Naysayers Force California’s Bullet Train to Change Tack
Consider the plight of Californians attempting to traverse the 400 miles, give or take, separating San Francisco and Los Angeles. Their choices include:
A) Freeways—either the coastal, scenic, and frequently snarled Highway 101, or the I-5—a freeway so pockmarked with potholes that it resembles a ribbon of lunar landscape, passing through some of the most boring scenery California has to offer.
B) Twelve hours on an Amtrak train. Amtrak!
C) A cozy 60-minute airplane ride, bookended by two and a half hours of surface transportation nightmares and TSA hassles on either end.
The obvious solution: Monorail! OK, not a monorail, but how about a bullet train? Japan and Europe run them. It could make a Cali run in a mere 2 hours and 40 minutes. Think of it. Frisco to LA at 220 miles per hour, using 100 percent renewable energy. A California dream come true, so long as the state’s High Speed Rail Authority can choo choo through a seemingly endless landscape of budget, legal, and geographic challenges. Last week, the Authority announced it was pausing its Los Angeles ambitions to focus instead on the link between Silicon Valley and the state’s agricultural core in the Central Valley.
The High Speed Rail is a middle out project. Engineers are building the first section—linking Merced and Bakersfield—in the long, flat Central Valley. From there, it was supposed to cross the mountains into the LA basin. But engineering a path for a 220 mile per hour train through those mountains is difficult, expensive, and puts the train route at odds with a bunch of ranchers.
That’s right, pardner. Standing in the way of the state’s high-horsepower rail line are a bunch of horse owners. “These people were silent on the High Speed Rail until suddenly the Authority showed one of its alternatives for getting from Palmdale to Los Angeles involved tunneling under the San Gabriel Mountains and into their equestrian areas,” says Mark Powell, a retired chemical engineer and bullet train opponent. Powell says this is characteristic of many bullet train opponents, though he concedes that the movement does include its share of folks who oppose the train simply on principle.
Opposition to the rail ranges from NIMBYism to environmental concerns. But all those objections always seems to circle back to money. The train’s most recent price tag—released last week in its Draft 2016 Business Plan—is around $64 billion. California voters approved $9 billion of that total back in 2008, and the federal government chipped in $6 billion between 2010 and 2011. Beyond those one-time donations, the project gets a steady stream of income from power plants paying into the state’s cap-and-trade program. But carbon credits only coughed up an extra $250 million in 2014 and $500 million in 2015.
That leaves billions of deficit dollars. Opponents have seized on this funding issue, by digging into whether or not the train’s real world specs are going to match the promises in the 2008 funding bill. That 2 hour and 40 minute trip time, for instance, will require the Authority to push California’s trains to run faster than nearly any other rail system on the planet. (That’s why the project decided to build the Central Valley portion first as a test track.) Opponents also point out that the cap-and-trade funding will run dry after 2020 unless the state’s legislature votes to reinstate it.
Battling Southern California’s topography along with its ranchers would have burned through a lot of budget. So the Authority decided to let go of LA. Instead, it’s betting that an operational high speed link between Silicon Valley—San Jose, specifically—and the Central Valley will entice businesses to invest in the rail. Maybe even enough to cover the missing portion of the $64 billion price tag.
In addition to pivoting the end location, the Authority is also appearing to pivot the goal of the rail. High Speed Rail Authority CEO Jeff Morales says the San Jose to Fresno link would let people living in the Central Valley have access to jobs in the Bay Area. “And companies in the Bay would be able to access the job market and build field offices in lower cost areas,” says Morales.
Turning the bullet train into a commuter rail might sound great for a region in the midst of a major housing crisis. But others worry the line would disincentive regional politicians from dealing with the issue. “I have some concern that this will discourage decision makers to emphasize the benefits of people being able to travel quickly form 100 miles away, instead of providing affordable housing to those living nearby,” says Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California.
She also wonders at the wisdom of putting cap-and-trade money into the high speed rail. “That money should be put into projects that get you near term emissions reductions as soon as possible,” says Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California.
Morales says he pays close attention to these challenges, but he doesn’t think they’ll stop the high speed rail. “There were 2,000 lawsuits filed over the Golden Gate Bridge back in the 1930s, today arguably the symbol of California,” he says. Counterargument: The real symbol of the Golden State is several million people who can’t agree on how to get from point A to point B.