California is setting an example for the rest of the nation. It has crafted a statewide plan to make passenger rail a truly convenient and competitive mode of everyday travel, all around the state.
The centerpiece of California's plan is the first true 220-mph high-speed line in the United States. The initial 170-mile segment through the Central Valley will act like a high-speed backbone, allowing for faster trips between many destinations. Once the full system is built, San Francisco and Los Angeles will be less than three hours apart on a comfortable, spacious, relaxing train.
California's high-speed line does much more than simply connect Northern and Southern California. Its benefits will transform the whole state long before the project is completed.
How? At least five ways.
1) Economic boost.
The high-speed line is already a massive jobs generator for California. Work on phase 1—the Central Valley line—created an estimated 11,300 job-years of employment through 2018. A study that year found that same work will generate at least 31,500 jobs (full and part-time) by 2029. Meantime, work on the project from its inception through 2018 injected up to $6 billion in the state’s economy, according to an estimate by the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA).
2) Environmental boon.
California has the most ambitious agenda in the nation for cutting its carbon footprint, and making passenger rail a part of everyday life is key to its agenda. The line will be powered entirely by renewable energy—solar, wind, geothermal and bioenergy—and is projected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 1.5 million metric tons each year. That’s equal to taking about 322,000 passenger vehicles off the road.
3) Connected institutions and regions.
It’s no coincidence that California—home to a culture of innovation—is taking the lead on U.S. high-speed rail. Creativity and innovation flourish when it’s easy for people and ideas to mix and mingle. High-speed rail is a dynamo of connectivity that will deliver a huge boost to the parts of the state that are currently disconnected from the coasts.
For example, there are several major universities in the Central Valley: UC Merced, Fresno State, and California State University-Bakersfield. The high-speed line will connect their faculties—and more than 325,000 students—to each other and to the Bay Area, opening up abundant new opportunities for collaboration.
4) Shared prosperity.
But it isn’t just about educational benefits. Cities in the Central Valley have some of the highest unemployment rates in the nation. Starting the project there gives residents access to good jobs in the booming Bay Area by creating a short, stress-free commute between the regions. It will also relieve the affordable housing crisis in the Bay Area, where the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment is more than $4,000 per month (versus $1,000 or less in much of the Central Valley).
5) Safe, fast, stress-free travel.
Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San José rank among the top five most gridlocked cities in the nation. The new line will cut through these delays and offer fast, frequent, reliable service between popular destinations across the state. The 3-hour drive from the Bay Area to Fresno, for example, will be cut to about an hour.
And the line won’t just be faster and stress free. It will also be much safer. Passenger rail is easily among the safest of all travel options. For example, there were more than 35,000 deaths on U.S. highways in 2015—but only 800 rail-related deaths, most involving collisions at crossings or pedestrian trespassing, which the high-speed line is designed to eliminate.
Most infrastructure projects deliver one or two benefits, like an economic boost and more connectivity. Only high-speed rail delivers an economic boost that slashes carbon emissions, creates safer and stress-free travel options, connects institutions and regions, fosters innovation through new connections, and distributes prosperity and opportunity more equally.
Like any massive infrastructure project, the line requires substantial up-front investment. But projects all over the world have shown, again and again, that the money is wisely invested. High-speed lines deliver big near-term returns across a wide range of metrics. And they keep delivering for decades.
While it's certainly true that California high-speed rail faces significant challenges, this difficulty does not indicate that the project itself is unworthy or a poor investment. As the first state in the nation to attempt high-speed rail, California should not be surprised to encounter unforseen situations that increase budget or construction time.
After all, our nation's vaunted Interstate Highway System was projected to cost $25 billion and take 12 years to build. It ended up taking 35 years and $114 billion (in 1956 dollars).
Spain's AVE high-speed system was popularly declared a boondoggle and an assured failure as the first line was beginning construction, but today it's wildly popular and an asset the country could not imagine itself without. We will one day look at California high-speed rail the same way, just as we do our Interstate Highways, and wonder what all the fuss was about.