Blog A Green Light For California High Speed Rail Plan

California won voter approval this week to attempt development of an approximately $44 billion intercity high speed rail system, connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles with later extensions to Sacramento, San Diego, and Riverside County, east of L.A. (Artist’s rendering below). Top speed is billed as 220 miles per hour.
The San Francisco Chronicle reports
that in addition to the $10 billion in government-backed bonds okayed by voters, the California High Speed Rail Authority will shoot for another $10 billion in federal aid and billions more from private investors. Other private partners might join in, to help the state manage construction, and operate the system.

It’s the beginning of a big headache,” joked Mehdi Morshed, director of the authority. “But it’s the good kind. We’re looking forward to it.”

Travel times between L.A. and the Bay Area, it’s claimed, would be a mere two-and-a half hours, versus the current 11- to 12-hour trip on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight run. If California manages to pull this off successfully, the upside is huge: convenient, speedy travel between major metropolitan regions without the hassles of highway traffic or air travel, while cutting increases in greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles.
But possible pitfalls include land acquisition, environmental obstacles, cost overruns, construction delays, and failure to achieve ridership and travel time projections. The San Jose Mercury News reports:

James Moore, a professor and director of the transportation engineering program at the University of Southern California….said he believes the project’s backers have overstated ridership projections and the trains’ maximum speed in urban areas, while underestimating the costs of acquiring right-of-way, building the system and operating the trains. Still, many of the state’s top political leaders endorsed the bond issue, along with business and construction interests, including the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. The rail network would be a boon for Silicon Valley because it would bring lower-priced housing in Central Valley communities within a comfortable commuting range of less than an hour’s ride to the Bay Area, (High Speed Rail Authority board member Rod) Diridon said. He added: “That makes it so much easier to recruit top talent.”
Backers have claimed the project will create 160,000 construction jobs and eventually 450,000 jobs in other industries that benefit from the transit network. Diridon, a driving force behind creation of Santa Clara County’s light-rail system, said construction contracts could go out to bid by 2011 and an initial north-south line could be in operation by 2020.

It all pencils out economically, compared to road and air travel alternatives, claims the rail authority.

To serve the same number of travelers as the high-speed train system, California would have to build nearly 3,000 lane-miles of freeway plus five airport runways and 90 departure gates by 2020 — costing more than twice the high-speed train system and having much greater environmental impacts. What’s more, the proposed high-speed train system will provide lower passenger costs than for travel by automobile or air for the same city-to-city markets.

It’s looking like an opportune time for ramping up inter-city rail in the U.S. President-elect Barack Obama wants to see more high speed inter-city passenger rail, as do many key members of the U.S. House and Senate. The surface transportation reauthorization bill in 2009 and the push for a national transportation stimulus spending package will provide a vehicle for additional passenger rail system development. Already, by a veto-proof majority Congress last month passed a $13.1 billion passenger rail funding bill including $3.4 billion for high speed rail corridors and state passenger rail improvement projects.
In the Cascadia region, the Amtrak Cascades service from Eugene, Oregon through Portland to Seattle would benefit greatly from construction of a third rail between Portland and Seattle, allowing separation of freight from passenger rail. Upgrades to or replacement of at-grade rail-road crossings are also key, and combined with a third rail for freight could allow the Portland-Seattle Spanish-made Talgo passenger train to travel closer to its top speed of 110 mph. It now doesn’t usually exceed 70 mph and averages less than that. When running on time, the Portland-Seattle run currently clocks in at three-and-a-half hours, longer – in most instances – than driving. Shaving six minutes off the trip with a routing change through Tacoma is a start, but more work remains.
With major population growth projected for metro Portland and Seattle, and a new $4 billion bridge to be built across the Columbia River between Portland and Washington state, it would be smart to boost non-vehicular travel alternatives in the I-5 corridor with an investment in speedier Seattle-Portland passenger and freight rail. The cost for necessary improvements would likely run into the low billions, but yield a great net benefit in eased delays, saved vehicle emissions and improved freight mobility. Our ability to meet similar challenges across the nation with improved rail mobility will help drive U.S. mastery of the global economy. We snooze, we lose.
California’s ambitious high speed rail project bears close watching. Now that the enabling ballot measure has passed, skeptics should be trying to add value with suggestions on cost control and optimizing performance. However this grand initiative fares, growth in the West Coast Corridor from Baja to B.C. is only going to intensify in decades to come. From one end of the corridor to the other, the time to solidify plans for better, faster inter-city passenger and freight rail is now.