Thursday, November 3, 2011

Joe Mathews has it right; with HSR, think local and regional, not inter-city

Bring transit to where the people are, in the major metropolitan center and their surrounding suburbs.  That's where people live and where people work. Build transit to make commutes easier, more convenient and faster. When it comes to transit, the first priority is to provide the greatest good for the greatest number. That's the opposite of what this CHSRA project intends to do.

No compelling argument has been made to meet a need for new and additional transit opportunities for inter-city travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles. All the claims that a new modality, high-speed rail, is essential to relieve the overcrowded highways and airports between those two population centers is unsubstantiated.  In short, that's not where the problems exist.

They exist within each major metropolis and its surrounding regions, not only the San Francisco Bay Area and the Greater Los Angeles Basin, but San Diego and Sacramento and their respective suburbs as well.  The high-speed rail project will not even connect Sacramento and San Diego until at least 2033, and probably much later.  Which is to say, that HSR is not, despite their claims to the contrary, going to where the concentrations of people are, but only selectively weaving a route from one political district and power base to the next.  

As the HSR plans become ever more explicit, the reaction from many of these cities and towns becomes more shrill and angry. And they are right.  The purpose of the train is to solve problems, not create them.  And no, 'trade-offs' is not the right answer to that issue.

When the train's first phase, from SF to LA, is intended to be complete in 2033, the technology of other modalities, cars and airplanes, will have advanced dramatically.  But, HSR will still be trapped in the rolling stock that is on the shelves of the overseas manufacturers.  All arguments about HSR's ostensible superiority will become moot by 2033.

Which is to say, the arguments have been rigged in favor of the high-speed train, but those arguments, when picked apart and analyzed, become no more than childrens' glistening bubbles which pop at the first breath.

The Non-Financial Problem With High-Speed Rail
By Joe Mathews
Journalist and Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010).
Thursday, November 3rd, 2011

The high-speed rail debate may begin and end with the price tag: $98.5 billion. But there’s another fundamental problem with the plan. It doesn’t fit California or Californians.

And to say it doesn’t fit the state is to say this also: the high-speed rail plan treats California as if it’s one state.

It isn’t. California is a country-sized place made up of regions that have the size and character of states.

A big infrastructure challenge for the state is that neighboring regions – California’s real states – don’t have high-speed connections between different parts of the regions, and between neighboring regions.

If high-speed rail is to have a future, it needs to solve these sorts of problems. Can it create fast connections between LA and Riverside and Indian Wells? Between San Francisco and San Jose and Santa Cruz? Between Santa Ana and San Diego?

Instead, the current plan is about getting us from LA to the Bay Area – a trip that we can already make, via Southwest Airlines, just as cheaply, and more quickly, than high-speed rail can promise.

As an Angeleno, my problem isn’t getting to San Francisco in an hour. My problem is that it can take me two hours to get to a meeting in San Bernardino or three hours, if I’m lucky, to San Diego. A high-speed rail system that could cut those times in half – or better—would have a huge market.

A viable high-speed rail network might not even connect north and south. It might instead be two triangles. One could connect San Francisco with Monterey (via San Jose) and Sacramento. Another would link LA, the Inland Empire and San Diego.

Those kinds of routes would replace commutes and knit together regional economies that have things in common (unlike, say the economies of Anaheim and the San Joaquin Valley, which Californians would pay a high price to link in the current plan, for no apparent reason).

And yes, that leaves out big parts of the state. Well, so does the first phase of the current plan – which for nearly $100 billion can’t get anyone to the state’s second largest city (San Diego) or the state capital.

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