California High Speed Rail: A Road to Nowhere?

 

While lawmakers and politicians in Washington continue to argue over job creation, legislators in California looked toward an old form of transportation for a fresh solution to the state’s economic woes: trains. Proposition 1A, also known as “The Safe, Reliable High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act for the 21st Century,” which narrowly passed by 600,000 votes in November of 2008, provides 9.96 billion dollars in bonds to create a high speed rail system connecting cities including San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego.

California boasts three of the five most congested cities in the United States and ranks as the world’s twelfth largest greenhouse gas polluter. The projected trains will reduce traffic and pollution while traveling at speeds of up to 220 miles per hour. When completed, a trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco will take only two and a half hours. By 2030 experts believe the trains will carry 100 million passengers, create 600,000 construction jobs with an additional 450,000 permanent jobs in the state, cut 12 billion pounds of greenhouse gas emissions each year, and reduce oil consumption by 12.7 million barrels annually. Countries like France, Japan, and China have reaped huge economic benefits from operating high-speed trains, so why are so many Californians up in arms over the project? Opponents have stated that the current economic climate is unsuitable for beginning expensive new projects.

When passed, the total cost of building and implementing the rail system was estimated at 43 billion dollars, but recently the CHSRA (California High Speed Rail Authority) projected that the costs will be closer to 68 billion dollars. Furthermore, critics point out that many billions of dollars will be spent on the first stretch of the rail project which connects the sparsely populated Central Valley and the San Fernando Valley. As a result, they have deemed the project “the train to nowhere.”

But by examining the price in isolation, critics fail to consider reality. California is projected to reach 50 million people by 2030, placing huge burdens on current airports and freeways. To accommodate the same number of riders that the high-speed rail will serve, California would need to build 3,000 miles of new freeways, five additional airport runways, and 90 departure gates alone in the next 20 years. This estimate does not factor in the environmental costs of increased air and car travel, nor does it consider the safety benefits of decreasing traffic congestion. Last year alone, California experienced 40,000 reported car accidents and 2,715 accident related fatalities.

In France, TGVs have been in operation for 27 years without a single rail-related fatality. A network of high speed trains connecting Paris to Bordeaux, Marseille, Toulouse, Lyon, and Rennes carries 100 million passengers a year. With a land area 100,000 square kilometers less than France, California has the ability to create a similar high-speed train network linking its most populated cities.

Economic, environmental, and safety incentives make the high-speed rail project an important step forward in planning for California’s future. As a state that pioneered the railroad revolution in the United States, California proved through its history that trains are a fast and reliable form of transportation. At optimal projected efficiency, the California High-Speed Rail Project will use only one-third the energy of airplanes and one-fifth of that used by cars. High-speed trains are the standard in other parts of the world, so why not move California into the future with high-speed rail?

 

Eli Rivkin is a freshman in Trumbull College.

 

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