California High Speed Rail Debate Ends As Construction Begins

| by Will Hagle
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The high speed railway that will eventually connect Los Angeles and San Francisco is finally set to begin construction this week. Although the project will take more than a decade to complete, the first phase of construction will begin with a 29-mile segment starting in Fresno. This portion of the railway is significant simply for the fact that, despite years of controversy and opposition and at least two years in delayed construction, the project is finally going to be a reality. 

California’s high speed rail project has raised a number of concerns amongst citizens and policymakers in the state. The biggest, most pressing issue is economic: it’s a $68 billion project in a state that’s struggling financially. California’s unemployment rate is 7.2%, tied for third-highest in the country with Georgia behind only Mississippi and the District of Columbia. The California High Speed Rail Authority estimates that construction on the initial leg of the route will result in about 20,000 jobs annually for 5 years. The number of jobs goes up with each year of construction, but construction jobs have an obvious expiration date which must be calculated into economic forecasts. An estimated 450,000 more longstanding operational jobs are expected to be created upon completion of the project. Opponents of the railway, however, argue that the system will only benefit upper-class, wealthier passengers who are able to afford individual tickets (i.e. an individual on a business trip rather than a traveling family, which could make the trip for a cheaper cost by driving). The benefits, in other words, might not outweigh the cost and time the project will take to complete. 

The exact economic impact of the project is unforeseeable, but by delaying construction the state has been able to secure adequate funding to complete the railway. The project’s saving grace was the California Legislature vote to take revenue from the state’s cap-and-trade program to pay for the project. A budget deal reached in June 2014 allocated 25% of the state's cap-and-trade revenue towards high speed rail. The use of cap-and-trade also appeals to those that oppose the railway for environmental reasons, as it represents an effort to reduce carbon emissions in California and to plan for a future of more sustainable transportation. 

High speed rail has been as controversial of an issue at the federal level as it has been in California. President Obama made high speed rail a priority of his administration, but few citizens anticipated the slow, bureaucratic nature in which projects like this progress. The federal government allocated $10.5 million in funding for high speed rail as part of its 2009 stimulus package, an amount which will last through 2017 (although delayed construction in California threatens these funds). California has thus far been the most high-profile case leading the charge into unprecedented high-speed railway territory (along with the help of an additional $2.25 billion in funding from the federal government), but it has taken several years of political and legal battles for the project to be approved. Now that tracks are set to be laid in the central part of the state, the rest of the country will likely be watching to see how the scenario plays out. It will be a long wait. The system is expected to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles by 2029, but additional delays are inevitable in a government project of this size and scope. 

While politicians and economists weigh the risks and benefits of building a high-speed rail network in the United States, the average citizen can only await the quick method of transportation that’s already utilized on a regular basis in countries of Europe and Asia. The idea of high speed rail is undeniably enticing, and it's been promoted as a viable alternative by transportation enthusiasts for decades. Being able to travel from Southern California to Northern California in less than three hours without dealing with airports or long stretches of freeway will be incredibly convenient. The railway will also connect passengers directly with the downtown areas of cities along its route, creating a renewed interest in the urban areas of central California. At least that’s what Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin — one of the project’s few Republican supporters — hopes. “High-speed rail brings attention and focus back to city centers. It is going to be easier for people to live in the middle of the state and do business elsewhere,” Mayor Swearengin told the Los Angeles Times. 

Supporters of the project repeatedly emphasize a sentiment similar to the one expressed by Swearengin. When the high-speed railway is completed, they prophecize, everything will be easier. Commute times between California’s major cities will be drastically reduced, jobs will be created and the economy will benefit. The state will be seen as a leader in America’s much-needed and long-anticipated high-speed rail revolution. It will be a great achievement for the state's leaders, a crucial piece of Gov. Jerry Brown's legacy. For opponents of the railway, the negative impact the project could have on the short-term is more realistic and easier to see than the potential for benefits in the future. California’s economy is broken, and high-speed rail isn’t necessarily the answer. The political, environmental and legal hurdles are too much to surmount. There are other ways to save money and create jobs in California. Now that construction is set to begin this week, however, the majority of those arguments have been rendered irrelevant. The project is moving forward, and hopefully it will someday represent the start of an exciting new era of American transportation. The debate surrounding high speed rail will inevitably continue in some manner, but supporters of the project can celebrate at least one achievement: construction has finally begun.