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Time to move high speed rail project from Fantasyland to Tomorrowland
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This is a rendering of the high speed rail crossing of the San Joaquin River.

Do you know where Avenue 19 is in Madera County? How about Poplar Avenue in Kings County? Better yet, how many Californians do you think even know where Madera and Kings Counties are located?

The answers to those questions are easily worth $4 billion.

As everyone else scurries about trying to find toilet paper, tries to keep themselves and loved ones safe from COVID-19, and are stressing about making rent payments and keeping food on the table the unsinkable California High Speed Rail project slithers forward at the speed of a slug.

Assuming that the date won’t be pushed back as every other date has that has ever been promised by the high speed rail folks, sometime in 2027 you’ll be able to zip along 119 miles of track between Avenue 19 and Poplar Avenue that’s costing $4 billion to build.

Not to be a kill joy for those that like pointing out that somehow high speed rail is going to ultimately be the most cost effective investment to clean our air and make traffic congestion go away, but the modern-day pandemic we’re coping with currently is likely to punch an even bigger hole in ridership if and when trains that get anywhere near 229 miles per hour ever run between San Francisco and Los Angeles let alone San Diego and Sacramento.

It is likely that the steps being taken to flatten the impacts of the coronavirus will significantly accelerate long-term trends that are reshaping our concept of work spaces and where work takes place.

The original premise to justify high speed rail was based on business travel and then recreation travel between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The air corridor is one of the heaviest traveled in the world.

Working from home and telecommuting are a bigger threat to high speed rail’s business model than if airlines were able to sell roundtrip tickets between LA and SF for $19 in perpetuity.

As for recreational travel, the high speed model never made sense.

A family of four going from the Bay Area to the Los Angeles Basin to visit Disneyland would have to pay close to $800 for roundtrip rail tickets. They also would have to get to and from the train station on both ends of their trip. And if they wanted to visit somewhere besides Disneyland they’d have to fork over money to travel for that as well.

If they made the same trip in the family car they would have a constant source of transportation. Assuming they racked up 900 miles — 700 miles roundtrip travel plus another 200 miles driving around LA — they would need 30 gallons of gasoline if their vehicle averaged 30 miles per gallon. If gas cost $4 a gallon, that’s $120. Most people aren’t economists or accountants by trade so they don’t usually factor in a car payment they already are making or wear and tear plus vehicle depreciation into the cost of such a trip. Even so that would not add that much cost savings for the high speed rail trip that is more of an “E” ticket ride of yesteryear that Walt Disney would conjure up than an effective mass transit system.

The bottom line is most families would view taking high speed rail at a $200 per person cost versus $30 if they drove as being excessive.

Granted there are families such a cost wouldn’t faze. But for the massive ridership they need for high speed rail to even recover half of its operation and maintenance costs there will never be enough California households that can afford riding what essentially will be a form of public transportation for those that are better situated financially that is being funded by the masses.

There is little doubt California can use a more robust inter-city rail system. Unfortunately what Californians were sold on hyperbole with promises of private financing ready to pour in that had someone pushing a private endeavor in such a manner would have been facing criminal fraud charges by the Security Exchange Commission will be grossly ineffective at reducing both air pollution and traffic congestion when measured against the $80 billion plus construction price tag. And that doesn’t take into account the subsidies that it is clear will be needed to operate the system if it ever comes on line.

What we need to do is pull the plug not on the heavy rail system per se but the high speed rail model. We need to provide a train system that can get the most people on a daily basis out of their cars. That means rail service designed to move people into job centers from outlying towns and cities.

The bulk of the day-to-day traffic congestion and vehicle pollution is derived from east-west movement in California from the interior that provides affordable housing to the job rich coast that generates jobs that exceed reasonable housing options.

The focus needs to shift to getting from Merced to the Bay Area and Bakersfield to the Los Angeles Basin while picking up and disembarking passengers along the way. Such a plan reflects developing and existing population patterns that are tied in with employment opportunities that grow as you move farther down the line from Merced and Bakersfield.

What we are building instead is a 119-mile line from Merced to Bakersfield — the exact segment if the entire line were in place as first envisioned — that would have the lightest passenger load.

The rail project does not have to cost $80 billion to be effective. For starters they could drop the $20 billion minimum segment from Merced tunneling under the Pacheco Pass and through the San Andreas Fault by sending trains from Merced to San Jose via the Altamont Pass.

They can reduce the design speed by running modern diesel hybrids that are more muscular, faster, and cleaner than their predecessors. That will lower costs yet still deliver travel speeds that would lure commuters out of their cars.

Gov. Gavin Newsom last week made it clear everything needed to be looked at in light of the pandemic given how it will drain the state’s reserves and severely reduce revenue in the coming years. The second look needs to include high speed rail.

Although a case could be made to kill if off and cut losses, it would make more sense to rethink and retool the project to accomplish the objectives Californians were promised in regards to improved air quality and reducing congestion.

The way to do that is by going forward with a system that is somewhat slower, with a few more stops and caters mostly to interior to coast travel.

Tailor the rail project so if it were part of Disneyland you’d find it in Tomorrowland and not in Fantasyland.