Category Archives: Bullet Train

California Proposition 1A: Suburban Sprawl with a Bullet

Tomorrow, California residents will be voting on Proposition 1A, a measure to finance construction of a high-speed “bullet” train. CalVoter.com
has posted a nice summary of the initiative’s glittering intentions:

  • Provides long-distance commuters with a safe, convenient, affordable, and reliable alternative to driving and high gas prices.
  • Reduces traffic congestions on the state’s highways and at the state’s airports.
  • Reduces California’s dependence on foreign oil.
  • Reduces air pollution and global warming greenhouse gases.
  • Establishes a clean, efficient 220 MPH transportation system.
  • Improves existing passenger rail lines serving the state’s major population centers.
  • Provides for California’s growing population.
  • Provides for a bond issue of $9.95 billion to establish high-speed train service linking Southern California counties, the Sacramento/San Joaquin Valley, and the San Francisco Bay Area.
  • Provides that at least 90% of these bond funds shall be spent for specific construction projects, with private and public matching funds required, including, but not limited to, federal funds, funds from revenue bonds, and local funds.
  • Requires that use of all bond funds is subject to independent audits.
  • Appropriates money from the General Fund to pay bond principle and interest.
  • Fiscal Impact: State costs of about $19.4 billion, assuming 30 years to pay of both principle ($9.95 billion) and interest ($9.5 billion) costs of the bonds. Payments of about $647 million per year.
  • Fiscal Impact: When constructed, additional unknown costs, probably in excess of $1 billion a year, to operate and maintain a high-speed train system. The costs would be at least partially, and potentially fully, offset by passenger fare revenues, depending on ridership.

Most critiques of Proposition 1A have focused on the $9.95 billion projected cost of the bond. My fear is that constructing a high-speed bullet train between San Francisco and Los Angeles would bring the state one step closer to construction of an immense megalopolis between the two cities.

The coming new Ice Age, a world so overpopulated that humankind would cease to exist by the year 2000, and a giant megalopolis seen from space as a bright continuous blob of light between LA to SF were three of the prominent environmental scare stories that I was taught about in school in the late 60s and early 70s. In my child’s mind’s eye, the state was a vast, unknowable expanse. Stockton was just that–a stockyard town–not a sprawling suburb. Vacaville was a dusty farm town along the interstate whose only point of interest was the NutTree, a storefront along Hwy. 40 selling candy and treats and toys. All one has to do is to look at the impact that construction of the Interstate Highway system has had on California. It created a population explosion in what once had been farmland (e.g., Modesto, Stockton, Dixon, Fairfield, Vacaville, Fresno, Bakersfield). Small towns between San Francisco and Sacramento exploded into suburbs covered with houses and malls.

Construction of a high-speed rail system may be history repeating itself:

The Interstate Highways that were created to help protect and defend the United States of America were also to be used for commerce and travel. Though no one could have predicted it, the Interstate Highway was a major impetus for in the development of suburbanization and sprawl of U.S. cities. While Eisenhower never desired the Interstates to pass through or reach into the major cities of the U.S., it happened, and along with the Interstates came the problems of congestion, smog, automobile dependency, drop in densities of urban areas, the decline of mass transit, and others. [U.S Interstate Highway System at About.com]

The term “edge cities” was coined by Washington Post journalist and author Joel Garreau in his 1991 book Edge City: Life on the New Frontier. Garreau equates the growing edge cities at major suburban freeway interchanges around America as the latest transformation of how we live and work. These new suburban cities have sprung up like dandelions across the fruited plain, they’re home to glistening office towers, huge retail complexes, and are always located close to major highways. [Edge cities at About.com]

Environmental advocacy groups such as the Sierra Club are in favor of Proposition 1A.

“The Sierra Club supports Proposition 1A because a zero-emission high-speed train system will cut global warming pollution and help Californians move around without getting stuck in crowded airports and congested freeways,” said Bill Magavern, the Director of Sierra Club California. “Proposition 1A will save costly fuel and promote sustainable land use and urban revitalization. The California Air Resources Board projects that a high-speed rail system would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a million metric tons in 2020. By 2030, when the whole system is in place, high-speed rail travel is anticipated to reduce California’s greenhouse gas emissions by up to 6 million tons per year.”

With major metropolitan cities limiting sprawl and creating greenbelts around their outer edges, the amount of land available for construction of single-family homes is declining. Environmental and conservation groups assume that the train’s clients will prefer to live in one of the two major urban areas servicing the rail system. This is naive beyond belief.

A high-speed rail system would create an incentive to build or expand cities into areas that have remained untouched (e.g., the Altamont Pass, Pacheco, Ontario, and Tehachapi).

Think twice before voting “yes.” You may be voting to create California’s version of BosWash, the megalopolis between Boston and Washington.

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Filed under 2008 Election, Bullet Train, California, High-speed Train, Megalopolis, Politics, Proposition 1A