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Should California Move Forward With Plan To Build High-Speed Rail System?

An artist's rendering of the high-speed rail.
California High-Speed Rail Authority
An artist's rendering of the high-speed rail.
Should California Move Forward With Plan To Build High-Speed Rail System?
What will it take to get a proposal to build a California high-speed rail system off the ground? We speak to KPBS Reporter Tom Fudge about the latest news on the high-speed rail plan.

What will it take to get a proposal to build a California high-speed rail system off the ground? We speak to KPBS Reporter Tom Fudge about the latest news on the high-speed rail plan.


Tom Fudge, KPBS News Reporter, and author of the "On-Ramp" blog on


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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh issue you're listening to These Days on KPBS. When the Washington post has something to say about California, golden state residents usually get out a huge grain of salt. Even journalists are not famous for their understanding of issues beyond the beltway, and certainly not about the complexities of the west coast. But a recent post editorial criticizing California's plans to build a state wide high speed rail line has generated some new conversation about the proposal. Where will the bulk of the money come from? Is it being planned correctly? And will enough people use the train to make it pay for itself? KPBS reporter, Tom budge, and author of the blog on-ramp talked with supporters and skeptics of California's high speed rail proposal. And he joins us now. Good morning, Tom.

FUDGE: Hi, Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, we are inviting our listeners to conversation this conversation. Do you think a genuine high speed rail system would benefit California or do you think too few people would actually use the train? Give us a call with your questions and comments, the number is 1-888-895-5725. That's 1-888-895-KPBS. So give us some background on this. I know we all voted for or against it back in 2008.

FUDGE: Yes, it was called proposition one A, November passed, can't remember the percentage, but it passed in November, 2008.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Most people voted for it. So where and when is the construction on this high speed rail project set to begin.


FUDGE: I've been told by officials at the high speed rail authority, the California high speed rail authority, that construction of the system is going to begin next year, late next year. Of so late [CHECK AUDIO] in fact, critics, and there are still a lot of critics to high speed rail, call it the train to nowhere. Because the first connection it's gonna make is gonna be between two fairly small communities in the central valley. When you talk to the high speed rail authority about this, they say, well, it's gotta begin some place. And eventually it will connect all the big cities in California. The central valley is a good place to begin because basically it's easy to begin there. There aren't a lot of homes in the way. Of there's not a lot of property. You're gonna have to condemn. And so that's what they're doing.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So that's the easiest way for them to start this high speed rail project. How do they see it continuing from this small section in the central valley? Where do they want this train to start going?

FUDGE: It is supposed to eventually, in, say 15 years from now, connect all of the big cities in California. The first phase, what they call the first phase, which is actually gonna be the lion's share of the system, is going to connect San Francisco to LA and Anaheim. That's phase one. And that is supposed to be done by 2020. Phase two are eventually the connections between San Francisco and Sacramento and Los Angeles and San Diego. And so we're not going to get high speed rail even in the best scenario, we're not gonna get high speed rail in San Diego for at least another 11, 12 years.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right. So we all have to stay pretty healthy in order to be able to see it. How much is this project gonna cost?

FUDGE: A lot. It's going to cost -- the estimation for phase one, and remember, that's just between San Francisco and Anaheim, doesn't include San Diego, estimated cost for that is $42 billion. Now, we voted for prop one A, of course the next question coming up, I'm sure that's trembling on your lips is where's the money gonna come from? Proposition one A which we passed in 2008 will provide approximately $9 billion in bonding of so that's nine billion out of 42 billion that you need just for phase one of the system. Where is the rest of the money gonna come from? It has already come to some extent from the federal government because Barack Obama is a supporter of high speed rail. And so a fair number of stimulus dollars have gone to high speed rail, and there are projects all around the country. California is the biggest one, and the one people are really talking about. But there's another high speed rail system for instance in Florida which they're planning which is gonna connect Tampa bay to Orlando. Of and I believe -- I may not have this quite right. But I think about $600 million of federal money has already been dedicated to high speed rail in California. And hopefully that'll keep coming. But we'll see about that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with KPBS reporter Tom Fudge he's author of the blog on-ramp. And we are talking about California's high speed rail project. We're talking about the people who support it, and the people who are skeptical of the plan. And taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. In fact, let's take a call right now. Nadia is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Nadia, and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning, how are you today?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Very well. Thank you.

