Perspectives

Opinion: California Should Adopt 'Smart' Highways Over High-Speed Rail

Expensive, inaccessible and bad for competition make California's high-speed rail plan a dud, according to a U.C. Santa Barbara economics professor.

by / November 25, 2015
On a smart highway, temperature-controlled marking lights up and becomes transparent again, depending on temperature. The marking warns road users when the road deck can be slippery. Drivers experience direct interaction with the road deck. Studio Roosegaarde

California's high-speed rail project is a waste of time when driverless technology is so near, U.C. Santa Barbara Economics Professor Dick Startz theorized in a recent Los Angeles Times editorial.

In addition to the high cost of California's proposed high-speed rail, there are several other compelling reasons not to pursue such a project: the state's challenging geography, logistical problems of accessing the railway, a general superiority of self-driving vehicle technology and how each of the technologies would impact the economy.

The state's $68 billion high-speed rail project wouldn't be finished until 2028, and self-driving vehicles are expected to hit the roads well before that, the writer argues. Instead, adding five smart lanes going each direction on Interstate 5 would cost a measly $2 billion.

The state's mountainous landscape makes smart lanes a superior alternative to rail because rail is best suited for long, flat distances where the technology's high speeds can be best utilized. In some regions in California, the rail will be able to reach speeds of 220 mph, but in other areas would be reduced to just 110 mph, the latter being territory easily attainable by traditional and self-driving vehicles.

Rail also doesn't solve the dreaded "last mile" problem; users would still need to drive to the rail and find parking, while smart lanes would not require such an arrangement.

California should also consider the impact of introducing a proprietary system upon its people. Adopting high-speed rail is a commitment, like buying an expensive Apple computer — once purchased, the user is stuck with that brand and there's no competition unless further investment is made. Smart lanes would open the state to all sorts of economic development, including smart bus services and smart taxis and, of course, all car makers would have a platform for which to develop personal smart vehicles.

It doesn't make sense, he wrote, to wait until 2028 for technology that's more expensive and less practical.