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A Fatal Bullet for the California Bullet Train?

GETTING THERE FROM HERE - One of the most unpleasant but most vital (and certainly scientific) parts of pursuing California’s “green” initiatives is raising the question of whether those initiatives are as “green” when it comes to money as when it comes to being environmentally-friendly.  In other words, is the science and cost-benefit analysis for a proclaimed “green” initiative as solid as its hype?
There are many individuals from all segments of the political spectrum who remain solid supporters of high-speed rail of some sort in California, but as both a firm believer in the Scientific Method and as a physician, I have to consider whether it is as environmentally-friendly, technically-feasible or cost-effective as its promoters claim it is.

(Similarly, the questions remain unanswered as to whether alternative fuel technology is as cost-effective, environmentally-friendly or fiscally prudent as its political and economic promoters and beneficiaries claim it is, but I digress …)

A rather “timely” article by the L.A. Times addresses a key talking point—and perhaps a fatal flaw—used in selling the California High Speed Rail (CAHSR) Initiative to the voters:  the time constraint of requiring CAHSR trains to travel from Union Station in Los Angeles to San Francisco in 2 hours, 40 minutes.

As former CAHSR chief executive Mehdi Morshed (who insisted on the timeframe in the language of the CAHSR ballot initiative) explained, this language was critical in ensuring that the CAHSR trains were competitive with airplanes ... because otherwise you would have a slow train to nowhere that no one would use.

Fair enough.  But with time and fact-finding comes the greater knowledge and need to consider revisiting a rigid timeframe that might be both the CAHSR’s most attractive feature and its most dangerous poison pill.  Politically and financially, the CAHSR is at great risk of being abandoned altogether by the voters and by Congress (who are both rightfully looking at ways to reduce state and federal budgets).

And right now the CAHSR project looks “like a train to nowhere”.

This doesn’t mean that Mr. Morshed was wrong for his insistence in 2008 for his insistence on the timeframe, but it does mean that we all have to consider rethinking the timeframe (or even the project as a whole) in the years 2011-12.  We know more now, so it’s not wrong to ask the following questions:

1) So long as the CAHSR and connected Metrolink, Amtrak and Caltrain passenger rail routes are reliable and not forced to share tracks with commercial/freight routes, how much would it cost to extend the 2 hours, 40 minutes to, say, 3 hours and 30 minutes?  (If the costs go significantly lower, then the ridership concerns might not materialize.)

2) Is the Lancaster/Palmdale dog leg (projected to add 15 minutes to the ride between Northern and Southern California) worth it, or should we straighten the route, annoy a few folks in the area but allow a speedier route along the I-5 freeway to the delight of the majority of Californians?  

3) Speaking of the I-5, now that the CAHSR costs have mushroomed in size, would it more cost-effective to just drop the CAHSR project and widen that freeway by another lane each way to enhance north-south transportation (remember, it’s one thing to be a rail advocate, but a better thing to be a transportation advocate)?

4) Is the Lancaster/Palmdale airport really an airport that many would use if CAHSR access were available from Union Station?  Or is Ontario Airport the “real” LAX-alternative that should have access enhanced by a more cost-effective upgrade of the Southern California Metrolink system?

5) It is indeed likely that a Lancaster/Palmdale dog leg of the CAHSR would facilitate a Southern California/Las Vegas CAHSR link, but is that worth the dog leg?  Or is the Lancaster/Palmdale dog leg just a cost-ineffective drag on the CAHSR that promotes suburban sprawl?

6) Can the costs further be kept down by innovative measures, such as opening up the bidding process to nonunion contractors, or will this be just a pork barrel giveaway to politically-connected special interests?  And is assigning some of the most unskilled labor assignments to nonviolent prison offenders who can reduce their prison terms in the process a way to save the taxpayers even more money?

7) Most importantly, now that projected California population figures are not exploding in size as previously anticipated, is the need for the CAHSR project as critical as once thought?

I again proclaim my steadfast support for high-speed rail in California as an economic benefit that has accompanying benefits to our environment and quality of life … but insist it must be proven.  Our Caltrain, Metrolink, Amtrak, MetroRail and Interstate Highway systems all have similar benefits to our economy, environment and quality of life, and before we throw ourselves into the CAHSR project at the exclusion of those other systems, the aforementioned questions must be seriously considered.

And the taxpayers of California need to be seriously considered as well.

(Ken Alpern is a former Boardmember of the Mar Vista Community Council (MVCC), previously co-chaired its Planning and Outreach Committees, and currently is Vice Chair of its MVCC Transportation/Infrastructure Committee. He is co-chair of the CD11 Transportation Advisory Committee and chairs the nonprofit Transit Coalition, and can be reached at He also co-chairs the grassroots Friends of the Green Line at   The views expressed in this article are solely those of Mr. Alpern.) -cw

Tags: bullet train, high speed rail, California high speed rail, California, transportation, CAHSR, environment

Vol 9 Issue 100
Pub: Dec 16, 2011