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In recent months CalPIRG has rallied in support of a high-speed rail system aimed to reduce dependence on oil and to ease traffic congestion in California’s freeways and airports. However, because it is unclear whether the voters will have the option to decide if the high-speed rail is constructed, student activists have begun collecting signatures in an effort to find a place for it on the November 2008 ballot.
The high-speed bullet trains could potentially provide a cost-effective, efficient method of carrying passengers at speeds up to 220 miles per hour, allowing Californians to travel from Los Angeles to the Bay Area in just over two and a half hours. Once construction is completed in 2020, the trains’ route would include stops in San Diego, Riverside County, Orange County, Los Angeles, the Central Valley, Sacramento and San Francisco. The planned voting in November will decide whether the first phase of the project will be implemented. This part of the project would propose that a $10 billion bond would be allotted for the construction of the Anaheim-San Francisco route in 2011.
Elizabeth McDuffe, the former chair of UC Irvine CalPIRG and a second-year history and international studies double-major admits that construction for the project would be costly. However, the cost of the high-speed rail would pay off in the long run.
“The initial costs are expensive, but after, it would cut down significantly on gasoline prices benefiting the average consumer,” McDuffe said.
The total cost of the project is estimated at $40 billion. The proposition of this steep price, especially when California is in the midst of an enormous budget deficit, may be justified by comparing it to other projects aimed at alleviating traffic congestion, including a proposed widening of Central Valley Highway 99, a project that would cost $25 billion for Highway 99 alone. Funds for the high-speed rail project would draw from state, federal and private investors.
McDuffe further emphasized that the high-speed rail would continuously aid the California community, while expanding road construction has its limitations.
“It would cut down traffic space, the freeway space and traffic lanes because we can’t just keep building more freeway lanes,” McDuffe said.
Bullet trains similar to those that would be used on the high-speed rail system in California have already been implemented worldwide, such as in Europe and Asia. The trains would offer passengers a wide variety of compartments, including a café car and a quiet car. The projected cost of passenger tickets is undetermined.
In March, CalPIRG sent 50 students from its campus chapters along the proposed high-speed rail route. These students, who traveled the route by car and bicycle, shared their campaign with the media and discussed why high-speed rail is important and necessary to reducing dependence on road transportation. Placing the high-speed rail initiative as its top priority, CalPIRG supports the campaign by asking for financial and moral support from California leaders.
Dewey Nguyen, a second-year biological sciences major who previously volunteered for CalPIRG, stated that, while he had not worked specifically on the high-speed rail effort, he supports the use of any environmentally friendly energy source.
“Its environmentally friendly [so] it sounds pretty good. … [It] saves a lot of gas and money and everything else,” Nguyen said.
Summer Bowie, a fourth-year dance major who regularly volunteers for CalPIRG, stressed the impact of high-speed rails on the everyday lives of Californians.
“Its going to stop at every main California city so that people can start using it … to both get to destinations and to and from work,” Bowie said.
Outside of individual consumers, bullet trains would also benefit California’s economy and save an estimated 5 million barrels of oil as well as reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming. This reduction would be equivalent to removing over one million vehicles per year from the roads.
The environmentally-friendly trains would reduce dependence on foreign oil and contribute to cleaner air. The trains would also create over 600,000 permanent and temporary jobs, reducing currently rising unemployment rates. In addition to improving traffic flow, the high-speed rail system would also relieve airport congestion by reducing the volume of air passengers traveling between California metropolitan areas.
While stopping throughout various areas of California that are currently inaccessible through public transportation, the high-speed rail would have limitations. For example, although the trains would travel through protected areas of the Merced grasslands, they would not stop in this region.
The trains are a gamble for taxpayers: a chance stands for the high-speed rail system to fail to attract passengers, deepening the budget crisis. However, the risks involved may be worth the benefits as between now and 2020, rising gas prices will continue, drivers will continue to depend on automobiles and freeways will continue to devour drivers’ time and gas money.
In their efforts to put the construction of the high-speed rail in motion, CalPIRG members table on Ring Mall weekly. During this time, volunteers ask those passing by to sign postcards, signifying that they want the option to vote for the rail’s construction on the official California state-voting ballot.
“It would be great if everyone could just sign one of the postcards. Just by signing the post cards you’re giving a chance to get on the ballot for November. You’re not saying yes or no to it, but you’re just giving the voters a chance to decide,” McDuffe said.

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