Don’t give up on High Speed Rail

A number of years ago, I went to Germany with some California elected officials to study the German electric grid and the use of wind, gas and solar. At that time, I had numerous opportunities to travel on high speed rail. I remember well going into a massive train station in Bavaria. There were between 25 and 30 platforms for trains, each of them silently coming in for a landing, others without a sound leaving the station and disappearing in a matter of seconds into the distance. Thousands of commuters entered and departed the station in an efficiency that would put our airports to shame.

 I remember sitting in an ultra-clean train car, looking out the window at the trucks that were traveling at 100 miles an hour on the Autobahn as we passed them at 230 mph like they were standing still. This is the infrastructure that makes a nation, moves a society and improves the quality of life for all.

But in California, the question remains: If not this mode of transportation, then which? A third or a fourth interstate highway up the Central Valley at a cost of $120 billion? New airports in the Bay Area and in Southern California? Figure $75 billion for each of them.

According to the state’s projections, California’s population will grow to more than 50 million people by 2060. They’re all going to need to get around, to their jobs, homes and playgrounds at either end of the state. With highways and flight patterns filling to capacity, it only makes sense that California add a third mode of mass transit to relieve pressure on the other two.

High speed rail is the answer. At $77.3 billion, once built, we will wonder how we ever managed without it. It will become the backbone to connect the intra-city transit systems that are expanding all over the state. It will boost California’s economy. It will reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Already, it is providing 1,700 construction jobs to our Building Trades members and will lead to 60,000 more statewide. It has injected $5 billion into the economy, mostly in the Central Valley. Already, high speed rail funding is helping to pay for $423 million in improvements to Union Station in downtown Los Angeles and for a $137-million grade separation over Rosecrans Avenue in Santa Fe Springs, which has been rated the most dangerous grade crossing in the state. It also is providing funding for a transit center at Burbank Airport where high speed rail will connect.

This will be a statewide transit system that will move the masses and connect to the transit centers of Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and Sacramento. It will provide us with the system that should have been built in the 1970s when all of the industrial nations of the world were doing so.

Besides the economic boost and the environmental benefit, California’s high speed rail system holds out a third promise: by providing an efficient transportation linkage between the coastal zones of San Francisco and San Jose and the growing interior urban center of Fresno, high speed rail can move workers long distances with fast commutes from affordable homes to good-paying jobs and solve one of the state’s most intractable problems—its housing crisis. When the system is complete, it will offer the same benefit to Southern California.

You may have seen some of the stories recently about Google’s idea to build a massive new complex around San Jose’s Diridon Station. Google’s 50-acre plan would relocate as many as 20,000 employees to within walking distance of high speed rail. Some say the marriage of the Google and high speed rail plans could turn Diridon Station “into the Grand Central of the West,” and something similar could happen at LA’s Union Station.

You also may have noticed that none of the other Silicon Valley tech giants are showing signs of winding down. As they add more and more jobs, the vise grip that already squeezes housing in the Bay Area will only get tighter and tighter. These days, it is not uncommon to see a three-bedroom, 1950s tract home in San Jose go on the market for $1 million or more. Rents, meanwhile, have skyrocketed beyond the means of many working-class people to pay.

This is where high speed rail comes into play, and it is spelled out in the Draft 2018 Business Plan the California High Speed Rail Authority released March 9.

Right now, the Authority is building a 119-mile segment from Madera to Bakersfield. It is scheduled for completion in 2022. Meanwhile, the Authority has the money and the plans to electrify the CalTrain system on the San Francisco peninsula. The Authority expects to obtain its environmental approvals by 2020 on the electrified line, and the draft business plan calls for high-speed trains to be running between San Francisco and Gilroy by 2027.

Then, the High Speed Rail Authority will confront one of the biggest challenges across all 500 miles of the system—the tunneling through Pacheco Pass east of Gilroy, to connect the Central Valley and Peninsula segments.

It is going to be expensive. It is going to take detailed environmental planning. It will be a test of engineering unlike few that the agency will face. But these are things we can absolutely do. We have the workers and the ability.

Once these problems are solved and the linkage is completed, high speed rail commuters will be able to ride from Fresno to San Jose in about an hour. Bakersfield will be linked to San Francisco, too, in connections that will open up the Silicon Valley workforce to an expanse of currently unimaginable housing options.

Plans are now under way to remake downtown Fresno, to incorporate it into the urban renaissance that has taken place in cities across America. Once the line is extended into Los Angeles, high speed rail will provide working families with the opportunities for home ownership that do not doom them to two-hour car commutes.

Yes, it has been a struggle to bring this project to life.

Greatness, it should be remembered, does not come without struggle. It does not come cheap. Solving problems is not for the weak-minded or negative thinkers. We can do this.

The harder the problem, the deeper and clearer the vision that is needed to solve it.

In Gov. Jerry Brown, California has had a visionary like few others. He saw the possibility of high speed rail.

In Brian Kelly, the governor’s choice as the Authority’s new chief executive officer, the state now has a proven problem solver who can make high speed rail operational.

This is a big project, but California has big problems. Now we have a high speed rail plan that can help solve two of its biggest: transportation and housing.

The plan is realistic. The plan pulls no punches. The plan spells out exactly how difficult it is going to be to complete this project.

The main question for this generation should be, are we strong enough and smart enough to make it happen?

 With a population soon to expand to 50 million, it is a question of quality of life. It is a question of our legacy, and it is one that our children and grandchildren can judge us by.