It's been three years and change since Californians approved Proposition 1A, permitting the sale of $9bn in state bonds to finance the initial stages of a high-speed rail system that would eventually link the four major metro areas of the state together. When Prop 1A passed, albeit narrowly, the enthusiasm among the alt-transport community was almost universal. Now, after several years and several iterations of the HSRA's business plan, enthusiasm is dimming, even among those who are nominally pro-transit. The headline, of course, is the significant increase in the project's "price tag," from $43bn to $99bn. Many people think that the money that would be spend on HSR could be much more beneficially used to build better, more comprehensive local transit systems within the state.
There are two responses to this criticism. One is that, while local transit is critical to our state's future, so is improved intercity travel. HSR and local transit are not an either-or proposition; rather, we need to build and fund both of them if we are to stave off the challenges of the 21st century and emerge as a stronger, more vibrant civilization on the other end. HSR is a complement to local transit in a way that airports and highways are not, allowing for the concentration of transit modes and development around HSR stations, and providing for a center of gravity that will facilitate the densification of sprawling suburban cities. I don't think that the HSR authority's claim of increased commuting between, say, the Central Valley and coastal employment centers is necessarily a good thing for the environment, but I also doubt that it'll be the "killer app" of HSR.
The second criticism, and I think the more damning one, is that we are constrained in our choices by our governing institutions. Simply moving the ~$11bn from HSR to local transit is not presently a choice available to transit activists. Moving the federal portion of the monies to local transit would literally take an act of Congress, and there's a reason that that phrase is synonymous with impossibility. (Considering the current political predilections of the Republican House, it's unlikely that money would move anywhere. It'd either be used for deficit reduction or funneled in to defense or corporate subsidies.) The only place that the federal HSR money can go is into HSR, and if it isn't spent in California, it'll likely be spent on the Chicagoland system currently in development. As I told a friend on Facebook, the choice is between a train in Bakersfield and one in Peoria-- and the one in Peoria won't have state matching funds.
Moving the California portion of the money is even trickier. Technically speaking, there is no California HSR money at present. The bonds have not yet been sold. Their sale is authorized by a ballot initiative, which means that, to stop their sale, we would have to have another ballot initiative to overturn it. That, in and of itself, might work- public opinion towards HSR has not exactly been all that great lately. However, good luck trying to convince Californians to give up their bullet train in exchange for local bus and rail improvements, or to authorize the sale of bonds without matching funds. Prop 1A worked because it provided a very specific framework within which the HSR system had to be built, down to mandating trip times. I strongly doubt that they'd approve an initiative that moved that money into unspecified local public transit, especially when only a tiny minority of them use said transit.
The choice between HSR and local transit is wrong on two levels. First, it's wrong on a conceptual level: we shouldn't be choosing between them, as we need both, and they work together beautifully. Second, it's wrong on a political level, as there is no way that killing HSR will result in beneficial effects for local public transit.
If you balk at the $99bn cost figure-- which has been inflated by the actions of NIMBYs, both in the accounting process of the HSRA and the physical design of the railway-- please see my earlier post on a plausible Minimum Operating Segment of the California HSR system, which could be built for much less cost and attract the support and investment needed to build the full system. But please, if you care about alternative transportation in this state, don't give up on the entire HSR project. This is a critical piece of infrastructure for our state's future, and it will go a long way towards alleviating our dependence on oil-fueled intercity travel