpayer dollars are tossed into the wind, and focus on viable public transit systems like BART.