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New rail line will allow trips between the Bay Area and LA in under 3 hours

California, a state of 37 million people, is fast growing and in many ways almost a country unto its own.  The state in many cases is the best-case scenario for high-speed rail in America, and thanks to voter approval, the state will be trying to implement precisely such a system, despite high costs.  The plan received a final green light via Senate ratification of a general funding bill [PDF] and will now begin.

I. The Nation's Largest Bullet Train Bid Takes Off

The project will build out high-speed lines between the San Jose/San Francisco are (southern California) and San Diego/Los Angeles (the Bay Area).  The first phase of construction will complete a line from Los Angeles to the central valley of California, while a second push will finish the connection to the Bay Area.

The project is expected to take up to 20 years to complete due to the massive construction effort needed, coupled with the expected hurdles such as suits from environmentalists and private property owners.

California High Speed Rail
[Image Source: U.S. DOT/State of Calif.]

But the payoff will be 2 hour, 40 minute commute between LA and San Francisco aboard a state-of-the-art 220 mph train.

The project is not without its dangers.  First and foremost, it is a very expensive bid for a state that is already cash strapped.  California is ponying up $4.6B USD, in return for $3.3B USD in grants from President Obama's Stimulus Bill.  The project will be financed by bonds, with $2.6B USD needed for the initial 130-mile stretch of track.


II. Ideological Divide

While voters in the state approved the bond plan, support in recent weeks sunk from 52 percent to 39 percent amid reports discussing the financial concerns.  The approval by the state senate was a close 21-16 vote along party lines.

At a time when many are calling for a return to conservatism in America, the sweeping expansion of one of America's largest socialistic institutions -- the government owned transportation lines (private-public rails, federal highways, state highways, etc.) is fodder for much debate. 
 
U.S. Federal Highways
Some conservative think tanks say we should be moving to privatize the federal highway system, not adopting broader socialism. [Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]

Advocates argue transportation routing is a non-excludable good and by its very definition a "public good", hence an ideal candidate for mild socialism.  Some critics have gone as far as to suggest privatizing the federal highway system and scrapping high-speed rail bids, as well.

Many believe the project passed only due to heavy eleventh hour lobbying by Democratic Governor Jerry Brown, who swayed his party colleagues to overlook potential short-term fallout from their voter base.

III. Advocates Hail Victory as Job-Creator

U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood comments, "No economy can grow faster than its transportation network allows.  With highways between California cities congested and airspace at a premium, Californians desperately need an alternative."

President Obama was a vocal supporter of the plan.

Obama speaking
President Obama and his DOT say the project, which mixes state bonds and federal funds will drive job growth. [Image Source: U.S. Aid]

Europe, China, and Japan all have high-speed rail systems.  However, rail in the U.S. is light in both speed and usage.  In theory high-speed rail systems have many advantages, including speed, congestion reduction, and cost.  However, U.S. rail projects have suffered from budget bloat and from the challenging of dealing with the U.S.'s sparser population outside its cities.

Critics are swift to point to failures overseas, such as China who recently was forced to slow trains along its burgeoning $1T USD line due to allegations of corruption and substandard construction materials.  However, Germany, France, and Japan all have very successful systems which service millions and have opened new economic opportunities.

President Obama and Governor Jerry Brown believe the new line will create jobs, and they're both eager to put their money where their mouth is.

IV. Critics Sound Off

State Sen. Tom Harman (R, Huntington Beach) conjured the spectre of the embattled $398M USD Gravina Island Bridge in Alaska, which was colloquially referred to as the "bridge to nowhere" in the 2008 presidential race.  He commented, "It's unfortunate that the majority would rather spend billions of dollars that we don't have for a train to nowhere than keep schools open and harmless from budget cuts."

The comment may seem a slight to Bay Area residents, but the rhetoric stems from the fact that the first phase of construction will only travel through the central valley region of the state, stopping short of the Bay Area.  The Bay Area will be connected in the second phase push.

State Sen. Tony Strickland (R, Moorpark), a Republican running for U.S. Congress in the fall, comments, "This bill is spending money we just simply don't have here in California."

California high speed train
California is racing ahead with high-speed rail, despite objections.
[Image Source: U.S. DOT/State of Calif.]

Indeed, the timing might not be ideal, but for better or worse Calif. is forging ahead with high-speed rail.  Amid a divided state government and equally deep ideological divides across the nation as a whole, all eyes will surely be on this bold experiment in transportation and union/state mixed socialism in years to come.

Sources: Calif. State Senate, Sen. Steinberg, DOT



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This article is over a month old, voting and posting comments is disabled

What benefit, again?
By wookie1 on 7/9/2012 4:37:51 PM , Rating: 2
"But the payoff will be 2 hour, 40 minute commute between LA and San Francisco aboard a state-of-the-art 220 mph train."

Can't you already get between LA and SF in an hour by airplane at much lower cost? How many people actually make this commute on a regular basis? What if some other city becomes a more popular destination over the next 2 decades, you can't move the tracks. This is huge waste in every way, and I don't see why the rest of the country should pay for it.




RE: What benefit, again?
By web2dot0 on 7/9/2012 11:11:39 PM , Rating: 2
How many passengers can a airplane take?!??!?

There's a reason people have highspeed railways built. You make it sound like Trains are for losers and planes are for winners.

For LA and SF suddenly become unpopular destination? I guess we can also make that assumption about NYC, Boston, Chicago .... right .... Nothing is for certain, so why bother doing anything. Status quo is best!!

If you are going to have an argument, at least put some thought into your statements.
Ignorance is not an excuse.


RE: What benefit, again?
By wookie1 on 7/10/2012 12:36:51 PM , Rating: 2
You can much more cheaply re-arrange flights to meet the traveler's needs. Trains are fixed. They also have a huge capital cost, followed by huge ongoing operating expenses. They may be marginally faster than driving, but still much slower than flying. Unless massive subsidies are provided to lower the cost for the few riders (relatively) that they have by the millions that never ride, the tickets cost more than flying or driving as well.

CA is cutting funding for basic services that it normally provides, like schools, fire departments, and police because CA is flat broke and over-extended in debt. Somehow it's a good idea though to sink billions into a train to (and from) nowhere? The debt service and operating costs will weigh heavy on the budget for decades to come.

I think that CA's plan is to just go nuts with reckless spending and projecs like this, and then beg for fed bailout so that the rest of us can pay for their largesse.

I think that there's plenty of thought in my argument, BTW. You haven't advanced any winning argument for trains - what problem so they solve? Foisting the cost of some people getting from point A to B onto millions of others? Union jobs? What's the big plus side?

"Why bother doing anything" - exactly. Travelers can figure out if it makes more sense to them to drive or fly, or even take a bus like Greyhound. A balance of supply/demand, and price signals will ensure that enough alternate travel options are available, and many would prefer to endure the drive to save money. Big f'ing deal.


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