California closer to dream of being US high-speed rail capital

President Obama announced Thursday that California would receive $2.7 billion to boost its high-speed rail plan. The state hopes to link Los Angeles and San Francisco by 2017.

Jeff Roberson/AP
An Amtrak train switches tracks after arriving from Chicago Thursday, in St. Louis.

Californians are cheering the news that the state’s high-speed rail project is getting $2.3 billion from the federal stimulus program.

The amount is considerably less than the $4.7 billion requested by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in October. But experts say the award is still good news for the state’s transportation system.

“Unfortunately it’s not everything we wanted but it is still just what the state needs.… It will bring jobs and great infrastructure building,” says Jessica Levinson of the Center for Governmental Studies (CGS) in Los Angeles. Voters already approved $10 billion in state funds in November 2008.

The federal funding requires that the project start by the fall of 2012. The first sections will be from Anaheim to Los Angeles and San Francisco to San Jose. A line through the Central Valley will connect them.

California the high-speed rail capital

Ms. Levinson says it’s important to make sure the contracting process is open and transparent. But Kris Deutschman of the California High Speed Rail Authority says that the contract structure has not been determined yet and could include foreign partners to design, build, and operate the system.

“What we feel is so significant about this is that the federal government – the Obama administration – has recognized the need for new transportation,” says Ms. Deutschman. “California voters have been behind this for years and now we can point to this terrific vote of confidence from Washington.”

Since the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, 40 states have submitted 272 applications for high-speed rail grants, totaling $105 billion in projects, according to the US Public Interest Research Group.

“Just as California led the country in higher education and water projects in the '60s and new technology in the '90s, California has the chance to become the high-speed rail capital of the United States,” says Robert Stern, president of CGS. “The federal money, along with the $10 billion rail bond measure passed by California voters, and the sales-tax increase for transportation projects passed by Los Angeles voters, all show serious commitment to a 21st Century transportation system.”

A 'foolish' plan?

Not everyone is so enthusiastic about the future of high-speed rail – particularly in a state that’s come to be defined by the automobile.

“To believe this makes economic sense, you’d have to be foolish,” says James Moore, director of the transportation and engineering program at the University of Southern California.

In Europe, he says, the cost of gasoline is higher, so trains make more economic sense for longer trips. “In the US, autos cover shorter trips better and airlines capture longer trips – that doesn’t leave room for high-speed rail to compete. The economic plan crumbles at the touch.”

But boosters point out that high-speed rail is projected to generate 160,000 construction-related jobs in the state, including about 34,000 along the San Jose to San Francisco segment.

The full project is envisioned as an 800-mile, $45 billion rail network connecting Southern California with the Bay Area and Sacramento. High-Speed Rail Authority officials are aiming at a 2017 completion of the portion from San Francisco to Anaheim via the Central Valley. Later rail extensions would reach San Diego in the south and Sacramento in the north.

California expects to grow by 13.5 million people over the next 20 years. This is projected to mean 90 million to 115 million more intercity or inter-regional trips, upgrades to 2,970 miles of freeway, 90 new airport gates, and five new major runways.


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