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

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

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

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

NOAH ADAMS, host:

And I'm Noah Adams.

If new high-speed trains are going to be developed anywhere in the U.S., California could be the most likely place. Congress has approved $8 billion in stimulus money for high-speed rail - proposals are pouring in. California has been working on a rail plan for 13 years. And last November, voters there approved nearly $10 billion in bonds to get it going.

SIEGEL: All this week, we've been hearing about prospects for a new network of high-speed trains. And in a moment, I'll talk with a skeptic who says the huge costs might not be worth the benefits.

First, NPR's Ina Jaffe reports from California.

(Soundbite of song "Streets of Bakersfield")

Mr. DWIGHT YOAKAM (Country Music Singer): (Singing) Trying to find me something better here on the streets of Bakersfield.

INA JAFFE: Country music may have put the city of Bakersfield on the map, but the map that Bakersfield wants to be on now is the one that shows the stops along California's proposed high-speed rail line.

Mayor HARVEY L. HALL (Bakersfield, California): My name is Harvey L. Hall, and I'm the mayor of the city of Bakersfield.

JAFFE: And he expects that someday that a California high-speed train will stop right here, where the Amtrak station is now, and whisk Bakersfield residents to Los Angeles in under an hour. As Hall explains it, Central Valley cities like Bakersfield don't really have enough good options when it comes to intercity travel.

Mayor HALL: And as the airline companies continue to lose money, we risk our services that we have at the present time. We've already eliminated a third of the flights that we had here several years ago.

JAFFE: And California's freeways are sufficiently infamous to require no further discussion here. But avoiding them was a selling point in this video from the California High Speed Rail Authority.

Unidentified Woman: A trip from San Francisco's Transbay Transit Center to Los Angeles' Union Station in just over two and a half hours every time regardless of weather.

JAFFE: When complete, the rail system would go all the way south to San Diego, and as far north as the state capital of Sacramento. Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle, the chair of the High Speed Rail Authority, says that 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.

Mayor CURT PRINGLE (Anaheim, California; Chairman, California High Speed Rail Authority): We will try to use proper restraint in our request. But when we apply for high-speed rail money, we need to commit that we can be engaged in construction contracts by 2012.

JAFFE: And a state beginning from scratch right now, says Pringle, couldn't do that. California will need every dime it gets from the federal government. Its high-speed rail system could cost around $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 population growth could cost more than twice that much.

University of Minnesota transportation expert David Levinson says that forecast is a scare tactic.

Dr. DAVID LEVINSON (Associate Professor, University of Minnesota's Department of Civil Engineering): Trying to extrapolate the worst possible scenario in order to justify funding for future projects.

JAFFE: Levinson studied California's plans for high-speed rail in the 1990s when he was at U.C., Berkeley. He believes it's a solution to a nonexistent problem.

Dr. LEVINSON: Most of the congestion problems in California are urban problems. And so any money that's spent on intercity transportation can't be spent on urban transportation.

JAFFE: 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, which is located between San Francisco and San Jose. The proposed high-speed train would go right through the middle of the town, alongside the existing commuter train.

Representative ANNA ESHOO (Democrat, California): Very few live closer to the train than I do.

JAFFE: Said Congresswoman Anna Eshoo at a town hall meeting in Menlo Park, which is right next door to Atherton. The room was packed with anxious residents.

Rep. ESHOO: I go to sleep listening to them going up and down the tracks. It's too loud. The whistles are very loud.

JAFFE: The cities of Menlo Park and Atherton are suing to change the route.

Stuart Flashman is their attorney. He acknowledges that these are two wealthy cities protecting a privileged lifestyle.

Mr. STUART FLASHMAN (Attorney): 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAFFE: Last week, a court upheld some, though far from all of his clients' objections. But it could be weeks before the judge tells the High Speed Rail Authority what steps they must take to resolve the dispute.

After 13 long years, they're hoping this doesn't hurt their chances of getting enough federal money to finally start laying some track.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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