Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Bakersfield to Sacramento?

An interesting, if unlikely proposal:

School kids don’t cope well with geography, tests show. But adults shy on knowledge of our own state’s heartland? What is there about California’s central valley they don’t understand? A lot, it would appear from those — media included — who call the valley “nowhere,” as in deriding federal support for state high-speed rail to begin with a Bakersfield-Fresno-Merced link. They say it’s a “train to nowhere.”
Well, let’s see. For a century and a half, “nowhere’s” crops have fed and clothed (lately with China’s help) much of the known world. For good measure, valley wines pleasure international palates. The best rival French vintages.
“Nowhere” supports six universities awarding bachelor’s and higher degrees, among them the University of California’s Merced campus. College commuters are a mainstay of Amtrak valley service. Faster trains would boost their numbers.
What’s next hurts but must be said. “Nowhere” is an unthinkingly crude term. Valley people suffer high rates of asthma and other pulmonary disorders linked to automotive and agricultural air pollution. For them, fast trains spell relief. That’s an unsung part of high-speed rail’s rationale: Good transportation, competitive with cars and some flights, is a sound way to address tainted air.
A step-back, second-wind high-speed rail review is in order. Flexibility in confronting challenges is a hallmark wherever trains at 100-200 mph have proved their worth. Big question: Is insistence on Bay Area primacy truly the best route to a north-south rail alternative to congested air- and freeways? Airplanes also pollute, remember.
Peninsula resistance to high-speed rail has mounted. Neighbors fear losses to rail corridor widening. Recently proposed “blending” of high-speed rail with commuter rail, using the same tracks, may stem such fears. But only as a stopgap, pending corridor tweaking for higher speeds.
Grade separations, vital to speedy trains, present tough issues. San Bruno’s grade sep will raise rails 17 feet before they dive under Interstate 380. “Humps” and high speed don’t blend well.
While the Peninsula mulls high-speed rail, another scenario is emerging. It would have the California High-Speed Rail Authority consider, up front, extending new trackage from Merced to Sacramento. High-speed rail’s first operational stage would then embrace two-thirds of the Central Valley — almost a miniature of the entire system, of real value in and of itself, but poised to spread wings.
Sacramento is after all our state capital, worth more than second tier in high-speed rail’s vision. Making it an early destination could change minds among legislators who aren’t high-speed rail fans. It would boost the capital’s urban stature while benefiting valley travelers.
What a feather in CHSRA’s cap — making the valley a stand-alone segment of the whole, with trains running sooner and more affordably.
We have that opportunity. Sound arguments support its study, including these: Terrain north of Merced is largely non-urban and level enough for relatively rapid construction; conditions favor incrementally faster trains that could provide valley service within a few years (the incremental approach has worked well in France and Spain); CHSRA stands to benefit from early train experience — the valley would make a good lab.
Federal Railroad Administration startup funding would put trains within striking distance of Sacramento. It’s logical for California’s capital to be part of high-speed rail’s earliest loop.
Normally I'm fairly parochial about Bakersfield-Los Angeles being the next segment that should be constructed and the initial operating service being from Merced to Los Angeles. In fact, I would be harshly critical if San Jose were to receive the next construction segment. However, I would be supportive of building to Sacramento next (which, to comply with the law, would likely need to be a requirement of federal funds) for two main reasons. First, there is my conviction that, of all the cities that will be connected by the high speed rail system, Sacramento is likely to benefit the most, in terms of induced traffic, thanks to the greater availability of connections. Second, such an alignment would offer great weight to moving back to the far superior Altamont Pass alignment, not only saving money and speeding travel from Los Angeles to the Bay Area, but also capturing a very significant amount of ridership from cars between Sacramento and San Francisco which the Pacheco Pass option, taking two hours to go between San Francisco and Sacramento, does not.

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