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High Speed Rail Engine That Could
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It’s coming down the track whether you like it or not.
“It” is some form of the high speed rail fantasy sold to California voters in 2012.
You remember it, don’t you? Trains would move seamlessly from Los Angeles to San Francisco at 220 mph.
Wait. That’s not the plan exactly — at the moment anyway. We’re going to at first run high speed trains from Bakersfield to Merced and then at each end switch to more conventional rail with a little more oomph in the locomotives to reach San Jose and LA.
The latest reincarnation of the storyline in the 1930 children’s book “The Little Engine that Could” relies on extending the Altamont Corridor Express to Merced and adding more muscle to its engines.
This week the California High Speed Rail Authority authorized the sale of bonds with $2.6 billion going to pay for the 119-mile Madera to Fresno segment and $600 million to electrify what is essentially the CalTrains line from San Jose to San Francisco.
At the same time an unlikely coalition of the Town of Atherton — an enclave on the San Francisco Peninsula that rewrote the book when it comes to the concept of wealthy communities — and Kings County in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley the Congressional Research Office has dubbed the New Appalachia filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the peninsula project. It is challenging the legal basis for legislative action “that materially changes” the bonds approved by voters.
If the courts concur the legislation was unconstitutional, it still won’t stop the mutant high speed rail. Trying to kill off a massive project that breathes life into a small army of bureaucratic zombies that feeds at the public trough to survive is about as crazy as driving to Las Vegas and putting $10,000 down for the San Francisco 49ers to beat the Cleveland Browns in the upcoming Super Bowl.
Unlike private sector white elephants that are simply shutdown when projects clearly aren’t picking up steam in luring investor dollars let alone ever offer the possibility of turning a profit, California’s high speed rail mutant will keep chugging on.
It is why Sacramento’s “The Little High Speed Engine That Could” will need ACE on steroids to reach the Bay Area to kind of fulfill its promise of running from LA to San Francisco. Once in San Jose — which makes more sense as a hub than San Francisco — those that need to reach The City can switch trains.
And while the initial hybrid approach uses the twisty and therefore slow tracks over Altamont Pass, the odds are the tracks will eventually be replaced with tunnels and bridges that will straighten the route out and kick up speed even more.
The reason is simple. The Pacheco Pass is virgin territory for railroad tracks. It also would rattle more than a few people ranging from residents south of San Jose to environmentalists.
At the same time you’ll talking under 20 miles to replace through the Altamont as opposed to 100 miles or so to build between Merced and a connection with existing tracks south of San Jose.
You will not see high speed rail per se from LA to San Francisco any time soon given cost factors and urban opposition. But you will see more semi-direct passenger service that while not super speedy will be much more useful for the general public.
What makes this approach ironic is that you can argue improved heavy rail — not too fast and not too slow but at just the right speeds — that serves the growing inland California bedrooms for coastal metro areas will produce more robust ridership numbers. The reason why Japan’s high speed rail works as well as it does in terms of ridership is it is targets daily commuters that provide a deeper ridership than those that may venture once a month — if that — between LA and San Francisco.
This will change life as we know it in Tracy, Lathrop/River Islands, Manteca, Ripon, Modesto, Turlock, and Merced.
It’s because such a system allowing you to ride rail to cover most of the distance to high paying Bay Area jobs will address 209 regional transportation needs. But here’s the drawback: The cities with stops along ACE in the 209 will start growing like Chia Pets.
What is now coming at us will take growth to another level.
The signs are already there that the land east of the Altamont is the new promised land for families with fat Bay Area checks that want to live in a traditional house versus a townhouse or apartment that are essentially only what is being built today in any quantity from San Jose to San Francisco.
If you get 10 to 12 ACE trains originating in Merced rolling into Silicon Valley daily you open the door to more demand for housing.
Such a scenario would be ironic given that probably the last thing the boosters of high speed rail in 2012 wanted to do was induce growth.
That’s why it is dangerous to monkey with DNA whether it is with a living thing or a massive public works project. If you’re not careful it can become a mutant with a life of its own.

This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at or 209.249.3519.