California High-Speed Rail Rolls onto 2004 Ballot

By John Doxey

SACRAMENTO, California, September 24, 2002 (ENS) - California voters will decide whether the state should invest nearly $10 billion to build a high-speed rail system linking Northern and Southern California, under legislation approved late last week by Governor Gray Davis. Proponents of the plan say high-speed rail is needed to reduce alleviate the state's worsening airport and roadway congestion, and to reduce air pollution.

The bill, authored by Democratic state Senator Jim Costa, places a bond measure on the November 2004 ballot that would authorize the state to sell $9.95 billion in general obligation bonds to help pay for a proposed 700 mile system connecting California's major cities.

Plans drawn up by the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA), the state agency charged with designing, building and operating the project, call for trains to zip along the system at top speeds of more than 200 miles per hour.

Most of the money, $9 billion, would be used to build the first leg of the system, a 400 mile line linking Los Angeles to the San Francisco Bay Area via the San Joaquin Valley cities of Bakersfield and Fresno.


Eurostar high-speed train at Gare du Nord, Paris (Photo courtesy Freefoto)
If voters approve the bond, trains could be running on this section by 2014, whisking passengers between downtown Los Angeles and downtown San Francisco in about two and a half hours, according to CHSRA plans.

The initial leg would also stretch to the Bay Area cities of Oakland and San Jose.

The remaining $950 million would be spent on improvements to light rail and inter-city passenger trains that would connect to the high-speed line.

Ticket sales and other revenue generated by the Los Angeles-Bay Area route would be used to fund construction of additional lines, which would extend the system north to Modesto and Sacramento and south through Orange County to San Diego.

If all goes according to plan, the system will be completed by 2020, at an estimated cost of $26 billion.

"This launches a new era of transportation in this state," Governor Davis said at Thursday's bill signing ceremony in Sacramento. "High-speed rail will keep Californians moving faster, cleaner and cheaper than ever before."

Supporters of the bond measure say the high-speed rail system is needed to ease congestion at airports and on freeways, which is expected to continue worsening as California's population booms over the next few decades. The Golden State's population is expected to reach 50 million by 2030, up from about 34 million residents currently, according to state Department of Finance projections.


California state Senator Jim Costa of Fresno (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
"As California's population grows, traffic will get worse and the state's economy will suffer unless we do something to relieve pressures on our transportation system," argues Senator Costa, a long time rail advocate who coauthored a 1996 measure that created and funded the California High-Speed Rail Authority. "We need high-speed rail to complement our existing automobile, air and rail transportation systems."

"The Los Angeles-to-San Francisco air corridor is already the busiest in the world, and our highways are clogged. But we're never going to be able to relieve this gridlock by building more highway lanes or more airport runways," agrees Rod Diridon, chairman of the CHSRA. "Every industrialized country has [a high-speed rail system] or is building one. It's time for us to catch up."


The busy San Francisco International Airport (Photo courtesy Federal Aviation Administration)
Proponents also see the proposed rail system as a way to reduce air pollution, which remains a stubborn problem in many California air basins, including the San Joaquin Valley and the area around Los Angeles. Just seven of the state's 15 air basins have attained federal standards for ground level ozone, commonly known as smog, a pollutant that aggravates asthma and other respiratory ailments.

Motor vehicle emissions, including nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), are primary ingredients of smog. The high-speed rail system's electricity powered, emission free trains are expected to carry 10 million commuters and 32 million intercity travelers annually when the system is complete, eliminating 13.4 million motor vehicle trips in California each year, according to CHSRA estimates.

The project would also create jobs and spur economic growth, backers say. State officials estimate that construction of the system will create 300,000 jobs, and generate about $300 million in annual state revenue.

The project could contribute to cities' downtown revitalization efforts, by drawing businesses and housing back toward existing urban areas, if rail stations are located in city centers. Cities and towns in the San Joaquin Valley, an agricultural region with high unemployment, could be among the project's biggest beneficiaries.

"High-speed rail could give the valley an economic boost because it would connect us to the state's large urban centers," says Richard Cummings, research director for the Great Valley Center in Modesto.


California state Senator Tom McClintock of Thousand Oaks (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
But critics of the bond measure contend the money would be better spent to expand and improve highways systems, and they warn that, with California's budget deficit approaching $24 billion for 2003, the state cannot afford to assume billions of dollars in new debt. The high-speed rail plan would "suck taxpayers into a boondoggle of mind-boggling proportions," argues Republican state Senator Tom McClintock, one of the project's strongest critics.

Concern also exists that the high-speed rail project could subsidize urban sprawl and hasten development of agricultural lands in the San Joaquin Valley, particularly if stations are located far from city centers. "The project could make it easier for people to commute from the valley to jobs in the Bay Area or Los Angeles, making the valley even more attractive to developers," says Cummings.

State officials estimate the system's initial leg, between Los Angeles and the Bay Area, will cost about $14.7 billion, a price that includes track construction, train purchases, employee salaries and other expenses. Supporters of the plan hope to secure funding from the federal government and private investors to cover the portion of this cost not covered by the bond measure.


Los Angeles freeway (Photo courtesy Third Wave Corp.)
The CHSRA has determined that the system would use conventional steel wheel-on-steel rail technology, rather than magnetic elevation, and that the system will feature both local service trains that stop at all stations along a route and trains that offer express service between two cities.

Still, many design and engineering decisions have yet to be made, including the exact location of stations and track alignments. The CHSRA is scheduled to release a detailed environmental impact statement next June.

Proponents say they opted to place the bond measure on the 2004 ballot, rather than sooner, because so many details still need to be finalized. "It makes more sense to ask voters to approve the bond after we can give them information about routes, schedules and stations," says Margaret Gladstein, a member of Senator Costa's staff.

Supporters are also betting that the state's economy, and its fiscal health, could improve over the next two years, making voters more likely to pass bond measures. A simple majority of votes will be needed to pass the measure.

Senator Costa, who must leave office at the end of this year because of term limits, has announced that he will help organize the campaign for the bond's passage. "Our effort will focus on educating the public about the opportunities this system provides," he says. "We will try to get the point across that these trains are a reliable, efficient, comfortable way to travel."

Voters may be swayed, backers of the bond measure hope, when they find out how quick and inexpensive high-speed rail travel could be. The total travel time between Los Angeles and San Francisco, counting time spent getting to and from train stations and time spent checking or retrieving baggage, is expected to average about three hours and 20 minutes, about the same amount of time most people spend flying between the two cities. And tickets for high-speed rail trips would be lower than airfare for most routes, according to the CHSRA.