NEW SPEAKER: Well, I can't say I'm necessarily against the high speed rail. My main question is, though, what is this high speed rail gonna cover that Amtrak doesn't already provide?

FUDGE: That's a good question. And the answer I'm really not sure I have a good answer for you. I may have to look that up, but I would be surprised if high speed rail covers a whole hot that is not covered by Amtrak. But keep one thing in mind about Amtrak. Amtrak is slow, and it's not just because it doesn't any 220 miles 1 hour, which high speed rail can do. If you want to take Amtrak from San Diego to San Francisco, it takes you about -- something like 12, 16 hours because of the changes that you have to make and the speed of the train, and all the stops it has to make. So it will definitely improve upon the service of Amtrak, I'm not sure whether it's gonna take you to a lot more places.


FUDGE: But that's not the point. The point is to create a rail system that really does compete with the air lines, that really will compete with people driving their cars.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Exactly. So that is -- I guess that's one of the main arguments in favor of this plan to build this high speed rail system. I've heard it referred to as a genuine high speed rail system in that that's not just gonna go a little bit faster than a normal train, it's gonna go, basically, as fast as trains do in Europe and Japan; is that right?

FUDGE: Yeah, well, high speed rail is a pretty standard technology. It's a technology that's proven, it's used in Japan, it's used in Europe issue it's used in China, and what California is going to do is basically mimic what already exists. When we think about the speed of high speed rail, you need to keep in mind that that 220-mile an hour speed is not something that you're going to see, for instance, in urban areas, that's gonna be out in the country. Out in the central valley it's gonna go that fast, but once it comes into an urban area, it's probably gonna slow down to 90 and a hundred miles an hour. So it's not gonna be 1245 speed -- that top speed constantly. I asked the deputy director of -- and we're gonna hear from him in just a moment. His name is Jeff barker. I asked him, well, if I wanted to take a train from San Diego to San Francisco, how long would it take, and he really didn't give me an answer, but he said one thing that was written into the legislation, into prop one A is that they will guarantee that you can get from Los Angeles to San Francisco in two hours and 40 minutes. So that hopefully gives people a good idea of how fast this thing is gonna move.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And why does he think that California is the right place to build this high speed rail system above and beyond maybe somewhere else in the United States in.

FUDGE: Because we have a willing electorate. I think that's one big -- I think that's one big reason. We had an electorate that was willing to approve $9 billion in bonding of but also, you look at California, it's a big state with lots of people and has a fair number of big cities. And taking -- when I talked to Jeff barker, he said taking a plane from, say, San Diego to Fresno is not something that people are typically going to do. You can drive that distance, but it's going to take you a long time. But let me stop talking. Let's hear from Jeff barker and hear why he thinks high speed rail is a good idea.

NEW SPEAKER: Where high speed rail systems really thrive is the 300 to 500-mile distances, so you take a look at San Francisco to Los Angeles, and you're just -- 400, some odd miles, that's kind of a perfect test case.

FUDGE: So what they're saying about high speed rail is that it's really good for distances that are too short for air travel, but too long for car travel.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Tom Fudge, and we are talking about California's high speed rail plans. Taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Justin's calling us from mission beach, good morning, Justin, welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi, thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to add a little comment about my experience when I lived in if Scotland for six months. Of I had a really good experience with their rail system 'cause it was just really easy and convenient to jump on I train and be from Edinburg to glass go in had, you know, like in an hour or two, where you could do shopping and things like that. Of and I think it would be really neat if people from San Diego or even from San Francisco could enjoy each other's tourist attractions within the same day.


NEW SPEAKER: And that would be a really neat feature of having high speed rail. But I think also from technology standpoint and an engineering standpoint, California would learn a lot about high speed rail and could even, maybe, make that a center of innovation for California when we maybe are asked by other countries or other states to build out their high speed rail systems. Or, you know, creating interconnects up the west coast or into the midwest where it becomes more of an important form of travel into California.


NEW SPEAKER: Than it is right now.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Justin, thank you for the comment. And I know in your blog, Tom, you talk about your travels on high speed rail systems in Europe.

