The resignations in January of the California High-Speed Rail Authority's chief executive officer, Roelof van Ark, and its chairman, Thomas Umberg, several months before construction is scheduled to begin the first leg of high-speed-rail construction in the Central Valley, puts the alternative transportation initiative under renewed scrutiny. During Van Ark's 20-month tenure, costs were revised. Estimates more than doubled, to $98.5-billion. That huge dollar amount further erodes public support for the project and undermines its funding.

Gov. Jerry Brown (D) compares the project to other great public works that were first mocked but later successfully completed: the Central Valley Water Project, the interstate highway system, Bay Area Rapid Transit and the Panama and Suez canals. "The critics were wrong then and they're wrong now," Brown said in his Jan. 18 state-of-the-state address.

Richard Doty, HNTB vice president and high-speed-rail programs director in the transportation engineering consultant's Oakland office, supports Brown's vision. "I've worked on high-speed-rail projects in Korea and in Europe, and I give the governor credit for proposing to solve a problem with a system that the rest of the world found to be a good solution." He adds, "The cost of entry is high, but we can remember that the airlines don't pay for airports and the bus lines don't pay for roads. Governments pay for the infrastructure."

Susan Handy, professor of environmental science and director of the sustainable transportation center at the University of California, Davis, thinks the alternatives to rail are not attractive, but she is concerned about the effect on the state's land use and farming. She says, "It has the potential to contribute to further sprawl in the Central Valley, with potential increased pressure on prime agricultural lands."