Left Coasting : The Golden State’s Silver Bullet

The proposed high speed rail link between Sacramento – San Francisco – Los Angeles is already hitting some speed bumps

by Rosalea Barker

Round, round, get around, I get around” the Beach Boys hit from 1964, could well be the theme song for California. Last 4th of July, for example, the equivalent of almost the entire population of New Zealand was expected to be travelling California roads to get to their holiday destinations. Famous for its car culture, the Golden State has always seriously neglected investment in mass transportation systems, whether they be for long-distance or commuter travel.

When I moved to California in the waning weeks of last century, the only direct flights from New Zealand went to Los Angeles. Rather than take another flight up to San Francisco, I opted to stay overnight and catch Amtrak’s Coast Starlight train. It was a leisurely, scenic, and lovely 12-hour trip, that ended with a Thruway Coach ride across the Bay Bridge. The beautiful vision of the twinkling lights of The City exploding into view as the bus exited the tunnel through Yerba Buena Island is etched in my memory forever. (Because the Starlight continues on to Seattle it has to offload its SF passengers in the East Bay.)

But the world moves on—it’s now possible to fly direct to San Francisco from New Zealand. And by the end of this decade, there will be a new rail link between LA and SF. On August 11, ground was symbolically broken to begin construction of a new downtown San Francisco intermodal transport terminal that will accommodate not just local Bay Area transit operators, but also a high speed rail link between the two great metropolises of Southern and Northern California. A rail trip that takes 12 hours today will take 3-and-a-half once high-speed rail is operational in 2020. By comparison, driving that same distance takes five to eight hours, depending on traffic. The same trip is just over an hour by plane.

I’ve been interested in High Speed Rail (HSR)since I arrived here, and was part of the slim majority who voted to approve a November 2008 bond measure to begin paying for it. So I trotted along to the sod-turning, which marks the beginning of actual construction, and which was largely made possible by the California High Speed Rail Authority securing the first of what is hoped will be much more federal funding for the project.

East Bay Congressman George Miller, Senator Barbara Boxer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (whose district is in San Francisco), and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood were among the speakers, along with the mayors of San Francisco and Anaheim, and a representative of Governor Schwarzenegger.

And what a love-fest it was, with everyone praising everyone else and absent friends, such as President Obama. Secretary LaHood, who is a Republican, genially ragged Mayor Gavin Newsom—who had told him that when Willie Brown is on stage with him, SF is the only city in America that has two mayors at one time—and suggested Californians should support Newsom for Lieutenant Governor “just for his humor. He knows how to make the Secretary happy.” (Former SF Mayor/former Democratic CA Assembly Speaker Willie Brown arrived on the stage late during the introduction for Anaheim Mayor/former Republican CA Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle—on purpose, suggested the woman standing next to me, because the two are arch-enemies.)

Sadly, for all the day’s talk of the SF terminal being “the Grand Central Station of the West” and the boost the system’s construction will give to California’s economy in the form of jobs, there are very real fears that it will turn out to be a “low-flying rail boondoggle”. On the libertarian website reason.com, Tim Cavanaugh writes: “Like wildfires and earthquakes, the California High-Speed Rail project is one of those chronic threats to life and property in the Golden State that seem to menace the common good even when they’re not happening. Which, in the case of the bullet train, is always.”

The problem lies not just with the partisan bickering and point-scoring the California legislature is famous for, which guarantees that appropriation of state funds for the project will be uncertain; nor just with the current state of the economy, which makes federal and private funding problematic as well. All that is scary enough if you visualize funding for the project as a three-legged stool that has to grow its own legs and so far has only a nub of one of them definitely in place—the $2 billion Recovery Act grant the Obama Administration awarded to California in January this year for “purchasing right-of-way, constructing track, signaling systems, and stations, and completing environmental reviews and engineering documents.”

But the biggest problem is likely to be the time- and money-consuming parochialism of the cities along the HSR corridor. Forty years ago, when the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) commuter rail system was being built, its construction was held up for years because some East Bay cities didn’t want the tracks to be above ground. More recently, the construction of the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge was delayed and its cost ballooned when East Bay residents and their municipal representatives insisted that it be not just functional but beautiful and have a bike lane and pedestrian walkway. First mooted in 1989 following the collapse of a section of the roadway on the span during the Loma Prieta earthquake, the bridge is still not finished.

Almost as soon as the CA High Speed Rail Authority was created in the late 90s, a spat broke out about how the link from the system’s Central Valley backbone would gain access to San Francisco, with San Jose lobbying against a proposal for the link branching off at Stockton and coming through the Altamont Pass down the center of the interstate highway into the East Bay then across a new bridge to the San Francisco peninsula. Current plans call for the line to branch off further south, in Merced, and enter the South Bay (and San Jose) instead. As an example of the kinds of challenges the HSRA will face, see this April article about a letter the Palo Alto City Council wrote to them decrying the “incomplete analysis of the rail line’s impacts on Palo Alto businesses, historic landmarks and air quality” contained in the recently re-released Environmental Impact Report.

Small wonder then that the newly appointed CEO of the project says in this video on the HSRA website that he needs “partnership and support”. South African born and educated Roelof van Ark has a background as a senior executive of companies such as Siemens and Alstrom, which both make high-speed trains. In the HSRA press release announcing his appointment, van Ark says: “As someone who has devoted his career to this industry, there’s no doubt in my mind that California is the place to be, and I’m honored to be given the opportunity to work with all partners to move California’s high-speed train project forward.” I doubt if anything he has encountered in his previous management of projects in Europe and Asia has prepared him adequately for what he will have to contend with here.

Still, we can dream: