Blowback: Mend, don't end, California's bullet-train program
Ryan Stern, who serves on the board of Californians For High Speed Rail and lives in downtown Los Angeles, responds to The Times' May 16 editorial, "California's high-speed train wreck." If you also have a bone to pick regarding a recent Times article, editorial or Op-Ed and would like to participate in Blowback, here are our FAQs and submission policy
The interstate freeway system is the mainstay of urban transportation in cities across America, including Los Angeles. But the first interstate construction project didn't happen in a city. It was a lonely stretch of road in central Missouri that received the first federal interstate funds in 1956. More money followed, and the system grew rapidly, connecting cities and creating jobs.
California's high-speed rail system -- for which the first tracks will be laid in the Central Valley, a plan The Times decries -- will follow a similar path of growth. Grass-roots supporters of the high-speed rail project can't wait to get from Los Angeles to San Francisco in less than three hours. That's why we are more concerned than almost anyone else in the state that this project be built efficiently. However, the proposals advocated by The Times would so severely weaken the voter-approved project that we would probably never see it built at all.
The Times' criticism of the Central Valley starting point misses some key points. This segment doesn't just connect small towns; it connects two large cities, Bakersfield (metropolitan population of 800,000) and Fresno (metropolitan population of 1.1 million). It's the cheapest place to begin construction while also creating tens of thousands of desperately needed jobs, providing an economic stimulus to the entire state. Perhaps most important, it will form the backbone of the statewide project, a functional first investment regardless of which section follows on the construction timeline.
Trains should go where the people are. That's why the choice of a Palmdale route was a sound decision. The Antelope Valley's population is projected to be about 1 million by 2020, when the trains would begin service. A station at Palmdale also allows for an easy connection to the proposed bullet train to Las Vegas.
Of greater concern is The Times' call to defund the California High Speed Rail Authority, which oversees the project. The authority has a lot of engineering and design work to complete, and when former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger did not properly fund it, the group's ability to do community outreach was crippled and many communities along the route didn't get the information they needed. If the authority isn't fully funded this year, those problems will return, making it much harder to properly plan this project.
As to The Times' suggestion that we renegotiate terms with the federal government to postpone construction or allow the money to be spent on commuter trains instead, this is both unlikely and unwise. When governors such as Florida’s Rick Scott and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker made similar requests, the federal government refused them, ultimately redirecting billions of dollars to projects in other states. Congressman Jim Costa (D-Fresno) indicated last week that the federal government will likely not agree to these kinds of requests for redirecting California's high-speed rail money.
Nor should it. The point of high-speed rail is to connect the regions of our state, not cities within a single metro area such as Anaheim and L.A., which The Times identifies as a more appropriate first phase for this project. Bullet trains connect metropolises in Asia, Europe and the Northeastern U.S., serving both local commuters and intercity travelers. The Times' suggestion could lead to a dismemberment of this visionary project.
We know that Californians still strongly support high-speed rail; they easily elected a governor who originally proposed such a project for California decades ago. Polls show continued backing for the project. We hope The Times will seek better ways to ensure tthat he project is finished, including advocating for more federal money. Let's work together to get this project built in its entirety instead of tearing it apart.
-- Ryan Stern
Photo: An Acela high-speed train sits on the platform at New York's Penn Station. Credit: Jessica Rinaldi / Reuters