FUDGE: Yes. And I think -- I'd love to hear from other callers, listeners out there, if you have a high speed rail story to tell give us a call. My story is pretty limited because I've only taken the high speed rail once. It was about 10, 15 years ago, and I was visiting friends in Germany. And I took high speed rail from Hamburg to Frankfurt Germany. The reason I went to Frankfurt is to catch an international flight back to the United States. And it was wonderful. It was comfortable, it was incredibly fast, and I -- very fondly recall sitting in the dining car drinking a beer and just watching these farm houses and villages fly past me. It really was a wonderful experience. And just about everybody agrees that high speed rail is cool. It goes 220 miles an hour. We love trains. But the big question here is is it worth what we're paying for? And is that that's -- is it worth what we're paying for, and are we really gonna use it like they use it in Europe and Japan? And that's why the controversial lie it is.

CAVANAUGH: So is that really sort of the main argument against this idea? Is that even though everybody likes the idea of really fast trains that the -- people are just not going to use this? It's not going to be financially feasible activity for California?

FUDGE: Well, why don't we hear from another fellow that I talked to when I did my feature story for morning edition this morning, and this guy is another person who has studied high speed rail. He's -- his name is Adrian Moore, and he's with the Reason Foundation, which is a libertarian foundation, so you have to keep that in mind. But his criticism of high speed rail in the United States is really very typical of what you would hear from lots of critics of what California is trying to do. So let's hear from Adrian Moore. Of.

NEW SPEAKER: 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. Of.

FUDGE: So even the Reason Foundation believes in high speed rail in certain situations. One example that Adrian Moore gave to me is China. Of he said you can draw a line in China and you can connect about four cities, each of which has 10 million people. And when you have a situation like that, and a population that is used to taking trains that a population that is not in love with their cars, it makes a huge amount of sense of but he's saying that the U.S. is not built like Europe. It's not built like Japan or China. It's very spread out. It's very suburban. And you have to keep that in -- you have to keep that in mind if -- when you're trying to project what the ridership is is did going to be and how many people are actually going to take this. I talked with a transportation planner who lives in San Diego. Of his name is Allen Hoffman, and we were talking about the cool factor. Come is definitely a big political influence when it comes it high speed rail, and he said one thing you gotta keep in mind is local poles showed that the vast majority of San Diegans really think the San Diego trolley is cool. Of but it doesn't mean they've ever taken it. You see the trolley going by, and you think it's wonderful, and you think it's wonderful that that's available. But it doesn't mean that you're paying your money fair ticket to take the trolley. And the same problem, I think applies to high speed rail.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: However, the trolley actually in a lot of instances takes a lot longer time to get from point A to point B than maybe your car. Isn't the idea of this high speed rail that it would take a shorter amount of time to go, are let's say from LA to San Francisco on this rail -- on this train than it would be to drive there?

FUDGE: Yes, but then the question becomes, and this is something -- another thing that Allen Hoffman would say, and I think it's very reasonable, what do you do once you get there? Let's say -- let's say high speed rail takes you to union station in Los Angeles. Okay. How are you gonna get there from to UCLA? How are you gonna get from there to LAX? And by the way, San Diegans should know that the plans that they have for high speed rail now showed that high speed rail is not going to connect to the LA airport, which I think is something people should keep in mind because you might think, oh, great I can take high speed rail up to Los Angeles and catch an international flight. Well, not unless you can find a way to get from union station to lax. So yes, it is fast. But then once you get there, there has to be some kind of commuter system, some kind of mass transportation system that's really good that's gonna take you where you want to go.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We -- I'm speaking with KPBS reporter and blogger Tom Fudge. His blog is on-ramp. And we are talking about the California high speed rail plan. Taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Of you can also comment on line at Days. Susan is calling us from Hillcrest. Good morning, Susan and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi. I did my thesis on green house gas emissions and was one -- I know that Amtrak rail in terms of transferring cargo is about three times more efficient than, you know, our tradition methods of long-haul trucks and stuff like that. So I'm just wondering with respect to the efficiency compared to airplanes per passenger or per miles per distance and compared to vehicles. I know that when our gas prices go up, which they are already going up, that alternatives that are more fuel efficient are gonna become more tractive as well. So just curious about that.

