What it does
Proposition 1A, the "Safe, Reliable High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act for the 21st Century," would authorize the California High Speed Rail Authority to issue $9.95 billion in bonds to construct a statewide high-speed train system. It would set aside $950 million of the potential bond proceeds for capital improvements to intercity and commuter rail lines and urban rail systems, to provide connectivity to the high-speed train system.
California high-speed trains would employ electrically powered, high-speed, steel wheel on steel rail technology. The California High Speed Rail Authority chose this technology from among others it considered prior to 2002, including "maglev" technology. The proposed high-speed trains would have the advantage of being useful for high-speed service as well as for lower-speed service on the high-speed tracks or on any regional or local system powered by electric overhead wires. The trains would be capable of speeds up to 220 mph because of a combination of design details in both the trains themselves and the paths on which they would operate. For instance, the course of the tracks would make very wide turns, would be "grade separated" to minimize the places where the tracks would intersect with other surface transportation and would have very slight changes in elevation, while the rails themselves would be "continuously welded" to provide a smooth, even surface for the wheels. The trains would have lightweight electric motors and in-cab signaling, among other features.
In most of the Central Valley, the alignment of the system would be relatively simple due to the flat terrain, straight lines and rural character along most of the route. In mountainous areas, extensive and costly tunneling would be required to achieve the conditions necessary for the speeds proposed. In urban areas, costly measures also would be required to completely separate the train tracks from crossing roads. Usually this means the trains would be built in trenches that other roads will cross on bridges, but it could also mean building the tracks on elevated platforms.
The system is projected to cost from $30 billion to $40 billion. It would be financed by the $9 billion provided by this bond, plus expected contributions from the federal government and private investors. Public partnerships with private investors represent the typical model for developing high-speed train systems elsewhere in the world. In this model, private companies provide most of the capital to build the system in exchange for a negotiated share of the revenue from operating the system. California's proposal requires revenues from the system to be reinvested in expanding the system.
No more than 10 percent of the bond funds could be used for administration, planning, and preliminary engineering. The network would be built in segments, with segments that require the least amount of bond funds relative to the total cost of the segment given first priority for construction. The CHSRA may not begin construction on any segment until a full funding plan is in place. While no segment would get a legal preference, the necessity of private participation in funding means that the first segments to be built would be those most likely to be profitable: heavily traveled corridors where train travel is competitive with automobile or airplane travel. Trains would be an attractive option for commuters in the Altamont corridor, for example, where more growth is expected to worsen already severe highway congestion, and in and around Los Angeles. Another likely profitable segment would be the major link between San Francisco and Los Angeles, where a downtown to downtown trip on the train would take about two hours and 40 minutes, the same as a flight (considering airport access times and security delays) but much more comfortable.
The details of the proposed system are spelled out in the statewide program environmental impact report/environmental impact statement in November 2005. The EIR/EIS demonstrated the feasibility and profitability of the Los Angeles-to-San Francisco route. With trains using one-third of the energy of cars and one-fifth the energy of airplanes, per passenger, California's trains would save 22 billion barrels of oil per year and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an amount equivalent to removing 1 million vehicles (about one in 30 cars now in operation) from California's roads. In the report predicted that in 2030, with 14 million more Californians than today, California's trains would obviate the need for 2,970 lane miles of highways, 91 airport gates and five airport runways.
This summer, the CHSRA also certified the EIR/EIS for the alignment of the system between the Central Valley and the Bay Area. It looked at two main choices for routing the trains from the Central Valley to the Bay Area: through the Pacheco Pass south of San Jose and through the Altamont Pass parallel to Interstate Highway 580—and essentially chose both, opting for the Pacheco Pass as the main route for trains between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and the Altamont Pass for feeder services.
Why it is on the ballot
Since the TGV, or Train a Grande Vitesse, debuted between Lyon and Paris in 1981, the use of fast passenger trains capable of speeds faster than 200 mph has become very common throughout the world, especially in western Europe and eastern Asia. The United States, on the other hand, has relied on air travel and the interstate highway system for intercity travel, with the partial exception of Amtrak's moderate-speed service in the northeast corridor. Interest in high-speed rail has grown here, however, as policy makers have contemplated high-speed systems variously in Texas, Florida, California and Illinois. None will be as far along as California's proposal if voters approve the bond measure on this November's ballot.
The California High Speed Rail Authority was created in 1996 and charged with developing California's high-speed rail system. It produced a business plan in 2000 that led to the development of a bond proposal in 2002. Legislators originally placed it on the November 2004 ballot, but prior to the election voted to defer its appearance on the ballot until November 2006, in deference to other bond measures considered higher priorities at the time. Then again, prior to the 2006 election, legislators deferred the measure until November 2008.
