Friday, November 7, 2008

California Dreaming Becoming a Reality

Lost in the euphoria over Barack Obama’s election to the White House came news of historic proportions affecting the future of high-speed rail in the United States. By a 52-48 margin, California voters approved a ballot proposition calling for a $10 billion bond issue to fund a high-speed line linking Los Angeles and San Francisco.

That the measure succeeded in the most difficult economic environment since the Great Depression is testament to its importance. Even Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who postponed an earlier bond referendum, was supportive this time. “We should do what other countries do. All over the world we see high-speed rails that go 200-300 hundred miles an hour. We should do the same thing in this country, especially in this State,” he stressed.

When the line is finished, travelers will be whisked between the state’s two biggest cities at speeds up to 220 mph. Planned future extension would bring high-speed service to Sacramento, San Diego and Riverside County. LA – San Francisco trip times could be as little as 2-1/2 hours, making downtown-to-downtown travel times competitive with air, especially when trips to and from the airport and security checks are taken into account.

It hasn’t been even possible to travel directly by train between LA and San Francisco since 1971. That year, Amtrak rerouted the Southern Pacific’s Coast Daylight to Oakland, extended it to Seattle and renamed it the Coast Starlight. The trip from LA to Oakland, where passengers can chance for a bus to San Francisco, takes nearly 12 hours.

The cost won’t be cheap: an estimated $45 billion when fully built out. Funding from the federal government and private sector will be needed to complete the job. And, just like the building of the transcontinental railway nearly 150 years ago, there could be many pitfalls along the way.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority’s business plan, released today, calls for construction of a dedicated separate right-of-way and use of proven technology from Europe and/or Asia. It anticipates obviating the need for “3,000 miles of new superhighway, five airport runways and 90 departure gates over the next two decades” costing $100 billion.

The high-speed rail line has the potential to not only change the way Californians travel but how they live and work. Central Valley cities like Fresno and Merced could become bedroom communities for Silicon Valley and the Los Angeles basin.

Given California’s growing population, constrained infrastructure, rising fuel costs and increased environmental concerns, the time may be right for this transformative project. Having a pro-rail President certainly can’t hurt, either.

California has long been America’s trendsetter influencing everything from our entertainment to our social mores, our eating habits and how we travel. A successful high-speed rail line in California is bound to generate clamoring for similar services elsewhere.

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