High-speed rail’s hidden benefits

Some of California’s most significant benefits from the proposed high-speed railway between San Francisco and Los Angeles are not immediately apparent.

That was the thrust of a Friday

op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times praising San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom for leading a statewide delegation to Sacramento this spring in support of AB 713. The bipartisan legislation would put a starter $9.95 billion high-speed rail bond measure on the ballot in November 2008 and provide interim funds of $113 million to continue engineering preparation for the project — including work on downtown San Francisco’s stalled Transbay Terminal.

The Times op-ed concluded by calling for Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to join forces with Newsom to “unite the state’s two major cities in a common cause that will pay dividends for their communities and the entire state for generations to come.”

The current cost estimate is $40 billion for the main S.F.-L.A. high-speed line, with approximately half the funds coming from the federal government. This would be among the most expensive single transportation projects in history. But supporters insist, and many independent analysts agree, that the combined alternatives needed for keeping California’s aging transportation infrastructure on pace with a growing population and global competition would cost billions more.

The supporters argue that high-speed rail would eliminate costly and controversial airport expansion plans, dramatically reduce in-city traffic from out-of-town cars, create less wear on existing highways and help Californians beat traffic congestion and the high cost of gasoline.

It was 1993 when the Legislature created a California High-Speed Rail Authority to plan a 200 mph

railway that could make the Los Angeles-San Francisco run in just three hours. The route would eventually extend to all the state’s bigger cities, from San Diego to Sacramento and Stockton/Fresno, with connections in Orange County, the Inland Empire, the High Desert and the Central Valley.

Consecutive governors from both parties supported the plan, as did most business-oriented think tanks. SPUR, the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, has been urging adoption of high-speed rail since 1999. But when the California economy hit meltdown in 2001, lawmakers were understandably cautious about presenting voters with any more bond measures. High-speed rail went into a coma and is only now beginning to reawaken.

Now, the California business cycle is back in growth phase and a solid case can be made that high-speed rail between San Francisco and Los Angeles would help maintain the state’s economic recovery. Preparations should continue and the issue should be decided by California voters in 2008 or sooner.

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