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On April 2, the California High-Speed Rail Authority released a revised draft business plan that calls for upgrading existing passenger-rail lines in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas rather than building new, dedicated high-speed track. The approach would enable the authority to complete the project faster and $30 million cheaper than previously proposed. Last week, HSRupdates.com checked in with Eno Transportation Foundation President and Chief Executive Officer Joshua Schank to get his thoughts on the latest business plan. The Eno Transportation Foundation is a non-profit organization that supports transportation-related professional development programs, policy forums and publications. The questions and Schank’s lightly edited responses follow. What do you think of the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s new approach to create a blended system? It’s absolutely the right way to go. I’m pleased to see the development and I think it’s much easier to sell this project when you can demonstrate incremental improvements. Another big reason to like it, when you look at cost-benefit analyses for rail projects, commuter-rail projects typically have much bigger payoffs than intercity high-peed rail projects because they cost less and help get people to work more efficiently. High-speed rail is really more of a substitute for aviation or intercity passenger traffic, so it’s very different type of benefit. I do see the value in what they’re doing and I think it’s a great move. By taking the blended system approach, is CHSRA turning this project into something that was far different than originally proposed? Well, it’s not as if they are just going to build this and then they’re done. Projects go on forever. We didn’t build the interstate and leave it there; you have to keep maintaining and improving it. You have to start somewhere, and I don’t think it’s a bad idea to start with what’s doable. If the demand is great and there is a real reason to improve beyond what they’ve proposed, then they’ll do it. There’s a misconception that you have to plan for the biggest, best shot at the beginning. You don’t want to foreclose future expansion and don’t want to make it impossible to do something more dedicated or faster, so as long as they don’t do that, I don’t see a problem with starting out like this. What are the benefits of extending the initial operating segment all the way to the Los Angeles Basin? Obviously the pro is that this is not a rail line to nowhere. [CHSRA] had a real image problem with starting with that initial segment. Whether or not it’s a good strategy from an overall completion of the project perspective is another question, but it is a good thing to extend that segment in response to the criticism. There were concerns they would get it done and no one would ride it, so it’s a good move to say, "Let’s connect it to our most robust population center." Do you think the lower cost estimate will help the project be more favorably received by the state Legislature? It improves their chances, for sure. I think it’s very important to keep in mind [that] it is very common for large infrastructure projects in transportation to underestimate costs to get approved. I think you have to be very cautious of those numbers. I haven’t looked at the numbers and I can’t tell you where they might have made assumptions that skewed the analysis or if they did, but overall … it is very rare for a project like this to overestimate costs. So I think it has a better chance of being approved, but it doesn’t mean this cost bears any relation to the final cost of the program. How can this project become more successful? They need to continue to move it in the direction they just moved to, listen to what people have said, what critics have said — that it costs too much and they’re starting in the middle of nowhere — and adjust accordingly. The problem is [CHSRA] thought they were unstoppable. They had the money they needed and assumed it would go forward, and there wasn’t a sense they heard the critics and responded to them and now there is. I assume it’s a result of the change in leadership or maybe they hit the bottom on this, but it is very encouraging. I think that there will, however, be a need for substantial federal money for this project to be completed and I see that as a real problem because there is no federal money. If President Obama is not reelected, they have almost no shot of getting it. Even if he is reelected, they’re going to have a serious problem in the sense that there is a lot of concern about high-speed rail. It’s an easy target for Republicans here in Washington, and there’s no money. We’ve spent our way to a huge deficit and I think that will dominate discussions no matter who is president.
— Angela Cotey