On Dec. 16, 2017, less than a month away, California high-speed rail construction work will have reached the two-and-a-half-year mark. This is the first major “from-scratch” intercity, heavy-rail, railroad-building effort begun in the Golden State since Southern Pacific’s Colton Cutoff (to Palmdale) line was completed in 1967 and the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system in 1972.
At any rate, $12.2 billion – the amount of money available to the California high-speed rail project (a goodly portion already spent or committed) – can only go so far in terms of the infrastructure actually able to be built before that money is exhausted, obviously.
Meanwhile, the estimated cost to complete the Los Angeles-to-San Francisco section (the Phase 1 part of the planned system), as of this writing, is $64 billion. That notion has quite a few people fretting over where the remainder of funds will come from to link – by high-speed rail – those two California regions.
That worry is not unfounded, I am one to admit. However, as has been expressed in the past here on the Air Quality Matters blog, many a transportation infrastructure project undertaken had been done so sans all of the necessary funding to complete such upfront – when such projects were first launched. Interstate 10 in the state of Arizona is a prime example coming immediately to mind, specifically, the Buckeye-to-Phoenix section which, the good news is did eventually get built.
U.S. transportation infrastructure spending does not appear at this time to be a high priority on Capitol Hill. That pretty much leaves states bearing the financial burden of said projects unless federal monies had been committed previously. One of those, as it turns out, is the California high-speed rail effort, the money provided to the project coming courtesy of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – from a total $8 billion pot designated for high- or higher-speed-rail-related construction work. According to information on Wikipedia, California’s share was $2.35 billion.
Alright, so what if money needed to complete the project fails to materialize?
For one, no one – neither Californians nor domestic and international tourists and business travelers alike – will be afforded the luxury of experiencing true high-speed train travel, at least, not here in the U.S., unless, of course, Texas, with its high-speed rail proposal to connect Dallas and Houston, physically gets rolling.
Furthermore, from an air quality standpoint, electrified high-speed rail, especially if the supply for that power, is generated from 100 percent renewable sources, means zero emissions produced. That, incidentally, is a key element of the California program – and that won’t happen either.
It isn’t just this: driving in this country is on the increase (3.2 trillion miles driven in 2016). This is at a level never before seen – an all-time record, to be exact.
Without significant road-infrastructure expansion to adequately handle the increased traffic, well, think congestion.
In fact, then American Public Transportation Association President and CEO Michael Melaniphy in August of 2015 put the situation quite astutely, stating: “Americans realize our infrastructure needs must be addressed with long-term solutions. While other nations significantly invest in their transportation infrastructure, America now ranks 28th in infrastructure investment and continues to fall behind our global competitors. While we continue to sit in traffic, one has to ask, is this really the best America can do?”
Okay, but is high-speed rail really needed? Why can’t other types of rail suffice?
Whether built on the surface, above or below, acquiring land for new rail right-of-way is a difficult proposition. Remember my earlier statement that there hasn’t been a major “from-scratch” intercity, heavy-rail, railroad infrastructure building project in California since the completion of the 105-mile BART system in 1972. Railroad rebuilding efforts, on the other hand, well, that’s a different story. Think the recently revamped Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit or SMART service at 43 miles in length.
Meanwhile, being floated is the idea of bringing an 80-plus-mile-long predominantly east-west passenger rail service to the mid-state area, on what is being dubbed the Cross Valley Corridor. There is also some discussion of reviving service between North Santa Rosa and Willits close to California’s north coast. The Altamont Corridor Express or ACE which instituted passenger service in Oct. 1998, uses trackage owned by Union Pacific.
The proposal/idea list is long regarding what could substitute for California high-speed rail, one of the ones being advanced, apparently, is a Los Angeles-to-San Francisco Hyperloop, one whose supporters have maintained that if built, a trip via such could be achieved in as little as 35 minutes. At this point it is difficult to say if any such proposals/ideas will ever see the light of day.
Know this: high-speed rail works. It’s tried and true. It’s efficient, competitive, reliable, comfortable, frequent, safe, environmentally friendly and, of course, there is that one feature that makes high-speed rail, high-speed rail, it’s fast. To build a highway capable of handling the subsequent-to-2029 passenger loads that California high-speed rail is expected to bring; to increase the capacity in the air and at airports; or even in instituting hyperfast evacuated tube travel to do likewise, what kind of costs would be involved in terms of bringing those about?
Hint: the name of game major-transportation-infrastructure-project-wise in California, right now, is high-speed rail. Texas’ program, meanwhile, looks soon to follow suit. Should any be inclined to disagree, just remember: in all of the other countries where high-speed-rail travel is a fact of life, they most certainly cannot be wrong.
Article updated on Nov. 20, 2017 at 7:53 p.m. and again on Nov. 21, 2017 at 7:17 a.m. Pacific Standard Time.
Middle image above: California High-Speed Rail Authority
Bottom image above: Federal Railroad Administration