On Tuesday, California’s bullet train, which will truncate commutes across the state and forever change how people get around, breaks ground in the Central Valley hub of Fresno. The process up to this point has been anything but high-speed, and supporters hope the ceremonial groundbreaking will usher in a new era that eventually brings the full rail system into use by 2028. A first-of-its-kind project in the U.S., it may also be a major step on the path towards other high-speed rails in places like Texas and the northeast corridor.
The first phase of California’s high-speed rail system will be a 29-mile stretch from Fresno slightly north to the town of Madera. From there the project will link up with urban centers like Los Angeles and San Francisco, eventually allowing commuters to travel between those two cities at 220 mph and cutting the trip from nearly six hours to less than three. The system will eventually extend to Sacramento and San Diego, totaling 800 miles with up to 24 stations.
The train’s speed isn’t the only big number associated with the project. The entire project is slated to cost $68 billion, but could easily run right through that estimate. As far as commuters, California has around 32 million registered vehicles traveling more than 330 billion miles a year. High-speed rail is necessary to meet the future demands of these residents and the projected 12 million new Californians coming to the state, according to Brian P. Kelly, California’s secretary of transportation, and Mary D. Nichols, chairman of the California Air Resources Board (CARB). The state’s population is expected to hit 50 million by 2030.
Last year, Kelly and Nichols wrote an editorial for the Los Angeles Times stating that the “alternative to high-speed rail is an estimated investment of more than $150 billion to build 4,300 new lanes of highway, more freeways and hundreds of new airport gates and runways.”
They say that this undertaking would cover “large swaths of the state with concrete and asphalt” and that the effects “on the environment — water and air quality, open space, food supply, noise and climate — would be substantial.”
According to CARB, California’s transportation sector accounts for 38 percent of the state’s carbon footprint — the equivalent of California’s electric, commercial, residential and agricultural sectors combined. Rick Zbur, president of the California League of Conservation Voters wrote in October that in other countries where high-speed rail exists — such as Spain, Japan, and France — “it is one of the most energy- and environmentally-efficient forms of mass passenger transport there is” and that it “produces only a small fraction of the pollution of an average plane or car trip over the same distance, on a per-passenger basis.”
The California bullet train will not only contribute to the cause of mitigating climate change; it will also benefit from it. Last year the California Legislature agreed to provide 25 percent of the state’s cap-and-trade revenue to help fund the project, which will result in $250 million to $1 billion per year for the train. Governor Jerry Brown had originally asked for 33 percent of the fund to go towards high-speed rail, but nonetheless this annual designation was a big boost to the rail’s prospects. This funding, coupled with legal victories including the California Supreme Court recently declining to hear a lawsuit challenging construction bonds, has given the project momentum going into the groundbreaking.
Private investment has become increasingly critical to close the funding gaps going forward, especially given that, since gaining control of the House in 2011, Republicans have blocked further efforts to fund high-speed rail projects. There has been some federal funding, however: the Obama administration contributed $3.2 billion in federal grants to the project, and the 2009 economic stimulus bill provided $8 billion to 13 high-speed rail projects nationwide. Californians also narrowly approved a $9.95 billion bond for initial construction of the project in 2008.
California is no stranger to daunting engineering projects. The Golden Gate Bridge was once seen as a bridge too far, the California Aqueduct a river too deep. With four-term Gov. Jerry Brown beginning his final stint in office, the rail joins the governor’s recently-approved massive water infrastructure project as two of his primary legacy concerns. Proposition 1, which passed easily in November, authorizes more than $7 billion in funding for water projects to confront the state’s ongoing drought and long-term water challenges.
In his inauguration speech on Monday, Brown focused on the state’s long history of environmental leadership, mentioning the high-speed rail and saying that “California has made bold commitments to sustain our environment, help the neediest and build for our future.”
On top of offering residents in remote Central Valley towns easier access to urban hubs, the project could also free up urban areas for gridlocked commuters. According to the Texas Transportation Institute’s 2012 Annual Urban Mobility Report, congestion on roads and highways in California’s urban areas created more than $19 billion in lost economic activity just in 2011.
The benefits of high-speed rail are apparent globally, and many emerging economies have plans of for their own systems. Mexico is considering a network. Russia wants to build a line between Moscow and Beijing, thus shortening the legendary Trans-Siberian commute from seven days to two. China is laying high-speed track at breakneck speeds — last month the country launched 32 new routes in one day. In the U.S., Texas’ plans for a bullet train network would connect Houston and Dallas in 90 minutes and could come online as soon as 2021.