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High speed rail: California’s fast track to ruin?

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POSTED September 25, 2010 2:39 a.m.

So does who does California high speed rail benefit?

Sure there are the train builders in Europe and the construction workers who hopefully won’t be here on specialized visas or in the United States illegally. But when the system is up and running after spending a bare minimum of at least $50 billion who will really benefit and who will really use it?

It is true that the Altamont Commuter Express corridor version would make commuting to San Jose et al from the Northern San Joaquin Valley quicker and possibly less expensive but that comes at a price. It would seem high speed rail would accelerate growth in the valley and that may not be a good thing.

How does it benefit the poster child du jour of economic woe - Fresno?

Will it bring tourist dollars to Fresno? Will it bring people with big disposable incomes to pump up retail and service jobs who want to move their families out of Irvine, the Santa Clara Valley, Glendale and other Southland locations? Will it bring high paying jobs?

Or, given the proposal to use Union Pacific rail line or right-of-way, will it harm freight movements that could impact the ability of hundreds of thousands of struggling workers in the Southern San Joaquin Valley that rely on the agricultural industry to figuratively and literally feed their families?

How does a train zipping through at 220 mph lift the region of California that federal poverty studies have referred to repeatedly as the new Appalachia?

What is the real value of moving people between San Francisco and Los Angeles in two hours and 38 minutes? Is spending $50 billion worth it to save them the inconvenience of driving or going through the hassle of getting in and out of an airport?

And just how much air pollution would it really reduce if it is able to cut into air travel? Wouldn’t it make more sense to spend the $50 billion on light rail projects in California urban areas to reduce stop-and-go traffic congestion that generates much more pollution?

Speaking of light rail, what are the opportunity costs of high speed rail? After all, you can only mortgage so much money to underwrite infrastructure needs. How many other things could have been built or financed that would impact far more people in the form of hospitals, water projects, flood control endeavors, state park expansions, or -heaven forbid - actually spending money to replace California’s aging infrastructure ranging from freeways and bridges to other public necessities?

The idea of high speed rail has gotten warped into something it isn’t.

Nor is it key to California’s future economic success - far from it. It isn’t key to create an image for the Golden State and it isn’t key to address a pressing travel need.

High speed rail from the campaign to today reflects the severe myopic condition of California’s leadership.

Not only is every need - real or perceived - treated as a standalone from the rest of the state’s needs but once an OK is given there is never a serious second thought given to whether it is the right course. It becomes “reach-the-objective-no-matter-the-cost” whether it is in the dollars or what it ends up doing to the rest of the state’s needs. Moving freight in a timely manner is certainly more critical to the economy than whisking people through the San Joaquin Valley at 220 mph that are able to pay $100 or so for a ticket.

It also reflects the typical starry-eyed public persona of legislators who - once away from the people and a microphone - might cynically also wonder what is in it for me.

Had this been something that threatened the legislature’s ability to secure campaign funds or treat the general fund as spoils of their never-ending political wars, someone in the legislature would have proposed a measure on the ballot in an attempt to de-authorize both the high speed rail project and bonds.

Of course, that would go nowhere as the big money interests now lining up behind high wouldn’t let that happen.

The benefits of high speed rail just aren’t there - at least for the majority of California’s 38 million residents who are going to pay the bill for it and probably never even ride it.

It is nothing more than a fast track version of poor decisions - advanced by the legislature and the voters - that will simply accelerate driving California to financial ruin.

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