Despite “Train-to-Nowhere” Rhetoric, “Valley First” Approach Moving Forward
The following article was published in the December issue of Californians For High Speed Rail’s e-newsletter The High-Speed Rail Advocate. While many of the arguments in the article have been expressed previously, given the continuation of the “train to nowhere” rhetoric, it seems timely to summarize many of the benefits of a “valley first” approach and to add some analysis. The entire newsletter is available on our website.
With the generally positive reaction to the Draft 2012 Business Plan by transit agencies such as Caltrain and LA Metro, and from Governor Brown and state lawmakers (including project critic Alan Lowenthal), it appears efforts to shift federal HSR funds from the Central Valley to the Bay Area and Los Angeles region are finally over [update: this conclusion may have been a bit premature as there does still appear to be some efforts from leaders in the Los Angeles region]. However project skeptics are still claiming it is a “train to nowhere” and using this argument in attempts to convince lawmakers to send the federal HSR funds back to Washington. Fortunately, Governor Brown continues to express his strong support publicly for moving forward with construction in the Central Valley first.
Given the continued challenges to get sufficient support from stakeholders and lawmakers to move forward with the project in the Central Valley, below is a summary of CA4HSR’s views on merits of the “Valley First” approach.
Technical merits of starting in the Central Valley:
- Lowest cost to build, so initial pot of money will be stretched the farthest of anywhere in the state, greatly building momentum for the project.
- “Train to Nowhere” claim is hogwash – Fresno and Bakersfield metropolitan areas are very large. The Hanford station will also serve the rapidly growing Kings/Tulare Counties. As a whole, the Central Valley is project to have 12 million people living there in coming decades. Twelve million people certainly deserve a $6 billion investment in improved passenger rail service, even if it turns out that it is only to speed up Amtrak in the interim until HSR is finished statewide.
- If HSR construction is slowed for a period of time due to a slowdown in funding, Amtrak’s San Joaquin trains will still be able to utilize the HSR track and significantly speed up service in the Central Valley. Currently, travel in the Central Valley is problematic. Flying is very expensive and Highway 99 is congested and treacherous. By speeding up San Joaquin trains in the interim, travel within the Central Valley will vastly improve. Furthermore, more train travel in the Central Valley will help to reduce air pollution. Even if HSR is put on hold for an extended period of time, something we feel is unlikely to happen, speeding up Amtrak service by 45 minutes is essential for the Central Valley’s economy, environment, and quality of life.
- Test track, which needs to be built first, must be constructed in the Central Valley because of its flat and straight terrain..
Political merits of starting in the Central Valley:
The Initial Construction Segment will take approximately five years to construct. During that five-year span, when we are spending over $6 billion, there will be massive political impetus to find additional funds from a variety of sources (including private and public). The reason this impetus will be so strong is precisely the fact that the large urban areas (Bay Area, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Sacramento) desperately want to participate in the HSR project, as they understand the myriad of benefits. The political brilliance in starting in the Central Valley is to drive the search for more funding. Once construction starts, California will find ways to continue to construction unabated. In other words, construction will never stop until the system is complete (extensions will likely make it a 40-year process of non-stop construction).
If we start in the large urban areas, politicians will end up spending the first pot of money on commuter rail upgrades. With these projects complete, the powerful urban interests will likely be happy enough to conclude that we got what we wanted, so what is the point of fighting hard for more HSR money. Parochialism reigns in California and you can bet that Central Valley will just be forgotten once Caltrain and Metrolink are upgraded. Conclusion: HSR money gets spent on so-called “HSR preparation” project, but true HSR never shows up.
The same argument can be made (politically speaking) about filling the gap between Palmdale and Bakersfield first. If we use the $6 billion on that project, Amtrak will be happy and we have an improved Amtrak service. Under this scenario, one can envision great pressure to use future funds to upgrade Amtrak rather than extending HSR track. Again, true HSR never materializes.
The point is, if we start either in the urban areas or fill the gap first, HSR can easily be dropped. But if we start in the Central Valley, HSR can’t be easily abandoned. Starting in the Central Valley gets us over 100 miles of true HSR track. Once that happens, there is no going back.