A November ballot initiative will ask Californians to approve a $9 billion bond measure to start construction on the High-Speed Rail (HSR) network linking all major urban centers in California, including Irvine.
The proposed rail network would be the first of its kind in the United States, carrying passengers from San Diego to San Francisco, with additional lines linking Irvine, Los Angeles, Sacramento and Anaheim. At 220 mph, the trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco would take just two hours and forty minutes, cost around $60 and serve as the backbone of an extended public transportation infrastructure around the state.
Californians seem to have taken to the idea. Polls show 56 percent approval for the program, with only 30 percent in opposition. Christine Dubois, a member of the UC Irvine CALPIRG chapter, also reported strong support for the proposed trains.
“We’ve had really great support from UC students across the state,” Dubois said. She continued, “students are definitely in support of better transportation measures.”
Part of the support comes from the increased overall public transportation that would follow the development of the rail network. More buses and shuttles will be necessary to hook the High Speed Rail to the local infrastructure, adding convenient transportation alternatives for student commuters.
“We have a lot of commuters right now who sit an hour to two hours in traffic to come to UCI, and if we could save them time sitting in traffic and cut pollution, that would be great,” Dubois said.
But there are other reasons people appreciate the High Speed Rail as well.
“I think that we have had so much support from students because HSR is cool. A train that goes 220 mph – that’s cool. No one else in the country has it,” Dubois said.
To some, $9 billion seems like a lot of money, especially at a time of fiscal crisis when the state is cutting programs, specifically last year’s decision to cut $417 million from the UC system budget.
However, Mehdi Morshed of the California High-Speed Rail Authority asserts that HSR will not interfere with the general fiscal funds of the state.
According to Morshed, the rail network would cost virtually nothing for the first three to five years and would pay for itself once it gets running with projected revenue of $1-2 billion per year.
“Revenues for the train are predicted to far exceed cost,” Morshed said.
The rail system may also help the state’s economy, not unlike New Deal projects such as the Golden Gate Bridge.
“If you jumpstart the economy you really get things moving. The program itself will generate significant economic activity, which will help our budget issues in the long run,” Morshed said.
Indeed, nearly two-thirds of the total cost of the rail system, estimated at around $40 billion over 10 years, will come from federal subsidies and public-private partnerships.
“High-Speed Rail is funded through a bond measure, so it isn’t in the general budget and does not affect UC funds at all,” Dubois said.
The federal government has began experimenting with funding new “green” initiatives for transportation infrastructure, including HSR. Morshed explained that the federal government pays for about 80 percent of highway projects and the HSR Authority is only asking the government to pay for 50 percent of the proposed rail.
Additionally, private enterprises will bid on the rights to operate the trains once the state finishes the rails, stations and other infrastructure, filling out the rest of the costs.
“We will have no subsidies,” Morshed said, “It will operate more like an airport, where the infrastructure is there and then companies operate out of it.”
But some, like David Brownstone, a professor of economics at UCI and member of the Institute of Transportation Studies, remain unconvinced. He believes that further subsidies will be necessary.
“There are few places where these High-Speed Rail projects are economically viable. Places like France and Japan are highly subsidized,” Brownstone said.
Despite his doubts, Brownstone also believes that HSR could be cost beneficial.
“Trains are the most efficient way of moving things, much more so than planes or even cars. Especially with $100 a barrel oil,” Brownstone said.
According to Dubois, the High Speed Rail will take an estimated 92 million cars off the road annually, and cut emissions by 12 billion pounds per year.