The San Jose Mercury News broke the story yesterday that the California High Speed Rail Authority has officially shifted the focus of the initial operating segment for the state’s under-construction bullet train project. Whereas the 500-mile, era-defining project was initially intended to begin its operations from Merced to Burbank in 2022, it will now instead be aiming to get trains up and running between Bakersfield and San Jose by 2025. When the initial operating segment begins service, a trip between Fresno and Downtown San Jose is expected to take just 51 minutes, potentially easing some of the state’s most horrific commutes and overheated real estate markets. Politicians and high speed rail proponents in Silicon Valley hailed the news of the train’s early arrival as a win for the Bay Area, but it was also, as Diridon Station namesake Rod Diridon Sr. pointed out, a loss for L.A. In January, the heads of the Authority reassured Californians that no part of the state would be left behind regardless of what the first operable segment happened to be, and yet for Southern California, where over 50% of state residents live, it still feels a bit like being left behind.
The new business plan, a draft of which was obtained by the Mercury News, is a response to the challenges that the agency believes it would have faced in maintaining the original timetable for the southern portion of the route. While there was some of the obligatory hand wringing and town-hall storming regarding the train’s path through the San Fernando Valley, it was no more imposing than the resistance that moneyed interests put up on the San Francisco Peninsula. The deciding factor was the complex tunnel routes through Southern California’s Tehachapis and San Gabriel Mountain ranges, which pose a significant, though not insurmountable, obstacle to the best alignment for the train as it makes its way to the Los Angeles basin. As tough as it is to hear that we must wait even longer before the start of passenger service, the traversal of the San Gabriels is perhaps the most important section of the route in Southern California. The 15 minute trip from Burbank to Lancaster that is expected once the trains are running through the mountains obliterates the travel time by car even under the most favorable conditions. It is undoubtedly worth waiting for.
Despite the consternation that is surely being felt across the Southland, heading North instead of South allows for two important things to happen. First, because of the reduced cost of the segment (an estimated $20 billion versus a previously estimated $31 billion YOE for Merced to Burbank), CHSRA will be able to get a further with the revenue streams that they have in place. Given that the state legislature, even dominated as it is by the Democratic Party, has not always been enthusiastic in its support of the project, much has rested on the ability of Governor Jerry Brown to continue pressing it forward. By ensuring more track is laid during the governor’s remaining time in office, it is as a result much more likely that enough momentum will have been built to carry the initial segment forward to an identified start date. At least one notable early candidate to succeed Brown, former San Francisco mayor and current Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, has made his disapproval of the project known. People have a tendency to get nervous when they’re seeing massive projects through to completion. Priorities shift, and there will always be calls to scrap the whole thing in favor of one project or another. Without a steady and authoritative figure to guide the process, it is likely that the project, pulled in various directions by California’s countless constituencies, would fall to pieces forever. Fortunately, we do have Brown for a few more years, and probably for long enough to establish High Speed Rail as a reality and never look back.
The second important thing that will be achieved by the shift in focus is that it will give the Authority an extended timeline to begin tunneling through the mountains. With the Southern California segment now bumped to second priority, the “do-or-die” pressure of a task filled with unknowns is alleviated, at least a little. If the Authority coordinates its efforts well, it could begin its most difficult segment and its simplest segment more or less simultaneously, and then play catch up with the tracks in the Antelope and San Fernando Valleys after the fact. Much still depends on funding and support from the Federal Government, which has been in short supply for many years. Even though it may mean a years-longer wait for a region desperate for increased mobility, it seems that there is no better way to ensure the long term survival of California High Speed Rail than to go North and leave L.A. behind for now.