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High-Speed Rail Has A High-Profile Critic

— This morning Newsweek columnist Robert Samuelson had another in a series of columns blasting high-speed rail. His story appeared in the Washington Post and was reprinted in numerous daily papers, including the San Diego Union Tribune.

Read his piece by clicking on the link above. Basically, he argues that history shows government-operated rail systems in the U.S. have been money pits. Samuelson says spending $53 billion on high-speed rail over six years will just make it a bigger pit.

I wrote about plans for high-speed rail in California a month ago. I quoted a transportation economist from the Reason Foundation, a libertarian-leaning think tank, as a critic of high-speed rail. But Samuelson has emerged as the guy who carries the flag for bullet-train opponents.

The enormous cost of high-speed rail should make us welcome critics like Samuelson. On the other hand, it doesn’t make sense to assume high-speed rail will fail simply because Amtrak has failed. They’re apples and oranges.

But don’t draw lines between cities, build tracks and assume people will travel by train. You need feeder transit lines that connect high-speed rail stations to the places people really want to go. If you want to discourage travel by car, you have to stop building more freeways lanes and increase gas taxes to be sure the cost of gas is more than people want to spend.

Executives at the California High-Speed Rail Authority say gas may cost $8 a gallon in 20 years but that's wishful thinking. If it’s still cheap for people to drive their cars from San Diego to Oakland, that’s probably what they’ll do.

Higher gas taxes? A moratorium on freeway expansion? You need to take some big steps to make high-speed rail work.

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Avatar for user 'hopeheadsd'

hopeheadsd | February 14, 2011 at 4:08 p.m. ― 6 years, 1 month ago

Habits are hard to break. Driving is part of a lifestyle we have embraced since waiting to get a license at age 16 or 17 depending on which state you are from. High Speed rail, while an admirable task to take on, doesnt really seem to promote any groundbreaking alternative to getting from point A to point B, it only overlays alternatives to common routes. When rail was first laid down, it was pioneering in carrying the masses across the US. With airplanes and cars already available to us, this seems like a small step with a large price tag. A friend of mine asked if I remembered life before cell phones. While I do, I cant imagine not having one now. Will I feel this way about high speed rail should it come to fruition? Probably not, although it would be a nice alternative to have.

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Avatar for user 'Greg Duch'

Greg Duch | February 14, 2011 at 5:55 p.m. ― 6 years, 1 month ago

Building railways high-speed or slow-speed in California is out of the question.
Sailboats will traverse the Sahara Desert before any new rail lines come to California. Trains are anathema to the California lifestyle. California would not be California, if people road trains. This IS NOT NEW YORK CITY.
Train travel is a left-wing plot to lull Americans into accepting a Neo-Marxist, socialist society. Afterall, you have to share trains with scores of other people-- how socialist!! Cars are the American way to travel. Cars enhance our individuality and freedom of movement.The right to freedom of travel by car is why the Founding Fathers fought the American Revolution.--Life, liberty, and the pursuit of automobile travel. That's why FREEWAYS are called FREEWAYS! -so that all Americans can be FREE to drive a car wherever thay desire. LONG LIVE THE INTERNAL COMBUSTION ENGINE!!

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Avatar for user 'Greg Duch'

Greg Duch | February 15, 2011 at 4:25 a.m. ― 6 years, 1 month ago


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Avatar for user 'Tom Fudge'

Tom Fudge, KPBS Staff | February 15, 2011 at 10:12 a.m. ― 6 years, 1 month ago

Can a new twist on a 19th century technology be the future of transportation in California? You have to ask what high-speed rail will bring that our various existing modes of transportation do not already provide. You don't need high-speed rail to get to Fresno or Oakland. You can do that in a car or a plane. The advantages of high-speed rail may be comfort and cost... the latter aspect being true only if the High-Speed Rail Authority is correct in their assumptions that they can offer train tickets at 80 percent of the cost of airfare or lower. If it's just as cheap to fly on Southwest to Oakland, I think that's what people will still do. The wild card I see in this equation is the threat of global warming, and the possibility that it will soon be clear to all of us that we can no longer pump carbon into the air as we've done in recent decades. If high-speed rail can prove that it really is a green technology that will make a difference, that could be its saving grace.

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Avatar for user 'Abe A'

Abe A | February 15, 2011 at 2:25 p.m. ― 6 years, 1 month ago

Probably the biggest obstacle to this type of program, which I whole-heartedly support, is the fact that our gasoline prices are kept artificially low. If we truly taxed gasoline for the effects it is having on our environment, then the price per gallon would be much higher. If Californians can tool around in cars with gas under $5/gallon, then there is no real incentive for them to get on a train (high-speed or not).

Instead of high speed rail, I personally would like to see agencies researching personal mass transit systems of electric vehicles, think "Minority Report." This way you could retain your privacy and freedom, but be tied into a computerized network of freeways that would eliminate all traffic.

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Avatar for user 'Greg Duch'

Greg Duch | February 15, 2011 at 4:22 p.m. ― 6 years, 1 month ago

"The enormous costs of high-speed rail"
are dwarfed; and nearly inconsequential, when compared to the hundreds of billions of Federal dollars spent since 1956 on the construction and maintainence of the INTERSTATE HIGHWAY SYSTEM. Talk about enormous Federal subsidies, the Interstate system sopps up more $$$ money from the Federal gov't. in one year than has been spent on Amtrak, since its creation in 1971.

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Avatar for user 'Greg Duch'

Greg Duch | February 15, 2011 at 10:11 p.m. ― 6 years, 1 month ago


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Avatar for user 'mfedder'

mfedder | February 16, 2011 at 9:14 a.m. ― 6 years, 1 month ago

"You need feeder transit lines that connect high-speed rail stations to the places people really want to go."

An interesting aspect to the debate has been that some of the most vocal opponents to the proposed high speed rail system have argued that it can built cheaper by avoiding the centers of cities. They want to run it along the 5, terminate in San Jose or even Fremont on the north end, and Qualcomm Stadium on the southend. When you look at the comparative advantages of the proposed system, you start to realize just how well it has been integrated with other, existing forms of transit: The critics' system would lack integration

* Fresno light rail
* Monterey's light rail system, under construction
* Only the most distantly connected element of the Bay Area transportation network, as opposed to bringing passengers right to the major hubs of the largest
* In San Diego, terminating downtown gives direct access to all four trolley lines, upwards of 60 busses, the Coaster, and the airport - and not just the Mission Valley Special green line.

Remember, even the smaller cities along the central valley have bus systems that connects to its urban core. Even lowly Hanford benefits from some level of bus service.

Taken together, I see integration with regional transit systems as the primary advantage of the system as designed. That level of integration will help both systems to expand and thrive.

By the way, LA has begun building a light rail line directly from Union Station to LAX:

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Avatar for user 'mfedder'

mfedder | February 16, 2011 at 9:15 a.m. ― 6 years, 1 month ago

(Wow, these comments REALLY need to allow paragraphs. Edit would be nice, too...)

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Avatar for user 'Tom Fudge'

Tom Fudge, KPBS Staff | February 16, 2011 at 10:16 a.m. ― 6 years, 1 month ago

We've made the editorial decision not to edit our readers comments. The most we'll do is chuck them out if their nasty or profane. I'll look into the possibility of allowing paragraphs.

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Avatar for user 'mfedder'

mfedder | February 20, 2011 at 3:49 p.m. ― 6 years, 1 month ago

I didn't mean to suggest that KPBS ought to edit readers' comments - rather, I was expressing shame at some of my typos and oversights, that I would have revised myself if I had the chance. Thanks!

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