High stakes for high-speed rail

Dec 15, 2011
By Jenesse Miller

Question: What's at stake in California's plan to build a high-speed rail system?

Answer: Billions of dollars, billions of pounds of CO2, and how millions of people will get from point "A" to point "B," among other things.

The development of high-speed rail is an important strategy in the state's goal to reduce emissions that pollute our air and contribute to climate change. It's also a no-brainer in a state like California. Our population may increase by 25 million over the next 20 years alone and may reach 60 million by 2050, requiring major new investments in transportation.

Governor Jerry Brown is a big supporter of high speed rail, saying that it will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, link California’s population centers and avoid the huge problems of massive airport and highway expansion. The Golden State's bullet train proposal has received more funding from the Obama administration than any other project, which makes it a major target for critics of high-speed rail and critics of the Administration, who are trying to brand it as a "boondoggle."

According to the California High Speed Rail Authority, the high-speed rail system would lower the number of intercity automobile passengers on highways by up to 70 million each year and would eliminate the need to construct 3000 lane miles of highways, 91 airport gates and five additional airport runways.

Moreover, the train system will remove 12 billion pounds of CO2 in the year 2030 by attracting riders from more polluting modes of transit like cars and airplanes, and by using electric power generated from renewable sources like solar and wind. The system is also expected to produce a savings of 12.7 million barrels of oil in 2030.

Many high-speed rail advocates believe the system will be a catalyst for improving urban environments by encouraging wider adoption of smart growth principles in communities near bullet train stations.

But California's bullet train proposal has been targeted by lawmakers at the state and federal level largely because estimates of the costs associated with building the system continue to rise. Current estimates put the cost at nearly $100 billion over 20 years -- twice the estimate in 2008, when Californians approved an initial $9 billion in bond funding for the project.

United States Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood defended the federal government's nearly $4 billion investment in high-speed rail in the Golden State during a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing last week, calling the project essential and saying private investors would also play a role in helping to fund high-speed rail. Hearings continued today, with more partisan debate about the value of the system:

"I just want to see a project on time, under budget and off [agricultural] land," said a California Republican on the Transportation Committee, Rep. Jeff Denham.

"If there's a $33 billion project out there, I'd be all for it," he said.

Supporters of high-speed rail were equally as steadfast Thursdsay.

"The worst thing you can do is try to lead by polls," Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo said. "There's no denying the need of this project to California and how it's going to affect our nation's economy.

"We can either continue to increase the capacity of our highways and airports to meet the population growth, or we can move into the 21st century," California High Speed Rail Authority CEO Roelof Van Ark said. 

One of the factors driving costs is the requirement in the "fine print" of the measure funding the project that trains be able to travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco in no more than two hours and 40 minutes.

According to the Los Angeles Times:

"It was an aggressive goal, requiring cutting-edge technology, and was originally intended to protect the sanctity of the bullet train concept from political compromise. Whether the California High Speed Rail Authority can meet such a schedule is far from certain. Even some backers of the project now say it was a mistake to lock in the strict requirement.

It's hardly an academic issue. The need for speed is driving a number of environmentally difficult and extremely expensive design choices, contributing to the doubling of the project's cost to $98.5 billion. Pricey tunnels and viaducts would enable the train to run up to 220 mph, faster than most high-speed trains travel in Europe and Asia."  

With all the high-stakes political wrangling over the future of California high-speed rail, it's important to 1) put the costs in some context and 2) consider what choices remain if we pull the plug.

In an article titled "Is California’s high-speed rail doomed?" the Washington Post lays out Yonah Freemark's argument in favor of high-speed rail:

"...California’s high-speed rail pricetag isn’t all that unreasonable when placed in context. The United States, as a whole, invested nearly 3 percent of its GDP on public infrastructure between the 1950s and the 1990s. California’s rail project, by contrast, will cost less than 0.2 percent of California’s (stagnant) economy over the next 20 years. And, all told, California is projected to spend about $300 billion on highway infrastructure over the next 20 years.

So California’s voters and politicians will have to decide if that investment is worth it. A big question to consider, after all, is what that money would be spent on instead. The rail authority is arguing that, if the high-speed rail system isn’t built, the state will need to spend an additional $170 billion on new freeways and airport construction to accommodate the travelers who would’ve gone by train. So even if the plug got pulled, California would face plenty of difficult infrastructure choices in the years ahead."

So what's at stake in the debate over high speed rail? No less than our natural resources, the quality of the air we breath, and the amount of time we--and our children and grandchildren--spend sitting in traffic rather than with our families. Hopefully someone will make that point at today's committee hearing.



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