Journalism won’t die if you donate. Support Voice of San Diego today!
If all goes according to plan, San Diegans will one day be able to board a bullet train and get to points north much more quickly than they can now by car or Amtrak. Los Angeles would be closer than 90 minutes away, while riders could reach the Bay Area within just a few hours.
But that day won’t be next year. Or five years from now. Or sometime in the 2020s.
In fact, it’ll be several decades before San Diegans get a piece of the high-speed action.
As the rail expands beyond its initial tracks in the Central Valley, we’ll be a very low priority, even though even some non-San Diegans say we should actually rank No. 1.
Meanwhile, politicians in Sacramento and Washington D.C. are getting cold feet about the entire bullet train project, whose estimated cost has doubled to nearly $100 billion. Still, it remains a priority for Gov. Jerry Brown, and construction is scheduled to begin this year — though not anywhere near here.
Here’s a look at four things you should know:
1. You can get there from here now, but …
It’s possible to take the train — Amtrak — from San Diego to the Bay Area. But it’s best if you don’t have anything else to do that day.
The first thing you’d have to do is ride the Surfliner train from San Diego to Los Angeles, a trip that’s typically about two-and-a-half hours unless you get sidetracked by one of Amtrak’s frequent delays.
And then you’d have to catch the Coast Starlight train from Los Angeles. It only leaves at 10:25 a.m. and doesn’t get to Emeryville (just outside Oakland) until 9:57 p.m., an almost 12-hour trip.
It takes about an hour and a half to get from San Diego to the Bay Area by plane, but you have to add on extra time to deal with airport hassles and it’s costly.
The bullet train would make the trip from San Diego to San Francisco in a bit less than four hours; a trip to Los Angeles would be just one hour and 18 minutes.
2. San Diego isn’t a top priority
If the price is right, the north-to-south trip times sound great. But we may not get our local high-speed rail stations for another 20 years or more.
First up is a 130-mile segment in the Central Valley, which will cost $6 billion to build and is expected to open by 2017. As the Washington Post puts it, “many were baffled by the idea of sinking $6 billion into a rail line from just south of Merced to just north of Bakersfield.”
But rail officials said they were swayed by a federal requirement that initial money be spent on a train route that could still be used even if the bullet train is never built, the Fresno Bee reports.
The next step is to expand the track to other parts of the Central Valley and then north to San Francisco and south to Los Angeles and Orange County. Sacramento and San Diego won’t get the train until about 2033 at the earliest.
If and when the section to San Diego is built, it will not go up the coast like the Amtrak train but instead go inland through Escondido and then head west to L.A. through the Inland Empire. Stations are slated for cities like Escondido, Murrieta, Riverside and Ontario.
So why not start construction down here instead?
For one, a train track from San Diego to Los Angeles already exists, creating problems for the federal requirement that the first section be usable even if the bullet train isn’t built. For another, rail officials said they like the idea of building in the Central Valley because it gives them flexibility to expand the track either north or south as they get more money.
But why is San Diego the lowest priority of all, ranking at the bottom with Sacramento? The California High-Speed Rail Authority’s draft business plan, which is dated last Nov. 1 and lays out the future of the bullet train project, doesn’t explain why connecting to San Diego is the last item on their priority list.
Even people outside of San Diego think we should be at the top, not the bottom, of the list.
Two transportation specialists took to the online pages of The New York Times last month to call for building the San Diego-Los Angeles part of the bullet train line first.
“Demand for high-speed rail between its sprawling cities could then be observed before building a much more expensive Los Angeles-San Francisco line, almost three times the distance,” wrote Cornell associate professor Rick Geddes, who added that rail projects like this one lowball their costs and overestimate their ridership.
Bill Davidow, author of “Overconnected: The Promise and Threat of the Internet,” agreed with the San Diego-Los Angeles idea, writing that it’s better to try out the bullet train in an area with high demand to see how things go.
3. Financial, management troubles are spreading
State voters approved spending $9 billion on an initial stage of the train system in 2008.
Its total cost is estimated to be almost $100 billion. Last month, the state auditor warned that the financing for the project is a mess.
There’s an alternative, of course: Don’t build the train. If it doesn’t, bullet train proponents say the state will have to build up its road and airport systems at a cost of $171 billion to help people get to where they want to go.
But, as the LA Times reported last month, that $171 billion figure, which includes 2,300 miles of roads and plenty of new airport space, is coming under attack from a swath of critics who say it’s based on “exaggerated estimates, misleading statements and erroneous assumptions.”
Meanwhile, just last month, both the CEO and the chairman of the rail system’s board stepped down. The CEO announced that he wanted to spend more time with his family — really, he said that — “but some lawmakers and state transportation officials said he had lost the confidence of the Legislature,” the LA Times reports.
“This is clearly an effort by the administration to start fresh and push the reset button,” a state senator told the newspaper.
4. Transportation gurus are divided
A forum on The New York Times website allowed several transportation specialists to weigh in on the value of a bullet train.
Stanford University professor Richard White, author of “Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America,” warned that the train “will become a Vietnam of transportation: easy to begin and difficult and expensive to stop.”
On the pro-rail side, a Berkeley planning consultant named Peter Calthorpe wrote that the bullet train “would become a catalyst for urban renewal, enhance local transit systems and generate market-wise development opportunities.”
And Emily Rusch, state director of the California Public Interest Research Group, wrote that high-speed rail will “reduce harmful air pollution, give travelers an attractive option to avoid crowded freeways, and encourage denser development around stations.”
The Obama administration is trying to stick with its plans to spend more than $3 billion in federal money on the construction that’s supposed to start this year. But there are questions about what the feds will do if the state can’t get its own money together for the project, and Republicans in the House are trying to kill funding that hasn’t even materialized yet.
Please contact Randy Dotinga directly at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/rdotinga.