California Edges Ahead In High-Speed-Train 'Race'

High-speed train

A rendering of one of California's proposed high-speed rail stations. The state would like to introduce 800 miles of high-speed-rail line, whisking passengers to their destinations at 220 mph. Courtesy of U.S. High Speed Rail Association hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of U.S. High Speed Rail Association

Congress has approved $8 billion in stimulus money for high-speed rail, and California seems to be in a good position to get a significant chunk of that funding. Over the past 13 years the state has been developing a plan for an 800-mile high-speed-rail network, for trains that travel at speeds up to 220 mph. Of all the high-speed-rail plans in the works now, it's the most ambitious. State residents have shown their support for the project as well, approving nearly $10 billion in bonds last November to get it going.

Harvey L. Hall, mayor of Bakersfield, Calif. i i

Harvey L. Hall, mayor of Bakersfield, Calif., in front of his city's Amtrak station. If high-speed trains become a reality, they will pass through this station. Ina Jaffe/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ina Jaffe/NPR
Harvey L. Hall, mayor of Bakersfield, Calif.

Harvey L. Hall, mayor of Bakersfield, Calif., in front of his city's Amtrak station. If high-speed trains become a reality, they will pass through this station.

Ina Jaffe/NPR

Support From Bakersfield

Harvey L. Hall, the mayor of Bakersfield, Calif., expects that some day California's high-speed trains will stop in his town — where the Amtrak station is now — and whisk Bakersfield residents to Los Angeles in under an hour.

As Hall explains it, cities in California's Central Valley, like Bakersfield, don't have enough options when it comes to intercity travel. The freeways are clogged and the airlines are cutting back on their flights in and out of the region.

"As the airline companies continue to lose money, we risk our services that we have at the present time," Hall says. "We've already eliminated a third of the flights that we had here several years ago."

When complete, the rail system would go all the way south to San Diego, and as far north as the state's capital, Sacramento.

A $45 Billion Project

Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle, the chair of the high-speed-rail authority, says California's years of preparation should give the state a leg up when it comes to vying for federal funds. He declined to say how much the state would ask for in October when its grant application is due.

"We will try to use proper restraint in our request," Pringle says. "But when we apply for high-speed-rail money, we need to commit that we can be engaged in construction contracts by 2012."

California will need every dime it gets from the federal government. Its high-speed-rail system could cost close to $45 billion. That price tag may be staggering, but high-speed-rail advocates say that building enough freeway and airport capacity to keep up with the state's population growth could cost more than twice that much.

But University of Minnesota transportation expert David Levinson says that forecast is a scare tactic and that these rail advocates are "trying to extrapolate the worst possible scenario in order to justify funding for future projects."

Levinson studied California's plans for high-speed rail in the 1990s when he was at the University of California, Berkeley. He believes that high-speed rail is a solution to a nonexistent problem.

"Most of the congestion problems in California are urban problems," Levinson says. "And so any money that's spent on intercity transportation can't be spent on urban transportation."

'An Asteroid Coming To Destroy Civilization'

At least Levinson didn't call California's high-speed-rail plan "an asteroid coming to destroy civilization."

That's how it was described by a city councilman in Atherton, Calif., a town located between San Francisco and San Jose. The proposed high-speed-train line would go right through the middle of the town, alongside the existing commuter train.

"Very few live closer to the train than I do," says Rep. Anna Eshoo, at a packed town hall meeting in Menlo Park, near Atherton.

"I go to sleep listening to them go up and down the tracks. It's too loud; the whistles are very loud," she adds, to applause from the crowd.

The cities of Menlo Park and Atherton are suing to change the high-speed-rail route. Stuart Flashman, their attorney, acknowledges that these are two wealthy cities protecting a privileged lifestyle, and that this is likely part of the "Not In My Back Yard" phenomenon.

"Menlo Park and Atherton are probably NIMBY and I suspect if you had a high-speed rail running through your backyard, you'd be a NIMBY too," he says.

Last week a court upheld some — though far from all — of Flashman's clients' objections. But it could be weeks before the judge tells the high-speed-rail authority what steps it must take to resolve the dispute.

After 13 long years, California's high-speed-rail advocates are hoping this doesn't hurt their chances of getting enough federal money — so they can finally start laying some track.

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