By John Robin Witt
The State of California will use a $2.25 billion boost from the federal government to move ahead on planning and eventually constructing the most extensive high-speed train system in the country. Moreover, the system could create an engine for job growth and serve as a technological and business model for other states hoping to build similar high-speed systems.
The 800-mile system, with trains running at up to 220 mph, would serve Californians from San Diego and Orange County in the south, to San Francisco and Sacramento in the north. As a bonus, the High-Speed Rail Authority (Authority) estimates that every billion dollars spent on the high-speed rail system would generate some 20,000 jobs and up to 600,000 paychecks during the duration of construction.
“I can’t overstate how important this is to a state with 12.4 percent unemployment and more than 2.25 million people out of work,” said U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California.
“State leaders fought hard for this investment because it means jobs, jobs, jobs for Californians,” said Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. He said that with the federal investment, California “will be able to create jobs, stimulate our economy and be home to the first true high-speed rail system to break ground in the nation.”
The cash infusion came in January when the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) distributed $8 billion to projects across the county – with the largest chunk going to California. The Golden State went to the head of the line because it had the most advanced planning for such a project, and its voters in 2008 had approved nearly $10 billion in bonds. That bond total includes $950 million for improvements to commuter and intercity rail, and local transit lines to support and connect to the high-speed rail system.
“As is typical of California, they have been way ahead of the curve,” said USDOT Secretary Ray LaHood. “People (in California) have been working on and dreaming about high-speed rail for more than a decade, and they were willing to put some of their own tax dollars up to help fund it.”
The massive project is reminiscent of California’s vision during the 1950s and 1960s when it made far-reaching investments in a number of projects: its highway/freeway system, large aqueducts to move water from north to south, and support for the University of California and other higher public education systems.
The Authority’s 2009 business plan, delivered to the California Legislature, estimated that environmental reviews for some high-speed rail sections could be completed in 2011, with construction beginning a year later. The electrically powered trains would be fully separated from automobile traffic and would be a serious transportation option for 90 percent of the state’s residents. It is being designed to be able to carry more than 100 million passengers a year.
The Authority says that Phase I of the public works project would extend more than 500 miles from San Francisco to Anaheim, and be completed by 2020 at an estimated cost of $42.6 billion (in years-of-expenditure dollars). It would allow passengers to travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco in about two and one-half hours.
Phase II would extend south to San Diego and north to Sacramento. A trip between Anaheim and Sacramento would take about two and a half hours, and about an hour between Fresno and San Jose.
Some critics of the high-speed rail system contend that the Authority’s cost estimates are too low, and that fewer passengers than have been projected will actually ride the system. State planners believe, however, that California’s population will rise to some 50 million by 2030, increasing interregional travel to a billion trips a year.
In Issue 3 of the 2009 California Transportation Journal, Mehdi Morshed, the Authority’s outgoing Executive Director, suggested that the high-speed rail route would actually save money for California.
“According to the Authority’s updated business plan…high-speed trains will alleviate the need to spend nearly $100 billion to build about 3,000 miles of new freeway, five airport runways and 90 departure gates during the next two decades,” Morshed wrote. “A statewide high-speed train system will meet that same need for about half the cost.”
In addition, he said the system would use one-third of the energy of airplanes, one-fifth of the energy of passenger automobiles, cut California’s dependence on foreign oil by 12.7 million barrels a year, and reduce greenhouse gases that cause global warming, by 12 billion pounds each year.
For more information about the progress of California's High-Speed Rail System please go to: http://www.cahighspeedrail.ca.gov