High-speed rail line

August 15, 2005

The highway bill that President Bush signed last week includes close to $1 million to study a high-speed rail line for the San Diego region.

Good news, right? The region's transportation planners had hoped for federal money to analyze a 175-mph "magnetic levitation transportation project" – or MAGLEV – that might zip air travelers from San Diego to a new airport in Imperial County, or along Interstate 5 to John Wayne Airport, Long Beach Airport or LAX.

But the $800,000 in Congress' five-year highway bill is to be used strictly for studying a rail line to the Imperial Valley desert, which lies 102 miles from the center of San Diego, in the congressional district represented by Bob Filner.

Filner, a Democrat, has long argued that an airport in his district makes sense because there is more space available than in metropolitan San Diego, and because residents in the economically challenged Imperial Valley would welcome airport-related jobs and business. But he has had a tough time convincing airport planners.

At a spring meeting, Filner criticized the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority for being tepid toward his idea. Tepid, because authority consultants have said it's unlikely that even a high-speed train would make travel to the desert appealing. Because in the best case, only 10 percent to 15 percent of air travelers would use it. And because it could cost as much as $140 million – per mile – to build. After the meeting, Filner said Imperial County "wanted a legitimate study," and he vowed that it would "get a legitimate study."

And now it apparently has one.

Filner used his post on the House Transportation Committee to win the federal money, and he expects the San Diego Association of Governments to begin the high-speed rail study "right away" and conclude it within a few months.

Meanwhile, the airport authority has decided to keep Imperial County in play, as well as a site in East County's Boulevard and a proposed second runway for Lindbergh Field. In November 2006, local voters will be asked – based on the authority's final recommendations – to approve a site for a new regional airport or to expand Lindbergh.

That means Filner will probably have his taxpayer-funded report in hand well before voters go to the polls next November. Perhaps he'll have it right about the time of the primary election, when the congressman expects a tough challenge from Democratic Assemblyman Juan Vargas. This would be a good time for Filner to remind Imperial County voters – a good portion of whom are Latinos with whom competitor Vargas claims affinity – of all the work he has done to boost the economy in their region.

But aside from giving Filner an election-year leg up, will the study do the same for the Imperial County airport idea?

"Of course," Filner said. "If we show we can build a MAGLEV, and that it would in fact cut down (travel) times drastically, I think it has a major effect on the whole process."

Not necessarily, says Dennis Burks, chairman of ASAP-21, a collection of contractors, hoteliers and labor groups that don't want to see all that airport business go east. The $800,000 study "could possibly" give the Imperial County airport an edge, Burks acknowledged, but "it's 102 miles away, and not everyone is going to want to take a train."

Filner said that if SANDAG wants to study a high-speed rail line to some other existing or potential airport, it can compete for research money still available in the highway bill.

The only catch is that the bill specifies that of this research money, "50 percent (is) for the MAGLEV project between Las Vegas and Primm, Nev., and 50 percent (is) for a MAGLEV project located east of the Mississippi River."

Neither of which sounds very near to San Diego.

"It's not exactly a foolproof plan," said Ellen Roundtree, the SANDAG director of government relations.

Roundtree said she has been told by Filner's office that if the authority takes Imperial County off the airport list, Filner would allow the money to "be used (to study MAGLEV) linked to another airport."

Dana Wilkie is a Washington-based correspondent for Copley News Service and a longtime observer of California politics and social issues.

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