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Why California Needs High-speed Rail

By Peter Calthorpe
Thursday, January 5, 2012, San Francisco Chronicle Op-Ed
In 1956, the Federal Highway Act steered the American Dream away from small towns, streetcar suburbs and central cities toward today's auto suburb. It fit the time, shaped our communities, generated economic growth and changed our identity.
   Today, our country desperately needs new infrastructure development that will create jobs and economic growth while updating the American Dream and ensuring its environmental future. The answer is high-speed rail.
   More than a train ride is at stake; high-speed rail could catalyze the next generation of growth - one more oriented to who we are, what we can afford and what we really need. High-speed rail, along with innovative land use, will breed the kind of economic development and communities California is missing most - urban revitalization along with more walkable, affordable communities.
   California's 520-mile-long high-speed rail would connect north and south for half the dollars that otherwise would be needed for highway expansion and new airport facilities. More significantly, it would become a catalyst for urban renewal, enhance local transit systems and generate market-wise development opportunities.

   Transit-oriented development built around high-speed rail and local transit would be denser. Detached single-family homes would drop from 62 percent of our state's housing to just over half, with the difference filled by townhomes, apartments, lofts and bungalows. Given that large-lot suburban homes now have declining value, this is a reasonable shift in housing type, ultimately making housing stock more affordable.
   This shift also results in 67 percent less developed land and would save prime farmland in the Central Valley and key open space and habitat in the coastal regions of the state. The more compact future means smaller yards to irrigate and fewer parking lots to landscape, saving an average of 3.4 million acre-feet of water per year - enough to irrigate 5 million acres of farmland in our water-poor state.
   In the transit-oriented development future, average vehicle miles traveled per household would be reduced 40 percent, the equivalent of taking 18.6 million cars off the road. There would be fewer roads and parking lots built, less runoff water to be cleaned and stored. New highway construction is reduced by 4,700 miles, saving the state about $400 billion.
  Less driving means less air pollution and less associated respiratory diseases. More walking means healthier bodies and less obesity, affecting health costs. California would consume 300 billion fewer gallons of fuel over the next 40 years. When these gas savings are combined with auto ownership, maintenance, insurance and reduced utility costs, California households would save close to $11,000 in current dollars per year.
   The California Legislature needs to authorize the $2.7 billion in bonds (plus $3.5 billion in matching federal funds) to begin this project. When compared to expanding highways and airports at a cost of $171 billion, high-speed rail at $98 billion is clearly more cost effective.
   Just as the '56 highway bill helped spawn the modern suburb, high-speed rail would energize a new generation of community building - one that fits our current environmental and economic needs. This is an investment we cannot afford not to make.
Peter Calthorpe is the author of "Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change."


Anonymous said...

Train to nowhere...

Paula said...

This has nothing to do with your latest post but I wanted to tell you that this New Year's Eve weekend was spent with friends at Detroit Lake in Oregon, and I was delighted to find Homework among all the sleeping bags and boxes of supplies and games and books and everything else that makes a weekend away from home fun.

It turned out to be Annie's, the 19-year-old daughter of my sister-in-law's friends, and Annie had asked for it for Christmas because she'd run across a version of it in French in her travels overseas and got really excited about the ingenious ways people live all over the world.

I can't tell you what a pleasure it was to connect with a young person over something that got me excited when I was the same age, and still does.

I think I'm going to have to go out and buy Tiny Homes.

bayrider said...

I wonder just high speed it will actually be if it's constantly stopping to energize all those communities?

The projected cost a few years ago was supposed to be around 32 billion, now up to 98 and estimated to take 30 years to build, the actual cost would probably be closer to double that (review the history of the new Bay bridge if you doubt). The ridership projections I've reviewed are absolute fantasy as are the estimated fares. It is far cheaper and faster to fly across the state. I can fly from Redding to LA in an hour and change for $89. Not to mention that there is absolutely no money for the project, both the state and the nation are broke. I'm sorry, this is completely insane and a boondoggle that will never happen, and justifiably so. Economics do matter, the state and the nation are about to find that out, to their dismay. The economics of this project are disastrous by any realistic analysis.

Sorry to be a downer but I have monitored this for a good while and it's just ludicrous.

Eco86 said...

I know nothing about the Californian situation, only what high speed rail (320 km per hour or 200 miles per hour) has done for France and Germany. Here trains are often full and air travel has virtually disappeared for inter town travel. Fares vary according to how far in advance you book and train loadings, just like airfares. Minimum distances between stops are usually in the order of 40 miles otherwise it is not high speed. And finally the grouping of trains is such that they achieve fast journey times by having the first only stopping say once every 200 miles, then every 100 then every 40 miles.
For it to work in California then you need existing large centres of population at the appropriate distances.
As far as impact on the types of housing I would reckon that this has more to do with cultural values than economic considerations in the short term. As for the long term this is less predictable.
The time scales quoted of 30 years seem very long by European standards where 10 years from start to use are more normal
Hope this is a useful contribution

bayrider said...

