Fast Trains There; Dreams of Fast Trains Here

Almost three years after Republican California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation that put $2.5 million in the kitty of the California High Speed Rail Authority, which is charged with overseeing the planning of a 700-mile network of fast trains in the nation’s largest state, Schwarzenegger has had a change of heart. The governor’s 2007 budget proposal calls for cutting state appropriations for the Authority, according to an article in the April 29, 2007 edition of the Los Angeles Times, and has asked the Legislature to postpone indefinitely a public vote on a $9.95 rail bond issue that was scheduled to appear on the November 2008 ballot. The reason for all of this, according to Adam Mendelsohn, one of the governor’s spokesmen, “Right now the voters are crying for relief from congested freeways. That’s the immediate priority.” 

Say what? Congestion relief from building more highways? Can’t be done. America has built hundreds of thousands of miles of expressway and congestion is worse than ever. Why? The rate of increase in the number of vehicles is rising much faster than the rate that states and the federal government can build more miles of freeway. That’s because they cost upwards of $50 million a mile to build, $100 million to rebuild, and millions more to maintain.

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It’s a mismatch that can not be resolved so long as American communities continue to spread out and the primary transporation mode is highways and personal vehicles. In California traffic volumes tripled from 1965 to 2000. The state’s population doubled during the same period to  almost 34 million. California is adding more people now — about 452, ooo annually — than at any time since the 1980s. There isn’t enough money in California or anywhere in the rest of America to pave over the landscape to save 5 minues on a commute. Period.

Millions of citizens, dozens of communities, and a few courageous and prominent political leaders understand there’s a need to think differently about this. Governor Schwarzenegger is one of them. Last year he campaigned for the $37 billion “Rebuild California” bond, which was easily approved by California voters. The bond’s intent is to be the state’s first concerted response to the global market, environmental, demographic, and economic trends that threaten to upend the Pacific Coast, and every other region of America. Most of the $22 billion devoted to transportation will be used to improve existing roads and highways. The plan is not a new highway building fund. That’s a change. About $1 billion is directed to improving public transit. Other features of the bond were designed to secure the state’s natural resources, deal with the impending fresh water supply crisis that California faces, and strengthen public education. In other words, the Rebuild California plan’s goal is to improve communities and the quality of life, and that’s a change too.

On those facts alone, the governor’s new distate for high speed rail makes no sense. But now consider what’s happening in the Bay Area, where last week a gasoline tanker truck crashed, burned, and destroyed the ramp where the Oakland Bay Bridge, the primary east-west entrance and exit from San Francisco, empties traffic onto Interstate 580. City and state elected leaders had two options to suggest to commuters and avert a cultural and economic meltdown. Drive to and leave work in off-peak hours, or use the region’s excellent regional rapid transit system. Guess what. Ridership on BART increased dramatically because the system is safe, clean, efficient, and easy to use.

It will take months to repair the ramp and in that time BART will develop thousands of new regular riders. The same thing happened after 9/11 when ridership on Amtrak’s northeast corridor increased and has stayed high ever since. 

Schwarzeneggers biggest problem with the high speed proposal isn’t the Republican party’s ideological barrier against rail, it’s money. The rail system that would tie the Bay Area and Sacramento to Los Angeles and San Diego, via the San Joaquin Valley, would carry passengers on trains traveling up to 220 mph and compete with the French, Japanese, and Chinese for the best high speed rail network on the globe. But the projected cost of the 700-mile system has climbed from $25 billion in 1999 to $37 billion, according to the state’s high speed rail authority. 

Oh my! Well consider that the cost of building highways has climbed faster. We’ve got a lot of experience with that in Michigan. In 1996, for example, the Michigan Department of Transportation estimated that a bridge and new highway across the Boardman River valley here in Traverse City, would cost $15 million. By the time the highway proposal died in 2004 the official cost estimate had soared to over $55 million and was heading to nearly $100 million.

Regardless, $37 billion is a lot of money, and we ought to carefully consider how to spend it. At current costs, for that kind of money you get about 700 miles of new concrete freeway that will last about 30 years and then have to be completely rebuilt. Or you get super fast, comfortable, convenient trains and 700 miles of high speed rail that won’t need to be replaced for at least 100 years if you take care of them. You also get new station stops, new walkable patterns of housing and business development around those stops, cleaner air, energy-efficiency, speed, jobs, and time.

The other principal critique of rail proposals in the United States is this one: Nobody will use it. “Critics see the high-speed train as a potential boondoggle that would be a drain on the state treasury,” said the Los Angeles Times, “and a loser that would never pay for itself. Consider, they say, the poor performance of most long-distance U.S. passenger rail service.”

There are two parts to an appropriate response. The first is that the United States has done everything it can to drain resources and diminish Amtrak’s performance. Still, Amtrak carries 69,000 passengers a day and ridership has been increasing one to two percent a year. Moreover, the very same American business travelers who wouldn’t dare set foot in a long-distance train here are flocking to them in Europe and Asia. Why? They’re reliable, fast, cost-effective, and much more relaxing than traveling by air. “Trains in Europe run like a clock,” Ralph Smith, an executive from Minneapolis, told the New York Times for an article in the April 24, 2007 edition. “They’re nice and clean and fast. And the rail staffs are very helpful to Americans who kind of don’t know where they’re going.”  

The fact is that the industrial nations we are competing with around the globe are building high speed rail networks. It’s prompted a boom for Siemens, Bombardier, Alstom, and other manufacturers who are busy filling multi-billion dollar contracts to build lines and equipment in China, Japan, France, and other nations. High speed rail represents the transportation Mode Shift that makes sense for modernizing economies that are anticipating the transformative demographic, environmental, and economic forces of the 21st century.  

As long as the United States keeps thinking highway, we fall further and further behind. Come to Michigan. We have all the highways a modern society thinks it needs, a smattering of passenger trains, and no regional rapid transit. Our biggest metropolitan region is fading away. Our economy is obsolete. Our bright college-educated kids, who we’ve spent billions educating, are leaving to build the economies of cities that have long-dsitance rail and regional rapid transit systems. Michigan is becoming the new American backwater, and still some lawmakers are considering hiking the gas tax to build more roads. 

A final thought. Voters have the opportunity to make the case for high speed rail in 2008, when the Democrats, who are far more sympathetic to public transportation than the Republicans, will take the White House. And when they do all of the public transit agencies and city officials and citizen advocates across the country who see the future on rail and not concrete need to be much more active in making the case for constructing fast intercity regional rail systems, and equipping those systems with sleek state-of-the art trains. A national movement can certainly be built from all of the regional high speed rail systems proposed around the United States. 

Along with California, high speed rail networks are proposed in:

That’s a lot of territory and spans 85 percent of the presidential delegates. Candidates could pick up a lot of support on that new high speed platform. 

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5 comments on “Fast Trains There; Dreams of Fast Trains Here

  1. Ryan Hoover says:

    Ignorant US policy makers fail to realize that transporting people at affordable fares for a profit can’t be done. Witness the continuing bankruptcy of airlines over the last 15 years. Eventually, I see an “Amair” national passenger airline, subsidized by our ineffective government as the only way to keep planes in the air at affordable fares. Once in place, a high speed rail line will operate faster and much more cheaply than flying petro-guzzling aircraft. The only high speed rail line that covers fares, I believe, is Japan’s original Tokaido line Tokyo-Hiroshima-Hakata, where trains travel as fast as 186 mph (300 kph). Trains are frequent — every 15-30 minutes — and very heavily used. Even operator JR West requires taxed subsidies for maintenance but fares do recover operating costs.

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