The Progressive Policy Institute released a study earlier this week calling for a major national investment in high speed rail. Their study reads like a greatest hits of the arguments we've cited repeatedly on this blog - the airline crisis, economic stimulus, environmental benefits, and transportation needs.
The study calls for massive investment in five national HSR corridors, including LA-SF. To pay for this the study proposes a dedicated source of funding - a Rail Trust Fund that would provide for HSR as well as other rail service. Its sources would include:
- A ticket tax on all passenger rail systems, from $5 for Amtrak to $1 for commuter rails
- Charging freight companies fees to haul along new rails
- Encouraging state matching funds along the highway model (80 fed/20 state)
- Proceeds from auction of cap-and-trade (I have also proposed using an outright carbon tax or congestion charge as well)
I would personally just close the Highway Trust Fund, which is obsolete, and turn THAT into the Rail Trust Fund. But the above proposals are a good starting point.
The Progressive Policy Institute, alongside numerous other think tanks, understands the importance of providing passenger rail service at fast speeds to both improve existing rail routes and provide new service where none currently exists. California's high speed rail project will accomplish both goals.
But to hear the HSR deniers tell it, we somehow don't need HSR. That's their new line of attack - HSR is unnecessary and we should not spend $10 billion on it when we could spend the money on BART to Livermore, for example. Seriously, someone proposed that as an alternative to HSR in an email to me, despite the fact that there's about a 100 to 1 difference in the number of riders the two would serve. I'd love BART to Livermore, but come on, it pales in comparison to the service benefits of HSR.
I'll be first in line to agree that we need to improve existing passenger rail service. And hey, guess what? HSR accomplishes precisely that. Those who live along the Caltrain corridor will see major service improvements to Caltrain. Eliminating grade crossings means faster service and shorter trips even on local trains. Passengers could also transfer at Palo Alto or Redwood City (whichever is chosen) to make their journey to SF or San José that much quicker.
The anti-HSR forces are dominated by Northern Californians, which is significant. Southern Californians understand the benefits of HSR, partly because their region is much larger. Anaheim, Burbank, Riverside and Palmdale are already connected to downtown LA via Metrolink and the Pacific Surfliner in some cases, but HSR would make those trips much faster. The Surfliners already connect LA to SD, but HSR will cut that travel time in half if not better - faster than driving. And instead of seeing HSR and other passenger rail as somehow opposed, SoCal rail advocates embrace both systems.
We can look abroad to see evidence of this. In France the TGVs aren't the only form of rail travel. They are well integrated with, for example, the Paris Metro and the RER regional trains. All work together to boost each other's ridership and provide different levels of service that meet most possible travel needs.
What the HSR deniers are trying to do with this "oh we don't need HSR" argument is ghettoize passenger rail and ensure that Californians are never given the chance to use it more widely and frequently than they already do. High speed rail will bring new riders to the rails, rescuing them from a collapsing airline industry and from ever-rising gas prices. The big gap in California's passenger rail network is LA-SF, one of the most heavily traveled corridors of any kind anywhere in the state. HSR would open that corridor to rail, providing a rising tide that lifts all boats and building support around the state for increased investment in rail.
The HSR deniers should be more honest about their motives. It's not that they think HSR is the wrong kind of rail - but that they don't want new rail service period. They believe, against all evidence, that California is just fine relying on planes and cars. They want passenger rail to serve a small niche and not the masses. We reject that narrow, outdated thinking. It's time for California to join the 21st century and build a real high speed train system that can get this state moving again.