Still recovering from my illness, which was apparently a kind of bronchitis, so I may not be back up to my daily posting schedule until the middle of next week. In the meantime I wanted to share a great op-ed published in yesterday's Sacramento Bee, Toll road bad news is high speed rail good news. It's written by Michael Dukakis, the Democratic presidential candidate in 1988 and now a public policy lecturer at UCLA, and Arthur Purcell, an LA land use analyst.
The op-ed is framed around the ongoing fight over the Foothill South toll road extension project in Southern Orange County. In February the Coastal Commission voted to reject the project, and although the TCA, which operates the OC toll roads, wants the US Department of Commerce to override this, Dukakis and Purcell make a strong case that $1 billion is much better spent to help build HSR than to build a toll road few will actually use:
What the commission really said is that if close to $1 billion is available to build this project, let's use it on projects that will deliver more bang for the buck, reduce environmental impacts and energy use, and make a real dent in the highway congestion that plagues Orange County and most of California.
And that means high-speed rail. The $1 billion its sponsors wanted to spend on a toll road could go a long way toward paying for the cost of that portion of the state's high-speed rail plan that could take travelers from Los Angeles to San Diego in 55 minutes and from Irvine to either of those cities in less than a half-hour while eliminating a lot of congestion on Interstate 5, not only in Orange County but along the entire route.
Now, I'm not entirely certain about these travel times. I hope the authors realize that, due to the unstable bluffs along the Coast Line near San Clemente, HSR is going to follow CA-91 and I-15 from LA to SD. But it would still be much faster than any toll-road aided trip would be, especially as the toll road would not serve the main population centers of Orange County at all.
The authors go on to make some more excellent pro-HSR points:
And don't let anybody tell you that Californians won't ride the trains if they are fast, safe and efficient. Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner from Los Angeles to San Diego is the second most popular train in the entire Amtrak system and carries more than 2.5 million people a year. Imagine how many people a high-speed train connecting those two cities would carry with a running time of less than an hour – one third of what it currently takes on the Surfliner and less than half the time it takes to drive it, even on a good day.
I think this is a very good way to combat the "Californians won't ride trains!" nonsense. Not only is the Pacific Surfliner a VERY popular train, its ridership has been steadily rising since 2002 - as has ridership on the other Amtrak California lines, as well as local mass transit systems. Californians already ARE riding trains and in growing numbers. The creates demand for HSR, which makes those train trips faster and therefore more popular.
Poll after poll tells us that reducing congestion and doing something about global warming are at the top of Californians' concerns about their quality of life. Building new freeways and expanding old ones is a last-century approach that will do neither. And with gasoline now hitting $4 a gallon, it's pretty obvious that California's long-standing love affair with the automobile is on the rocks.
This is another great point as well. As you've seen in some of the comment threads, the "quality of life" aspect of HSR is repeatedly cited as one of its major attractions. And it's not hard to see why. Californians love their cars, but that love affair has become a bitter and loveless marriage to gridlocked freeways and soaring gas prices. I know people who drive 580 over Altamont Pass every morning, and the 91 through the Santa Ana Canyon, and the 14 down from Palmdale - and they all hate their commutes, longing instead for a faster, cheaper option.
The proposed high-speed rail bond issue that will be on the ballot in November will carry an estimated cost of $9 billion. It would be matched by the federal government with a contribution that is less than the cost of a month of the Iraq war. And it could be supplemented by billions in contributions by major investors in development around the system's stations.
The $3 trillion we have spent in Iraq to no good purpose would have built a LOT of high speed rail. If a Democrat wins the White House this fall it seems likely that the federal government will contribute a significant amount of money to this project, greatly leveraging our state's $9 billion investment.
The bond issue is a small price to pay for a high-speed rail plan that will create thousands of jobs, reduce congestion on our highways and at our airports, cut pollution and global warming, help revitalize the state's older cities, preserve our parks for generations to come and save us a lot of pain at the pump.
It ought to be one of California's top priorities.
They are right about all of it. For all those reasons above, I firmly believe high speed rail is the most important project this state has considered in the last 50 years. Where the State Water Project of 1960 laid the foundation for the last 48 years of growth, HSR will do the same for the next century.