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Costly Romance of the Rails

On the Beat


PRICEY TICKET: High-speed rail in California: Boon or boondoggle?

If you voted romance of the rails in 2008, thinking you could zip from Santa Barbara to San Francisco for a three-martini lunch then zip back home for dinner, forget it.

Barney Brantingham

Ain’t gonna happen. What the $45 billion (critics say $80 billion) plan will buy is a ride from a city no one in his or her right mind wants to live in (L.A.) to towns no one wants to visit (Bakersfield, Fresno), then on to what’s left of Silicon Valley and the prize: The City by the Bay. Estimated trip time: two hours and 40 minutes from Anaheim starting point. Estimated completion (all estimates are wrong): 2020.

Nope, no coastal route. We already have one, thanks to Amtrak, and talk about a slow boat to China. You could read War and Peace between State Street and Market Street. The trip takes more than seven hours and includes a honey of a bus trip or two.

Even wild-eyed optimists can’t seem to make a good case for where the $45 billion is coming from, even with President Obama’s $2.25 billion in economic stimulus funds announced last week and up to $10 billion in bonds we the people voted for in 2008. Perhaps the present plan will eventually be built, but probably no one older than 40 should make advance lunch reservations at the Mark Hopkins in anticipation of its advent. It won’t be passing through here in any case. Meanwhile, we’ll be helping pay off the San Joaquin Valley route bonds.

Not that I’m against high-speed rail. I’ve had the pleasure of riding France’s TGV network. Japan’s speedy route from the Osaka airport to splendid Kyoto was a joy: neat, clean, with musical alerts for each station and neon readouts in Japanese and English. What we need is fast rail to California’s capital, which by some weird accident of history is located halfway off the map up there in Sacramento, which no one would ever want to visit except to lobby the Legislature. Sacto and San Diego aren’t expected to be linked to the system until a hopeful 2026.

It doesn’t take rose-colored glasses to envision California with a fast, efficient rail system. We need it — whether or not it allows Montecitans to lunch at the Mark while the rest of us down a couple of Irish coffees at the Buena Vista Café, within sound of the foghorns. With other states now getting federal funds or otherwise contemplating high speed rail, I can see — ever the cockeyed optimist — the whole dadblamed U.S. of A. linked in one racetrack network of bullet trains or at least speedy ones.

My esteemed comrade in print, Summerland journalist Lou Cannon, points out to me that “We lag way behind Europe, Japan, even China on high-speed rail travel, and we’re projected to have nearly a 50-million population in California by 2030. So I don’t see a better alternative, certainly not the automobile.” (California’s present population is about 40 million.) Cannon also notes that another thing driving the project is the recession.

By that 2030 date, according to predictions by the California High Speed Rail Authority, which is in charge of the project, the 800 miles of track will be carrying 88 to 117 million passengers a year. It also estimates the creation of 160,000 jobs associated with planning, designing and building the system. So far, the loudest drum-beating is being heard from dusty San Joaquin Valley towns, which see it as an economic boon, as well as an easy way to get from one dusty town to another. Up in the Bay Area, some cities are arguing about the route, which they don’t want to split their communities.

The biggest question I’ve heard, aside from where’s the money coming from, is where are the passengers are coming from? Exactly who’s going to be taking these trains every day, and will they be willing to pay the freight? “High-speed rail is an expensive project that will cost all taxpayers a lot of money and serve only a small elite,” one critic says.

Some advocate spending the money to improve rapid transit between commuter hot spots, such as Ventura-Santa Barbara, instead of a massive, expensive 220-mph zoom up the San Joaquin Valley.

By the way, is this supposed to be a commuter train, draining polluting cars from freeways? Let’s see: If someone caught an Amtrak Surfliner to L.A. and jumped on the Dustbowl Liner to San Jose, a high-speed ride might yield a high-tech job. (If you left Santa Barbara early enough, like 2am.)

Or, once in LA., you could ditch work and swing on to the proposed California-Nevada “Super Speed” train to Vegas, thanks in part to a promised $7 billion loan from the Chinese. Wisely, Obama declined to shovel over $8 billion for that project. Maybe the casinos will chip in.

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Barney Brantingham can be reached at barney@independent.com or 805-965-5205. He writes online columns throughout the week and a print column on Thursdays.

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