California’s high speed rail system is currently in the hands of the state court system. An adverse decision could kill the opportunity to get federal funding and therefore likely kill the project for a generation. But in the meantime, plans proceed to start the line in the San Joaquin Valley, an area largely hostile to high speed rail due to conservative politics and lacking in a solid population or political base to advocate for the system’s expansion to the coasts.
So where should high speed rail start? Los Angeles to San Diego. The two cities are major population centers that are too close to fly and too far for a convenient drive (it’s taken me four hours due to traffic). It’s basically the perfect situation for high speed rail, and the Amtrak line serving the two cities is already successful. An electrification and upgrade to the speed would make this ride profitable enough that operating revenue could cover costs.
Building the system in this urban area will be expensive and challenging. And the federal government already requires construction to begin in the Valley for purely political reasons to qualify for federal funds (I hear there are engineering advantages to “test” the trains on the flat Valley surface, but that makes no sense to me for a proven technology like high speed rail). Meanwhile, the state doesn’t even have a plan to extend the system to San Diego until the 2030s and probably later.
Given the situation, high speed rail advocates should push for a three-county bond issue to build this segment of the track (in Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego Counties). Once built, the system pays for itself and provides millions of residents with access to high speed rail each year. And then with that constituency in favor, the system could be expanded north to Bakersfield, Sacramento, and San Francisco.
This localized high speed rail approach should happen even if the courts save high speed rail. Southern Californians shouldn’t have to wait a generation for service, and the state shouldn’t have to pay for less-than-optimal corridors to receive high speed rail first.
Okay high speed rail advocates in Southern California. Time to start planning for November 2016. You heard it hear first (I think).
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