By Margaret Okuzumi
Before he came around to supporting it, Governor Gray Davis once called high-speed rail the "Buck Rogers train" -- a characterization that now seems as dated as Buck Rogers himself, as numerous so-called developing countries progress in building their own High Speed Rail (HSR) systems and as other countries celebrate decades of enjoying its benefits. Rather than a sci-fi fantasy, high-speed rail is looking like a necessity for California. It is indeed an ambitious project -- it would be the largest public works project in the history of California -- but the infrastructure problems that California faces need bold solutions. A future without HSR looks untenable in terms of additional pollution, gridlock, environmental destruction and cost to California.
BayRail Alliance, a non-profit organization dedicated to the improvement of passenger rail infrastructure in the San Francisco Bay Area, urges support for the $103 million requested by the California High Speed Rail Authority in the 2007-2008 budget. These funds will enable the authority to complete a detailed environmental review of the high-speed train proposal, continue engineering, and begin to preserve key rights-of-way necessary for the project. It will build upon the approximately $47 million invested to date in environmental and design work, keeping this public infrastructure project "on track". High-speed rail is critically important to our state for the many reasons that we outline below.
Significant Greenhouse Gas Reductions
High-speed rail will help California reduce a substantial portion of its transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions. Governor Schwarzenegger's Executive Order S-3-05 established a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. This is an ambitious goal that our state would like to attain, compared to the 2020 goal of reducing emissions to 1990 levels, yet our state does not yet have a plan to meet this target.
The Transportation and Land Use Coalition, a non-profit organization in Oakland, has calculated that building high-speed rail would keep 8.7 – 11.9 million metric tons of greenhouse gases out of our atmosphere in 2030 (the higher numbers assume that air and automobile travel costs have increased), over what would be emitted if highways and airports were expanded instead. Additional savings would be possible if smart land use policies were in place.
By comparison, the Governor's Climate Change Action Team has outlined a goal of removing 9 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent through transportation energy efficiency, and 18 million metric tons through "smart land use and use of intelligent transportation technology" by 2020 to meet AB 32 goals. High-speed rail would help us meet a large fraction of our greenhouse gas reduction targets, and does so while improving mobility.
Climate change has severe consequences for California. An increase in summer droughts and winter floods, heat-related deaths, impacts to our $30 billion agriculture industry, rising sea levels, are a few of major impacts that have been assessed by California Energy Commission's California Climate Change Center — and any of these impacts would extract a high price from California.
It would not be consistent with the Governor's support of greenhouse gas reductions to halt development of the high-speed rail project this year by giving the CHSRA only $1.2 million instead of the requested $103 million. This would prevent the completion of the environmental review in a timely or useful fashion, wasting money in the work done to date, and would substantially cripple private-sector enthusiasm and momentum for the project.
Alternatives Are More Costly and Infeasible
While high-speed rail would be the largest public works project in the history of California, and thereby presents a cost that seems daunting, it's cheap compared to the alternatives. In lieu of high-speed rail, the state would need a combination of more than 2,900 new lane-mi (4,667 km) of highway, 6 new runways, and 68 new airport gates to meet the projected travel demand. Altogether the various piecemeal costs of building these highway and airport expansions amount to at least twice as much the cost of building high-speed rail. To this we can add the costs that result from increasing our greenhouse gas emissions and from worsening our health and air quality.
Large expansions to airport capacity are not even a viable option in some cases. For example, Los Angeles planned to spend $11 Billion to expand LAX. This plan was dropped in part because of environmental concerns and neighborhood resistance. Los Angeles has agreed to a settlement that requires LAX to reduce capacity and cap its annual usage. Orange County also turned down the opportunity to move its airport from the cramped current location to the much larger former El Toro air base.
Forty-four percent of CA inter-city trips involve either a Central Valley origin or destination, or both; yet Stockton has only a single airline, which serves only a single destination -- Las Vegas. The closest airport to Stockton with California service is Modesto, 45 minutes away, which only has one carrier - United - serving only LAX and SFO. That Modesto - SFO flight costs $279. High-speed rail would provide more convenient and less expensive travel options to Central Valley residents to access many popular destinations within California -- access that airlines cannot or have been unwilling to provide -- for a marginal cost in addition to connecting the major urban centers of the Bay Area, Los Angeles and San Diego.
High-speed rail is a very reliable and also very comfortable and pleasant way to travel. Unlike automobile and airplanes, high-speed rail trains run on time, regardless of fog or rain. In Japan, a high-speed train's average deviation from schedule is less than 20 seconds. Overall journey times are frequently reduced compared to flying, because train stations can be located in downtowns with easy connecting transit and closer to most travelers' starting and final destinations -- as opposed to airports which are typically located on the periphery of cities sometimes many minutes from downtown. And high-speed rail is an accessible form of transport even to those who have difficulty driving or flying due to medical reasons.
If nothing is done to meet our future mobility needs, California will lose a tremendous amount of productivity to gridlock, suffer damage to our economy, experience untold frustration and reduced quality of life. High-speed rail provides a pleasant and cost-effective alternative to that scenario.
Not only is high-speed rail necessary for the future mobility of the state, it's also an important economic development project. As defined by the program-level EIR, an estimated 450,000 jobs would be created through its construction.
In conjunction with smart land use policies, high-speed rail would help preserve farmland and reduce sprawl.
High-speed rail would save money for California by reducing traffic deaths and injuries from people who would otherwise drive or fly. High-speed rail has an impressive safety record. There have been no passenger fatalities as a result of a crash or derailment in the last several decades in France and Japan, and one crash involving an ICE train in Germany in 1998, due to a "freak accident" that killed 95 people. Since that time, technology has been developed to scan the tracks far ahead of the train, and operation is automated using computers to be able to stop a train far ahead of what an operator's reflexes would otherwise permit. High-speed rail is a very safe means of transport and building it will save lives.
Regional trains can also share tracks with high-speed rail trains, as is common elsewhere in the world. This would further enhance mobility and goods movement in already congested areas of California. Many of our passenger rail lines struggle with reliability issues from having to share congested tracks belonging to private freight companies which are struggling to meet the increasing demand for freight transport. High-speed rail is important to these communities as an investment that can be leveraged to improve the speed and reliability of local and regional service.
High-speed rail, based on a business model more akin to airlines than traditional public transit, is a money-maker that attracts private investment. However, that private investment will only materialize if a substantial amount of the risk is removed by completion of environmental studies and commitment from the public sector. Companies are leery of investing substantial sums in high-speed rail, if they are at risk of having the plug pulled on the project by the state government, as happened in Florida under Jeb Bush. California must demonstrate a high level of commitment to high-speed rail to make it a reality.
High-speed rail has proven technology and a strong track record. It's long been a reality in other countries. Japan celebrated 40 years of high-speed rail in 2004. Their first high-speed rail trains are now in museums. Profits generated by their high-speed rail system have been used to subsidize local commuter lines.
It's time for California to catch up with countries like Taiwan, Turkey, Argentina, and Mexico, which have recently built or are in the process of constructing high-speed rail lines.
Margaret Okuzumi is the executive director of BayRail Alliance, a non-profit organization dedicated to the improvement of passenger rail infrastructure in the San Francisco Bay Area. A committed environmentalist, she is a leader for the local Sierra Club and teaches cycling road skills classes as a certified instructor for the League of American Bicyclists. Ms. Okuzumi also serves on the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority Citizens Advisory Committee and is currently chair of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission Advisory Council. She is a member of the Silicon Valley Dean Democratic Club and is a state delegate from the 22nd AD.
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