All aboard! Bullet Train 13 departing Bakersfield for Merced in one minute!
If Buck Owens were alive, he’d probably think one of the writers for Hee Haw was getting a bit too weird with his jokes.
But after Gov. Gavin Newsom finally stated the obvious, the punchline for the Train to Nowhere has become even cornier.
First of all, credit Newsom for putting the brakes on chugging the electric Kool-Aid that high-speed rail has become. The governor is proposing to simply finish the 160-mile segment from Bakersfield to Merced and pulling the plug for now on the rest of the crock taxpayers were sold 10 years ago that if the approved a $10 billion bond, it would lure private sector and federal dollars like flies to honey to create a system where trains zip at 220 mph to cover the 520 miles from San Diego to Sacramento in less than three hours at a cost to complete of $33 billion. With more than $5 billion already spent and not a foot of track laid as cost estimates zoom past $80 billion with no signs of abating and given the toughest engineering challenges have yet to be tackled, former Gov. Jerry Brown’s vision has morphed into a costly fantasy. And that was before factoring in the bloody environmental fights that have yet to be fought resisting sending high-speed rail up the San Francisco Peninsula and into the Los Angeles Basin.
Killing off the entire project by proposing to pull the contract for the first segment would have been an epic battle against organized union labor and mega-corporations that know how to grease the political process.
As much as anyone may have liked Newsom to kill off high-speed entirely or forge ahead, neither option had much chance of succeeding given the fact taxpayers have turned against the project, costs keep soaring, and major complex environmental issues involving the rest of the route have yet to be addressed.
Newsom said it best in regards to high-speed rail: “There simply isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego let alone San Francisco to L.A.”
That statement of the obvious was derailed a bit when Newsom took a rail siding into The Twilight Zone backing up his position to finish the first segment by saying that high-speed rail is “about economic transformation and unlocking the enormous potential of the Valley.”
That’s a line worthy of Minnie Pearl uttering while wearing her signature hat with the price tag still attached.
Those powering the economic juggernaut that the San Joaquin Valley has become in the world of agriculture go to meetings in Ford F Series, Silverado, GMC, and Ram pickups and not expensive six-figure sports cars or limousines. The workforce instead of cramming itself into buses and commuter trains, driver older cars and cram into vans and SUVs to travel from field to field or to reach packing sheds and such that are far from bus routes.
While there are other forms of commerce in the Valley, there is not a wealth of inner-city movement of people to justify the price of a high-speed rail ticket that simply gets you from station to station and not your ultimate destination.
When trains do run from Bakersfield to Merced, they will be more akin to the ridership on an amusement ride at 10 o’clock on a Sunday night for a festival carnival shutting down after a five-day run in the middle of the school year.
They may zoom along as empty as they might be at 220 mph but to believe as the governor inferred that once the initial segment was up and running it would demonstrate to private sector investors how effective high-speed rail is makes no sense.
Private sector investors are not quite that stupid. They already know high-speed rail trains can travel at 220 mph given what is already in place in Europe and Asia. Finishing the first segment which is the lowest hanging fruit on the entire 520-mile route that was originally proposed proves nothing. The biggest tests are boring beneath the unstable Coastal Range for 13 miles of tunnels near Pacheco Pass and taking on what promises to be well-financed and well-organized opposition along proposed routes nearing San Francisco and Los Angeles.
It is a delusion of epic proportions to believe high-speed rail will be bankrolled south of Bakersfield and northwest of Merced by the private sector simply because the state took 15 years and more than half of the originally projected budget for the entire system to simply go through what is essentially flat land devoid of large-scale urbanization.
The best course forward is to try and make the high-speed rail segment being built the backbone for a more robust and effective inter-city rail system for California. It doesn’t really take a lot of modification except to change some routes – such as switching out the Pacheco Pass for the Altamont Pass – and slowing down the speed. And by doing that it doesn’t permanently preclude the full high-speed rail vision from ever becoming a reality at some point.
One proposal that was floating around for an “interim” Los Angeles to San Francisco connection was to reach the Bay Area via the Altamont Corridor Express tracks that goes to San Jose to tie into the Bay Area’s robust transit system.
It is a much less costly proposition and it can be done with relative ease. It will provide a much more robust rail system that can still get people out of their cars and be them to transit hubs to reach their ultimate destinations.
This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Ceres Courier or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.