The Loma Prietan - July/August 2009

What’s So Great about High Speed Rail?

by David Simon

Illustration by Faisal Zakaria Siddiqi.
Illustration by Faisal Zakaria Siddiqi.

In November, Proposition 1A, allocating $9.6 billion in bond money for High Speed Rail (HSR), passed with the Club's support. Now that there are noise concerns, land use challenges, and pending lawsuits, why does the Club continue to support HSR?

Faster, Cleaner Transportation

First, HSR has the potential to reduce global warming pollution significantly by replacing flying (three times as much greenhouse gas emissions as HSR) and driving (up to five times as much). By 2030, when the full system is anticipated to be in place, HSR travel could reduce California's greenhouse gas emissions by up to 12 billion pounds per year—the equivalent of taking one million vehicles off the road. Further, in September 2008, the California HSR Authority set a goal to use 100% renewable, carbon-free electricity to run the system.

Next, HSR can get travelers from one end of the state to the other more comfortably and in less time. California's high-speed trains would offer spacious seats and would travel at speeds of over 220 miles per hour, making the trip between San Francisco's Transbay Terminal and Los Angeles' Union Station in two and a half hours. That's much faster than driving the same route, and far more comfortable than (and perhaps as fast as) flying.

Smarter Use of Money, Land and Resources

Although HSR is expensive, so are highways and airports. HSR will cost over $30 billion to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles through the Central Valley. However, bringing Highway 99 up to Interstate requirements and widening it to the eight lanes being discussed to accommodate the same capacity as HSR is estimated to cost at least $20 billion.

Next, rail lines, as opposed to freeways, promote sustainable land use. A rail line encourages development clustered around railroad stations rather than the sprawl that typically accompanies highways.

On the Peninsula, in the area of our Chapter, HSR promises to benefit the Caltrain commuter line. Since HSR will share the right of way, grade separations, electrification, and the extension to the San Francisco Transbay Terminal will become improvements that can green and speed up Caltrain service.

The Club is disappointed that the HSR Authority has chosen to run the line over Pacheco Pass into Gilroy rather than over Altamont Pass into Livermore. From the standpoint of regional transportation planning, the Altamont Pass route makes more sense, since the two interregional connections most in need of additional transit capacity are the Bay Area-to-Central Valley and the Bay Area-to-Sacramento routes. The Altamont alignment would provide the infrastructure for both of these key connections, essentially for free. However, the Club believes that getting HSR built earlier is preferable to haggling over the route for years.

David Simon is the editor of the Loma Prietan.