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The Gospel Of High-Speed Rail Still Has Many Doubters

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If you want to imagine a high-speed rail line coming to San Diego, one place you can do it is Rose Canyon.

— If you want to imagine a high-speed rail line coming to San Diego, one place you can do it is Rose Canyon. This represents a portion of one of the routes recommended by the California High Speed Rail Authority. The rail line would come down the I-15 corridor, bank west near Miramar air station and go through Rose Canyon before it joins the I-5 corridor. It would follow I-5 on its way to a terminus at Lindbergh Field.

But Deborah Knight, executive director of the Friends of Rose Canyon, calls it a bad route.

"This would basically destroy the park,” she said, “if you had trains running by here every five, ten minutes, if you had an entire new set of tracks in here with all of the construction and retaining walls."

Talk of high-speed rail has been a background noise in the halls of state transportation planning for at least 15 years. But it became a reality in November, 2008 when California voters approved Proposition 1A, which provides more than $9 billion in bonds for a rail system.

While Knight's concern is Rose Canyon, her criticism represents a larger skepticism about the costs and the return California would get from high-speed rail. Nine billion dollars may sound like a lot of money, bit keep in mind the high-speed rail authority estimates it will cost more than $42 billion to build a system that doesn't even include connections to San Diego and Sacramento.

Jeff Barker, deputy director of the authority, says the line to San Diego wouldn't be built until after the San Francisco-Anaheim route is complete in 2020.

I asked Barker about the vision thing. Why build a high-speed line when it costs so much? He said high-speed rail is fast and affordable for medium distance trips that are impractical for air travel.

"Where high-speed rail systems really thrive are those 300- to 500-mile distances,” Barker said. “You look at San Francisco to Los Angeles and you're just 400-some odd miles. It's kind of a perfect test case.”

Barker said high-speed rail will attract passengers in California with reasonably-priced tickets, which may be as low as half the cost of airfare. It's also fast and dependable.

"High-speed rail systems run on time. They're never delayed because there's fog in San Francisco,” said “Barker. “And in the near future, as people predict a gallon of gasoline is going to cost more than $5 or $8…obviously (driving) could become cost prohibitive."

One thing that nearly everybody agrees with is that high-speed rail is cool. Even I agree with that as I reflect on my one high-speed rail journey from Hamburg to Frankfurt, Germany. I drank a beer in the dining car as I watched the countryside whip by at astonishing rates. Top speed for most high-speed rail systems is 220 miles per hour. The California rail authority estimates passengers would get from LA to San Francisco in less than three hours.

But San Diego transportation planner Alan Hoffman points out that most San Diegans also think the trolley system is cool, and that doesn't mean they’ll ever ride it.

Transportation economist Adrian Moore is vice president of the libertarian-leaning Reason Institute. He says the romance of rail technology doesn't mean it makes sense for the U.S.

"The fundamental problem with high-speed rail in the United States is we are a low-density, highly-dispersed country. High-speed rail is a technology designed to serve very dense, very compact areas,” said Moore.

Moore has studied California's evolving plan and says he's very skeptical of ridership and cost projections. He thinks the claim, by the rail authority, that the system will operate without a government subsidy is absurd, given that even high-speed rail systems in Europe have to operate on a subsidy.

"There's no way on earth this thing is going to make money. And if it's not going to make money, it's going to have to be subsidized," he said.

California's high-speed rail line will depend on federal funding and private investment if it is going to become the more than 600-mile system we now imagine. So there are a lot of "ifs" in the way of completion of the project.

But Barker says the concept has the support of Barack Obama, and the federal funds are already flowing to high-speed rail. As to the concerns about proposed routes into San Diego, Barker says they're a long way from choosing one. Besides…high-speed rail isn't coming to San Diego for at least 10 years.

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