Why Californians support high-speed rail project

Without a hint of irony, critics warn that moving forward with California’s high-speed rail project risks financial disaster for the state.

That train has left the station. There’s no need to predict disaster — we’re already living through one. With more than 12 percent unemployment for the past 12 months, these amount to the darkest economic times in California since the Great Depression.

The real question is: What do we do about it? Despite persistent and vocal critics, Californians still think high-speed rail has a significant role to play in brightening the future of the Golden State.

A recent poll indicates 76 percent of voters support high-speed rail, with some 34 percent who support the project moving forward as quickly as possible. Asked another way, 60 percent of California voters said they believe “the potential economic and environmental benefits of a high-speed rail line are so great, that it is worth investing in it now in order to provide for California’s future.”

High-speed rail, developed extensively overseas, is still in its infancy in the U.S. Two years ago, California voters approved an almost $10 billion bond to get started on 800 miles of high-speed rail tracks. When completed, passengers will zip safely and comfortably from the Bay Area through the Central Valley to Southern California’s urban centers of Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Diego at speeds of up to 220 mph, arriving in less than three hours.

Designed as a key West Coast terminus, a recent high-profile Bay Area groundbreaking for the new multimodal Transbay Transit Center in San Francisco puts California in the lead of U.S. high-speed rail development. Also, the transit center project will provide more than 2,600 housing units, commercial office space, retail outlets and tens of thousands of jobs, when they’re desperately needed.

The federal government has allocated billions of dollars of stimulus money for high-speed rail development in California, $400 million for the Transbay Transit Center alone. High-speed rail developers and investors from around the world are researching proposals and financing packages to take part in this massive public-private infrastructure project. And, it’s none too soon.

California’s high-speed trains will be a key link in the evolutionary transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. They are three times more energy efficient than planes and five times more efficient than cars. Run on electric power that can be produced by renewable sources like wind and solar, high-speed trains will reduce air pollution and our dependence on foreign oil. Similar routes in Europe have been economically sustainable and have dramatically reduced short-hop, high-polluting jet travel, along with lengthy automobile travel.

The Transbay Transit Center terminus for this 21st-century engineering marvel will fall literally in the shadow of the magnificent Bay Bridge, another icon of transportation engineering built more than seven decades ago in an even-darker economic period in America’s history when we tightened our belts, rolled up our sleeves and started building for the future.

Stitching the state together, literally and figuratively, on high-speed rail tracks can help build the future — and address the financial crisis we’re already in — serving the same dual purpose of classic countercyclical investment that helped end the Depression. It’s the kind of basic infrastructure that will form the foundation for future economic growth while creating hundreds of thousands of desperately needed jobs.

Californians, and Americans, have never been a timid people. We’re prepared to accept the risks that come with bold projects like high-speed rail, that promise a cleaner environment and a better future for our children, and provide the jobs that are needed today.

There will always be naysayers who claim we can’t afford to build for the future. They may make headlines, but they don’t reflect the deep, underlying optimism that has made us a great nation and the Golden State.

There is light at the end of this dark economic tunnel, and high-speed rail will help get us there.

Daniel M. Curtin is director of the California Conference of Carpenters.

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