For years since the 2008 passage of Proposition 1A gave planners of high-speed rail in California the prospect of spending $9.9 billion in state bond money, they have seemed bent on a single path: spending as much as possible.
They’ve gone after and gotten billions more in federal help, they’ve chosen some of the most expensive possible routes for their system, extending it to areas where the main Los Angeles/San Diego-to-San Francisco runs are unlikely to pick up many paying passengers. They made a laughing stock of themselves by choosing an extinct small town (Borden) in Madera County as one terminus of their projected first leg of the project. And their cost estimates have been labeled unrealistic lowballs by every competent analyst who examined them.
But now, at long last, with congressional Republicans threatening to hold up much of the promised federal aid, the state’s High Speed Rail Commission is beginning to show some sense.
The first sign of this came in early May, when the bullet train visionaries revived the possibility of taking a direct route between Los Angeles and Bakersfield, passing near the hamlet of Grapevine, now mostly known as a truck stop along Interstate 5 at the northern foot of the Tehachapi Mountains that separate much of Southern California from the Central Valley.
Reopening the issue does not mean the HSR system has abandoned the idea of its north-south trains making a northeastward loop into the Antelope Valley cities of Palmdale and Lancaster. But it does suggest that these locales may have been included in the plan presented to voters as a political ploy to draw votes in areas that otherwise might not be interested in financing a train between two huge urban areas.
The possibility of running the bullet train almost straight north paralleling I-5 through the mountainous Grapevine opens other significant questions.
If the HSR commission is looking for the most direct, money-saving route for its new tracks north of Los Angeles, why not find the same thing elsewhere?
Why run trains through the center of the San Joaquin Valley, over the Pacheco Pass to Gilroy and then along U.S. 101 to San Jose rather than using a more direct route, following I-5 north along the western edge of that valley, then heading over the Altamont Pass into the San Francisco Bay area?
Doing that would eliminate many miles of hyper-expensive track, obviate the need for pricey stations in Bakersfield, Fresno, Merced and San Jose, and remove the threat of a huge ditch or high viaduct bisecting some of the most productive farmland in America. Build the system along I-5, where a freeway already cuts through cotton fields and other cropland, and you’d save what now looks like years of dispute.
Build it away from the San Francisco Peninsula, where resistance to the proposed viaduct cutting through cities like Palo Alto, Menlo Park and San Mateo grows steadily louder and firmer, and you would not only save money and avoid conflicts with the existing Caltrain commuter system, but you’d save many billions, as land prices are higher on the Peninsula than almost anywhere else in America.
Using the Altamont Pass also would allow bullet trains to link with the existing Bay Area Rapid Transit system around Livermore, with BART running special non-stop fast trains into its existing San Francisco stations — also alleviating the need to construct a station in The City. Any passenger time lost by switching trains would be made up for by being deposited at convenient San Francisco locations.
It’s true this would leave much of California out of the high-speed rail system, but most current estimates indicate the passenger load from places like Fresno and Merced would be too light to justify the costs of stopping there.
The main purpose of this system was always to provide a high-speed link between Northern and Southern California’s major urban centers, with other places added to make the plan palatable to more voters. Those detours would make the eventual ride take longer, possibly driving away customers.
But no possible change is definite yet, and some of the more sensible ones have not gotten even a minute of commission discussion.
Until that happens, and Californians are given solid financial and passenger load information, this project will never again enjoy the public support it got at the polls three years ago.
— Reach syndicated columnist Tom Elias at email@example.com