Starting HSR in the Central Valley Still Makes Most Sense
I admit my heart skipped a beat when I saw the Los Angeles Times headline “Next Senate leader Kevin de León wants Brown to rethink bullet train.” But the title to George Skelton’s column is meant to be taken literally. “Rethink” isn’t a euphemism for “kill” – instead incoming Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De León wants to rethink how the project is built. Specifically, he wants to start at the “bookends” – in the Bay Area and Southern California:
Gov. Jerry Brown must be saved from himself, says the next state Senate leader. He needs to be talked out of starting the bullet train in the Central Valley boonies.
“I don’t think it makes sense to lay down track in the middle of nowhere,” asserts Sen. Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles). “It’s illogical. No one lives out there in the tumbleweeds.”
De León, who will become the Senate leader in October, says he supports the concept of high-speed rail, but with the caveat that track-laying begin in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas.
De León supports HSR, let’s be clear about that. So this isn’t intended as a way to wreck the project. That said, I think he’s wrong on the policy and the politics.
First off, De León surely knows that the Central Valley isn’t tumbleweeds. Fresno and Bakersfield alone combine for nearly 2 million people. Add in Merced and Hanford-Visalia and you’re pushing 3 million.
Second, it makes perfect sense to build the tracks in the Valley. It’s straight and land is cheap. That enables a lot of tracks to be built affordably, and hopefully, quickly. And it allows a test track to be built that lets the California High Speed Rail Authority work out operational kinks before proceeding to other segments.
Third, it actually makes more political sense. To explain, I’ll first let De León make his case:
“The point I want to make is this: How do we invest the dollars wisely and intelligently? They should be invested in the ‘bookends’ in anticipation of high-speed rail.”
At the same time, he continues, “we’re putting hard hats to work. When people see the healthful impact this is having and all the hard hats constructing, their minds may change about high-speed rail. But out in the Central Valley, where the train’s not going anywhere, no one will see the construction jobs.”
Here’s the problem with this approach. We’ve tried it already. California has invested in passenger rail on the “bookends” for nearly 40 years. That has led to great results for Caltrain and especially Metrolink.
What it hasn’t done is fill in the missing links. After 40 years of work on the bookends, there is still a gap in passenger rail service between Bakersfield and Palmdale. There is only one train a day from SF to LA and it takes 12 hours.
When Californians see rail construction in the coastal metropolises, they don’t think “hey, this is great, it means I want to build rail near Fresno.” They think “hey, this is great, now maybe they’ll build rail near my house in Cupertino or Sherman Oaks or Stanton or Elk Grove.” In short, it doesn’t necessarily follow that upgrading coastal track will produce support for inland investment. After all, we’re at a point now where we’re calling for that inland investment and now coastal legislators are trying to walk it back.
If we invest in the bookends again, there’s nothing to suggest it will build support for Valley construction – and a lot to suggest that it won’t.
Since De León is a supporter of HSR, I want to take him at his word that he means well. So what would it take to meet him in the middle?
Here’s what he says he wants to do:
De León says he intends to start soon by amending a bill passed with the state budget. That bill allocated $250 million in cap-and-trade greenhouse emission fees to the $68-billion train project. In future years, high-speed rail will receive 25% of cap-and-trade money, amounting to several hundred million dollars annually.
De León’s amendments will prioritize reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution in urban areas. A prime example of a worthy project, he says, is at L.A.’s Union Station. The plan is to add substantial track capacity and move commuter and intercity trains through the terminal faster, reducing the long idling that fouls the air.
The project price tag is $350 million. The state already has committed $175 million, but an additional $158 million is needed. De León wants it to come from cap and trade. It’s the kind of project these fees are supposed to pay for.
“The infrastructure at Union Station is antiquated,” the senator says. “High-speed is going to come in eventually. We need to upgrade that system. Every day the Metro comes in, the Amtrak comes in and they idle their engines for hours, spewing poisonous toxins — all that crap — into the air. That increases asthma rates, particularly of poor children who live in the community. That’s in my district, OK?
He’s talking about the run-through tracks, a project I’ve long supported. By all means, build it!
But that’s not high speed rail. Building the run-through tracks will make passenger rail even better. Yet Amtrak California already carries huge numbers of riders. As great as run-through tracks are, we don’t need them to make the case for rail. And those tracks won’t be carrying bullet trains.
The only way a bookends strategy works for HSR is if you actually build bullet trains in the coastal metropolises. LA to Anaheim in 20 minutes. SF to San José in 30 minutes. Do that and I’d have much more confidence that Californians would see a bookend project and demand it be expanded through the gap and across the Valley.
Unfortunately I don’t think that’s what De León has in mind – at least not based on what Skelton’s column shows. HSR money should be used for bullet train infrastructure. Run-through tracks should absolutely be funded right now as well – but not at the expense of the Central Valley.
This shows the need for a lasting, and large, source of revenue for all kinds of passenger rail in California. Democrats have squandered the first year and a half of their Sacramento supermajority by failing to address the state’s transportation funding needs, despite hopes they would do so. Cap-and-trade funds will be a big help, but even that isn’t enough to build out the kind of rail network that California needs, from bullet trains to local streetcars and everything in between.
In the absence of such robust funding, it seems like a bad idea to abandon the Central Valley construction plan, especially since it’s oh-so-close to breaking ground, for a repeat of the “bookends” strategy of the last 40 years that has failed to deliver a reliable north-south rail link.