January 21, 2014

Bruce Maiman: Making the case for high-speed rail

The Altamont Corridor Express trains have attracted thousands of Silicon Valley techies who have generated property taxes, local businesses, sales taxes, local jobs and income taxes. Does anyone consider those factors when saying high-speed rail would be a boondoggle?

I don’t know if California’s high-speed rail project will survive, but we’re not making the best arguments for keeping it.

I’ve written before that beginning this project in “Fresnoland” was wrongheaded, but you’re told federal funding came with a caveat: Construction had to begin near former Castle Air Force Base, the eventual location of a single, centralized facility to house and maintain the rail fleet. Despite existing railyard infrastructure in Sacramento and Los Angeles, you’re told: “You don’t wanna build that twice.”

I get that, but it smells less like pragmatism and more like political favors for a certain congressman in exchange for an Obamacare vote.

“If you don’t play politics in big projects, you’ll never build big projects,” Ron Diridon of the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University told me.

Yeah, but you also have to play politics with voters. We’re doing this to move the populace around, not the politicians. Maybe he’ll say I’m naive, but you tell me who’s having trouble selling this idea to the public.

Train travel works. The Altamont Corridor Express trains have attracted thousands of Silicon Valley techies who, from Tracy to Stockton, have generated property taxes, local businesses, sales taxes, local jobs and income taxes. These are new and permanent suburban growth revenue streams. Does anyone factor them in when tossing around the word “boondoggle”?

“Studies have shown the benefits of rail in downtowns and along suburban corridors,” ACE spokesman Thomas Reeves tells me, but we have no such study for the Altamont Corridor.

I can’t imagine it hasn’t made a difference.

Lengthy car commutes cost money. Where drivers nationwide annually spend about 38 hours stuck in traffic, drivers in California’s most congested areas – Los Angeles, San Francisco-Oakland and San Jose – waste 61 hours a year, says the Texas Transportation Institute, the nation’s largest transportation research agency.

In Sacramento, it’s a humble 32 hours, but for the privilege of wasting those hours in gridlock, each motorist loses $669 a year, a regional total of $834 million for commuting drivers, and another $199 million for trucks. Interestingly, Sacramento ranks 47th in the nation for congestion, but 30th in what it costs.

“Many ACE passengers are credited for work hours by their employers while they’re on the train,” Reeves said. “It’s a huge benefit to employers because their workers are more productive on a train than they ever could be while driving in a car.”

In the West, the solution to traffic congestion is always: Build another freeway lane. That’s one of Jeff Denham’s arguments. He’s a huge fan of the ACE trains – has even held town hall meetings about them – but the Turlock Republican is leading the congressional fight against HSR, thinking the money is better spent on, among other things, asphalt.

Given that Caltrans operates at two speeds, slow and stop, by the time that new lane gets finished it’s already obsolete because more people live in the region, bringing more cars to the road.

Opposition to government-subsidized rail systems isn’t new, but what’s rarely acknowledged is that it’s dwarfed by comparison to our government-subsidized car culture.

As Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman explained to Congress in late 2012, the Highway Trust Fund has gotten $53.3 billion in federal subsidies. In the past four years.

Amtrak’s federal subsidy? Nearly $1 billion. In its 42-year existence.

In the 1990s, Santa Cruz residents vigorously opposed extending commuter rail there from the South Bay. They worried it would bring too many people to their little hamlet.

Guess what? People came anyway. Traffic became horrendous. Guess what happened? They just finished widening Highway 1. Guess what? Traffic is still horrendous. The “Nimbyists” were wrong.

According to the Mineta Institute, which studies transportation systems worldwide, to meet the commuter needs of the 60 million people projected to be living in California by 2050, we’d need to:

• Double the amount of airport capacity in the north and south.
• Build 3,000 more miles of freeway – the same distance on Highway 50 from here to Ocean City, Md.

Either “would cost twice as much as the projected $90 billion for HSR,” Diridon said. “Over $200 billion, and that’s just for 2050. You still have to contend with the rest of the century’s growth.”

That’s the trouble with highways: Adding capacity requires adding more lanes. On a rail system, you just add more cars, or more runs on the line, which is exactly what ACE has done. As demand increased, they added more commuter runs, not more track.

You’d think instead of figuring out ways to accommodate more cars on the road, we’d consider providing commuters with options for getting them off the road. Commuter rail does that better than any other transit model, and if the Mineta Institute’s numbers are right, commuter rail will also do it without being the boondoggle its critics claim.

Related content



Editor's Choice Videos