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Wednesday, December 1, 2021

New high-speed rail budget doubles to $98 billion

Students wary of the burdens of air travel may see a new option opening for their treks to Southern California. The commencement of November brought with it the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s new business plan.

The proposition drew much notice due to a doubling in the project’s previously estimated cost, culminating in a $98 billion price tag and approximated completion date decades off.

Deputy Director of Communication for the California High-Speed Rail Authority, Lance Simmens, said a myriad of factors account for the significant increase.

“The scope of the work has been dramatically changed because we’ve spent numerous amounts of time working with local communities and getting alignments correct,” Simmens said.

A result of the increased interaction with the community has been a need to increase tunneling and viaducts.

In addition to shifts in workload, the alignments that were originally deemed best for use years ago in the early stages of design must now be reassessed due to an increase in development. Add to this the composite price increases of concrete, steel and copper, conservative estimates of price inflation and expected ridership.

Although the recently updated venture cites the creation of 100,000 jobs over the next five years and the reduction of carbon emissions by three million tons annually, many are still weighing the pros and cons of such an intensive and ambitious design.

“It’s not clear that it’s a desirable project,” said Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies, acting director of the Energy Efficiency Center, and professor of civil & environmental engineering and environment science & policy at UC Davis.

“On one hand we like to think California can get things done — that we’re not stuck in a dysfunctional stage … on the other hand, it’s not clear it makes sense for California,” he said.

Sperling lists a number of concerns, including the design’s expense, the uncertainty over the ridership and demand for such a rail, and the apprehension that it may not fit well with sprawled land use problems.

Most of California’s transportation problems are encapsulated within large metropolitan areas, which the high-speed rail will do little to combat, Sperling said.

However, Simmens said that for commuters looking to ditch automobiles and the traffic that accompanies them, this high-speed rail would be an easy solution. As commutes lengthen due to housing prices, those living in Bakersfield, for example, would have more opportunity to work in an epicenter, such as Los Angeles.

Nonetheless, it is in part stations in less-populated areas that have given rise to concern over the train’s future effectiveness.

Unlike the United States’ only current high-speed train, Amtrak’s Acela Express, the California High-Speed Rail would run through prolonged stretches of sparsely populated state and have stations in smaller-towns.

The reason for Acela’s success, Sperling said, is because of its route through the densely populated Northeastern corridor, connecting the bustling hubs of Washington D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City, New Haven and Boston.

The Authority’s new press release reasoned that as California’s population grows, so too will the state’s transportation needs. The Authority estimates that without the high-speed rail the state will need up to $171 billion to finance additional highways, runways and airline gates.

Altamont Commuter Express Executive Director Stacey Mortensen expounded upon the idea that railways can accommodate increases in ridership, not by adding more tracks, but by increasing throughput on the existing lanes.

“There’s new promise in the fact that rail, once it’s in place, can be expanded upon without taking up anymore space,” she said.

At the outset, trains will run from San Francisco to Los Angeles in under two hours and 40 minutes, reaching speeds of 220 mph. The cost for such a voyage is about 83 percent that of average airfare, roughly $81 dollars for a one-way ticket, Simmens said .

The route will later be expanded to Sacramento and San Diego. In comparison with the high-speed rail fees, the current price of a one-way Amtrak ticket from Davis to Los Angeles runs anywhere from $58 to $90, with the shortest trip being eight hours and 30 minutes.

KELLEY REES can be reached at city@theaggie.org.

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