Neel Kashkari tried last fall to make high speed rail one centerpiece of a serious challenge to the reelection of Gov. Jerry Brown. Even though he staged events where he literally paid voters to smash model trains, his depiction of a “crazy train” never caught on as a significant issue.
At about the same time, the state Supreme Court opted to let sales of state bonds for the high speed rail project go forward even though it’s clear the completed project would not meet the speed and other performance standards promised in the 2008 Proposition 1A.
But the project remains unpopular in large parts of California despite being one of two major legacies Brown wants to leave behind, the other being the “twin tunnels” under the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, a plan that purports to make water supplies more reliable for decades to come.
Some work has actually begun on the bullet train’s planned Fresno-to-Merced segment, with engineers drilling test holes near the Fresno River to see whether high viaducts can be built safely near there. At the same time, the state’s High Speed Rail Authority, which needs to buy up about 1,100 parcels of land along its Bakersfield to Madera County stretch, has acquired just over 100 and is in eminent domain proceedings to take over 30 more.
Only a tiny fraction of the estimated $776 million needed to acquire land for that run has been spent.
All this means it’s still not too late to make sane changes to the planned bullet train route, thus defusing opposition, increasing efficiency and speed and saving many billions of dollars.
With farmers along the present path and most politicians who represent them vowing to fight the project tooth and nail, it’s high time to make alterations that please them without harming performance.
The most obvious would be to substitute something else for the most contentious parts of the current route, which would split many farms and could eat up many acres of productive farmland.
Enter Interstate 5, the main freeway link between Los Angeles and both San Francisco and Sacramento, a wide right-of-way as it runs in long, straight stretches up the west side of the San Joaquin Valley.
While I-5’s path along the Grapevine route over the Tehachapi Mountains between Santa Clarita and Bakersfield is likely too steep for a bullet train run, there is no such problem in the Central Valley. In fact, that segment of the highway features wide medians for most of its extent, land that would be ideal for train tracks. Much of it would cost the state nothing. The California Aqueduct runs alongside I-5 for some parts of that route, so putting the bullet train there would amount to consolidating three major transportation corridors in a way that would leave farms intact.
The main farmland acquisitions needed for much of this run would be in stretches roughly parallel to state Highway 58 covering about 21 miles from Bakersfield west to I-5 near the current way-stop hamlet of Buttonwillow.
This would leave a bullet train station in Bakersfield, but would eliminate stops in Fresno and Merced and speed transit times considerably. Experience with well-established high-speed trains in Europe indicates most riders stay aboard bullet trains from one terminus to the other, so relatively few would be likely to use the currently planned, expensive Merced and Fresno stations.
What about the fact that those stations were part of Proposition 1A? If the state’s top judges can OK bond sales when it’s clear the speeds advertised in that measure can’t be reached, why would a route change bother them?
So the advantages of the I-5 route through the Central Valley are clear: Higher speeds, less money spent buying up private land from reluctant sellers and fewer legal objections. Put these factors together and much of the political opposition would also likely disappear.
This is plainly the easiest, fastest way to get California’s biggest infrastructure project of the last 45 years built. Which renders it both inexplicable and irresponsible that Brown and his appointees on the rail authority have never seriously considered making the route change.