Eco, your comments are well taken. Europe has had wonderful rail systems for years with established routes and ridership. I could see the utility of this rail system between Sacramento, SF, LA and San Diego if it was an affordable alternative to air travel, which it cannot possibly be without massive subsidies from the government. Even between those major population centers there is little demand for daily travel. Yet they are proposing to start building it out in rural areas where there is no demand whatsoever and then making ridiculous ridership projections to justify it. We already have passenger train service up and down the state, few people use it because it is too slow, expensive and inconvenient compared to the alternatives. High speed rail would merely be a little bit faster and massively more expensive. HSR is a solution in search of a problem that doesn't exist here. What we could use is more light rail within population centers such as the Bay Area where the daily ridership demand is. Commuting individually in autos is hugely wasteful and we know people will switch to mass transit if it is available and convenient.

I reread that piece and had to laugh where the author claims the average family will save $11,000 per year after his transit fantasy comes to fruition. In that case we should build two of them! It's this kind of economic nonsense that has led us to a financial state far worse than merely broke. Go review the budget the governor put out yesterday to see what kind of condition we are in.

bayrider said...

I can't resist one more comment regarding the time frames ECO mentioned, 30 years is indeed overly long. But consider this: in 1989 I was living in Cow Hollow in San Francisco when the Loma Prieta earthquake struck and took down a section of the Bay Bridge. That day happened to be my 35th birthday. I am now 57. Over 2 decades later the new bridge is still not finished although I am pretty sure it will be done by the time I reach 65! Everyone agreed that a new bridge was imperative and that the existing one was a dire threat to life and commerce in the region, yet here we are, still at risk 22.5 years later.

Floating Horizon said...

Here in Australia thanks to the Greens there is renewed interest in rail. Government is currently investigating high speed between Sydney and Melbourne. The sticking point seems to have nothing to do with steel rails, locomotives, jobs or even energy. Its about real estate prices. If the government doesn't decide to do it soon and buy up the chosen landscape corridor, it will never again be affordable. Sprawl will consume the corridors as car based low density planning runs riot. Farmland monetary value is also rapidly rising as cities consume productive land closer to them and push further out, while land elsewhere becomes exhausted. Demolishing development of any kind, good or bad, and starting again is extremely expensive. A consequence of betting on an ultimately wasteful technology. It seems Europe and Japan bought into rail before the automobile took a strangle hold. I'd love to have high speed rail but I fear our population density and level of existing development has already killed that dream . . . . . . unless of course OPEC are fudging the figures and rare-earth metals become difficult to source.

blog said...

I believe trains are significantly more energy efficient than airplanes. A quick check on the internet reveals conflicting stats, but this should be a big consideration. Trains also provide a framework around which other development can organize itself. This helps to control sprawl and its negative effects on the world. I've read that Autistic kids love trains for their predictability and clear patterns. Non-autistic people like them for these same reasons, and also because they are more comfortable than plans and buses. I wonder why the budget for highspeed rail in california has expanded so much. Too bad. Perhaps, as Bayrider opines, local train service is a better place to put our limited funds.

Steve said...

You all have brought up some good points, and maybe I can add a bit. I live in the Central Valley about 30 miles from the site of the hub being proposed. It did seem strange that the first phase was put in the Valley, but as one said, land prices here are cheaper than in the San Jose-San Francisco area. The problem here is we have local politicians that look at the potential jobs, short-term and long-term, and start drooling. We have a real-time 25-40% unemployment in some areas. Jobs are needed, but at what cost.

I use the existing Amtrak. We travel to Napa to work and visit with family. Often when it is only one or two people traveling, Amtrak is cheaper than driving. Ridership varies. In Napa and here in Hanford it is usually easy to find a seat. Generally the trains are full, and at the in between depots it is tough to get a seat. So it seems the Valley is using the train. I would rather see the "new" monies put towards more trains up and down the San Joaquin line.

I have used the light rail in San Diego and BART in the Bay Area. Both are excellent in my use. It would seem that more of this light rail in the metro areas would help and expansion of the existing Amtrak lines would be the best use on monies, and would give jobs.I also suspect that as the oil and gas prices go up in the near future, trains will become even more advantageous.

Adam Smith said...

I often wonder where people think the extensive network of airports here in the US came from. The answer is local, state and federal subsidies. Airport taxes usually don't even cover the running costs.

Much less is written about the systematic dismantling of the US rail industry (once the best in the world) in favor of the aviation industry. This was the the original airline bailout, and allowed the huge us aviation industry to stay huge after WW2. Consider rail initiatives as diversifying our investments.

Large infrastructure projects always require large investment and long term commitment, but that's no reason to shy away from it. Our parents and grandparents didn't. They saw the advantages and went after it.

Muhammad Zahid Iqbal said...

Sí tienes razón estoy de acuerdo con su título del es realmente excelente pic... en este momento se explica mucho...Me gusta..Gracias por compartir...

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