Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Do California bullet train opponents actually want high speed rail done right?

Political Columnist Dan Walters for the Sacramento Bee has long been a critic of the California High Speed Rail Authority, stirring up debate in the public arena. His library of published op-ed commentaries and newspaper columns make some valid points and objections for the statewide high speed train project: Quoted costs are much higher than projected. Public support is down. State law is being spun to the point where legit lawsuits against the project are being filed. Judges are ordering the Brown administration not to bend or go around the rules of the game. Here's one of his latest pieces. The fact that public employee pensions are also above what is offered in the private marketplace certainly does not help; that contributes to inflated costs.

So it may appear that many informed Californians oppose high speed rail for the Golden State. Well, not exactly. While many rightly question the state-sponsored CHSRA bullet train project and voice legit objections toward its business plan, they may actually generally support the concept of having fast moving passenger trains as means to get from here to there. A better way to look at it is Californian's don't want high speed rail done wrong as the statewide bullet train is clearly demonstrating.

The evidence of such a notion continues to build and is becoming more clearer everyday. In Riverside, numerous grade separation projects are already in place for the BNSF rail line between downtown and the I-15 freeway which will allow for existing trains to travel faster. This is already demonstrated in South Orange County between Mission Viejo and Tustin. Similar projects are in place for eastern Orange County and the San Gabriel Valley. If officials finish this master plan and then electrify existing Metrolink, Coaster, and Amtrak trains without interfering with the freight trains, local high speed rail can be a reality without the bloated price tag.

Even Walters published this piece advocating for a high speed rail connection for the I-15 freeway corridor between San Diego and Ontario with direct airport connections. He believes such a connection will better distribute traffic flow between the two airports. Of course, the political madness with the Ontario Airport has to be resolved in order to entice airlines to land their flights there.

Just to refresh the public's memory, Walter's HSR idea is indeed already part of the statewide bullet train master plan that he appears to oppose. Therefore, it may be clear that he and other critics want high speed rail done right. By the way, the Riverside County Transportation Commission studied the feasibility for inland I-15 train service locally back in 2005 and 2008. Cost is a huge challenge and will require private investment mainly due to numerous hills, soft soil, and lack of dedicated right-of-way.  The private sector will need to be inclined to find ways to make tunnel boring more affordable or explore how electrified linear motors can be integrated for steel-wheel trains to better transverse steeper grades.

If the local public agencies can get together, plan this portion of the rail line the right way, establish additional commuter-oriented runs, and tie the endpoints into existing intercity rail corridors for corridor-based service, that could entice private investment for the remainder of the Southern California portions for statewide high speed rail and create a productive and profitable Los Angeles to San Diego high speed rail line via the Inland Empire. That's high speed rail done right.

For the record, as shown by comments left on Walter's op-ed, San Diego did undergo an airport expansion as reported here to address capacity issues and infrastructure for international flights.

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