Last week, America’s future in high-speed rail took a modest step forward. On Thursday, California’s State Assembly approved by a 51 to 27 margin the release of $2.5 billion in state bonds for the construction of a 130-mile segment of 220-mph tracks through the Central Valley and the implementation of $2 billion in commuter rail improvements in the Bay Area and Los Angeles regions.
On Friday, by a vote of 21 to 16, the State Senate expressed its agreement.* If all goes as planned, the project could be under construction by the beginning of next year. Tracks between the cities Madera and Bakersfield could be ready for use by 2017, the first step toward what could be an eventual 2-hour, 40-minute journey time for trains traveling from downtown San Francisco to Los Angeles.
The passage of the bill, which also frees up $3.2 billion in federal funds allocated for the project, is a major success not only for Gov. Jerry Brown and California’s Democratic Party (no Republicans in either chamber voted in favor of the program), but also for President Obama and his Department of Transportation, which have championed high-speed rail as an essential element of America’s future transportation system. Moreover, it is a victory for those who argue that, despite the challenges and the compromises, in order to advance societal change on a grand scale, major investments in projects such as this are necessary.
The line section that will be built first has not been without controversy. Choosing to begin construction in the Central Valley, away from the population centers of the Bay Area and L.A. Basin, has induced the expected calls of a “railway to nowhere.” Yet the route selected in fact serves an area with a population of 3 million people and offers the crucial link between the two large metropolitan areas to the north and south. It is the only section of the system where sustained speeds of 220 mph can be offered by trains cruising down the straight-aways through farmlands.
And it can be done at the moderate cost of about $44 million per mile, in a similar range as projects such as France’s LGV Sud-Europe Atlantique, now under construction (211 miles at a cost of €6.2 billion, or $7.6 billion, so about $36 million per mile).
If the only goal of the project were to connect L.A. and San Francisco as quickly as possible, the project could have been built to run around Interstate-5, which charts a slightly straighter route through the Central Valley — not doing so, the Los Angeles Times told us today, could be a major flaw in the project.** But that alignment would skip over the Central Valley’s cities, depriving them of the direct access to California’s biggest regions. Because they currently do not have good airline service, they stand to be some of the places that benefit most from the project.
More importantly, though, California’s rail project is a statewide program about more than people from the coast. Without support from some residents and politicians in the Central Valley, the program could not have been passed either in 2008 or last week. Avoiding Fresno may have made building any high-speed rail impossible.
This raises a larger question. The high-speed rail project is quite expensive and it is not perfect. Its creation and development have been the result of compromise and negotiation between political leaders whose interests do not necessarily coincide with the ideal investment. But we live in a democracy where our elected officials, not engineers, make final decisions about projects such as this. Does an imperfect project deserve to be abandoned? I think not. It should be criticized and improved, but its weak points should not be Achilles’ heels.
Map of the initial plans for service along the California High-Speed Rail route, showing the Madera-Bakersfield segment. Credit: California High-Speed Rail Authority
What is so exciting about California’s project is the initiative the state and its municipalities have taken in the advancement of a program that could — if the public so desires — alter permanently the geography of America’s most populous state. By passing the $9.5 billion referendum in 2008, state voters indicated that they were willing to put a very substantial chunk of their own money, not just federal funds, on the line for an investment that will truly offer an alternative to automobile and aviation travel in this state. San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles and San Diego are each in the process of significantly expanding their local rapid transit systems in a manner that will make them compatible with local high-speed rail stations. And the state has made a priority the development of a land use strategy that encourages denser construction around stops.
In other words, despite years of opposition from conservative groups concerned about spending of California’s “readiness” for high-speed rail, the state has advanced with an entrepreneurial spirit the project and accompanying changes. No other state has made nearly as serious an effort to consider its future infrastructure needs and integrate them into a unified planning policy.
Even if the initial construction segment is put under construction as planned — that may be difficult considering the regulatory approvals and barrage of lawsuits standing in its way — there are enormous obstacles to actually implementing the planned connection between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the most significant example of which is the lack of adequate fiscal resources. The California High-Speed Rail Authority’s 2012 business plan expects that it will cost $31 billion to connect Bakersfield to the San Fernando Valley, meaning that about $18 billion in funding is still necessary even for this first step, taking into account the roughly $8 billion released last week and the additional $5 billion for fast trains included in the 2008 referendum. For a one-seat ride between San Francisco and L.A., $51 billion will be necessary; for service between the cities, $68 billion is required (this is in year-of-expenditure dollars; this is equivalent to $53 billion in today’s money).
While that figure might be acceptable from the perspective of overall public investment in infrastructure, where will that money be found? The U.S. transportation reauthorization bill passed last week provides no additional funding for high-speed rail. Republicans have demonstrated against intercity rail and rejected several projects despite federal support. In his campaign platform, Mitt Romney cites “privatizing Amtrak” as a top way to save the government money. The outcome of the 2012 elections will determine whether California will be able to move ahead as expected, or whether it will have to put off plans by two years or more.
The reality is that the prospects for the project’s completion in the next decade and a half, as currently planned, are limited. There is simply inadequate determination in the U.S. political sphere to make a project of this magnitude anywhere close to easy to execute. That does not mean that the project will not be built, but that making it happen will require years of negotiations, compromise and expansion of popular support. We could be at the start of something very exciting, but there is a lot of work still left to be done.
A final note: To those who would suggest that the funds would be better used in the Northeast Corridor (an often-cited example of a “more reasonable” place for high-speed rail), there are two limitations that make such a project less than ideal. For one, the Northeast Corridor runs through eight states and the District of Columbia, leading to conflicting priorities and differences in opinion about the right investments to make. While Connecticut might want to spend its share of funding on improving train travel between New Haven and Hartford, Massachusetts might be interested in improving the main line along Connecticut’s shore to allow fast trains between New York and Boston. How can those problems be resolved with so many conflicting claims to power?
Moreover, whereas California’s citizenry has voted in favor of spending $10 billion of the state’s money on the high-speed rail projects, Northeast Corridor states have proposed nothing of the sort, and their residents have not had the chance to endorse anything similar. It would be unjust for the federal government to orient funding toward a section of the country with so little local commitment to a project, whatever the need.
Two, the high cost of California’s high-speed project has of course caused significant controversy, but the financial requirements of a true high-speed line for the Northeast would be far higher. The Boston-Washington corridor is simply much more developed than California’s Central Valley and thus there is less space to install track capable of 220 mph; the only way to do so is to invest in very expensive tunnels or land takings. Thus it is no surprise that Amtrak’s latest vision for high-speed rail service in the Northeast, released on Monday, would cost $151 billion to construct by 2040. If the West Coast project seems expensive, Amtrak’s seems extravagant.
* By a close, one-vote margin. The measure required a two-thirds majority to be approved.
** The article claims that French rail company SNCF recommended a route along I-5. Yet SNCF’s 2009 proposals for U.S. high-speed rail, which The Transport Politic broke, say “SNCF endorses the alignment proposed by the CHSRA project linking San Francisco Transbay Terminal to downtown Anaheim, passing through Los Angeles Union Station, Palmdale, Bakersfield, Fresno, Gilroy, and San Jose Diridon.” In other words, the company explicitly endorsed the alignment through the Central Valley cities, not along I-5.