Federal government wavers on California's mass transit infrastructure

One of the most visible examples of urban infrastructure is mass transit, especially rail. We have a love-hate relationship with rail, mostly leaning towards love, once it proves its worth.

The $500 million Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) train comes to Marin and Sonoma counties later this spring.

eBART will start operations from BART's Pittsburg/Baypoint transfer station to and from Antioch in late 2017. This $5.25 billion dollar diesel extension to BART was chosen because it cost less than half of extending full electric BART service. And, last November, voters approved a new $3.5 billion bond measure. "You know, it's always and incredibly difficult decision to ask voters for new money," said Nick Josefowitz, a BART Board Member.

BART, originally designed to carry 50,000 daily passengers, now carries 450,000. Future expansions will increase ridership to 650,000.

"We're going be spending money on replacing track that was first installed in the 1960s, replacing electrical systems that were first installed in the 1960s; that type of stuff," said Mr. Josefowitz.

Dr. Asha Agrawal, a Transit Finance expert at the San Jose-based Mineta Transportation Institute says people will pay for transit they think provides a necessary and positive benefit.

"Overwhelmingly they say, ‘yes’. You know, you tend to get 75-percent or more people saying, "Yes, that's a priority, I want to see that happen," says Ms. Agrawal.

Even if they don't use it, many taxpayers see it as a travel option and as a way to free up roadways, just like BART does. As we continue to grow our system, we're going to continue to need additional resources,” says Josefowitz.
But the controversial High Speed Rail Project doesn't enjoy nearly the support that local transit does, which raises questions. Can it survive?  And, just as importantly, will it have a negative impact on local transit when it asks for more money?

"With high-speed rail, I think it's harder for many Californians to envision, who is actually going to use it. Is it actually going to benefit me even it I don't use it?" says Agrawal.

Like all mega projects such as the new Bay Bridge and Boston's Big Dig, high-speed rail is such a large project the real cost is hard to pinpoint. What voters approved in 2006, was a $45 billion project. That was before the great recession and almost a decade of inflation. Now, $64 billion is more like it and the Federal Government is wavering.

"With these very large projects, like high speed rail, it's very hard to stop once you get started. Nobody really sees that as a feasible option," says Agrawal.

High-speed rail may already be beyond the point of no return.