Bullet train is California's latest dream

It could cost $37 billion to connect San Diego, L.A., and San Francisco, but the alternatives may be even more expensive.

Someday a 700-mile bullet train may shoot north-south through California, and already the idea means that fresh debate is shooting through this state on quality-of-life issues ranging from smog to congestion, from sprawl to the Golden State virtue of mobility.

Of course, the estimated price tag of $37 billion for a high-speed rail from San Diego, to L.A., to San Francisco - with possible connections through the Central Valley to Sacramento - is raising eyebrows during the current budget crunch.

But that isn't stopping anyone here from at least pondering the bliss of a rapid ride through oak-adorned hills while enveloped in a cushy seat.

In fact, the first $10 billion of the cost, for a first leg of the project, is currently planned for a November vote.

Costly, but perhaps not costliest

Some say that vote could be derailed. But a new draft report by the state commission that has been studying the project for years, says the cost may be half of other alternatives for transporting a projected 68 million riders by 2020.

To move the same people by car and/or plane would require $82 billion of upgrades, including 2,970 additional miles of freeway lanes, 60 new airport gates and five new runways, the report says..

"Up to 98 million more intercity [region to region] trips and 11 million more [residents] will mean a greater demand on the state's infrastructure," says the study by the California High Speed Rail Authority. That growth will result in "more traffic congestion, reduced safety, more air pollution, longer travel times, less reliability, and less predictability in intercity travel."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) has proposed putting off the vote, looking over his shoulder at his own proposed $15 billion bond measure to solve the state's financial crunch. But other transportation experts and agencies are welcoming formal dialogue because it could inform substantive debate about other projects planned up and down the state.

Long-term land use questions

"The notion of a high-speed rail in California, if taken seriously, has to be connected with land use and development patterns which could be a long-term determinant in how and where California grows," says Martin Wachs, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and a professor of regional planning. Divorced from ideas on how to connect the rail to current and future development, the rail could be little used and ill-advised he said. But with proper planning and coordination, which is politically and legally very difficult, the train could be highly useful.

Wachs and others have questioned the report's estimated cost of the rail, which would connect L.A., San Jose, and San Francisco, with extensions to San Diego and Sacramento. A 1999 estimate for the rail was only $25 billion. And they say environmental impacts are subject to great change as the project proceeds, both as elevated rail, in trenches and through tunnels.

The railroad's cars would travel up to 200 miles per hour or more, making them competitive with jets, which now shuttle customers from San Francisco, San Jose, and Oakland to several Los Angeles-area airports. The 2 hour, 25 minute train ride from San Francisco to L.A. compares with a 1 hour, 20 minute flight time between the city's two international airports.

"So much depends on what ensues over the years, from the price of gas for automobiles and planes, to airline ticket prices, to development patterns," says Wachs. "So much of land use issues are politically volatile because they are largely locally controlled."

Highways not enough

Others say that no matter what the fate of high-speed rail, some new vision of transportation across California is warranted.

"It's going to take a lot more than more or wider highways to solve California's growing transportation needs in 20 years," says Steve Finnegan, analyst for the Southern California Auto Club.

He says an entirely new freeway may need to parallel Highway 5, which dissects the Central Valley, just to accommodate population growth there, regardless of any new rail. And he says more studies are currently focused on congestion within metro regions, regarding quality of life, economic growth, health, safety and other issues.

"The state needs to look at what are the highest priorities for spending whatever transportation dollars it can get," says Finnegan. "The debate needs to answer what is the most effective."

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