If transit routes can be analogized to the networks of nerves that are spread throughout the human body, then one might say transit planning in California has been almost entirely occupied with the peripheral nervous system. But a crucial link has been missing — the spinal cord.
The notion of building a high-speed rail system in California has long been in the works, finally getting off the ground in the 1993 with the formation of the California High-Speed Rail Commission, which carried out initial studies, and then superseded in 1996 by the California High-Speed Rail Authority. The Authority spent the next several years carrying out environmental review and generating a business plan; and although a bond issue was delayed in both 2004 and 2006, finally, this November 4, 2008, Californians will have the opportunity to weigh in on the $9.95 billion high-speed rail bond issue; construction of the roughly $40 billion system will draw also on funding from local and federal sources, as well as from the private sector.
|High-speed rail at San Francisco’s Transbay
Transit Center, courtesy of CHSRA.
Why high-speed rail? In some sense, it’s as easy as checking points off a checklist. California’s population has been predicted to swell to almost 60 million people by the year 2050, and California’s transportation infrastructure must also expand to accommodate the additional volume of trips. The longest trips made across the state are overwhelmingly carried out by car or in the air. Expanding both air capacity and road capacity (with almost new 3000 lane-miles, which essentially amounts to a whole new eight-lane freeway stretching from the Bay Area to Los Angeles) was estimated to cost $82 billion in 2004 dollars, making high-speed rail look like a deal in comparison. But that even assumes that expanding roads and airports will be possible or compelling. Freeway expansion is a very unattractive option that will only further exacerbate traffic congestion, increase fuel dependency, deteriorate air quality, and subsidize sprawl. Airport expansion is also a non-starter. Here in the Bay Area, plans to extend SFO’s runways into San Francisco Bay met extreme resistance from environmentalists; but proposed airport expansion has not really fared much better across the whole state. That basically leaves rail: but California is a very large state, and even with substantial investment in improving Amtrak, conventional rail would not be sufficiently competitive when compared to other travel modes … unless, that is, the trains were to be high-speed. Maximum speeds of 220 mph, and a two-hour and 38-minute trip between San Francisco’s Transbay Transit Center and Los Angeles Union Station should just about do the trick, right? Building high-speed rail also potentially eliminates the problem of future airport capacity; if trips inside California are diverted to high-speed rail, it effectively increases capacity at existing gates for international and out-of-state domestic air trips.
However, the checklist approach severely understates the benefits of high-speed rail, which are many. High-speed rail, far from being uncertain and untested, is a proven and well-established technology. Back in 1964, when the Bay Area was still planning BART, Japan’s Shinkansen debuted service and has since been expanded into a high-speed network over 1,500 miles long; in 1981, the first branch of France’s TGV started service between Lyon and Paris. High-speed rail has been phenomenally successful the world over, generating surpluses and capturing impressive percentages of market share. Here in California, high-speed rail would draw closer together our state’s several major population centers. By linking downtown centers to each other, high-speed rail would provide a level of comfort, access, and connectivity that neither driving nor air travel could ever hope to achieve. The economic and job creation benefits have been exhaustively cited, as have the environmental benefits; the full system, including later phases to Sacramento and San Diego, could capture 88-117 million trips annually by the year 2030, sparing emissions equivalent to removing over one million automobiles from California’s highways each year. The California Air Resources Board has included high-speed rail as part of its scoping plan to bring California in compliance with AB 32’s mandates to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
As we’ve remarked before, HSR’s opponents have taken all forms. Some have remarked that such a large bond issue would amount to supreme fiscal irresponsibility in light of the state budget crisis, a criticism that overlooks the fact that bonds are the natural way to finance such a large infrastructure project, and HSR will only get more expensive the longer we wait. It’s hard to garner much sympathy for the NIMBY outfit headquartered in Menlo Park and Atherton, but the project’s current form continues to be opposed by a few local transit advocate and environmentalist groups who nonetheless have long supported high-speed rail in principle; to be sure, that set is far smaller than before. Most of the formerly reluctant ones have come around since the passage of AB 3034 has promised, among other things: $950 million that could be applied to upgrade service on the Altamont corridor, independent review of CHSRA, and no Los Banos station. We should greatly appreciate the work that these groups have done to date, both in terms of pushing for centrally located downtown stations and for their Altamont advocacy, despite the Authority’s firmly implanted favor of the Pacheco alignment. But I disagree that stalling any further is the right solution. At some point, we have to look beyond Altamont, Pacheco, or Palmdale: no project will ever be perfect, and in the case of high-speed rail, tremendous benefits may be gained notwithstanding the imperfections. HSR will not get any cheaper as we continue to delay, and even if high-speed trains seem like a luxury item at the moment, they will be an outright necessity sooner than we might think.
|Downtown Sacramento, with new TOD:
the high-speed rail station would be built as
a future phase; image courtesy CHSRA.
The convergence of so many factors suggest that now is the right time to build California High-Speed Rail. Gas prices have declined since their summer high — for now — but transit ridership remains high, perhaps due to recession-induced frugality. The very recent passage of AB 32-supportive climate change legislation also resonates so well with high-speed rail. We’ve discussed SB 375 and AB 1358 here in the past, and how those new laws would serve our ultimate goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But the ultimate success of that legislation is premised on the existence of effective, high-quality transit, which does not exist in most places across California — but a high-speed rail station (and the downtown transit-oriented development such a station would attract) could spur greater investment in new or enhanced transit to feed into the station. High-speed rail is the unifying thread that underlies California’s recent climate change legislation, and which would allow the goals of that legislation it to be convincingly realized. We can imagine a day many years in the future, but still within our lifetime, when we could descend from the rooftop park of the new San Francisco Transbay Transit Center into the subway station, board a high-speed train, and emerge two hours later in the downtown core of one of California’s major population centers served by HSR. Upon exiting that HSR station, we would be greeted by a panoply of local transit options; a complete streetscape enhanced to give prime accessibility to the station; and, perhaps best of all, a vibrant street life complemented by densely packed homes and jobs within a short walk of the station. Could this really be possible anywhere in California, even in places like Bakersfield, Fresno, Anaheim, or Irvine? In order to effect statewide change, we need to make statewide investment — and high-speed rail, by giving California its long-missed “spinal cord,” could well prove to be a most effective method of triggering a statewide movement toward smart land use and increased investment in local transit.
Who can say exactly how long it would take to get to that point? But it’s such a lovely vision that California cannot afford to give up on it before it has even truly begun. Which is why I ask any and all Californians who happen to read this post before November 4, 2008, to join me in voting “Yes” on Proposition 1A.