Make California Great Again — Part 3

Part 3— No more ‘Train to Nowhere’

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 4 | Part 5

Vince Vaughn and one of the Colin’s in ‘True Detective’ Season 2 (source)

For some reason in ‘True Detective’ Season 2, they decided to have a sub-plot regarding California’s high-speed rail (HSR) project. If you haven’t seen Season 2, don’t bother, however, the tl;dr is that in the show the HSR project is a cesspool of greed, corruption, and backroom deals. The true story behind the HSR line may actually be as shady and corrupt. However, regardless of how corrupt it is, it is a waste of $68 billion dollars (budgeted…actual cost, who knows).

HSR Proposed Route (source)

I think it is admirable that we want to try and build more convenient forms of transit that are not just highways for people to drive on, alone, in their cars. And it is great to see ambitious public works projects at a scale such as the HSR get off the ground. However, in California, we have spent the last 40 years building a collection of car-dependent suburbs that are not linked to metropolitan hubs by anything resembling functional public transportation systems.

Comparing California to the Northeast Corridor

The Northeastern Corridor, where the Amtrak Acela runs (currently, the only US-based high speed rail), is home to approximately 56 million people. In this region, the rail line connects major hubs such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. With the exception, of Philadelphia, each of these cities has a robust public transit infrastructure that ties in directly to the train stations served by the Acela.

In California, there are approximately 40 million people. Between the two largest population centers are approximately 30 million people, split between the Bay Area (~7 million) and Southern California (23 million). These two population centers are separated by 300 miles of farmland.

Population density by county, 2010 US census data (source)

Lastly, the facts don’t prove it out. Looking at annual ridership shows that 10 of the top 15 stations by passenger volume are on the Acela line. Only 3 of those stations are in California (LA #5*, Sacramento #7, San Diego #13). So the argument of if you build it, they will come, appears to not be backed up by current ridership data.

(*Adding all Boston stations into one group pushes Boston into the #5 spot ahead of LA, source)

Ridership by Amtrak station (source)

I am someone who travels semi-frequently between San Francisco and San Diego, however, if I were to take this train to San Diego, I would then need a rent a car. Therefore, driving will still remain the most practical solution, even though it takes 8 hours. I may not be the ideal user of this system, but if I can’t be convinced to substitute driving for high-speed rail, what is the incentive for someone to choose this over flying? (Other than fewer cavity searches). At the end of the day, there are a number of things we could do with $68 billion dollars to Make California Great Again.

Here’s an idea. Start by improving public transit within each metropolis by linking the urban cores with the suburban sprawl would be a great place to start. The Bay Area may be the furthest ahead in the state here regarding rail transit with its combination of BART (subway) and Caltrain (light rail). However, LA is also building out infrastructure with its Metro and MetroLink. Invest in these projects that actually move people around the places they live. We don’t need a rail system that connects car-dependent metropolises with one another when we already have airports, and when we may never meet the ridership required to make sure this system breaks even.

Part 4 and Part 5 — coming soon…