Train spotting

No one ever doubted that bringing a European-style, high-speed rail system to California—connecting Los Angeles, San Jose and San Francisco with extensions to Sacramento and San Diego—was going to be a Herculean undertaking. That’s why we at SN&R are ready to stand up and applaud whenever the process moves forward.

The project got out of the station last week when California’s High-Speed Rail Authority released a first (and tentative) map that showed projected routes from Sacramento to Bakersfield, San Francisco to San Jose, Oakland to San Jose and San Diego to Los Angeles. The map provides an early picture of what the 700-mile bullet-train system will look like at build-out as it zips passengers between the state’s major cities at 200 mph. (For example, the rail system will carry a passenger from the Bay Area to Los Angeles in a little more than two hours.)

For Sacramento, the just-released map was an affirmation of locally ballyhooed plans to turn the historic downtown train depot on I Street into a major transportation hub for the region. The rail-authority officials recommended the depot for a station instead of giving the nod to one at Power Inn Road.

At an ultimate cost of about $37 billion, the rail system is forecast to carry 68 million passengers a year by 2020. But a lot has to happen between then and now to make it so. Already, a $9.9 billion Phase 1 bond measure that was headed for the 2004 ballot was postponed until 2006 because of California’s budget crisis. That bond, which would finance only the early line from San Francisco to Los Angeles, now will be on the November 2006 ballot.

Rail enthusiasts are quick to point out to doubters the efficacy of spending that much money on one transportation project. Moving the same number of people by car in 2020 would require more than twice that much in upgrades to our existing trillion-dollar freeway system. Specifically, we’re talking a stunning 3,000 new miles of highway.

Is Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on board with the bullet train? He’s given faint verbal support but was basically responsible for postponing the Phase 1 bond, because it could have been seen as competing with his $15 billion state bailout bond measure of last June. So, the jury’s basically out on the governor’s commitment to this. To him and other politicians, we offer two arguments: (1) The bullet train is a great way to tackle the state’s most serious quality-of-life problems in the future—i.e., traffic congestion and air pollution. (2) Two-thirds of state voters already support it.

The dream of bringing high-speed trains to California remains a monumental one, no doubt about it. But it’s all achievable if we keep to the vision, support the process and take things step by step, or perhaps station by station.