Wednesday, March 30, 2016

California Dreamin'

It makes sense that the state pursuing the most ambitious high-speed passenger rail project in the nation is under pressure to spend the money for it on another - and likely more immediate - concern.
California's nascent high-speed rail project, a train of which is shown in the above rendering, almost hit a deadhead earlier this year when opponents attempted to get on the November ballot a measure that would take $8 billion in rail bonds and divert the money to water projects in the form of building new dams and enlarging new ones, given that the recent winter rains haven't put much of a dent in the state's drought.  This past Friday, the supporters of the measure gave up on the idea, at least temporarily, noting how costly it was just to get enough signatures to put it on the ballot.  These advocates for the measure - including the California Water Alliance - hope to try again in 2018.
Without these bonds, the high-speed rail project couldn't be built, and even though developing more water projects is a very necessary goal, the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) says it has gone too far toward making the train a reality to turn back.  Ralph Vartabedian of the Los Angeles Times reports that the CHSRA has explained that if the rapid-rail funds were to be diverted elsewhere, it "could leave billions of dollars of infrastructure stranded" in California's Central Valley, which, ironically, is where many farmers supporting the diversion of rail funds to water projects are based.  However, even though the bullet train dodged a bullet, the project, according to Vartabedian, still faces "legal, technical and political challenges."    
California Governor Jerry Brown, sincere in his desire to get America's most populous state up to speed (literally and figuratively) with the rest of the advanced world, plunged into the high-speed rail project just as the Golden State entered its worst drought in history, which shows no sign of ending any time soon, and so water is likely to trump trains as a spending priority.  Address both?  No one in California apparently has the vision or the tenacity to suggest such an idea.  Paradoxically, Republican governors of states in a better position to develop high-speed rail have long since put the kibosh on such a grand scheme, sending back the money President Obama gave to them for a national high-speed rail initiative he now pretends not to have pursued.  Brown's acceptance of these funds hasn't produced much in the way of results in California, and while Obama's adopted home state of Illinois happily accepted high-speed rail funds for a Chicago-St. Louis project, the speeds of these trains are expected to be in the low triple digits - 110 miles an hour.  Just for the record, the French have trains that go much faster than that. 
Conclusion:  High-speed passenger rail is the future of transportation in America . . . and it always will be.  We will never see here anything like the French TGV, the German ICE, the Spanish AVE, or any other initial-named systems you can think of. Not even an American child born today who lives to be a hundred can expect to see such a thing.
Cultural critic James Kunstler says we shouldn't look forward to high-speed rail in this country because even if everyone supported it, it's too late to build it because the country is broke.  Better instead, he argues, to stick with conventional passenger rail, though we don't seem to be interested in improving even that.  I don't think we're broke, nor do I believe we can't afford bullet trains.  But as Stephen Stills once sang, it doesn't matter, it's nothing but dreaming anyhow . . ..  :-(   

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