California high-speed rail is primarily about bringing two points together - downtown Los Angeles and downtown San Francisco.
The revised business plan unveiled last week trims that cost down to a muscular $66 billion by adding overhead electrical lines along existing tracks serving the L.A. Basin and the San Francisco Peninsula. The first phase will connect Merced and the San Fernando Valley by 2022 instead of consisting of just a 130-mile line from Madera to Bakersfield.
There are still serious questions about financing, the route through the San Joaquin Valley, and the opportunity cost of committing that much money to an infrastructure project. Even so, backing off just a bit from the $100 billion cliff just might trigger some other debates that should take place before the California Legislature either takes the final plunge and authorizes the initial bond sale of $2.3 billion or derails the project for good.
Much ado has been made about how high-speed rail will change existing north-south travel patterns and getting some people out of their cars and take pressure off the crowded LA to SF air corridor. Arguments are made that it won't appeal to many folks since when they get to stations at either end they are more than likely going to need to secure a rental vehicle for ground transportation to their ultimate destination(s) especially in LA.
What hasn't been discussed is how high-speed rail could change development, recreation, and the dethroning of the automobile as the prime mode of transit across crowded urban centers in California.
Much has been written of how the auto manufacturers bought up and then tore out private trolley bus/train systems that ironically were powered in the most part by electricity that served Los Angeles and other major metro areas before World War II. You could actually travel to an abundance of locations by trolley making the car less critical to have. And most development, such as retail and offices, happened to occur around the trolley lines.
Once the automobile became de facto mass transit, it changed development patterns.
The question that should be asked is how will high-speed rail change the core of California's four largest cities - L.A., San Diego, San Jose, and San Francisco - and to a lesser degree Merced, Fresno, Bakersfield, Sacramento, Modesto, and Stockton. All have stations envisioned for the overall high-speed rail system.
Can high-speed rail reverse the need for urban sprawl by forcing cities up and not out due to a desire to have offices, retail, and even hotels with close proximity of the high-speed rail stations? Would high-speed rail travel change the dynamics of local mass transit systems in those cities enabling more movement without a need to rely on the automobile?
If it does, then high-speed rail will indeed significantly reduce air pollution, be less destructive to farmland in the long run, and would reduce the death grip that automobiles can have on a city and its economy especially when gas prices soar.
High-speed rail could be a game changer for California in the same sense as the Central Valley Project and State Water Project. It won't all be good but in the long run the good may far outweigh the bad.
Simply plopping high-speed rail down without a concerted effort to use it to change the game in California's urban centers would indeed be a folly.
The debate needs to shift to the question no one has asked: Can high-speed rail change the development patterns of major metro areas to strengthen urban centers to make them true 24/7 cities that don't require an auto to access?
This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Journal or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.