Let’s talk about the California high speed rail line - the object of much excitement and anticipation for some, the true essence of headache for others. More specifically, let’s start by addressing connectivity in the great Golden State. California has two particularly important port locations – in the north and in the south – that have divided the state in two main centers of economic activity. As a student at USC that was born and raised in the Bay, I travel between these major Californian centers several times a year. There are three major ways to travel: automobile, air, and rail. It’s a simple thing to get in the car and drive the 5 or 6 hours, minus the ever-skyrocketing price of gas and the ever-present socially inflicted guilt that comes from depending on your automobile. Air is always an easy option, and certainly the quickest way to travel – as soon as you get through the security lines and finish packing your various liquids into a tiny Ziploc bag. Finally, there’s rail. This is – without a doubt – the biggest headache and most terrible mode of transporting yourself up and down the state. I can’t lie, I haven’t gone through it myself, but from the stories I’ve heard, I wouldn’t want to. For a horrific travel example, consider the article from the New York Times entitled “Getting Up To Speed” by Jon Gertner. This poor man paid $55 – less than a plane ticket but slightly more than a tank of gas - for a trip that took him 13 hours and several transfers. Let’s face it – the rail alternatives that currently exist are entirely sub-par.
High speed trains and light rail are without a doubt the trendiest forms of transportation modes, especially in a time of new infrastructure developments that will literally bring life to this country. President Obama, in what I consider to be one of the most exciting prospects this country could possibly have, has indicated not only his appreciation for the high speed bullet trains of Spain - for example - but has also expressed interest in creating a similar network across the United States. I liken this concept to the federal legislation that brought us our highway system, which was as mind-blowing at the time as these prospects are. The mere thought of the scale and magnitude of such a project is incredible – it would no doubt revolutionize the way we travel across the country. Imagine the speed and ease at which we could travel to all the vast corners on the continental United States.
However, the United States is in an extremely unfavorable position to take on a project like this, and the state of California even more so. There’s the issue of funds, of course – we have none. At least, not to the support the magnitude of a project like this. There’s also an issue of technology; while most European and Asian trains are concerned almost solely with reaching the most ambitious levels of speed, American trains are largely concerned with not crashing. Unfortunately for us, our trains are more likely to crash, exhibited by our system and planning failures that are so often a disappointment. There is a reason that, prior to the 2008 election, the high speed line’s funding was cut by about $26 million to an embarrassingly shrunken $1 million. The plan just isn’t fully baked.
Were the voters of California stupid to support this line during a period of crisis like this? Or is this the only time? Are we out of our element here, or do we need to start developing now? Heaven knows we need new alternatives. However, so-called “ballot-box planning” is not always successful; the common citizen doesn’t have the kind of knowledge that a planning specialist would have, and they tend to ignore the weaknesses that such a specialist may point out. My own hometown is having major problems with some ballot-box planning of their own, and the presence of that lawsuit is my constant reminder to be wary of the madding crowd of local voters. I’m torn – I love to see progress, but I’d hate to see hasty decisions made. Are we equipped for the future of transportation in this state, and beyond that, in this nation?