As slow train wrecks go, the California High Speed Rail project is excruciatingly expensive.
And now because of going at it backwards, the 220 mph plus dream train from Los Angeles to San Francisco could be on the verge of derailing in a head-on collision between Democrats in the state Legislature.
There are those who are willing to ride the rail project into white elephant status by clinging to the original grandiose plan hatched nearly two decades ago. Then there are those that want to break down the intrastate project and rebuild the business plan.
Those channeling Dr. Strangelove by riding the massive bomb that’s the original high speed rail business plan while burning through at least $80 billion and 20 plus years of construction before it carries a single passenger all the way from LA to San Francisco need a reality check.
And many Democrats representing the traffic congested LA Basin and the Bay Area want to provide the wakeup call.
They aren’t exactly jumping ship. Instead, they want to see mass transit work. And that means building the high use segments of a statewide rail section first.
And the way to make it happen in car centric California is not to grant Gov. Newsom’s request to give California High Speed Rail Authority the remaining $4.2 billion of the $9.95 billion rail bond voters approved 13 years ago. The governor wants it to finish building the 119-mile Madera to Shafter leg to connect what are respectively the 138th and 339th largest cities in the state.
Instead, they want to see the money go first toward building high speed rail segments in the state’s major urban areas — the Greater Los Angeles area and the Bay Area.
Their reasoning is simple. There is a lot more ridership potential for rail projects to move commuters to and from the exburbs and suburbs to urban job centers. It is where non-diesel rail service can do the most to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to build public use and in turn generate more support for rail commute projects.
The biggest flaw in the high-speed rail plan is it ignored California’s most pressing need of reducing traffic congestion on corridors that are heavily traveled between interior sections of the state and coastal employment centers.
The biggest need has never been reducing congestion and pollution caused by traveling north and south in California.
The decision to dump money into the Central Valley first was done for political expediency to avoid the high-speed folly from collapsing under its grandiose weight.
The CHRA was running into road block after road block of trying to advance high speed rail through urbanized areas. The delays were jeopardizing federal funding.
So, they started with the segment where the least resistance could be mustered, the engineering challenges were minimal, and the terrain essentially flat with minimum pesky people to displace. That is how the Train to Nowhere was born.
There is a real strong possibility all the private sector money that supposedly would hope onboard once voters approved the $10 billion rail bond likely never will. That means the $80 billion high rail project needs to be built entirely on the taxpayers’ dime.
The Democrats pushing for diverting the money toward urban segments aren’t abandoning the idea of a higher speed north-south rail system. They correctly believe it is going to be tough leveraging needed ongoing public support and money if 20 years go by after Proposition 1A was approved and only 119 miles of the 500 miles of track is in place and the only trains running are test trains.
Proposition 1A approved by voters in 2008 opens the door for the legislature to condition the last $4.2 billion of the bond to be spent on getting faster rail service up and running in the Los Angeles Basin and Bay Area.
The proposition’s official language refers to the Palmdale to Los Angeles Union Station corridor as well as the Merced to Stockton to Oakland and San Francisco via the Altamont Corridor as among those that could be funded with the bond proceeds.
There is project awaiting funding to straighten out the curvy tracks across the Altamont with a series of tunnels and bridges to take train speeds on that segment from 20 mph to 120 mph.
ACE service will be up and running from Merced to San Jose in 2023.
ACE Forward is on the drawing board to extend ACE further south to Merced. There it will connect with the CHSRA project that may not for practical and fiscal reasons be the 220 mph plus trains voters were promised.
At Merced riders could catch an ACE train all the way to San Jose and take CalTrain up the peninsula to the Transbay Terminal in San Francisco.
Or they could take ACE in Merced to the future North Lathrop station to catch Valley Link targeted to be up and running by 2028. From there they can reach San Francisco and Oakland via BART at the Pleasanton-Dublin station.
CHRSA riders could also transfer to ACE trains in Merced to reach Sacramento.
It may not use the high-speed trains that were envisioned but it would get more robust service in place between the state’s major urban centers sometime this century instead of the 22nd Century.
And more importantly it provides rail service that parallels congested corridors with much higher potential ridership than trains going between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
It is likely a similar scenario exists to make rail travel for commuters and others more robust from Southern California’s Inland Empire — San Bernardino and Riverside counties — and Los Angeles.
It makes more sense to have a rail system that gets the most people to where they need to go and one that maximizes greenhouse gas reduction the best for every dollar spent.
Even now for miles traveled the cleaner burned diesel trains ACE employs based on the collective vehicles miles not driven by passengers racks up an incredible amount of pollutants from being spewed.
And given technology advances of battery powered trains are becoming more and more practical with every passing year, it will make a hybrid approach more feasible.