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California’s high-speed rail system ill-conceived

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Written by: Catalina Zhao 

This summer, the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) will begin construction of the United States’ first high-speed rail. CHSRA, the organization in charge of planning, designing, building and operating the rail, has planned to build it to connect San Francisco to Los Angeles by 2029. It will travel between the two cities in two hours and 40 minutes at over 200 miles per hour. The final goal is to build a system that spans 800 miles to include Sacramento and San Diego. Although the CHSRA and supporters of the rail claim the rail will be beneficial, California should not build it because it will hurt California’s economy, will not reach its desired level of utility and will not significantly help the environment or traffic congestion.

Once fully constructed, the high-speed rail will have a major negative impact on California’s already poor and fragile economy. According to the Huffington Post, the projected price tag of the San Francisco-Los Angeles route is a hefty $68 billion. The governments of both California and the nation will have to dig to their already in-debt treasuries for the project since it is publicly financed. CHSRA has received an initial $8 billion for preliminary construction from state legislation that could have been used in better places, such as in education. Moreover, the rail’s actual operation will cause California to lose more money. According to Director of High-Speed Rail at the International Union of Railways in Paris Iñaki Barrón de Angoiti states that high-speed rails are not profitable and that only two high-speed rail routes in the world, France’s Paris to Lyon and Japan’s Tokyo to Osaka, break even. The other routes in 11 different countries all lose money in operating the rail and require taxpayer dollars to function. Republican State Senator Ted Gaines of Granite Bay said in a statement that building the rail would push California over a fiscal cliff, requiring endless subsidies and blasting a huge hole into the state budget. Democratic State Senator Joe Simitian of Palo Alto also questioned the stability of the project’s financing and additional commitment of funding. With this project, California will lose taxpayer dollars and any subsequent economic improvements.

From a cultural and utilitarian standpoint, California’s high-speed rail falls short of its predicted benefits because it does not suit America’s geography and culture. Its successes in countries such as France and Japan cannot be applied to the fundamentally different America. The United States lacks the high population density, smaller area, geographical features and low car-usage that make high-speed rails so beneficial in other countries. According to William J. Mallett, a transportation policy specialist at the Congressional Research Service, these factors are why a high-speed rail network is not feasible. California’s population is more spread out and more dependent on cars. In places like New York, a high-speed rail can thrive on the heavily concentrated areas and success of the existing subways, but not in California. A fully-built rail will not be fully used because people will still rely on cars. Most Americans are used to driving as their main mode of transportation, and switching to high-speed rail would require them to alter their lifestyles. Cars are convenient and give people the sense of freedom and independence that public transportation does not. Furthermore, a lack of transportation connecting the high-speed rail stations to people’s homes makes the line inconvenient. It is difficult for people to get to the actual rail, as shown by the troublesome breaks along routes in California’s current Bay Area Rapid Transit and CalTrain systems. To get to the rail, people will have to drive their cars or take a taxi, which is often more time-consuming and inefficient than driving to their destination. People will be inclined toward the latter, which will leave more empty seats on the rail. The high-speed rail will never attain its desired utility and success because public transportation is not prevalent in trans-California culture.

Supporters of the rail commend the ability of the high-speed rail to help the environment and decrease traffic congestion. However, the rail does neither, for construction of the rail system greatly contributes to pollution, with the necessary machinery and industrial processes. According to the CATO Institute, the high-speed rail would reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions by only 0.7 to 1.5 percent, and the prerequisite to that small decrease is high levels of ridership. Low ridership would actually eliminate any pollution reduction and energy savings. Generating the electricity that powers the high-speed rail burns a lot of fossil fuels. Even if the electricity is produced with green energy techniques, fossil fuels will remain a major source. If people continue driving their cars rather than riding the high-speed rail, the supposed benefit high-speed rail has in decreasing automobile pollution will be greatly weakened. But even if people use the rail, according to American public policy analyst Randal O’Toole, it will not stop the growing trend of automobile driving, as evidenced in Japan and France. O’Toole also finds that no high-speed rail system in the entire world has been shown to noticeably reduce congestion. California’s high-speed rail would not help the environment or traffic congestion; on the contrary, it could affect the environment negatively.

Although advocates of the high-speed rail say that the system will save people time once completed, the time saved is not significant enough to warrant billions of dollars spent. There is a time threshold, and many people might not meet it, given that not everyone will use the rail. Moreover, not many people want to travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles so often that they would prefer the rail over an airplane. Others praise the jobs the CHSRA will create with the project, but California can invest billions into other necessary sectors to create the same number of jobs.

Ultimately, it is important to abandon building the high-speed rail before California becomes too deeply involved in it. The high-speed rail will hurt California’s economy and receive unfavorable ridership levels because it does not fit America’s conditions or culture and could worsen environmental and congestion problems. This project nobly intends to reform and modernize the state’s transportation infrastructure. However, because building a high-speed rail falls short of meeting these goals and may actually bring negative effects, California should look to other methods and projects to reach goals of environmental protection and job creation. 


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California’s high-speed rail system ill-conceived