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Opinion, Santa Monica, Columnist

Money's There For A Start, Now Build Bullet Train The Right Way

Thomas B. Elias, Columnist
Santa Monica Mirror Archives
Thomas B. Elias, Columnist

Posted Jul. 28, 2012, 1:49 am

Tom Elias / Mirror Columnist

There’s little doubt the high speed rail plan passed as Proposition 1A in November 2008 was designed to pander to voters in cities not exactly on the straight-line path between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

As proposed and passed by a 53-47 percent margin, this route meandered first through the Antelope Valley north of Los Angeles, then over to Bakersfield and on up the San Joaquin Valley through Fresno, Madera and Merced before heading east over the Pacheco Pass and then turning north to San Jose and the San Francisco Peninsula.

So much for a straight line as the shortest distance between two points. In politics, a little indirectness can sometimes produce victory, and that’s what happened this time, as catering to the civic pride of voters who live many miles from the most direct route produced a victory for the bullet train bonds, if not an overwhelming one.

But buyers’ remorse quickly set in, and it remains. As residents along the route began to understand both environmental problems and costs ($68 billion over 20 years, by the latest official estimate, double the amount projected in Proposition 1A). One result is that high speed rail has been vilified from Weed to Watsonville, from Palo Alto to Poway. And the likely result of that would be defeat for bullet trains if the identical plan were put to a new vote today.

Yet, the Legislature this summer authorized selling of the first project bonds, and Gov. Jerry Brown signed that bill, calling objectors “fearful men.” Never mind that many doubters are female; there’s still a major difference between fear and good sense.

And while the latest bullet train plan is more sensible than previous versions, it nevertheless contains that fundamental flaw of deviating from the direct route.

The good sense added to the plan recently involves upgrading existing railroad track in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas.

The problem still remaining is that the planned route runs up the central San Joaquin Valley, with stops in Bakersfield, Fresno and Merced, cutting across very productive farmland in Kern, Kings, Madera, Fresno and Merced counties.

This makes little sense because where bullet trains exist, most passengers go from one terminus to the other, with little on- or off-traffic at the intermediate points. What’s more, the mid-Valley route will produce environmental lawsuits that could delay the project for years. Plus, there’s the little matter of buying up all that land.

There is little doubt a working high speed rail system between California’s two largest urban areas, with later extensions to Sacramento and San Diego, would bring great benefit to the entire state and not just the construction workers and companies that would build it.

So the recommendation here is build it, but build it up the Interstate 5 corridor, where it could skip the likely-to-be-useless stops in Fresno and Merced, and where the state already owns much of the right-of-way.

Doing it this way still allows for improving existing rail tracks in the Los Angeles area so they can handle bullet trains along with their existing traffic. The steep slopes of the Grapevine dictate that the route has to run through the Antelope Valley, as planned, which would also make a stop in Bakersfield sensible.

But heading up I-5 from there would save many billions of dollars and a lot of mileage en route. It means far less disruption of farms and could produce savings at least in the hundreds of millions of dollars by eliminating the stations planned for Fresno and Merced.

Would these changes create a truncated bullet train system? Probably not, if what happens along the European Thalys bullet train system between Paris and Amsterdam is any indication. That run is only about 40 miles shorter than Los Angeles-San Francisco distance via the Altamont Pass.

Two Thalys rides during the peak June season last year saw almost no passengers embarking at intermediate points like Antwerp and Brussels, Belgium and Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Reason: Officials of the line said most who live along the route find it’s not worth driving to the train stations in the midway cities, as they can drive to destinations in either Paris or Amsterdam in about the same time.

This indicates a more direct Los Angeles-San Francisco route would likely satisfy the needs of the vast majority of future riders, while sparing many billions in construction expenses and legal fees.

And doing it this way would also allow the full economic benefits outlined in a review last spring by California’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office of a proposal sponsored by Republican state Sen. and current congressional candidate Doug LaMalfa of Richvale, who opposed the now-authorized bond sale.

This report found that over 20 years, each dollar of government funds invested in the bullet train would produce about $1.42 in state and local tax revenues, besides creating as many as 20,000 temporary and permanent jobs.

The reasonable conclusion to be reached from all this is that it makes sense to build the bullet train, but only if it’s along more sensible economic and geographic lines than now planned.

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Comments

Aug. 10, 2012, 2:24:34 am

Michael M said...

Excellent piece, thank you. I just wanted to add that settlement and development often follow access to transportation, even high speed commuter transportation. Perhaps the growth and settlement that the route, especially the one currently planned, might encourage, could be good for the state - more well designed towns and cities, more transit hubs, etc. More places for the future 50 million Californians to live well. Unless the farmland, some of which, would one day be converted to settlement is considered absolutely and forever sactrosanct, might not the HSR project hold great promise for the interior areas of the state?

Jul. 28, 2012, 3:59:28 am

Darrell Clarke said...

I've appreciated your past columns on HSR, Tom, but there are major issues with an I-5 route: 1. The Prop. 1A bond measure requires serving the San Joaquin Valley cities, which only makes sense considring they have little air service and trips from, say LA-Frenso now require a long car drive. 2. Cost savings would be minimal, considering the initial 130 miles north of Bakersfield costs less than $6 billion. 3. The federal grant, without which there is no CA HSR, requires construction begin on the Fresno segment because that is closest to construction-ready. 4. How much disruption to agriculture could a 50-foot-wide HSR right-of-way create?

Jul. 28, 2012, 2:24:17 am

Chuck Ackerson said...

This makes a whole lot of sense...What has to be done to make it happen...

Jul. 28, 2012, 6:04:21 pm

Jim Gerstley said...

I feel it makes a lot more sense to take the direct route along or near I-5, avoid congested cities which require expensive grade separation crossings, avoid a lot of the fertile farm land, avoid unnecessary curves which reduce speed and increase transit time. Bus connections can always be provided from the rail line into the cities along the route; Amtrak does this now at various points along the San Joaquin line. One of the major issues is tunneling under the Tehachapis, without which there is no high speed route between Los Angeles and the Bay Area. I'm not comfortable taking the train over Pacheco Pass either, as the tracks would cross the San Andreas fault. Seems much easier to do an end run via Stockton and Martinez to the Bay Area, since this is essentially flat. And this gives easy access to Sacramento via Stockton as well, along or adjacent to the current UP trackage.

Jul. 30, 2012, 4:11:40 am

Phantom Commuter said...

An upgraded San Joaquin service can serve Valley cities (Hanford, Fresno, Madera, Merced, Modesto etc.) between connections with HSR in Bakersfield and Tracy. There is no reason to go through Plamdale or Pacheco. Total pork.

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