By Dan Walters | April 11, 2018 | Commentary

Reality may finally be catching up with the vision – or pipedream – of a 200-mile-per-hour train connecting California’s northern and southern regions.

A few weeks ago, the High-Speed Rail Authority released its latest “business plan” that was supposed to tell Californians how the brief stretch of track now being constructed in the San Joaquin Valley can grow into a system stretching from San Francisco and Sacramento in the north to Los Angeles and San Diego in the south.

While the latest version of the plan, drafted by the latest of several management teams, appears to be more realistic about cost and construction schedules than its predecessors, it’s still sorely deficient, as its official reviewers pointed out last week during a legislative hearing.

How California policy affects you, straight to your inbox

After a decade-plus of cogitation, they said, the state still doesn’t have a complete scenario for raising the tens of billions of dollars it would take to extend the San Joaquin section into the San Francisco Bay Area via San Jose and southward to Los Angeles.

The plan suggests that the northward extension, which is the first priority, might be built with a bond issue backed by the project’s dedicated share of revenues from the state’s “cap-and-trade” auctions of greenhouse gas emission allowances.

And then, it continues, there would be an operable segment that would generate revenues from riders that could be used to finance the southward extension.

However, the plan contains caveats for the scheme to work, such as extending cap-and-trade from its current end date, 2030, to 2050, and offering lenders some guarantees to back up the notoriously volatile emission auctions.

The reviewers look somewhat askance at such a scheme.

Louis Thompson, one of the nation’s top rail system experts who chairs the project’s official “peer review” committee, sees “little prospect” that fares from the first extension could finance the second. He told legislators that the project, a favorite of Gov. Jerry Brown, is “at a critical point when difficult decisions need to be made,” and cited the need for a “credible long-term plan to finance the system.”

The Legislature’s budget analyst offered a similarly skeptical view of the business plan in its review.

To read expanded column, click here.