California Inches Closer to High Speed Rail

High speed rail looks good, however funding and political realities need to be confronted.

by / July 25, 2008

In 1996, California created the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA). That same year, the American Society of Civil Engineers identified the rail tunnel under the English Channel as one of the seven wonders of the modern world. Since then, travelers have been using the train to go from London to Paris and vice versa, under the channel at nearly 200 miles per hour in about two and a half hours for around $85.

Since then, CHSRA has spent $60 million on pre-construction activities such as environmental studies, but to go from Northern California to Southern California, one still has to get in a car and travel six-plus hours by freeway to go from Sacramento to Los Angeles, or an hour plus plane ride with commuting time, etc. All the while, Japan, for example, has gone ahead with high speed rail projects.

But all that may begin to change very soon. California's high speed rail project may get a boost come November, if the Proposition 1 ballot initiative is approved by voters. Proposition 1 would provide $9 billion for the first stage of construction -- a line between Los Angeles and San Francisco, with about $1 billion for local-line upgrades and connections to the high speed line. The California Legislative Analysts Office estimates the bond would ultimately cost the state $19.4 billion in principal and interest payments.

Photo Essay: High speed rail around the world.

An extended system that would stretch from Sacramento to San Diego and over to the San Francisco Bay Area with stops in major cities along the way is estimated to cost $45 billion and the state may get help with some of that price tag.

In spite of the high cost, and lack of public awareness, a poll on the bond funding -- conducted by the Sacramento Bee -- revealed that 56 percent of those questioned said they would vote for the proposition.

Photo: Map of the route the high speed trains would take from Sacramento to San Diego.

The bond measure requires CHSRA to seek other sources of funding, such as private investment and federal aid. CHSRA expects 25 to 33 percent of the construction costs to come from the federal government. The authority's finance team also expects public-private partnerships to contribute an additional $4.5 to $7 billion. That brings the financing conservatively to $25.7 billion -- just over half the required funds to complete the project.


Serious questions remain as to the long-term viability of such a promising gamble. At the same time, California is facing some harsh realities that will require some tough choices and the courage to see them through in order that the state can meet all the opportunities available to it as its population is expected to grow to over 50 million by 2030. With the reality of five-dollar gas on the horizon and the dependence on foreign oil, not to mention the carbon emissions belched by the millions of cars on the road, will California be the bullet train that leads the United States to a sustainable future? Will voters and elected officials in the state lose the political will to see the project through? Would California high-speed rail be the boondoggle critics claim? Would it be better to continue to bolster the state's highway system? Either way, the election in November just might be as significant for California's future growth as the interstate highway system has been for the state's present prosperity.