High speed rail gets the green light

Last month the California High Speed Rail Authority made an important decision, one the Chamber of Commerce has suggested from the project’s earliest days: construct the system’s first phase from the Bay Area to the Central Valley rather than from Bakersfield through the Tehachapi Mountains to Southern California.

The Merced to Bakersfield portion of the route is cleared environmentally and construction is under way, electrification of the shared CalTrain tracks from San Jose to San Francisco is soon to break ground and the TransBay Transit Center, with its rail platforms in place is set to open in less than two years. The route from San Francisco to San Jose to the Central Valley can be in revenue service with a private sector operating partner by 2025.

This fast transit connection between the West Bay and the Central Valley will create both job opportunities for Valley residents, which continues to suffer from high unemployment, and new affordable housing options for Bay Area workers. And it will quickly prove the viability of high speed rail in California.

While partisan opposition in Washington D.C. has prevented additional federal funding for this critically important transportation project, California’s elected officials remain committed to the project. And recently the courts gave the green light to the continued sale of high speed rail bonds approved by the voters in 2008. Additional funding has been appropriated from the state’s landmark “Cap and Trade” law to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and is annually delivering hundreds of millions of dollars to the project.

At almost $70 billion dollars, construction of a high speed rail system from San Francisco to Los Angeles and Anaheim is certainly an expensive project. But it will cost a fraction of what the state would have to spend to achieve the same level of mobility for a population expected to reach 50 million people by the year 2030. To move an equivalent number of people would cost $170 billion in new freeways and airport runway expansions in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, assuming those projects would have both the necessary public support and environmental clearance. And while others have said we should wait for newer technology, high speed rail is a safe, reliable and cost effective system of transportation, proven around the world.

While we are still many years away from a three hour downtown San Francisco to downtown Los Angeles high speed rail trip, the infrastructure to make that happen is under construction, initial funding sources have resulted in shovels in the ground and as the Chamber of Commerce has said all along, it is the best, most economical method of meeting the transportation needs of California in the 21st Century. It is time to put aside partisan politics and the NIMBYism that many of our communities are well known for, and get this project built.

Jim Lazarus is senior vice president of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce.

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