Why California should see its high-speed rail project through

Broken ground. Image: Getty.

In California, there is now a serious proposal afloat to divert dedicated high-speed rail money from the construction effort predominantly taking place in the San Joaquin Valley, located in the state’s centre. It would go instead to what are known as “bookends” projects in the San Francisco Bay Area along the peninsula between San Francisco and San Jose (if not beyond) on Caltrain, and on Metrolink in the southern part of the state between Anaheim and Burbank. Caltrain and Metrolink are heavy rail, commuter-train operations.

If this proposal gains traction and funds are actually diverted – billions, I hear – the commuter-rail services in question will reap substantial improvement benefits. But what the state’s mid-section will be left with, I suspect is a 119-mile-long rail corridor connecting small rural villages (Madera and Shafter in this case) with the one large city in between (Fresno), and one built to high-speed rail standards but bereft of high-speed-rail trains. In lieu of actual and true high-speed rail, America’s national passenger rail service provider, Amtrak, is the entity most likely to use this section of track. And the trains will most probably be diesel-powered to boot.

Should this become the reality, I believe California high-speed rail can forever be kissed goodbye. The motivation and urgency for seeing the entire project through will, in all likelihood, fall by the wayside.

There are myriad reasons why mid-state bullet train construction should continue.

Firstly, Golden State voters apparently thought what was coming down the pike was a network of high-speed tracks linking Los Angeles/Anaheim and San Francisco (520 mile Phase 1), with separate extensions to San Diego and Sacramento (280 mile Phase 2) to follow, covering a distance of 800 miles in all. It is a grand plan to say the least.

No secret, meanwhile, is that the high-speed-rail program has faced staunch opposition. It’s been hamstrung by mismanagement and cost overruns. It’s been litigated against. All these factors are partly responsible for construction delays; all have slowed building progress.

California high-speed rail building in the Valley commenced 16 June 2015 on the Fresno River viaduct in Madera County; the formal ground-breaking took place on 6 January 2015 in Fresno. In the latest plan, high-speed rail is being constructed between Madera and Shafter, covering a distance of 119 miles, with the expectation that ultimately 171 miles of track in Bakersfield (in the south Valley) and Merced (in the north Valley) will be completed. The intent here is to provide electrified high-speed train service to those city-pairs no later than 2028.

The proposal in question seeks to redirect between $5bn and $6bn to the bookends sections, leaving a total $20.4bn, of which $14.4bn to $15.4bn will be expressly for high-speed rail construction work in the valley. Arguably, constituents should be provided with what initially they thought they would be getting. At this late date, to do – or settle for – anything less than the full allocation just isn’t right.

Moreover, with Bakersfield-to-Merced a key part of the initial California bullet-train operating segment – a so-called high-speed rail “starter” line if you like – will come five key stations: Bakersfield, Kings/Tulare, Fresno, Madera and Merced. The last of these could serve University of California students, faculty and staff there well.

These new stations provide an incredible opportunity for location-efficient, medium- to high-density, mixed-use, transit-oriented development to sprout, providing tremendous potential for increased bullet-train ridership. This will in no way be a “train to nowhere” as some have suggested.

Case in point: at Merced, there are plans for a new multimodal “union” station, served not only by high-speed trains but Altamont Corridor Express trains too. High-speed train riders and others will be provided with the means to travel to San Francisco Bay Area destinations, most notably San Jose, via the ACE connection.

For the uninitiated, via bullet-train construction work, dollars by the billions have been injected into the state economy.

And, let’s not forget the quality of San Joaquin Valley air. The region, year after year, sees some of the worst air pollution in the country. The Valley has consistently topped the American Lung Association’s most air-polluted list. In response, not only is the project being built using the most environmentally-friendly equipment and methods going, but electric trains running on nothing but renewable energy – solar and wind power, for example – will do much to reduce fine particulate matter and ozone and other pollutant emissions in air further, as well as to contribute to the state meeting its greenhouse gas emissions-reduction goals. Where else do you find that?

With increased numbers of train riders, drivers on paralleling motorways will feel the impact – there will be less motor vehicle traffic. To some degree there will be less need to build additional runways and gates at airports in state, even as its population grows an estimated 25 per cent from 40 million today to an estimated 50 million by mid-century.

Once in full swing, the train will be a momentum generator for driving further bullet-train development along with patronage numbers both in the north and south state – make no mistake.

There is that now-popular expression coming immediately to mind: “Build it and they will come.”

Alan Kandel is the author of the ebook, “The Departure Track: Railways of Tomorrow”. You can buy a copy here.

 
 
 
 

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CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

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