Don’t derail high-speed trains

To those Californians even aware of the proposed high-speed railway between Los Angeles and San Francisco — ultimately extending to Sacramento and San Diego — the repeatedly postponed project must seem like a vague dream for some undefined future. So probably it would surprise many that the state has a California High-Speed Rail Authority with current budgeting of $20.7 million for engineering and environmental work.

Not only that, on Wednesday the Rail Authority is to pick the main track route into San Francisco. And a $10 billion bond for starting construction is supposed to be on the November ballot, unless Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger postpones it for a third time.

It might appear like utter craziness to seriously consider proceeding with yet another bond measure, when California faces years of record-breaking deficits, starting with $14 billion for 2008-09. But the uncomfortable truth is that we literally cannot afford to delay preparing for obviously growing demographic needs.

For example, the Bay Bridge seismic rebuild is now costing taxpayers more than double what it would have if action began in 1989, when the Loma Prieta earthquake actually happened. By contrast, the 1994 earthquake-demolished freeways of Los Angeles were fully operational in only one year, while the Bay Bridge is still unfinished.

California must build high-speed rail because our population is projected to grow almost 50 percent by 2050. The Northern California megaregion will expand from 14 million to 24 million people from Salinas to Sacramento. We need a genuinely practical way to get millions of intrastate drivers and long-distance commuters off the overcrowded roads, not to mention preventing the state’s thronged airports from becoming totally clogged by millions more passengers.

At two and a half hours from downtown San Francisco to central Los Angeles or Anaheim, high-speed trains powered by electricity would be a convenient and inexpensive alternative to a one-hour flight between SFO and LAX. Total travel time would be virtually the same, after adding the waits required to get through the airport, traveling to and from the airport, plus risking oneof the increasingly prevalent runway delays.

Tomorrow’s track-route decision by the Rail Authority is between Altamont Pass in the East Bay or the Pacheco Pass south of Gilroy. The Pacheco crossing is recommended by the authority’s staff and the Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission. It would connect to San Francisco via San Jose and the Peninsula’s Caltrain right of way. Construction would cost less because there would be no need to build a cross-bay bridge through a national wildlife refuge.

Altamont Pass would better serve more of the fast-growing Central Valley and riders between the Bay Area and Sacramento.

Most important right now is retaining momentum for bringing high-speed rail to the California central corridor. To stop and wait for better economic times before proceeding with the groundwork merely guarantees that final costs will be swollen far beyond today’s $30 billion.

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