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Let’s demand more from California's high-speed rail project

June 29, 2020

In 2050, will this moment be remembered as another missed opportunity to create positive and profound changes in America? Or will it be remembered as a moment when we embraced a new and better vision of what’s possible?

California is making that decision right now.

Last week, the California High Speed Rail Authority’s board delayed a vote on approving the Authority’s 2020 Business Plan until December, 2020.

That followed a strong show of support, the prior week, for a non-binding resolution in the California Assembly. It directed the Authority to reassess its business plan and hold off on major contracts pending legislative approval.

Many legislators want the Authority to scale back its plans for the first segment of the high-speed line, which will run through the Central Valley.

That would be a failure of will and imagination on a massive scale. Unfortunately, it comes at a time when we badly need California’s leadership in re-imagining and reinventing our national transportation systems.

It’s on us to demand that California lawmakers step up to this challenge.

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An electrified, high-speed line linking Bakersfield and Merced will boost ridership and revenue on an extensive network of trains and buses throughout the state, reducing the State's cost of operating those trains.
Fast, electric trains in the Central Valley are key

The Authority’s 2020 Business Plan calls for the first segment of high-speed line to extend 171 miles, from Bakersfield to Merced. It would use electrified tracks.

Legislators prefer a shorter Central Valley segment—119 miles—and no electrified tracks, meaning the line would use diesel trains. The money saved would be used for yet-to-be-defined upgrades to commuter systems in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

Those commuter system upgrades are badly needed, but reallocating the funds would deal a huge blow to the plan to build the full Bay Area to LA high-speed line. And it would signal that California remains addicted to the dysfunctional, car-dependant status quo.

It’s important to keep in mind that diesel trains run slower than electric trains, and they emit more greenhouse gases. The diesels would run at roughly 125 m.p.h. State-of-the-art electric trains run at 200+ m.p.h. and use 100 percent renewable energy.

In the near term, electric trains in the Central Valley will give a big boost to the thriving network of conventional trains and buses that already connect the Valley to northern California. That’s because getting from any point in the Valley to Merced will be fast, safe, affordable and convenient. So ridership will multiply on the passenger trains that now run from Merced to Oakland and Sacramento.

In the long run, electric trains in the Central Valley will transform the state’s whole transportation system by driving up demand, increasing revenues, lowering costs and slashing carbon emissions.

For example, high-speed trains in the Central Valley would result in 8.8 million riders per year (on all types of trains), according to Authority data. That’s more than double the current ridership in the Central Valley.

More riders means better efficiencies of scale, which will translate into lower costs. For example, adding high-speed rail service will reduce the average cost of passenger train service in northern California by nearly $7.50 per train mile, according to the Authority.

And there will be huge environmental wins, since trains are roughly four times more energy efficient than cars and eight times more energy efficient than planes.

More ridership, more revenue, lower costs and lower greenhouse gas emissions are critical to building the political will to fulfill California’s goal of connecting the Bay Area to L.A. by high-speed rail.

Do better, California

All of which means the stakes are very clear—and very high—right now.

Building an electrified line that runs from Bakersfield to Merced will be the tipping point that makes California’s whole high-speed rail system viable. And that system is key to California's vision for the future. Its State Rail Plan details a path for coordinating all rail systems and bus lines in the state by 2040, with the velocity of high-speed trains allowing for frequent departures.

The speed, coordination and frequent departures of California’s system will drive a massive increase in ridership across all rail and transit systems. But they’ll do much more than that.

They’ll create a national model for a well-planned, tightly coordinated transportation system.

They’ll push the U.S. to move beyond status-quo systems that give us dysfunctional land-use patterns, airport and highway delays, soaring costs, and off-the-charts greenhouse gas emissions.

And they’ll move us toward new ways of imagining what travel can—and should—be: Safe, fast, affordable, accessible, pleasant, environmentally friendly, economically powerful, and fun.

It’s time to stop settling for options that seem affordable in the short term but cost more—and pollute more—over the long haul.

It’s time to reject the false choice between a state-of-the-art high-speed rail system and first-rate commuter and passenger rail service. Let’s demand all of the above.

The truth is, we always find the money to invest in the things we value. We always create ways to make them happen.  

By committing to a bold vision of what California can achieve—and joining together to make it happen—we can stop pouring money into the sinkhole of broken transportation systems. And we can start building systems that actually work to increase freedom, opportunities and prosperity for everyone.

Tell your elected officials in California to push forward with high-speed rail.

Upgrading the Merced - Bakersfield segment of the San Joaquin route creates the backbone of a powerful, statewide public transit network.
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