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California on track for statewide high-speed rail; Midwest hopes to follow

December 1st, 2008

By Catherine Girardeau
Green Right Now

Despite the derailing economy, California voters got on board for reviving train service in their state November 4th by passing state proposition 1A — a $10 million bond to begin construction of a fully electric rail system running 220-mph trains between San Francisco’s Transbay Terminal and Union Station in Los Angeles.

The bond is a vote of confidence from the public and a down payment on the $40 billion-plus project that plans to run high-speed trains from Sacramento to San Diego. The plan’s boosters say it will create jobs, relieve air and highway congestion, and help the state meet its legislative mandate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 30 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

Slideshow: California’s High-Speed Railway Plan

While detractors like the San Diego Union-Tribune’s editorial board said California’s budget woes make spending billions of dollars on a massive transportation project not only ill-advised, but “potentially the biggest boondoggle in California history”, proponents called the victory a landmark for high-speed rail nationwide.

Amtrak spokesperson Vernae Graham said Amtrak, which supports the plan, is likely to benefit from the high-speed rail project’s test track, which she said could increase Amtrak’s track speed through California’s Central Valley. In the past year, Amtrak has seen ridership grow more than 30 percent over the Capitol Corridor – one of its Northern California routes – and achieve double-digit growth on two other California routes that stand to connect up with the high-speed trains. Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner from Los Angeles to San Diego, the second most popular train in the entire Amtrak system, carries more than 2.5 million people a year.

According to the California High Speed Rail Authority’s business plan, the $33 billion cost of that San Francisco to Los Angeles backbone link will be shared among the State of California, the federal government, local and regional governments and private sector investors. The $10 billion down payment passed by voters to develop the system cannot be spent until matching federal, local and private funding is also secured.

It’s no surprise this plan could give fiscal conservatives, and even fiscal realists, pause in a state that just completed the longest state budget impasse in history. But on this one, former Massachusetts governor, presidential candidate and Amtrak board member Michael Dukakis told Wired Magazine, “people are way ahead of the government. They want a rail system that works.”

There’s no doubt electric rail is greener than just about any transportation alternative for the routes in question. “I don’t know of any transportation system which matches high-speed rail for reducing tainted emissions, improving air quality, and reducing dependence on foreign oil,” said Judge Quentin Kopp, chair of the California High Speed Rail Authority and chief spokesman of the campaign to pass the transportation bill.

But how quantifiably green is the project? Kopp said by the time the entire 800-mile system is completed, it will reduce the state’s reliance on fossil fuel by 12.7 million barrels of oil per year and reduce the state’s CO2 emissions by about 12 million pounds annually. And energy consultant Navigant Consulting Inc. said the train system could run with zero emissions if renewable-energy sources are used to power it. The system is expected to use 3,380 Gigawatt hours a year of energy to transport 94 million passengers by 2030. According to Navigant’s findings, generating this amount of energy from renewable sources is “well within the capabilities of the state.” This amount represents one percent of the state’s electrical load, or about three and a half days worth of electricity consumed throughout the state.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority’s business plan calculates high-speed trains will “alleviate the need to spend nearly $100 billion to build about 3,000 miles of new freeway plus five airport runways and 90 departure gates over the next two decades,” Quentin Kopp said.

High-speed rail could not only take a few polluting airliners’ out of California’s skies. It could also help airlines focus on what they do best: long-distance flights. That’s according to Robert Crandall, the Former Chairman, President and CEO of AMR Corp., the parent company of American Airlines. Crandall said in a speech to the Wings Club in June 2008 that short-haul flights of less than 300 miles, which are not generally profitable for airlines, could be readily replaced by high-speed rail. Crandall said high-speed rail and aviation could work together. “We could increase long-haul aviation capacity to and from our major cities by linking nearby airports to those cities with high-speed rail links,” Crandall said.

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