Why California Needs High Speed Rail

There comes a time when negative criticism, NIMBYism, the Tea Party and American Politics have just gone too far. Here’s my two cents in favor of California High Speed Rail.

California High Speed Rail has been in the news recently. Despite the $10 billion approved by Measure 1A in 2008, commentators from all over the country have been deriding the project – most often for reasons under the blanket phrase of “boondoggle”. I would like to momentarily take my hat off as a sustainable transportation advocate and put back on the hat of a traditional transportation engineer. Even if you disagree with my means, it is for a worthy end.

California High Speed Rail is the single iconic project currently under design in the United States. Not since Lindon B. Johnson’s Urban Mass Transit Administration (now FTA) funded the newer wave of American Metro systems has there been such a great opportunity to change the way people get around in this country. Obama’s timid approach to infrastructure has frustrated centrists in both political parties, and what at one point looked like a serious commitment to fund new passenger rail development (in the form of $8 billion a year from the FRA), has become a political squabble over what constitutes an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars.

Let me make this clear:

1. The ridership projections for California High Speed Rail are highly inflated.

2. This does not matter.

Call it what you want, but transportation infrastructure is not designed to meet present need and never was designed with this in mind. Did Interstate 40 between Barstow and Arizona get build to fulfill the massive demand for travel between these two markets? Assuredly not. Rather, transportation infrastructure is designed to provide the maximum benefit over its lifetime. Think back – wouldn’t today’s Tea Party pundits lambast plans to build a grid of streets, arterials and freeways in Los Angeles? Absolutely. But was Figuroa Street really traveled by hundreds of thousands of motorists, transit riders, cyclist and pedestrians in 1920? No. It was a boondoggle. It was a bet that the future of Los Angeles and California will be better than the past – that money you invest today will bear fruit for decades to come. Instead of taking the easy way out, California has opted to take what past generations invested in the future, and build upon it. Reneging on this promise and laying California High Speed Rail to rest with ideas like BART to Marin County, SCRTD’s Rapid Transit System and even the original route of the Metro Red Line to Westwood.

A word about cost – CAHSR will be expensive. Probably 40-50 billion dollars. CAHSR will likely not turn a profit. The California High Speed Rail Authority will likely be folded into Caltrans to overcome its odd position in the State government. Still, nothing comes cheap. California’s other major, ground-breaking investment in the last fifty years was the three-tier higher education system. Although politics has muddled its effectiveness, California (debatably) has the two best public universities in the country, an economy bigger than Italy, Russia and Canada, and a dynamic electorate willing to invest in the future of our great state. Think of California High Speed Rail as not an endeavor for profit or loss. Last I checked, government exists in order to promote access to public goods that would be neither beneficial nor profitable for the private sector to provide. Transportation is a public good – High Speed Rail will improve mobility for everyone in the state, and may start breaking the intense reliance on automobiles that has overshadowed California since the 1950’s. Plus, even on measures of profitability, CAHSR will outstrip the pitiful performance of the Highway Trust Fund. Tea Partiers and even mainstream Republicans denounce any funding on transit, rail or non-motorized transportation as wasteful, yet continue to pour money into State Departments of Transportation – most of which are focused on moving cars, not people. With no raise in the gas tax in sight, highway spending will have to come down eventually, or risk finally exposing many of these politicians for the hypocrites they are. All forms of transportation are subsidized in this country. Our economy is based upon the promise of affordable transportation, and a culture focused on consumption rather than investment.  Although the politics are still shaky, California High Speed Rail is a brilliant project that will cement California as a forward looking state, willing to invest in our own future.

The future is now – what do you think?



About Karl Tingwald

Civil engineering student at the University of Southern California with a severe transportation compulsion.

Posted on October 4, 2011, in High Speed Rail, Los Angeles, Policy and Politics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. The focus is misplaced. That $40-$50 billion should go to building and expanding urban and commuter mass transit in California’s large and small cities alike. That’s the stuff we need every day not sometimes as in when we need to travel to San Francisco, Oakland or Fresno. See my recent piece: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joel-epstein/californias-highspeed-rai_b_957386.html

  2. I agree with Joel. Real mass transit misses the mark in most of our urban cores. BART is fixated on encouraging sprawl in exurbia; MUNI is hellbent on investing in boondoggle projects that go nowhere. Meanwhile, the Bay Area needs a new transbay tube in the next decade. SF needs a heavy rail subway investment on Geary (and Van Ness, and 19th Ave and other places). Yet, commercial and residential projects are being constructed that incorporate tons of parking, necessary in most cases because local public transit options are crap (why spend 100 minutes riding two busses when you can get there by car in 15 minutes).

    When I lived in DC I would take Metro to Union Station, jump on the train to NY Penn Station and then use the subway or commuter rail to get to my destination. We don’t have those vibrant local transit systems in place in CA, at least not to the extent that gets the majority of people off the roads for the entirety of their trip.

  1. Pingback: Streetsblog Los Angeles » Today’s Headlines

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