Dan Walters is one of the leading opinion writers in California today. His conservative commentary has filled the pages of the Sacramento Bee for over three decades, and he's regularly syndicated in other local papers across the state. So when he devotes a column to high speed rail it's worth our attention.
Especially when he shows a total lack of understanding of the reasons to build it.
So Dan Walters needs our help in grasping why this project is so necessary to California's future.
After describing some of the very real issues with the overall funding plan, he devotes the second half of his column to an attack on high speed rail:
The most romantic bullet train vision is the lightning-fast trip from downtown Los Angeles to downtown San Francisco. But how many people really want to make that trip each day, and would it represent a marked improvement over the very frequent air travel now available?
I can anecdotally provide him with about two dozen names of CDP convention attendees who expressed the desire for a high speed train to connect San José to their homes in SoCal. But we can answer this charge much better by explaining why HSR will be not just an attractive - but necessary - transportation option.
First, attractiveness. We dealt with that last week when discussing the 5% increase in Acela market share on the Northeast Corridor. Acela isn't even a true high speed rail system - ours would provide double the speed. LA-SF is one of the busiest air corridors in the country, and if a flawed high speedish train can take nearly half the market share from airlines there, it should suggest it'll work here two.
Second, necessity. Walters assumes that present conditions will last for some time to come. But nowhere in his column are the words peak oil mentioned. Nor does he discuss soaring gas prices. Both will make it difficult and unattractive to continue flying between the two halves of our state, causing either supply disruption or fare increases beyond the ability of most Californians to pay. Walters may not believe in peak oil, even though it is a fact. But the constant rise in oil prices is going to have to eliminate cheap fares sooner or later.
He goes on to try and undermine the CHSRA claims on air travel:
The High-Speed Rail Commission's environmental impact reports contain some underlying air travel projections that are very difficult to swallow. It would have us believe that air travel demand between Northern and Southern California would nearly double between 2000 and 2010.
That flies in the face of actual airport traffic figures and seems to conflict with another commission projection that in the absence of building the bullet train, air travel times would increase only fractionally between 2000 and 2020.
This passage essentially says nothing. Demand may well have increased, but traffic figures have not met demand. Airports are congested - witness LAX or OAK on a weekend. Most California airports lack the capacity to add slots - Orange County is limited to 14 gates, LAX expansion has languished for three decades, SFO and OAK physically cannot expand any further into the bay. If peak oil is not real, then that means our population really will continue to expand - and without new terminals and runways, and in the absence of airplane innovation (most airplane R&D goes to fuel economy, as supersonic transport appears to be a dead concept) air travel times cannot physically increase.
How about auto travel? The commission projects that driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco, seven hours in 1999, would take eight hours by 2020. But as anyone who makes long-distance drives through the state knows, Interstate 5 is very lightly used now, at least outside urban areas.
This is wrong on two points. First, Interstate 5 is NOT lightly used outside urban areas. Certainly not in the San Joaquin Valley. It is a very heavily used artery. I have on several occasions been stuck in traffic jams in the middle of nowhere in Fresno County on I-5, and on several occasions found it took nine hours to drive from OC to Berkeley.
Second, those urban areas continue to expand. When new development pops up further north on I-5 near Castaic, or in the Tracy area, that adds congestion that a long-distance commuter will encounter on their drive between LA and SF. There never used to be a regular traffic jam on 580 in Livermore, but it's a fact of life now. One used to be able to drive through the Santa Clarita area on the way to LA without encountering much traffic, but that is now difficult.
California's traffic congestion is an urban condition, and the most likely patrons of high-speed rail wouldn't be long-distance travelers but commuters – a poor use of expensive, sophisticated technology.
Again, this is simply not true. Interstate 15 between SoCal and Vegas is another example of a non-urban interstate that regularly sees massive traffic jams. And Walters' argument that most users would be commuters is itself flawed - either because it is flat wrong (ridership on Amtrak California's intercity trains has been steadily rising for years now) or because it doesn't take into account the attractiveness of a quicker commute.
That explains why the most ardent support for bullet train service is to be found in the Central Valley, which is poorly served by airlines and whose main artery, Highway 99, is highly congested with auto and truck traffic.
Bullet trains would make commuting to and from places like Fresno, Modesto and Bakersfield easier. But wouldn't that merely encourage the sort of sprawl that we are supposed to be discouraging?
Sprawl is a product of land use laws and cheap oil. We're already losing the cheap oil, which itself is going to stop most sprawl in its tracks. As to land use practices, why should HSR be responsible for the lack of good smart growth planning in the Central Valley? The state ought to step in and subject all local land use planning decisions to AB 32 guidelines on carbon emissions, and localities need to improve farmland protection and infill development rules no matter what HSR's fate is.
Walters argued that:
even the most ardent advocates have yet to present a persuasive, fact-grounded rationale for spending so much borrowed money on an entirely new transportation system.
This blog is intended to be exactly that persuasive, fact-grounded rationale. HSR is necessary to our state's future.