Dan Walters

By Dan Walters
dwalters@sacbee.com
November 15, 2016 – 3:27 PM

Let’s assume that California’s bullet train project never gets beyond the current work in the San Joaquin Valley – about 100 miles of track and a few stations.

It’s a pretty reasonable assumption, given the problematic financial prospects for a $68 billion project that have become even dimmer with anti-bullet-train Republicans now controlling Washington.

Meanwhile, private and/or foreign governments are unwilling to finance it without assurances of operating subsidies, and funds from the “cap-and-trade” auctions of carbon emission allowances have dried up.

All in all, therefore, it’s likely that the bullet train as envisioned, linking San Francisco and Sacramento in the north with Los Angeles and San Diego in the south, won’t materialize.

What, then, happens to the $9.95 billion in bonds that California voters authorized for the project?

The bond measure said that $950 million could be spent on local transit systems that would connect to the bullet train, and they certainly will be. The state is also on the hook for $2.6 billion to match federal funds being spent on the San Joaquin Valley segment.

That would leave $6 billion-plus in bonds unspent, and as the bullet train’s financial prospects fade, officials are looking at shifting the remainder to what’s now being called “rail modernization.”

An initial step in the subtle shift of high-speed rail funds into local and regional transit systems occurred this year with the passage of Assembly Bill 1889, authorizing more than $1 billion in bond money for the electrification of the CalTrain commuter service on the San Francisco Peninsula.

The legal rationale for spending bullet train bond money on CalTrain is that it would be “suitable and ready for high-speed train operation” in what officials now call a “blended system.”

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