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By Steve Levy

A New Way to Think About High Speed Rail

Uploaded: Nov 18, 2017

I was on the original consultant team in 1998. I thought the project design and ridership projections had serious flaws. I voted against the high speed rail (HSR) bond in 2008 feeling, as did most people in regional transportation leadership, that the funds would be better spent on transportation investments within regions designed to improve commuting options.

But HSR has survived the cautions of many and though it may fail to secure funding, the board is moving ahead with a new business plan. The case below is to try and make the design better and responsive to today’s problems so we can see if that improves the project financial viability as well as improve housing options.

Please feel free to post pro or con on my arguments. But do not make political or personal comments about people and remain respectful.

Time has eclipsed most of the original arguments for HSR whether or not they made sense at the time.

One argument was that HSR would avoid $billions in airport improvements and long delays. But all the major airports have now spent $billions on improvements and passenger travel is surging again. Moreover, since 1998 and 2008 the options for having meetings online has exploded reducing at least some of the need for business travel.

A second argument was that major north-south corridors I5 and 101 would become impassable and travelers would jump for a quick HSR ride. I am open to hearing whether driving north south is worse than before as we do not drive anymore. But I always wondered how it worked for a family of four say to take HSR to Disneyland and then rent a car. The economics never made sense to me. But we do know that sometime before HSR can be completed north south that autonomous vehicles will relieve some of the congestion.

And of course the cost of HSR and the train trip have mushroomed since the original plan.

Enter the housing crisis and a chance to rethink the design of HSR for a favorable public policy plan. The current design says travelers will be able to get from Fresno to the Bay Area in an hour without needing a car. The same is true for Fresno and even less time from Bakersfield to the Los Angeles area job market. And the extensions of BART and expanded CalTrain service and the availability of services like Lyft make the last mile trip from the HSR station in San Jose doable.

If Fresno is close to job centers without needing a car places like Gilroy and perhaps intermediate stops between Fresno and San Jose are even closer.

Envisioning HSR as a car free commute option between less expensive housing markets and major job centers in the Bay Area and Southern California makes sense to me. I do not know how the economics will work out but it does address the 3 E’s—economy, environment and equity.

In doing regional growth projections, I have always felt that it made sense to explore the likelihood that some workers would live outside the region where they worker. We know this happens today as a way of finding more affordable housing but it comes at a cost of long commutes and more auto pollution. I support the option for people to make this choice but I also support giving them an even better option—less expensive housing combined with a non car commute trip.

This can also serve the purpose of improving economic prospects for San Joaquin Valley cities. While it is unlikely that a company like Google would expand there, HSR can bring commuters who will expand the demand for all sorts of economic activity in cities like Fresno and build a larger labor force there so perhaps in the future companies might be attracted.

The key to this is thinking of and redesigning HSR as three systems—one connecting the Valley to the Bay Area, a second connecting the Valley to the Southern California job market and the third for inter-regional travel between the Bay Area and Southern California.