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No, to California’s High Speed Rail

The California Legislature and Governor Jerry Brown have put us in the national headlines with the decision to move forward with high speed rail construction—“California’s Crazy Train” screamed the NY Post, “Financial Suicide” said The Week and Professor Rick Geddes of Cornell University stated it best in The New York Times—“The Right Idea in the Wrong Place”—I respectfully agree, with an addition—that it is “at the wrong time” too!
Yes, we voters approved a bond measure for $9.95 billion in 2008 to fund high speed rail.

The federal government as a part of the stimulus is offering $3.5 billion in addition. As even a second grader would attest, $ 9.95 billion + $3.5 billion do not add up to the estimated cost of $100 billion and therein lies the problem.

We have a fiscal train wreck in California that we must address before we embark on flights of fantasy in high speed rail across the Central Valley. California’s budget woes are huge—the deficit has now ballooned to an estimated $16 billion with tax revenues plummeting by $3.5 billion in just the current year. Residents across the state are reeling from cuts to public services ranging from emergency services to education to health care with state employees taking pay cuts and suffering furloughs. Highways are in a dismal condition in many places with potholes galore. Cities across the state like Stockton, Mammoth Lakes and San Bernardino are seeking bankruptcy protection. We do not have funding to keep basic services like libraries and parks open. A stunning example of the Legislature’s misplaced priorities is the failure to expedite the repair of the levees in the Sacramento—San Joaquin river delta that provides water to more than 65% of our state’s residents. San Jose Mercury News calls the state of the levees “primitive” and State Senator Joe Simitian, (D-Palo Alto) is unsparing in his criticism claiming that it is “California’s Katrina waiting to happen” if they should collapse in an earthquake or a flood.

In the midst of this unfortunate mess our elected officials are embarking on this risky misadventure of spending $100 billion dollars in building high speed rail with cost estimates that point to a whopping $50 million per mile. The California High Speed Rail Peer Review Group, a body headed by former Caltrans director Will Kempton and charged with advising the State Legislature on the rail project asked that the state withhold the bond money approved by the voters until the project has a financially viable model, and has also questioned the ridership projections and the assumptions of private investment.

Just as it does not make sense for a person with kidney failure to be spending money on botox while neglecting dialysis or a homeowner to be spending on a solar panel while being delinquent on his mortgage or eradicating termites in his home, it simply does not make sense for California to embark on high speed rail at this time. Common sense demands that we stop this now before it becomes a sinkhole for our precious tax dollars.

Rameysh Ramdas, an SF Bay Area professional, writes as a hobby.

Yes, to California’s High Speed Rail

Over scores of trips to San Diego from San Jose I have developed a technique to conserve drive time. Leaving very late in the evening or early in the morning on weekends leads to the shortest time spent on the road. This takes about 6 ½ hours of driving. Any other time it could easily be 2-4 hours more. The high speed rail as planned would reduce travel time to less than 4 hours at any time of the day.

The High Speed Rail project is estimated to save 146 million hours spent in gridlock annually. This project is a large, imaginative infrastructure project that is great for the environment, reducing carbon emissions by 3 million tons annually. This type of big thinking is exactly what we need—it will spur job growth and demand by moving our transportation infrastructure away from gasoline and closer to electricity, which is a more diverse energy source.

As with any debate these days the negative side seems to be overrepresented. This is evident in the largest threat to implementation which is lawsuits by environmental agencies. This project is expected to save about two days worth of gasoline demand over a year which will positively affect U.S. trade balance and the environment. The first stage, currently approved will fund electrification of Caltrain and a 100 mile track in the Central Valley. This is estimated to create 100,000 construction jobs. Over time additional phases of the project will result in around a million jobs created over the 15 year course of the project.  So why would environmentalists be against something that is great for the environment and creates jobs?

Then there are the budgetary considerations. The first phase of the project was approved by voters in 2008. Since then the project cost has been significantly reduced from the 95 billion to about 65 billion. Some of the reductions are a result of sensible ideas like sharing and upgrading existing Caltrain train tracks. But, if ever there was a time to borrow money this is it with historic low interest rates. The Rail bonds were approved for the high speed rail project purpose and cannot be appropriated for other causes. And most of this funding is in populated areas resulting in an immediate benefit to commuters.

Finally let’s look at the connectivity this project creates. It will link Bakersfield, Fresno, Merced and Modesto to LA and SF areas. These towns will become as close to Silicon Valley and LA as Pleasanton and Danville. As eloquently stated by the young voters of Merced, “Let’s not worry just about the bottomline and saddling the young with debt. We need to make sure there is topline growth and more importantly a topline and jobs for the next generation.” We all know what happened when a billion people around the world were virtually connected. Now let’s connect the 30 million in California for real and see what happens.

Mani Subramani works in the semi-conductor industry in Silicon Valley.