In the months leading up to the deadline to submit measures to the November 2008 California ballot, legislators worked to update the original language of the ballot measure, which hadn't been revised since 2002. That effort, Assembly Bill 3034, finally succeeded August 26, changing Proposition 1 to Proposition 1A and altering some important, but not essential, details about the bond measure.
Arguments in favor of Prop. 1A:
- California is falling behind its major competitors in the world economy due to its continued reliance on inefficient and expensive automobile and air travel. High-speed train systems are developing and expanding throughout the world, even in places far less wealthy than California (such as Vietnam and Algeria).
- The $10 billion bond is a relatively small down payment on a very large system that would be paid for mostly by private investors without further state tax subsidy.
- The alternative to high-speed rail — more highways and expanded airports — is not only more expensive, but it also would increase pollution at a time when we are moving to reduce the level of pollution in the state.
- With California's growing population and consequent travel demand, there is no way to meet our greenhouse-gas reduction goals other than through the projected diversion of trips from air and automobile travel that high-speed trains would accomplish. In fact, the environmental impact of not building high-speed rail is devastating.
- Increasing fuel prices will drive up the cost of driving and flying relative to air travel, likely making the high-speed train system even more attractive as an alternative to travelers, more profitable to the operator and a bigger contributor to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions than predicted in the EIR.
- Los Angeles to San Francisco is the most highly trafficked air corridor in the world. Compared to air travel, the proposed high-speed trains would be much more comfortable, offering passengers the ability to walk around, access the Internet and mobile phone networks, and avoid onerous security checks. With roughly equal door-to-door travel times between San Francisco and Los Angeles, many business travelers would prefer the train and pay a premium to use it.
- The system not only would facilitate high-speed travel between San Francisco and Los Angeles, but also improved commuter rail and regional intercity rail, giving Californians throughout the state important transportation alternatives.
Arguments against Prop. 1A:
- By enlisting private investors in the construction and operation of the system, the state is giving away an important public asset and even subsidizing it by the issuance of these bonds to sweeten the deal.
- While Los Angeles to San Francisco may be the most profitable segment due to the lucrative business traveler market, the most important segments for replacing vehicle trips are the regional lines. The system should not emphasize the long-haul trips as it does, and instead should focus on shorter trips that can be more affordably accommodated by rail. The goal should not be to compete with air travel over 500 miles but to compete with car travel over shorter distances.
- While trains are a nice idea, it's just not a priority for California right now. We're still paying back the highway-expansion bonds from two years ago and we have prisons and dams to build. And with gas as expensive as it is, we should save some of our bonding capacity to support the exploration of more oil off the coast.
The high-speed train system is well planned and long overdue. Criticisms of the proposal, for the most part, amount to the charge that "it's not good enough," and its associated presumption that we should reject this proposal until a better one comes along. This point of view fails to recognize that every delay in building the system increases its costs due to the severe escalation in construction costs hitting all construction projects.
The argument that the proposed system's emphasis on competing with air travel between San Francisco and Los Angeles is misguided fails to recognize the collateral benefits of that emphasis. Operating surpluses generated by the system must, by law, be put into the expansion of the system—and there is no source of funding for expansion of high-speed trains other than the user fees the initial segment is expected to generate. Also, most trips would not be for that full distance, but rather for shorter trips in between. A trip between the downtowns of San Francisco and San Jose would take just 30 minutes, for example, much faster and far more comfortable than an automobile trip.
Further, while connecting downtown San Francisco to the downtowns of other California cities with fast and efficient train service would have a positive benefit to San Francisco's economy, it could transform the economies of struggling downtowns in the Central Valley, as well as help expand jobs and increase the number of residents in and around downtown San Jose. Suburban office sprawl is as dangerous a contributor to global warming as residential sprawl. High-speed trains give us the opportunity to vitalize downtowns that need it.
Finally, the system is planned to minimize the effects of sprawl and maximize the potential for transit-oriented development throughout the system. In response to urging from SPUR and others, the California High Speed Rail Authority chose to place the route along the populated U.S. Highway 99 corridor instead of along the Interstate Highway 5 corridor. It also agreed to place the train stations in the city centers instead of at the edges, and it has developed principles and guidelines that must be followed before cities will receive a station. These decisions slightly increased the cost of the project but dramatically increased the benefit, as city-center stations would lead to transit-oriented development and limit the sprawl inducing effects that might otherwise be the result of a high-speed train system that makes it easier to commute long distances.
This bond is necessary to improve mobility throughout California, shift the growth in intra-state travel from cars and planes to trains, and reshape our low-density, sprawling land use patterns of the past half century.
SPUR recommends "Yes" vote on Prop. 1A.