What is the Future of Rail in California if High-Speed Rail Does Not Proceed in 2012?
The following article was published in the March 2012 issue of Californians For High Speed Rail’s e-newsletter The High-Speed Rail Advocate. The entire newsletter is available on our website.
Killing the HSR project by deciding not to move forward this year will not only necessitate construction of pollution-increasing highway and airport expansions, it will dramatically alter how HSR will be built in the future in California. Since HSR will have to happen regardless if we move forward now or not, due to population growth and environmental realities, I thought it might be useful to consider how a delay in developing a HSR system will change the nature of HSR permanently in California. It should be noted that the scenario I believe likely will be a greatly inferior one to the current proposal that prioritizes access to Central Valley cities. Rather than serving as a tremendous economic catalyst for our mid-sized Central Valley cities of Fresno and Bakersfield, as well as the growing Tulare County cities, these urban areas will continue to be isolated from the large economic engines located in Sacramento, the Bay Area, and the Los Angeles region by building HSR later. Additionally, environmental consequences will become much more severe by waiting to build HSR in terms of air pollution, global warming, sprawl/loss of farmland, and human health.
Minimal and Insignificant Improvements to the State Rail System for the Next 20+ Years
If we drop HSR now, after almost $1 billion in planning and a huge federal commitment of funds and time, our federal partners will have little inclination to work with California to improve intercity rail for at least 10-15 years. And why would the federal government want to work with California after being burned? In fact, in addition to the unspent federal HSR money California will have to return, the FRA will likely ask for a several hundred of millions in refunds of money we have already spent on planning as well as other costs associated with cancellation of the project. These refunds would have to come out of the state’s depleted general fund. This situation will leave us not only missing out on all the short- and long-term jobs and a further deterioration of our general fund, it will also cause the federal government to avoid funding California project for several years in the future as our governance system will be perceived as too risky to invest in.
After a decade or so, the federal government might be willing to fund small projects again, such as incremental improvements to Amtrak’s San Joaquin line. Such improvements will only come online within a 15- to 20-year timeframe and will only lead to minor time savings and to insignificant ridership increases (when compared to increases in transportation demand in the Central Valley). The 45-minute decrease in operating times that the Initial Construction Segment of the current HSR project will provide for the San Joaquin trains will not be achievable with these incremental sets of improvements. Additionally, we will be stuck with a bus connection to Los Angeles. This path is very underwhelming and will simply contribute to an ever-increasing congestion fiasco. Furthermore, the closing of the gap between Bakersfield and the Los Angeles Basin will simply not be affordable without a HSR project to leverage large amounts of funding. Ironically, our friends over at RailPAC criticize the HSR project because it does not start by closing this gap, when the HSR project is the only feasible way to close the gap.
HSR Will Eventually Be Built, but Will Likely Go Down I-5, Continuing the Isolation of Central Valley Cities
Even if we cancel HSR today, it will become clear to the next generation that HSR is an absolute necessity and pressure created by massive congestion will compel the state to finally proceed. However, I don’t see HSR gaining the political strength to proceed for at least 20 years, potentially upward of 30 years. Remember, it has taken us 30 years to get the point we are today after the last effort to build HSR in California between Los Angeles and San Diego was cancelled in the early 1980s. If the massive effort and political capital already expended in today’s effort to build HSR fails, the result will be gun-shy politicians for decades to come who will be unwilling to touch a new HSR project. Rather, the aforementioned San Joaquin upgrades along with commuter upgrades will likely be all the state political system will be capable of.
When the time finally arrives to start another effort to build HSR, the conception of how we configure the system will need to be greatly altered due to the terrible land-use trends that exist in the Central Valley in terms of land consumption for sprawl. Over the next 20+ years, notwithstanding the temporary slowdown in development due to current economic situation, sprawl will continue to encourage larger and larger urbanized areas near the ROW required to bring HSR to city centers. Due to this, land costs will explode and impacts on residential neighborhoods and businesses will greatly increase, making HSR a much more costly and politically difficult proposition. Additionally, the memory of a failed effort to bring HSR to city centers in the Central Valley will make it politically difficult to attempt to construct HSR to the cities.
This is why the likely scenario is that a rebooted-HSR project will likely go end up going down the Interstate 5 corridor, which is already being promoted by various organizations and individuals. To be clear, while I see this is the likely scenario if we punt now, I think it is a tragic scenario for the environment and for tying the rapidly growing population centers of the Central Valley to the economic engines of the state. I have always held that the I-5 corridor is an absurd alignment because it bypasses population centers of the Central Valley. It is essentially people-free. Downtowns will continue to languish, sprawl pattern of land-use will continue, and ridership will plummet on the HSR system. It will also hurt businesses that could greatly benefit by relocating to the Central Valley in search of cheaper land costs, rents, etc.
However, for all the reasons mention above, we will likely have to accept this vastly inferior HSR system if we hold off building HSR. HSR will happen but there are massive costs to system efficiency and economic development by taking a risk-adverse stance now and hedging on moving forward. There are also the environmental costs of waiting 25 to 30 years to build the project. While we dither today, we will still have dramatically increase plans to widen freeways and expand airports. There is simply no way to avoid this reality. Pollution will continue to increase, asthma rates will continue to soar, and many additional deaths from automobile accidents will occur because we let fear get the better of us today. The world rewards boldness, and if we lack courage now, our children’s or grandchildren’s generation will end up with a necessary but less effective and transformative HSR system in California.