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The Gospel Of High-Speed Rail Still Has Many Doubters


Aired 1/19/11

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.

Deborah Knight, executive director of the Friends of Rose Canyon, stands at t...
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Above: Deborah Knight, executive director of the Friends of Rose Canyon, stands at the edge of the canyon she hopes will not have to accommodate a high-speed rail line.

"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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Avatar for user 'Tom Fudge'

Tom Fudge, KPBS Staff | January 19, 2011 at 10:42 a.m. ― 6 years, 2 months ago

Here's a comment I received by email:: My wife and I traveled Germany on the ICE and France using the TGV. Both were remarkably fast, convenient, and presented essentially no wait. We walked to the train and got aboard. Compare that to the hour plus wait required at an airport, assuming you fly with carry-on luggage. Regarding connections on either end of the CA trip: LA has a robust mass transit system now. You can take light rail from Union Station to LAX. There is a 1-mile gap at the end which requires a shuttle bus, but that is no different from parking long-term at LAX. Have you tried to drive in LA recently? In the evenings it can take hours to get from A to B. With trains you can expect a longer trip but you can plan when you arrive and your time is not wasted on driving.

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Avatar for user 'AugmentedBallot'

AugmentedBallot | January 19, 2011 at 3 p.m. ― 6 years, 2 months ago

Important point to add: all transportation is subsidized. If high speed rail even comes close to paying for itself, it'll be a bargain.

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Avatar for user 'Tom Fudge'

Tom Fudge, KPBS Staff | January 19, 2011 at 4:29 p.m. ― 6 years, 2 months ago

Another comment I received by email. This one from Glen:: I really enjoyed your interview (on These Days) and discussion today about California High Speed Rail. My question is why are there no plans (at least that I have heard of) for a high speed rail from San Diego to Las Vegas? It could follow the I-15 corridor straight to Vegas! I would imagine that such a rail line would be profitable, and convienent for passengers. I certainly would go to Vegas much more often if I did not have to drive 4+ hours, or worry about traffic or sleeping/sobering up for the drive home. A high speed rail to Vegas NEEDS to be built. Much more so than one to San Francisco... At least that is my opinion.

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Avatar for user 'mfedder'

mfedder | January 19, 2011 at 8:34 p.m. ― 6 years, 2 months ago

High-speed rail systems around the world have a net positive cash flow from operations, including recent systems like the AVE in Spain (incidentally, also a country with a low population density and two major population centers situated about 400 miles apart - sound familiar?) and Taiwan's system.

Public subsidy is required to finance initial construction, but name one mode of transportation where that isn't true? Yet we continue to build highways, because the cost of doing nothing is economic stagnation.

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Avatar for user 'Mike808'

Mike808 | January 20, 2011 at 9:41 a.m. ― 6 years, 2 months ago

I agree with Glen. San Diego to Vegas. I drive it every weekend. Almost every car I see has California plates. I pay at least $80 for gas. So if the rail ticket costs anywhere around $80 but could get me there much faster (I sat in San Bernardino traffic for an hour on one trip), then I would definitely use the rail vice driving.
Future growth/expansion. Why wait. Population growth is not declining.

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Avatar for user 'Tom Fudge'

Tom Fudge, KPBS Staff | January 20, 2011 at 11:57 a.m. ― 6 years, 2 months ago

I just got back from a trip to Solana Beach to interview passengers waiting at the train station to take the Coaster. North County Transit is cutting its fares today. The drive up there was a pain... stop and go traffic after Del Mar Heights Rd. There were a total of six people waiting at the Solona Beach station to take the Coaster to San Diego. We love our cars to distraction in California. So making the change to taking high-speed rail will require tangible advantages (saving on the time and cost of getting to Vegas) but also a change in culture. The remaining question is whether we can justify a system that will cost (at least) $8 million a mile. As to subsidy questions, I'm not expert in the financing of high-speed rail system in other countries, and my sources give me conflicting accounts. Adrian Moore, of the Reason Foundation, tells me that both construction AND operation of high-speed rail in Europe and Japan must be subsidized. Readers... let me know if you can cite a reliable source that tells us otherwise.

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Avatar for user 'Greg Duch'

Greg Duch | January 23, 2011 at 3:40 p.m. ― 6 years, 2 months ago

Yes, Tom,
I discovered long ago that San Diegans are organically bound to their automobile. It is nearly impossible for the average San Diegan to survive for more than a few days without this most integral part of their autonomic-human nature. A San Diegan without a car is a tragic sight, that rips one's heart. So, expect that both I-5 and I-15 will be double-decked with 24 lanes in each direction on both top and bottom decks; AND the price of gasoline will top $20.00 a gallon, and San Diegans will still be organically bound to their automobile. Trains and public transit are part of a left-wing, anti-American, conspiracy to make the USA a communist country, you know.

