Prop. 1A: High Speed Rail

Share |
(Sacramento, CA)
Thursday, October 9, 2008

Here’s the high speed rail vision:  800 miles of track eventually connecting San Diego and Los Angeles to Sacramento and San Francisco at speeds of up to 220 miles an hour. 

Just how much faster is that than the current passenger trains like these at Sacramento’s Amtrak station?

Amtrak says some passenger trains on the east coast can go up to 150 miles an hour.  But here in California, trains top out at 79 miles an hour.  That’s because federal regulations limit the speed of passenger trains that share track with freight trains.  High-speed rail would have its own track, so it could go much faster. 
Phil Garlington of Lodi rides Amtrak once a month.  He’s says it’s about time for a project like this:

“You know, In Europe they have them all over the place – they work great. And here it’s kind of spotty.  Amtrak is basically like third world rail – you know, it gets there when it gets there.

But other train travelers – like Dave Kennedy of San Diego say it’s a good idea – just not right now:

“Considering the state of the economy in California, I think We’re too far in debt to begin with and it’s just not the right time.” 

The entire high speed rail project is expected to cost upwards of 40 billion dollars.  But Prop. 1 A is only a ten billion dollar bond measure.  It’s sort of like seed money.  The rest is expected to come from private investors, federal and local funds.  Medhi Morshed’s the Executive Director of the California High Speed Rail Authority.  He’s asking voters to think big-picture:

“In ten years we may consider ourselves lucky if gas is only ten dollars a gallon, so the train is being planned not for today’s market, it is for the future.

Morshed says the project would create more than a half a million jobs.  He says a high speed rail system would be like a new 12-lane freeway in terms of moving people around.  And he says tickets at roughly 55 dollars each way between Los Angeles and San Francisco would be cheaper than flying or driving.  Morshed says if California doesn’t invest in a high speed system now, the state could lose its competitive edge:

“We’re no longer going to dominate the market.  The French and the Italians and the Spanish are going to eat our lunch because they’re going to have much better and more efficient transportation system.

Governor Schwarzenegger, who supports the project, has echoed that argument.  The High Speed Rail Authority says the system would be fully operational by 2020, with 50 to 100 million passengers a year.  But opponents say that estimate is much too rosy:

“That means every man, woman and child in California will have to ride this train twice.”

That’s John Coupal with the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.  He says the proposal’s not fully cooked:  The final route’s not decided, it’s not clear that investors will get onboard, and the business plan hasn’t been turned in.  Coupal’s group is suing the Authority for not turning in the plan by September first as required by law:

“Taxpayers are being essentially asked to step into the shoes as venture capitalists, cough up 9.9 billion dollars worth of capital without a business plan.

Richard Tolmach has also joined that lawsuit.  He’s with
the California Rail Foundation – a group that has advocated for high speed rail in the past.  But he says this time, taxpayer money would be better spent improving existing mass transit:

“To me, those are higher goals right now.  They do more for people who are trying to get home to work, and they do more for the average Californian.”

The high speed rail bond has been a long time coming to the ballot.  Lawmakers postponed it twice before.  Now that voters are finally getting to weigh in, it’s unclear whether the spike in gas prices this year will be the motivating factor  - or if the turbulent economic times have made voters leery of opening the state’s wallet any wider.