Influencers Opinion

A high-speed train gets us the future we want. California should get on board

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The day can’t come quickly enough when I can pedal an electric bike share to downtown San Francisco in 10 minutes, step seamlessly onto a high-speed train and get to my meetings in downtown Los Angeles a few hours later, and do it 100 percent emissions free. It would completely transform the experience of traveling between California’s two major metropolitan areas, presenting a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address California’s sustainable development, housing and climate goals.

However, the important work of building that train and infrastructure needs to be performed in a just and equitable manner that includes all key stakeholders.

High-speed rail gets a lot of flak for its high price tag, which the latest business plan pegs at $77 billion. But let’s face it, transportation projects are expensive, and we’re already spending billions on freeway projects every year that continue to pollute our air and harm our most vulnerable communities, driving us in the opposite direction of carbon neutrality. There was quite a bit of noise made about the stretch of Interstate 405 in Los Angeles that cost $1.6 billion, designed to achieve a savings of just a few minutes for drivers – and it could not even achieve that modest goal.


Another important comparison is what it would cost to continue down the current fossil fuel-powered pathway, because doing nothing is not an option.

We are going to continue to grow. California welcomes newcomers. We are now and will continue to be a desirable place for businesses and to live. California’s Department of Finance predicts we’ll be at 50 million people by mid-century. If we accommodate this growth by expanding runways and freeways, the price tag is estimated at $170 billion over 20 years to create infrastructure that directly undermines our ability to achieve our climate goals.

This critical project must also avoid the unfortunate legacy of so many major transportation infrastructure projects in the past, by including local communities in key decisions. As the recent documentary “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City” heartbreakingly portrays, freeway after freeway displaced primarily communities of color in cities across the country.

That’s why the Natural Resources Defense Council is spearheading an initiative called the Strong, Prosperous and Resilient Communities Challenge (SPARCC ), working with six communities across the country who are modeling inclusive planning processes for infrastructure that improves health, climate and racial equity outcomes.

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Experiences in other countries suggests that high-speed rail can be an effective, low-carbon alternative to air and vehicle travel, and that once built, people use it. In Spain, once a high-speed train was completed between Madrid and Seville, planners witnessed a notable shift between air travel and rail travel, as travelers opted for a more seamless and convenient trip from the center of one city to the center of the next.

Currently, there are 291 flights a day between San Francisco and Los Angeles and by mid-century California will be home to many more people wanting to travel between LA and the Bay Area. What are the alternatives to accommodate this demand? San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is already nearing capacity, and commuters in LA are already stuck in traffic for 100 hours a year.

Instead, our collective vision could be to speed seamlessly across the state in a way that generates zero pollution. I personally can’t envision a carbon-neutral California that doesn’t include high-speed rail and all of the new and unprecedented connections it will create between cities across the state.

Amanda Eaken is the director of Transportation for the American Cities Climate Challenge at the Natural Resources Defense Council and a member of the Board of Directors of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. She is also a Housing and Transportation influencer for McClatchy’s California Influencers series.
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