Drive just a tad over 100 miles south of Manteca on Highway 99 and you will see one of the reasons killing off the California High Speed Rail Project is delusional dreaming regardless of how firmly rooted the notion is in fiscal and common sense.
It is here soaring above the San Joaquin River that grandiose engineering plans from a bygone era in Sacramento managed to beat what was once the state’s second mightiest river into whimpering submission.
The sleek support towers of the viaduct to support the glassy-eyed vision of former Gov. Jerry Brown that was fed by high speed train manufacturers and construction unions soar above the old school Union Pacific Railroad mainline tracks and the workhorse asphalt and concrete ribbon of Highway 99 that serves as California’s Main Street.
To kill a public works project — regardless of how unpopular it might be — that has built a constituency of fat paychecks for highly skilled unions laborers employed by firms whose executives know to grease their prosperity via campaign donations plus a small army of bureaucrats guaranteed lifetime employment — is about as likely as Milo Yiannopoulos being elected mayor of Berkeley.
Only a complete sap believes the high speed rail project from San Francisco to Los Angeles will deliver on any promises whether it is a true 220 mph trip, the ticket being under $100 one-way, that it will be built on time or anywhere in the general vicinity of the price tag du jour.
High speed rail doesn’t have to end up being an expensive punchline. The deservedly maligned “Train to Nowhere” doesn’t have to have runaway construction costs. If you think the project is going to come under $120 billion then you have no idea what they are up against when they build the Merced to San Jose leg via the Pacheco Pass. The 13.5-mile long tunnel that will go as deep as 1,000 feet in spots to keep trains zipping along at 220 mph has to slice through the fault that — according to seismic experts — has the ability to take out both San Francisco and Los Angeles which would make “The Train to Nowhere” an apt moniker.
Experts who have dealt with real life challenges such as building the tunnel beneath the English Channel have scoffed at cost estimates the state is using for the Pacheco Pass tunnel that must forge not only the San Andreas Fault that not too long ago in 1906 opened up the earth and swallowed cows but also some of the trickiest soil on earth. It is a geological mixture sporting sandstone riddled with weak shale known as the Franciscan Complex that was the result of the Pacific Plate slipping under the North American Plate to push what is now known as the Diablo Range skyward.
The cost of crossing beneath Pacheco Pass was never fully vetted before the high speed rail authority made what in retrospect is looking more and more like a fatal decision to not go over the somewhat lower Altamont Pass instead.
The rail authority pegged the cost of building the 54-mile segment from Chowchilla to Gilroy at $5.6 billion. Some of the world’s foremost tunnel experts contend the tunnel alone is likely to run between $5.6 billion and $14 billion. There is little doubt the segment’s cost has been grossly underestimated.
Last year brought yet another confession from the high speed rail folks that they once again underestimated the cost of the initial 119-mile segment from Madera to Bakersfield that was pegged at $7.8 billion in 2016. Cost overruns have pushed the price tag to $10.6 billion.
Private sector investors want to see if the San Francisco to Southern San Joaquin Valley is profitable before they will consider putting up a single dime. The rail authority has only $21 billion to get the starter system in place.
There is a now a very good chance emerging that the rail project will run out of funding and therefore political steam before getting the critical starter system in place.
We now have a governor who says he is lukewarm at best to the entire idea of high speed rail.
This is a good thing as it may open the door to bring the entire concept back to earth and create a train system that can reduce road congestion and pollution more effectively without sending costs into the stratosphere.
There’s plenty of time for Gov. Gavin Newsom working with the California Legislature to change the end game —the connection to the Bay Area and the Los Angeles Basin.
The state can come up with a more cost effective way at a somewhat lower speed to get people off highways.
The problem with the California High Speed Rail vision is the basic premise has always been Euro-centric instead of copying Japan’s model. High speed rail works will for travel in Europe given the numerous nations and their relatively small size that makes flying between many points a large consumer of time in comparison. Japan’s bread and butter for high speed ridership are daily commuters.
Slowing down high speed a bit and rethinking the end routes can change the dynamics for the better.
San Francisco is the soul of the Bay Area — not the economic heart. That distinction belongs to San Jose, the nearby Silicon Valley, and stretches of the East Bay that pump out by far more new well-paying jobs.
The first step would be to go the hybrid route as has been suggested with high speed rail transferring to Altamont Corridor Express trains in Merced to make the connection directly to San Jose and the rest of the Bay Area.
Envisioned ACE track realignment and improvements over the Altamont Pass to allow trains now going10 mph to move at 150 mph going from the San Joaquin Valley to the Livermore Valley to cut the travel time to San Jose from Lathrop/Manteca by 75 minutes allowing you to be in San Jose in under an hour.
The increased train frequency would better tap the growing commuter base from Merced to Tracy that could make travel by rail far more feasible, less expensive, and in turn reduce the biggest source of auto pollution which is cars in stop and go traffic as opposed to someone zooming along 75 mph between San Francisco and Los Angeles using Interstate 5.
Doing the Altamont Pass upgrades would get high speed rail off the ground and enhance the ability to get people out of their cars in much greater numbers. It also doesn’t preclude the Pacheco Pass tunnels from ever being built to send high speed way to San Francisco via Gilroy.
Actually taking a complete step back from the big fibs high speed rail boosters rolled out makes sense. A massive state in terms of land that will surpass 40 million residents this year needs a robust and effective passenger rail system. To do the most good, however, doesn’t mean it needs to be high speed all the way.
The ball is in Newsom’s court.
As governor he can lead the charge to rethink the entire concept of linking cities in California by faster and more efficient rail and not simply roll out high speed trains.