Reject False Choices To Improve California’s Transportation System
We’re seeing a new anti-high speed rail argument unfold in California, and it needs to be smacked down hard. An editorial in the Santa Cruz Sentinel argues that the state’s road maintenance backlog cannot be addressed at the same time as we build new transportation systems like high speed rail. Rather than maintaining what we have while also relieving the wear and tear on roads by developing alternatives, the Sentinel thinks we can only do one or the other, so we should just pour money into road maintenance alone.
According to the CTC report, the state will need to come up with an additional $300 billion over the next decade to maintain and expand current infrastructure. The CTC warns that to meet this challenge there needs to be a “large increase in capital investments by all levels of government, as well as resources from the private sector.”
The report writers go on to say that it would take the state many years to recover from a failure to invest in a transportation system “that is safe and reliable, and which moves people and goods efficiently.”
Based on this, you’d think they would acknowledge high speed rail has to be a part of that solution. It is among the safest, most reliable, most efficient method of moving people in the 21st century that can be imagined. The Sentinel editorial never acknowledges the high cost of gas – they must assume gas is either already cheap or will become cheap again – so they have not factored into their analysis the cost of actually using the transportation system.
But the Sentinel concludes that HSR somehow shouldn’t be in the mix:
First, would be to put the bullet train back in the holster. While the idea remains enticing, the project simply isn’t affordable at a time when the state can’t pay its bills, maintain vital services or fix existing roads.
This is just nonsense. California can afford to do all of these things. It is a rich state. The problem is that the legislature has been prevented, until now, from getting the money it needs to maintain vital services and fix existing roads. (Note that California has been able to pay its bills, has not resorted to IOUs for a while, and is at no risk whatsoever of defaulting on its debt.) The money exists to do all of these things.
More importantly, HSR helps maintain existing roads. It’s a simple point – the more heavily a road is used, the more it deteriorates. In order to afford to maintain roads, it makes sense to provide people alternatives so that the roads get less heavy usage. That extends the life of existing pavement and cuts down on the costs of repavement, reconstruction, and of course makes widening to be unnecessary.
Those are issues Santa Cruz is quite familiar with, as the editorial makes clear:
If you’ve driven around Santa Cruz County, of course, you know this far too well. A survey by an Oakland engineering firm rated the county’s 600 miles of roads at 49 out of a possible 100. In the region, only Monterey and Sonoma counties were rated worse. The county’s 100 miles of rural roads rated a dismal 23.
Meanwhile, traffic congestion on the county’s only coastal freeway, Highway 1, has been awful for more than a decade. At least the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Agency has been diligent in leveraging state and federal funds to make vital improvements to the highway. Still, overall widening remains a divisive political issue in a county where people drive a lot but don’t seem to support roadway improvements.
I’m quite familiar with Highway 1 through Santa Cruz County. It is traffic-choked during commute hours because there is only a narrow corridor of both settlement and possible transportation infrastructure. And there is a parallel railroad that the county now owns, which would serve all the key population centers of the county from Santa Cruz to Watsonville. Passenger rail could carry more than enough passengers to help relieve traffic on Highway 1.
In fact, the lack of rail is one of the reasons for the gridlock on Highway 1. As Silicon Valley grew, Santa Cruz became a bedroom community for Santa Clara County. But instead of providing rail to move people back and forth, Santa Cruz County officials actually blocked rail. One of the people who led that fight was Gary Patton, now with the Planning and Conservation League and a leader in opposing high speed rail. Patton bragged about killing rail from San José to Santa Cruz in 2009. Patton’s motive was to reduce pressure on growth in Santa Cruz, satisfying NIMBYs there.
But what happened was that the growth came anyway, and it came in Watsonville. Excellent farmland was converted to subdivisions and people had to commute on Highway 1, choking the route with traffic. Patton’s stance destroyed farmland and led to gridlock. His policies have been an utter disaster for Santa Cruz County, yet he brags about it and wants the rest of California to suffer the same fate of gridlock and sprawl.
In short, rail helps reduce gridlock and maintenance needs on roads. It is strange at best to conclude that rail should not be part of the answer.
One can look to Europe for an answer. Europe has well-maintained roads in part because it has good rail systems. High speed trains cover their own operating costs, of course, but freeways don’t. Europe has high gas taxes, and the Sentinel suggests California’s gas taxes be raised. That would help, but it’s rail that carries much of the load.
The Sentinel editorial is locked in a 20th century mindset, driven by a tenacious refusal to admit the need to change. They want to believe it’s possible to continue on as before – widen freeways, sink billions into maintenance, pay for it with gas taxes, without trains. The present economic crisis as well as Santa Cruz County’s transportation crisis, is in part a produce of that 20th century path.
The 21st century requires a different approach. Maintain the roads we have and make that easier and more affordable by building rail to give people another option. It’s the obvious and logical solution, resisted only by those whose ideological opposition to rail trumps common sense.
Santa Cruz County will have to turn to passenger rail to solve its transportation problems. So too will California. That includes local rail in places like Santa Cruz, and it includes statewide intercity rail like high speed rail.