Bullet Trains, By Hook Or By Crook
“When God gives you AIDS, make lemonades,” or so said Sarah Silverman, notably, at least once. Probably repeatedly. And so it is with infrastructure projects as well.
While regional high-speed rail projects have been drying up all over the country, and Congress barely managed to eke out some very weak tea with MAP-21 – a transportation auth with reduced transit spending, bike and pedestrian money that can be spent on left-turn lanes, and no particular HSR funding whatsoever – California has finally authorized its bullet-train project, and Amtrak has used some of Florida and New Jersey’s abandoned money to start refurbishing the Northeast Corridor, or at least to start thinking about it.
While I’m happy something has begun, I’m also upset that California not only rejected the advice of SNCF and other experienced builder/operators, but also did not sufficiently prioritize the most obvious step of first completing the passenger link between Bakersfield and Los Angeles. Without it there is no rail connection between the Central Valley and southern California whatsoever, and vanishingly little meaningful passenger rail service between northern and southern California to speak of. This is an essential oversight; the amount of people that would travel for any amount of time from Bakersfield to Fresno pales in comparison to the number of travelers to Los Angeles.
I understand why it’s valuable to deviate slightly from I-5 to US 99 in order to hit a series of Central Valley population centers, but I don’t understand why the weird dogleg thru the Antelope Valley would be demographically or structurally crucial to that link. Maybe because service already exists to Palmdale? But would carrying tracks over the Grapevine pass really be that much more expensive? How much speed might we be sacrificing for savings, assuming they exist?
Secondly, the NEC plan. Amtrak appears to have squeezed $15 billion in savings from a $151 billion estimate for upgrading the NEC to bona fide international bullet-train standards of high-speed rail service, however incrementally, by 2040. (This, as Alon Levy notes, requires clearing significant regulatory hurdles).
Incremental, or “iterative”, isn’t a bad thing; it provides results much more quickly over time. Unfortunately, I have no idea if that will be enough to demonstrate the huge and genuine import of this project to public or private investors, whoever they might be. It is, to say the least, not abundantly clear where any of this money is going to come from, otherwise. The plan itself certainly doesn’t specify.)
Regardless, it’s necessary that amid the drumbeat of austerity, HSR projects focus on regions with the greatest existing value for their services, and while both plans have far to go (albeit in different ways), it’s, well, at least it’s something. And that, unfortunately, is somewhat remarkable.