Wrong route for bullet train
There’s little doubt the high speed rail plan, passed by a 53-47 percent margin as Proposition 1A in November 2008, was designed to pander to voters in cities not exactly on the straight-line path between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The route meanders through the Antelope Valley north of Los Angeles, then over to Bakersfield and on up the San Joaquin Valley through Fresno, Madera and Merced before heading east over the Pacheco Pass and then turning north to San Jose and the San Francisco Peninsula.
In politics, a straight line isn’t always the shortest distance between two points.
That was the case this time when catering to the civic pride of voters who live many miles from the most direct route produced a victory for the bullet train bonds.
But buyers’ remorse quickly set in as residents along the route began to understand both environmental problems and costs – $68 billion over 20 years, by the latest official estimate, double the cost projected in Proposition 1A.
Yet, the Legislature this summer authorized sale of the first project bonds, and Gov. Jerry Brown signed that bill. And while the latest bullet train plan is more sensible than previous versions, with the proposed upgrade of existing track in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas, it nevertheless contains that fundamental flaw of deviating from the direct route.
The planned route still runs up the central San Joaquin Valley, with stops in Bakersfield, Fresno and Merced, cutting across very productive farmland in Kern, Kings, Madera, Fresno and Merced counties.
This makes little sense because, where bullet trains exist, most passengers go from one terminus to the other, with little on- or off-traffic at the intermediate points. And the mid-Valley route will produce environmental lawsuits that could delay the project for years. Plus, there’s the little matter of buying up all that land.
There is little doubt a working high speed rail system between California’s two largest urban areas, with later extensions to Sacramento and San Diego, would bring great benefit to the entire state, and not just to the construction workers and companies that would build it.
So the recommendation here is build it, but build it up the Interstate 5 corridor, where it could skip the likely-to-be-useless stops in Fresno and Merced, and where the state already owns much of the right-of-way.
Doing it this way still allows for improving existing rail tracks in the Los Angeles area so they can handle bullet trains along with their existing traffic.
The steep slopes of the Grapevine dictate that the route has to run through the Antelope Valley, as planned, which would also make a stop in Bakersfield sensible.
But heading up I-5 from there would save many billions of dollars and a lot of mileage en route, along with far less disruption of farms.
A report by the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office found that over 20 years, each dollar of government funds invested in the bullet train would produce about $1.42 in state and local tax revenues, while creating up to 20,000 temporary and permanent jobs.