Make no doubt about it. High speed rail is sexy.
And it should be able to move large volumes of people between Los Angeles and San Francisco quickly and reduce the crowded skies in the corridors between those two cities.
That, however, is where the sure things end.
High speed rail is expensive and could drastically alter life, farming, and business along proposed corridors. In that respect, it isn’t much different than the interstate system. But the real problem is that high speed rail was pitched to the voters in a complete vacuum.
Would spending $65 billion on transportation infrastructure improvements made more sense if:
• it was spent instead on blanketing major California cities with light rail systems?
• instead of high speed rail if the existing system was upgraded with double tracking and such with a number of trains added – a California version of Amtrak if you will – so passenger trains would serve far more cities?
• much of it was spent upgrading our deteriorating freeway and highway system?
• a combination of the above was done along with targeted high speed rail lines serving urban commute corridors such as Riverside-San Bernardino counties to Los Angeles, Sacramento to San Francisco and the Northern San Joaquin Valley to San Jose?
The environmental documents for the high speed rail project won’t really address those alternatives because it is moving forward as a focused – and arguably – one dimensional transit project.
High speed rail is a game changer.
But as it is being developed – even though the first segment proposed for construction will create a train to nowhere until other portions of the system are built – the system essentially will serve Los Angeles to San Francisco travelers.
Has anyone noticed that most of these people don’t really need public transportation? Besides it is already being provided by the private sector in the form of passenger flights.
Yes, we are told, it eventually may go to Sacramento and San Diego. But that’s not what is driving high speed. It is also the Los Angeles-San Francisco corridor that is already more than adequately served by intercity transit options whether it is by air, by road, or by rail.
And how will this help the state’s economy? We are being told, essentially, that it will stimulate the economy. Since no goods are moving by high speed rail they must be referring to two things - the short-term benefactors that are off-shore manufacturers of high speed rail train and the wild card potential for accelerating growth in places such as Merced, Fresno, and Bakersfield.
How it would do this, of course, is for segments of the long-haul high speed rail system to turn into glorified commuter lines. There is no other way that high speed rail could possibly stimulate growth as they claim since taking tourists and travelers out of cars would further ravish one of the most impoverished areas in the United States – the San Joaquin Valley.
So high speed rail – in the future when the economy overheats again – could make long-range commuting from Fresno, Bakersfield, and Merced to the Los Angeles Basin and San Francisco Bay Area pencil out.
If you think that is daffy, ask yourselves what your grandparents would have thought of a two-hour commute from San Jose to Stockton twice a day for five days a week just so you could afford a home to raise your family. Get that ticket down to $50 round-trip from southern valley cities on a commute like that and the time could come when the economy shifts into hyper drive where it will stimulate growth far away from urban cities to meet their labor demands.
Anyone who thinks someone is going to live in a transit village in Bakersfield and commute to LA is nuts. Of course that will mean more cars and more congestion in the valley.
Whether valley farms are on the money with their “Looks like high speed rail smells like pork” billboards or the high speed rail advocates are doing the right thing is a question that can’t be answered until California spends somewhere in the neighborhood of $65 billion or so.
That is why fast tracking high speed rail as the best bets for California’s transportation future as being the only option ever presented to voters was downright irresponsible.
Before the election the debate centered around the future and whether we can afford it. After the election to authorize the bonds the debate shifted to where it should have been in the first place – does it make sense for California?
It is time for the California Legislature to step up and act like leaders. They need to put the high speed rail back on the ballot and ask people whether they want to continue or pull the plug now. If it passes a second time, end of debate.