California’s long-troubled high-speed rail project is again as “close to the precipice as it’s ever been,” according to a recent lengthy article in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Yes, there is universal agreement that cost overruns and construction delays plague the system that is aimed at eventually connecting the San Francisco Bay Area and the Los Angeles basin with a high-speed system moving passengers between the two population centers within three hours.
But no, the decision to concentrate the first phase of the system on the San Joaquin Valley section of the project was not made by Gov. Gavin Newsom, as the Chronicle story indicated several times.
That decision came several decades earlier when the federal government, in considering funds for the California high-speed rail system, saw the San Joaquin Valley as having a larger concentration of low-income residents in need of an economic shot in the arm, one that would be provided by the high-speed rail project.
What Newsom did in last year’s budget message was to propose extending the existing San Joaquin Valley segment from the Fresno area north to Merced,
There was no mention in the Chronicle story of why the extension of the high-speed system north to Merced should be considered as a priority for available bond funds approved by California voters in 2018.
The extension to Merced would in fact enable the San Joaquin Valley high-speed line to be connected to a southern extension of the Altamont Corridor Express system already in service between Stockton and San Jose. It would also connect to the planned Valley Link light rail system connecting Lathrop to the Dublin-Pleasanton BART station. ACE already has a station in south Tracy, and Valley Link planners are committed to a downtown Tracy stop.
The rationale was that spending high-speed rail funds to connect the existing San Joaquin Valley section to a regional rail system would improve and expand commuter rail service between the valley and the Bay Area. In other words, the San Joaquin Valley segment now under construction in the Fresno area wouldn’t become a rail line to nowhere.
Connecting Bakersfield to Merced would create short-term regional rail usefulness and also long-term high-speed rail possibilities, including a future link between Gilroy and Merced through the Pacheco Pass.
To think in terms of traditional high-speed rail development — and all its problems — without considering regional rail as an essential element in its initial phases doesn’t address the reality of the ever-mounting financial and political obstacles facing high-speed rail.
High-speed rail systems, especially in Europe, Japan and China, started with regional rail systems that were later tied together with semi-high-speed service and then upgraded with the addition of high-speed dedicated tracks. The same process could work here.
Obviously, for Tracy, having the ACE system expanded so that it would connect to high-speed rail service in the San Joaquin Valley and to the Valley Link light rail line between Lathrop and the Dublin-Pleasanton BART station would offer all kinds of possibilities.
With Altamont Pass traffic logjams becoming an ever-present commuter nightmare, innovative ideas need to be pursued to make the best use of transportation investments from the 2008 bonds and other sources. They could pay dividends both in the short-term and in the decades ahead.