Not long ago, I thought the California bullet train shouldn’t be built.
San Francisco to Los Angeles in less than three hours? Who cares? I can fly it in 55 minutes. Sixty-four billion dollars for a train that could be litigated out of existence before the first foot of track was ever laid? Give me a break. That money would be better spent improving transportation inside our cities instead of between them.
Not that it wouldn’t be great to have a train like the one voters asked for in 2008. It’s the sort of thing, I thought, that would have been great to have thrown together in the 1970s—back when land was cheap, NIMBYs didn't masquerade behind environmental lawsuits, and our state was a little less crowded.
But building it today? Ha! Laughable.
Yet I changed my mind. Where I once viewed the bullet train as a boondoggle of epic proportions, I now see the California High Speed Rail (HSR) as the single project with the most potential to transform our state for the better.
The switch came when a job brought me north, to the Bay Area, from my native Los Angeles, and I began the exercise of splitting my life between north and south.
Flying, of course, was out of the question. Aside from the higher monetary cost, boarding a short flight between the Bay and LA is environmentally destructive. At a moment when our species must significantly curtail our emission of greenhouse gas, the carbon footprint of a 55-minute flight is too large. From an emissions perspective, the obvious choice is to hop on any one of the numerous buses that make the trip. But, given I needed to move possessions and furniture, I opted, like any good Californian, to drive.
On those lonely morning drives, I found myself with only California’s great works of infrastructure to keep me company: the Golden State Freeway, the California Aqueduct, the Tehachapi (water) Lift—all examples of infrastructure our state (and country) has neither built, nor aspired to build in a long time. I thought about those works, and how fundamental they are to our state identity; without aqueducts and freeways, California as we know it wouldn’t exist.
I thought about the state that built those works, and how that state grew into one where many thousands of its residents routinely commute from home to work and back for more than four hours daily. I thought about about the nine gallons of gasoline my car burns over the five-hour freeway trip, how those nine gallons of gasoline turn into 176 pounds of carbon dioxide, and how those 176 pounds belched from my Honda’s tailpipe add to the weight of my own complicity in the warming of our Earth’s atmosphere.
Inevitably, and as boredom set in, I thought about how preferable—for both me and the biosphere—dozing aboard an electric bullet train flying across the Valley floor at 220 mph would be to piloting my Honda down the freeway at 80.
At present, the California High Speed Rail Authority is building bridges and trenches, and realigning utilities and roads to clear the way for the train’s tracks. The Authority’s articulated goal is to have a segment of track between Fresno and San Jose operational by 2025—a trip anticipated to take only about an hour. State officials aim to begin passenger service between San Francisco and Orange County in 2029.
Whether or not those dates are attainable remains to be seen. Though the High Speed Rail Authority is likely here to stay, litigation can easily stall construction progress and drive up costs ad infinitum. And elected California Republicans have adopted a rigid stance against the train, going so far as to place a proposition on the June 2018 ballot that could keep crucial revenue from the state’s cap-and-trade program from flowing to the rail project.
On the flip side, California’s population will continue to grow and demand more from our aging and over-capacity infrastructure. The train would thread together almost every large city in the state, and for the first time easily link the state’s affluent coastal regions to its hardscrabble interior. Cities like Fresno, which has rezoned its downtown area to accommodate thousands of new homes built close to the city’s future HSR station, and others in the Central Valley are already preparing for the train’s arrival.
In a report released earlier this month, researchers from the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) argue that the HSR is an economically transformative project that will dramatically alter the course of California’s future growth.
The HSR will compress travel time between, for example, Fresno and San Jose to slightly less less than an hour—down from about three by car—about the same length of time it takes BART to snake its way from Pittsburgh to the Embarcadero station. On one hand this opens up the possibility for, say, tech workers to commute relatively painlessly from the Central Valley. But it also means companies that would otherwise set up shop in Silicon Valley could put down roots in the San Joaquin and still have easy access to the Bay Area.
Aside from dramatically altering where Californians can potentially live and work in the state, SPUR also argues the HSR will be a critical catalyst in weaning the state off its dependence on personal cars. As California cities, particularly those in the Central Valley, build more dense housing in their HSR-station-sporting downtowns, the need to build sprawling, land- and resource-dependent suburbs disappears.
And then there’s the all-important question of how California will reach its goal to reduce statewide emissions of greenhouse gases to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. Eliminating the lion’s share of car and air travel between—and spurring dense development within—the state’s major cities, as the bullet train’s boosters hope to do, gets the state that much closer to its ambitious goal.
To let the California high speed rail fail due to a lack of ambition and forethought would be a disservice to ourselves and our children, period.