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Avatar for user 'Tom Fudge'

Tom Fudge, KPBS Staff | January 24, 2011 at 9:14 a.m. ― 6 years, 2 months ago

GregD-- Your irony is appreciated though not necessarily correct in this case. Getting Californians out of their cars will require a change in culture but not necessarily $20 a gallon. Jeff Barker, from the high-speed rail authority, predicts (maybe wishfully) that gas could go up to $8 a gallon within 20 years. If that happened, it would make a difference. Californians may be stuck in their ways but they're not entirely divorced from reality. If there are tangible advantages to using mass transit people will take it. But you can't expect people to take it, simply because it's there. I once took the #11 bus to work at San Diego State. It was a fairly quick ride, and fairly affordable. But they raised the fare on me twice and eventually I realized that parking was available at my workplace, driving would take half as long and driving would be cheaper, given that I already had a car. In a situation like that, you'd have to be nuts to choose public transportation! I chose to start driving again.

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Avatar for user 'Greg Duch'

Greg Duch | January 24, 2011 at 4:48 p.m. ― 6 years, 2 months ago

Having been born in New York City,I recall that my father used the family car only on weekends. To commute daily to/from work between Jackson Heights, Queens and Downtown Manhattan he used bus and subway Mon. thru Fri. So for me using mass transit was a truly natural, normal way FOR HUMANS to get about.
Having used the local transit dis-system
since I arrived in SD, I believe that the managers at MTS are quite content with low ridership. I think that they panic at the thought of increased ridership. Either through benign neglect, or purposeful intent, MTS forces people to make exactly the decision you made. I have seen no "sign of change in direction" in the operations of MTS. Regularly scheduled fare increases AS WELL AS draconian service cutbacks have a marvelous way of turning people away from transit. SOooo, only those who REALLY HAVE TO TAKE TRANSIT, do. As far as California's Culture of INDIVIDUALIZED MOBILITY AT DEMAND,(IMAD); I don't see that changing. Cars are merely the natural extensions of A CALIFORNIAN'S legs. You don't amputate a Californian's body part that easily. . DOING SO causes systemic shock, and is usuallly fatal within 48 hrs. Ever since California was first invented, life in SOUTHERN CAL has been just ONE GREAT BIG COSMIC ON-RAMP.

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Avatar for user 'Greg Duch'

Greg Duch | January 26, 2011 at 5:52 p.m. ― 6 years, 1 month ago

POP Psychology 101
I believe that Californians have a pathological need for the insularity and social distance which driving an auto solo provides. When you take a bus or trolley, well, you have to actually ride with OTHER people. Not a very attractive idea, in a land that prizes individualism as a high virtue, one necessary for socio-cultural acceptance. --ergo modern, but nearly empty train stations in the midst of fairly highly concentrated populated areas such as Solana Beach.--GregD (I read "Psychology Today" all of the time)

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Avatar for user 'MarkB1'

MarkB1 | August 10, 2011 at 2:15 a.m. ― 5 years, 7 months ago

For this country, and probably any country, high-speed rail is a boondoogle of the worst type. Japan, for instance, was nearly bankrupt by their HSR system; almost 10% of their national debt was due to HSR, and they had to sell it for nothing to avoid fiscal disaster, losing all the capital cost, and they still subsidize it.
I've been riding public transportation all my life, and I dislike flying, but HSR will be a disaster. They want to build the first line from Fresno to Bakersfield? That's going to work! Does anybody in Fresno want to go to Bakersfield? You couldn't pay me to go to either city. How many people ever want to stop in Bakersfield? I'd really like to visit the Fresno.... uh, nothing.
Now, just before the work starts, they add $2B to the cost. Who thinks that will end.
And what is the benefit? Think an airport uses a lot of land? Ha! Wait until you dig up a corridor 0.5mile wide and 800miles long. And if it were (it won't) to get a lot of traffic, you'd have to build huge parking lots at every stop. It may go 225mi/hr, but if you put in 20 stops, the average will go down to 100mi/hr. Planes, OTOH, don't require any type of road. Energy savings? Not a chance. The invested energy in building the roadbed and infrastructure will negate any possible energy saved in travel. Planes have an interest in staying very light and getting good per seat mileage. Trains have an advantage when they are heavy, and require greater weight for their power train.
It's a really bad idea, bad bad bad.

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Avatar for user 'MarkB1'

MarkB1 | August 10, 2011 at 2:17 a.m. ― 5 years, 7 months ago

P.S. I rode the coaster from its' first week until just recently, and before that the bus for fifteen years. I hate driving... but I'm still against HSR.

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