The California High-Speed Rail Authority's $68-billion high-speed-rail project recently announced a probable joint-venture team to construct its first phase, but that doesn't mean trains will be leaving the station soon. The embattled project still faces lawsuits and questions, even from former supporters.
"High-speed rail is at a crucial point," says Quentin Kopp, former chairman of the authority. Over the past 18 months, "missteps and violations" of the 2008 Proposition 1A bond measure have changed public opinion, he says.
Kopp, who co-authored the bill creating the state's high-speed rail, cites a March 2013 poll by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) that found 54% of likely voters opposed the project, compared to the 52.4% who voted in favor of Prop 1A in November 2008.
But Jeff Morales, current CEO of the authority, sees it differently. "We've got clear momentum, and as we go forward the project will gain momentum as people see jobs being created and progress being made," he contends.
To get more people onboard the high-speed-rail idea, the California authority will have to get costs under control, say industry observers.
"This is the first attempt at high-speed rail in the country that looks like it's actually going to happen," says Joshua Schank, president and CEO of Eno Center for Transportation, a Washington, D.C., non-profit that studies transportation safety and sustainability. "It's a huge amount of money, and taxpayers want to make sure the money is spent effectively."
The PPIC poll showed support among voters rising to 55% if costs were lower.
Funding will be the biggest challenge, Schank says. Securing more federal money will be tough because of partisanship, controversy and the government's own financial problems, he says. Further, private investors may be leery because extracting profits from rail is a slow process. "The best hope California has is to tax the citizens in some way to pay for it," Schank adds.
While negotiating for funding for future phases, the authority is focusing on its so-called Contract 1, which it will formally award to a joint venture in June.