Fast track, green train

Time is running out for high-speed rail if the governor and the Legislature really want to fight global warming

Assemblywoman Fiona Ma and Mehdi Morshed, executive director of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, discuss high-speed rail at the Capitol on Monday.

Assemblywoman Fiona Ma and Mehdi Morshed, executive director of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, discuss high-speed rail at the Capitol on Monday.

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

Watch the record-setting French TGV high-speed-rail train travel from Paris to Strasbourg:

Read Melinda Welsh’s February 1, 2007, cover story on high-speed rail, “2 hours to L.A.--why not?

When Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the Global Warming Solutions Act into law last year, it added credibility to his claim of being an environmentalist. But there’s a major red flag in the governor’s green resume: Schwarzenegger chose not to fund high-speed rail this year, which may be one of the only ways to reach the act’s emission-reduction targets, according to a recent study.

This month, the Bay Area-based Transportation and Land Use Coalition reported that high-speed rail in California would dramatically reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Over 40 percent of CO2 emissions in the state come from automobiles and planes.

“If you really are trying to reduce global warming, and if we really are trying to reduce energy use by transportation,” argued Mehdi Morshed, executive director of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, “the more people you transfer into a train, instead of a car or a plane, the better off you are. The energy efficiency for trains is about six-times that of a car or airplane.”

However, in January Schwarzenegger proposed a mere $1.2 million for the CHSRA, an amount that would cover only administrative costs and falls significantly short of the $106 million requested for further research and infrastructure development. It’s now up to the state Legislature to fully fund the CHSRA.

The governor also proposed to postpone the $9 billion high-speed-rail bond tentatively set to go before voters next year. High-speed rail would shuffle tens of millions of passengers between Sacramento and Los Angeles on a 225 mph bullet train.

The Legislature continues to weigh out the pros and cons.

Earlier this month, a bipartisan delegation led by Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, D-Los Angeles, went to Paris to study the French high-speed train, or Train à Grande Vitesse. Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, was the only American legislator aboard the TGV from Paris to Strasbourg, which topped out at a record-setting 357.16 mph.

“You couldn’t see anything out the window. There was a plane flying next to us filming—that’s how fast we were going,” Ma said. “Those that like speed, the people on the train who are in this business, were having a great time. They were cheering and shouting, and I was like, ‘OK, when are we going to slow down?’”

But environmental-science and transportation experts now warn that if California is going to rein in climate change and meet its emission-reduction targets, the bullet train needs to be put on the fast track.

“Because of projected and demonstrated increases in vehicle-miles traveled,” explained Carli Paine, transportation program director with TALC, “we can’t really return emissions to 1990 levels through only cleaner fuels and technology.” Last year’s act mandates that California reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, and then 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

The transportation sector specifically will have to reduce CO2 emissions by 18 million metric tons, something a hydrogen highway, hybrid cars and ethanol fuels simply can’t accomplish alone. Part of the problem is that the California corridor, which spans from Sacramento to San Diego, is one of the most-traveled transportation passageways in the nation. “Air travel creates a humongous amount of greenhouse-gas pollution,” Paine further noted, and the San Francisco-Los Angeles air corridor is the most highly trafficked in the world.

“This is already a huge problem,” Ma agreed, “and this is going to be a bigger problem down the road if 10 million more people come by 2025.”

“High-speed train is one of the biggest contributors to reducing CO2 emissions,” explained Morshed. “About 40 percent of the CO2 reductions that have been set up as a goal in the [act] is accomplished by building high-speed train.”

“If we made [California’s] the first high-speed-rail project in the world that’s zero emissions,” Paine noted, “we would curb 9 million metric tons a year of greenhouse-gas emissions by 2030, which is the equivalent of getting 1.94 million cars off the road.” If you take into account high-end ridership figures, Paine said, California would eliminate nearly 12 million metric tons, or two-thirds of the act’s emission-reductions goal, all the while booting some 2.6 million cars off the road.

These projected reductions are unequaled. According to a report conducted by the Center for Clean Air Policy, “The emissions savings in California are estimated to be approximately equal to the combined total savings from all [nine] other [transportation] corridors” in the United States.

Assemblywoman Ma and her colleagues’ efforts all may be in vain, however, if the governor continues to underfund the CHSRA.

“The decision is up to the Legislature now,” Morshed challenged. “We don’t have anything like [high-speed rail] in this country, and until people actually go out there and see how it operates and talk to the people who run it and so forth, it doesn’t quite register with them.” He hopes the trip to France will increase awareness.

Ma will be meeting with fellow legislators in the coming weeks to brief her colleagues on the delegation’s findings. Afterward, she’ll “try to get some of the money, if not all, back into the budget for the High Speed Rail Authority. This is the short-term priority.”

But, over the long term, the governor’s office has different priorities. “The governor, in January, proposed to finish the job that got started last year with the strategic road plan, which is his plan to rebuild highways, schools, levees and all of that,” said H.D. Palmer, the governor’s deputy finance director. The governor’s current priority is rebuilding existing transportation infrastructure, as per the $20 billion in bonds approved last year, not high-speed rail. “You cannot do that at the same time that we would do the high-speed-rail bond and still be able to have acceptable debt-service levels,” Palmer said of the state’s fiscal liability.

This is where high-speed rail becomes an issue: how to pay for it. Next year’s possible $9 billion general-obligation bond has legislators like Assemblyman Mike Duvall, R-Yorba Linda, wary. “Most of my constituents don’t even like the word ‘bonds,’” he quipped.

Duvall, however, was part of the France delegation and supports the idea of high-speed rail in California. Pollution and transportation gridlock in his north Orange County district is just as much a problem as it is in the Bay Area.

“When you figure the time it takes in a security check, driving to the airport and parking your car, then waiting to take off and land and getting your luggage,” Duvall said, “the train for the same amount of time is a much safer, faster and better thing for people.”

Assembly Speaker Núñez still is on the fence. “We support High-Speed Rail,” his press secretary Richard Stapler said, “but we also support examining the size of the bond in the context of all the other bonds and the state of California’s bonding capabilities.”