Back on track

A Sacramento Superior Court judge ruled that the state’s high-speed rail authority did not have the legal right to issue construction bonds, but it’s not the final word on the subject.

In fact, nothing has come easily when it comes to California and rail in recent history.

First, there’s been a struggle to convince voters that high-speed rail is both feasible and necessary, followed by an economic downturn that made funding the project even more difficult. Now, we’ve got naysayers lining up with tax watchdogs attempting to, once again, set the parking brake on the project.

Critics are right in some respects. We need a sensible long-term funding plan to protect this major, transformational infrastructure from future economic vicissitudes. But the reflexive “No!” from anti-tax forces must be rejected.

The one thing a state as large as California needs more than any other is a high-quality, environmentally sound transportation structure. High-speed rail linking the north with the south isn’t just a good idea, it’s also absolutely necessary, given the reasonable—and supported by evidence—forecasts for climate change.

That doesn’t mean the California High-Speed Rail Authority or its proponents are exempt from transparency about finances, costs and planning. It simply means that we must put our civic and political will behind this project. It will only get more expensive the longer we wait. It’s time to start building.

However, our support for high-speed rail doesn’t mean that we should neglect existing rail. The news that ridership is dropping on Amtrak’s Capitol Corridor train is disturbing. A suggested reason for this drop is the addition of competing bus service on the same route. That makes sense, and might mean that, in order to remain an effective use of transportation resources, Amtrak will need to adjust its timetable and prices.

On the other hand, though, we’ve heard some complaints that indicate the real problem is the rearrangement of the Sacramento station. The new layout takes longer to walk, which means that the commuters from farther up the hill need to make their connection there earlier.

Using transit to commute includes some sacrifices in exchange for skipping out on the stress—and environmental impact—of a driving commute, and one of those sacrifices is that time is no longer our own.

Commuter rail serves every bit as valuable a purpose in keeping the state on track as high-speed rail will. We need a rail system that works, that includes several options for travelers and commuters and one that rewards those who are taking the most sustainable options.

Yes, sometimes we’ll still need to drive to the Bay Area. But if we’ve got other options, we won’t drive unless we actually must. And, eventually, a flight won’t be the only choice for a trip to the southern part of the state.

It makes everything easier—not to mention cleaner, healthier and less congested—for all Californians if we continue building our state’s passenger rail system.