California style high-speed rail: Will it prevail?

Like most Californians, I have been keeping track of California high-speed rail (HSR) plan progress. HSR, Golden State style, isn’t just any old train. For California and America, not only would this be a first, it’d be the first. If project ground officially gets broken, not only would a new direction in transportation be taken, but new transportation territory charted. Ushered in would be a whole new era in American transportation progress; others, no doubt, following in the footsteps of the first, provided California HSR gets approved, built and proves successful.

As it stands, the planned project calls for 800 miles of HSR track to be laid between San Francisco and Los Angeles (the line’s main backbone – 520 miles) with future appendages to San Diego (approximately 120 miles) and Sacramento (approximately 160 miles). Phase 1 – Los Angeles-San Francisco – is projected to be fully operational by year 2029. Full build-out, meanwhile, is expected four years later in 2033.

As one can well imagine regarding this project there has been no shortage of controversy to go around.

Much of that revolves around cost ($68.4 billion), funding mechanisms, route selection, residential, commercial, industrial, agricultural, habitat, environmental – air, land, water – and other impacts, etc.

The BayRail Alliance Executive Director Margaret Okuzumi on the California Progress Report in 2007 in “High Speed Rail: A Necessity for California” wrote: “It is indeed an ambitious project — it would be the largest public works project in the history of California — but the infrastructure problems that California faces need bold solutions. A future without HSR looks untenable in terms of additional pollution, gridlock, environmental destruction and cost to California.”

Is Okuzumi correct?

Related to that she had these words to say exactly: “While high-speed rail would be the largest public works project in the history of California, and thereby presents a cost that seems daunting, it’s cheap compared to the alternatives. In lieu of high-speed rail, the state would need a combination of more than 2,900 new lane-mi (4,667 km) of highway, 6 new runways, and 68 new airport gates to meet the projected travel demands. Altogether the various piecemeal costs of building these highway and airport expansions amount to at least twice as much the cost of building high-speed rail. To this we can add the costs that result from increasing our greenhouse gas emissions and from worsening our health and air quality.”

I would agree. The cost alone of building those new 2,900 highway lane-miles is $72.5 billion; this, of course, based on a highway construction cost of $25 million per mile.

From Day-1 California high-speed rail has both been lauded and criticized alike.

Meanwhile, Tim Sheehan in The Fresno Bee on June 5, 2014 in “Kings County lawsuit challenges Fresno-Bakersfield high-speed rail” wrote: “The Kings County Board of Supervisors, the Farm Bureau and a group of county residents filed suit Thursday in Sacramento County Superior Court challenging the approval of a high-speed rail route through the county between Fresno and Bakersfield.”

And, added Sheehan, “Thursday’s lawsuit is the latest legal shot fired by Kings County and the Citizens for California High-Speed Rail Accountability in a three-year battle opposing the state’s proposed $68 billion bullet-train project. An earlier lawsuit dating to 2012, now pending in a state appeals court, contends that the rail authority’s plan violates Proposition 1A, the $9.9 billion high-speed rail bond measure approved by voters in 2008.”

From all of the lawsuits lodged, I have to wonder what the ultimate aim of the legal action is: Is it to, as it were, ‘derail’ HSR or make sure it is done right?

In arguments against the project, there are quote-unquote “sticking points” I keep hearing (or reading). Among these are:

  • The ridership will be less than that of projections
  • The required Los Angeles-to-San Francisco travel time for a non-stop, high-speed rail train of 2-hours-and-40-minutes will not be achieved
  • The current estimated cost is more than double the original estimated cost of $33 billion and that the funding needed to build the system will not be there
  • The “blended” approach of running high-speed trains on non-dedicated high-speed track in both the San Francisco Bay Area and in Southern California doesn’t adhere to the language laid out in the original ballot initiative in 2008
  • The line will divide cities in two where the system when within cities is to traverse
  • The train won’t be profitable and neither will it be able to operate without a subsidy
  • The money allocated to California high-speed rail could be better spent elsewhere

… And seemingly almost everything else in the book or under the sun to go along with those, to repeat a couple of familiar coined phrases.

Now consider this: California has more than a tenth of America’s estimated 253 million registered motor vehicles, delay on roads has been getting worse and population is on the rise and it is not too difficult – and least I don’t think it is – to understand why having but one more method by which to move about the state makes sense. Besides, passenger rail is sorely lacking in state anyway.

A robust high-speed rail project can help bring jobs, stimulate local economies, create vastly improved city-to-city connectivity by efficiently, effectively, reliably, comfortably, conveniently, speedily and safely getting travelers to where they need and/or want to go and do it in a timely, frequent and cost-effective manner, in my book is more than enough reason to get this project going.

Add to all of the above the oft-repeated pronouncement I’ve heard that people don’t or won’t ride trains, I say this: If that is true, then why in the rail-air market between Boston and the Big Apple (New York City) is the distribution 54 percent rail and 46 percent air the division being even more pronounced in the New York-Washington, D.C. rail-air market which is 75 percent rail and 25 percent air? And Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor is not even considered true high-speed. Just imagine if it were.

I plan to keep reporting on significant California high-speed rail developments as these become available.

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