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High speed rail on track to turn into next big flop

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POSTED December 2, 2009 2:16 a.m.
California is not Europe. Nor is the Golden State Japan.

We do not have built up city centers with world-class public transportation. Instead we have urban sprawl that essentially has converted California’s love affair with the car into a shotgun wedding of sorts.

That is why the high speed rail connecting Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento and San Francisco has all the making of a major disaster that will make California City – the much ballyhooed late 1950s planned community for nearly two million people in the middle of the Mojave Desert that has about 14,000 residents – seem like a major success story in contrast.

California City – the third largest in terms of land mass in the state with 80,000 acres – has an extensive grid of crumbling roads in place because real estate developer and sociology professor Nat Mendelsohn forgot two little important details – water and jobs.

It was an ambitious undertaking to “properly” plan a community from scratch that would rival Los Angeles in stature. It sounded good in theory but in the real world of California it had about as much chance succeeding as Gary Coleman has of beating Michael Jordan in a game of one-on-one basketball. The same is true for high speed rail.

It was sold to voters as a futuristic, pollution-free, fast, safe, efficient, and low-cost way to move people. That is why they were able to get a $10 billion bond measure passed which, by all indications, isn’t likely to cover much more than a tenth of the final cost.

It looks good on paper but in reality it is plagued with problems.

First, it will do little more than what jet traffic between those cities do now which is dump passengers who will then either rent a car or use private cars to get around once they reach their final stop.

But let’s say the dynamics are challenging because the high speed rail will go to the heart of where many people want to reach such as central Los Angeles and downtown San Francisco.

That means you have to get people along the congested urban route to roil over and play dead. The railroad system we have in place now that was pushed by the Big Four – Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins tried to build the Central Pacific today – was built long before CEQA (California’s Environmental Quality Act) entered the state’s lexicon.

Even if the high speed train parallels existing rail corridors, it “isn’t already there.” That means legal challenges will pop up all over the place. If anyone thinks otherwise, they probably also believe that the California Legislature will restructure government, overhaul the state tax system, and slash tax rates by the end of 2010.

Separated crossing grades are nice but what about the noise. It’s electric so there will be no increased noise, right? That’s the assumption, but if you’re within two blocks of a high speed train line – even one topping out at 100 mph through urban areas, the odds are you won’t be having happy thoughts. And not having happy thoughts is a critical ingredient into filing CEQA-based lawsuits.

It gets better. What are the odds some farmer will challenge the CEQA process because their dairy herd near the rural segments of the line where trains will go 200 mph may get the jitters and reduce milk production? Farmers will be reasonable to deal with compared to environmental worries that some rare insect may become windshield splatter or a kangaroo rat may inadvertently wander across the tracks with the bullet train barreling down on them.

But even if that can all be addressed, the biggest question is why go to all the hassle of serving a Los Angeles-to-San Francisco (and Sacramento corridor that arguably isn’t where the real need is in this state.

A high speed system running from Riverside and San Bernardino counties to Los Angeles and Orange County makes more sense much like converting the Altamont Commuter Express train service into a high speed rail system. You would never have to worry about generating enough passengers, it would ease congestion, and have a bigger impact on reducing pollution. Vehicles in stop and go traffic pollute one heck of a lot more – and burn a lot more fossil fuel – than those traveling at 65 mph between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Or ask yourself this question: How many light rail systems could be built in California’s heavily populated areas that run by electric power and how many more people would that move per day compared to high speed rail trains?

There is a lot of bang for the buck that can be generated with $100 billion by doing something else to enhance transit and reduce congestion in California.
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