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High Speed Rail Remains Worthy of Support

While High Speed Rail planning has shifted from the Peninsula to the San Joaquin Valley, it stands as an essential element in the context of 2030 California.


After the California High Speed Rail Authority released its updated business plan, the new $98.1 billion cost estimate induced criticism and threw the future of the project into question.

While the price tag is large, the high speed rail project is an unprecedented opportunity to shape the next generation of California's growth by incentivizing compact development and preserving open space. 

Over the next 25 years, the Department of Finance projects California's population will increase from 38 million to nearly 50 million. The majority of this growth will occur in the San Joaquin Valley and should these municipalities adopt a "business as usual" approach to growth, over 750,000 acres of farmland will be consumed by sprawl, driving will increase and the Valley's notoriously bad air quality will further degrade. 

High speed rail is not a panacea for preserving open space and reducing emissions. However, transportation investments are a key element in shaping development; just as freeways enable development on the urban fringe, high speed rail’s centralized stations can catalyze growth in existing urban cores.

San Joaquin Valley cities and regional planning organizations have already committed to more compact development plans, but implementation of planned transit projects coupled with high speed rail will make this vision possible.  

Ironically, critics of high speed rail defined the project as a threat to farmland and existing communities. While the project will require pieces of existing farmland, the project’s ability to centralize development and ultimately preserve farmland outweighs the initial impacts. Within Valley cities, the project will acquire property, but train is less invasive relative to freeway projects like this one in Bakersfield that will erase neighborhoods with monolithic interchanges (PDF). 

As one of the largest public works projects ever conceived, the cost will be high and the network will not appear overnight. However, the $6 billion available for the initial construction segment in the San Joaquin Valley is an excellent place to start as it will secure right of way and provide these communities with a sustainable framework for growth. 

randy albin December 20, 2011 at 09:11 PM
what about the high-speed rail between monterey and san francisco? people need to live in the central valley to survive and commute
Jarrett Mullen December 20, 2011 at 10:39 PM
Randy, thanks for the comment. The high speed rail line is planned to travel through Gilroy before darting across Pacheco Pass into the San Joaquin Valley. There will be connections there to a planned Monterrey rail or express bus service.
AR December 22, 2011 at 04:55 AM
the ridiculous boondoggle needs to be put back to a ballot. california voters didn't authorize a blank check. even the revised budget plans for this project underestimate the final cost. if we use the bay bridge retrofit as a guide, we should expect five to seven times the initial estimate, which tells me $200 billion and UP. and for what? a faster way to get to visalia? traffic congestion exists WITHIN metroplitan areas, not BETWEEN. this doesn't get anyone out of their cars. air travel will always be cheaper and faster, and airports already have urban centers around them. we'll still have to spend hundreds of billions to update highways and airports, since no one expects people to stop driving or flying. nothing about this project survives even moderate scrutiny, and the advocates for the project have resorted to abstractions to keep people from understanding how we will have to gut state education and healthcare dollars to allocated funds to this project. toy trains or UC for your kids, you decide. we don't have money for both.
Jarrett Mullen December 27, 2011 at 09:30 PM
AR, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I don't think it's fair to compare the HSR project with the Bay Bridge Replacement project. The Bay Bridge cost escalations appear excessively steep since the final design is contrasted with the cheap concrete "causeway" design that never had a chance of being built. Additionally, the self-anchored suspension proposal that was ultimately chosen is an unorthodox design that required additional engineering and raw materials than a traditional suspension design. Finally, the main construction of the span occurred during an economic boom when concrete and steel were scarce and expensive. The HSR project uses established methodologies for tunnels, bridges, and track that are proven around the world on other HSR lines. Since demand for raw materials is low and contractors are desperate for work, now is the time to begin construction to minimize costs. The demand exists now and in the future for HSR travel in California. Amtrak California currently serves 5 million trips/year despite delays, slow trains, and incomplete connections. Given the volatile prices of fuel, I think it's presumptuous to assume air travel will stay cheap forever. Airlines dislike flying trips less than 500 miles and prefer more lucrative long distance flights. As for cost, it's not like this project won't have external benefits. Using other systems as a guide, it will attract economic development to the state which helps pay for state services.
Irvin Dawid December 28, 2011 at 02:47 AM
It's nice (a rarity) to read an upbeat column on HSR from the Peninsula. For reasons I don't truly understand, HSR seems to arouse fear and contempt in so many Peninsulans (?). Regardless of what one thinks of HSR, I would hope most residents want to see an upgraded Caltrain - at least one that doesn't spew diesel smoke....
David January 16, 2012 at 02:26 AM
The numbers justifying this project are no more reliable than the estimated cost numbers. As the home of The Big Four, California has a long history of being raped by the railroad industry, and more recently by labor unions as well. The real result of the high speed rail project will be to make the politically connected builders rich, some of whom will be dead and gone before the first high speed train leaves the station. This project should be canceled.
Irvin Dawid January 16, 2012 at 06:14 PM
The issue is whether to release $2.7 billion in voter-approved bond funds to lay 130 miles of Central Valley track. Risk: it could be the last track laid. Meanwhile, just heard we may be voting on $11 billion flood/levee bond if leg' agrees. Now the former $2.7 billion is the first part of the $9.75 billion bond, 2008. The financial risk to the state is paying the debt financing. The financial gain is that sum would enable the state to utilize $3.4 billion in fed funds - a far greater per centage than would/will be tapped with the flood control bonds. It is my opinion that the opposition to HSR may be more about opposing rail investment than anything else - sadly, I'm not sure the 'will' is there to build this train.

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