FUDGE: Thanks very much for the call. And you brought up a subject that I was going to bring up. And that is -- well, you brought up more than one subject. But let me deal with the issue of green house gases and gasoline. One argument that was made by the deputy director of the high speed rail authority whom I talked to was that you have to consider the fact that the cost of petroleum is very likely to go up. And he thinks it's likely to go up very dramatically even just within the next 20 years. And yes, if you have gasoline that is costing people $8 a gallon or $10 a gallon, then suddenly the equation becomes different than high speed rail looks a lot more attractive. In terms of the efficiency of high speed rail, compared to a freeway, compared to -- compared to taking a plane, I'm afraid your question goes a little bit beyond the scope of my knowledge. I have been told by people who have studied the high speed rail plans that they are expecting to have about a hundred trains a day coming north and south. So that's what they would like to -- that's what they would like to do. By the way, Maureen, I wanted to talk about one thing that people should understand about high speed rail. And this is another thing that makes it difficult to build. When you build high speed rail, it is a pretty major infrastructure. You're talking about having a rail bed, of course, so you need to have all the cob instruction, all the grading that goes with just creating a rail bed. And in addition to that, because these trains are so Taft fast, they want to protect people, so it's gotta be fenced on both sides. In addition to that, these trains don't run on diesel. It's not like an Amtrak. [CHECK AUDIO] just like we see with the trolley in San Diego. So all that stuff has to be built. And that means it's gonna need quite a bit of space. That means that if you build it in pretty places, it's gonna be a bit of an eye sore. You're gonna have to condemn properties of so that's another challenge that we face.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's the $42 billion price tag, and the major major major infrastructure surrounding this particular proposal. Wane is calling us from Ramona. Good morning, Wayne, and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning. I just had a couple of comments. First of all, the thing that everybody needs to remember is high speed rail even came into plot as a green source of travel to begin with. It wasn't meant to be short distances. It wasn't meant to replace anything. It was meant to be a green way to travel and to use renewable energy sources. Second of all, as in Florida, they have a fighting chance of making this thing pay for itself from going to Tampa bay to Orlando. [CHECK AUDIO] central valley there is this little chunk of high speed rail that goes from nowhere to nowhere. I don't know what they think they're gonna do with a hundred trains on that piece of track. Because there probably won't be a hundred people who want to travel it. I'll take your comments off the air.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much for the call, Wayne, and that first little section in the central valley you were talking about, isn't that sort of a trial section more than anything else?

FUDGE: I don't know if I would call it -- well, it's the first section so I guess that's fair to call it a trial section. I think the reason they're building it there is there are two reasons, in be one is because it's easy. Of because they don't have to, you know, go through a lot of urban area and condemn a lot of high priced property. And also -- there was a second reason. But now I've forgotten when it was.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, it connects with the existing Amtrak trains that are still in that area. So it can actually be a linkage in that area to the Amtrak system that's already in existence.

FUDGE: Well, the other reason is was thinking of is they've got money, they've got federal money issue they gotta spend it.


FUDGE: If they don't spend it, they'll lose it. So this is what they're deciding to do. One other way I want to respond to our caller, [CHECK AUDIO] but you have to remember that electricity has to come from some place. These are not -- these don't run on diesel, they run on electricity. But if you've got a coal plant that's providing electricity to run high speed rail, it's not exactly a green technology. The other question you have to ask yourself is how many cars are really gonna be taken off California freeways result of high speed rail? This is where critics say it's -- the estimation is that a lot of people who support high speed rail are making are not realistic.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: My final question, and briefly, Tom, if you can handle this briefly, and that is the idea that this is supposed to pay for itself. Now it's my understanding that even supporters of high speed rail proposal can't make such guarantees.

FUDGE: They do make sure guarantees.


FUDGE: Because they have to. The high speed rail authority says this rail system is not gonna run on state subsidy. Of and they say that because proposition one A told California voters this is not going to run on a state subsidy, and so that's the law and that's what they have to tell us. Of but if you talk to people like Adrian Moore who we heard from before, he will say that claiming that this system is going to make money and isn't going to require any kind of subsidy is absurd. Because even in Europe, in a place that is probably design aid bit better for high speed rail, they subsidize service. So he says if you think this is going to be independent, make money, he's saying it's just not gonna happen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you so much. Very interesting. KPBS reporter Tom Fudge, author of the blog on-ramp. And you can see his blog post about this subject on On-ramp at Now, earlier in the hour, Gloria Penner -- I have to make a correction, Gloria Penner said that mayor Sanders is not taking his police pension of that's incorrect. Liam Dylan from voice of San recently reported that mayor Sanders collected [CHECK AUDIO] please stay with us for hour two of These Days coming up in just a few minutes here on KPBS.