30 Lost Years
With the possibility that Jerry Brown might be elected to his third term as governor on Tuesday, it seemed worth taking a trip back to 1982. Brown was finishing his second term as governor and running for a seat in the US Senate against San Diego mayor Pete Wilson. Wilson won, but Brown left an important legacy – California’s first high speed rail project.
In 1982, the PBS show NOVA did an episode titled “Tracking the Supertrains.” It’s very dated, but also quite interesting – includes an interview with the Las Vegas mayor about maglev from SoCal to Vegas. The segment below is focused on the LA-SD HSR project that would replace the San Diegans (rebranded in 2000 as the Pacific Surfliner), the plan that Governor Brown embraced:
Segment 6 was quite critical of the “California shinkansen” plan, and may have played a role in the later demise of the plan (more about that below) but it’s still worth watching for the history lesson.
One might be tempted to snicker at how little of this ever came to pass. But my reaction is one of sadness. Even as late as 1982 there was a lot of interest and research in maglev and high speed trains in the US, as memories of the 1970s energy crisis remained strong. But Reagan got elected, oil prices crashed, and transportation budgets were slashed. The US shackled itself to the automobile, and by the 2000s, when the energy crisis returned for good, we had thirty years of catching up to do.
On the LA-SD route, the expected congestion has materialized and a trip between the two city centers by car typically takes much longer than the 2 hours it would take on an open freeway. We spent billions of dollars to widen I-5 in Orange County (subsidized by sales tax dollars) in the 1990s and might spend at least $4 billion to widen I-5 in San Diego County. But had Brown’s plan been sustained – the legislature began criticizing it in 1983 after anti-HSR cities like Tustin (where I was born and raised) pledged to bitterly fight it and the American High Speed Rail Corporation folded soon thereafter – then we would have been much further along in our efforts to develop sustainable intercity passenger rail transportation.
It is fitting that California, which approved the high speed rail plan in November 2008, is about to bring back to the governor’s office the one political leader we’ve ever had who was willing to be honest about – and do something about – our state’s energy and transportation crisis. We already wasted 30 years dithering on the high speed rail project, although since the 1990s that time has been used to craft a solid and sensible plan to finally build it. Now that we’re close to breaking ground on the first segment, we need to resist and reject the voices that would have us waste another 30 years, and instead move ahead with the California high speed rail project with all deliberate speed.