Thirteen years ago, Assemblyman Adam Gray and I worked quietly behind the scenes with valley legislators to secure $1 billion for widening Highway 99 in Proposition 1B. It took six years before construction could begin, and a billion dollars later, new highway lanes quickly filled with more cars and traffic jams. That is why I authored Proposition 1A, “the Safe, Reliable High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act,” passed by voters in 2008.
A high-speed rail system is the equivalent of adding 12 new lanes of highway, yet by comparison, it only requires 90 feet of “right of way” width for a double track system.
As Californians, we love our cars. But California voters affirmed the need for an additional transportation system — a high-speed rail network connecting major population centers throughout the state — both beyond the planned improvements for the conventional rail systems, and between them where gaps in connectivity exist.
Construction is already underway from Bakersfield north to Fresno and Madera. We should optimize our investments by continuing construction north to Merced and closing the gap between the high-speed “test track” and existing passenger rail service: Altamont Corridor Express and Caltrain. Cooperation between high-speed rail, ACE and Caltrain could set the stage for immediate relief for California workers who commute from the Central Valley over the Altamont Pass on a daily basis to job centers in the Silicon Valley and Bay Area.
How would this work? “One-seat rides” from the Central Valley to San Jose and the East Bay could be expedited by extending high-speed rail to Merced, where it will meet the ACE Rail and Amtrak San Joaquins. Passengers could continue their travels on the ACE system from Merced to Santa Clara. Passengers riding the ACE system could then exit the ACE train, walk across an already existing platform and, within minutes, board a soon-to-be electrified Caltrain system train from Santa Clara into the East Bay and San Francisco.
Extending high-speed rail to Merced and connecting with the Amtrak San Joaquins would also allow passengers to continue “one-seat rides” to Sacramento or Oakland.
The extension to Merced is ready for construction — environmental work was approved in September 2012. “One-ticket rides” from the Central Valley to the Silicon Valley and Bay Area can be delivered with funds previously allocated. The Legislature allocated $770 million in high-speed rail funding to Caltrain to electrify its track from San Francisco to San Jose, where it already meets ACE. And the Legislature approved funding for extending the ACE train south to Modesto and then Merced where it can meet high-speed rail.
Although construction is already underway, a group of legislators are proposing to cancel electrification of our Central Valley rail system so that they can move billions of dollars to Southern California for LA’s Metrolink system.
We’ve been down this road before!
In 2011, the Legislature tried to redirect federal high-speed rail funds to the Bay Area and Southern California. Their plans failed when Under Secretary Roy Kienitz, U.S. Department of Transportation, personally visited California to explain why the Central Valley high-speed rail segment had been chosen and why federal funds could NOT be redirected outside of the Central Valley. In part, he stated:
“We believe the decision to begin there (Central Valley) was and remains a wise one. This selection was based on careful consideration of the options put forward by California through a competitive application process. … With this central piece built, more complex construction can extend north, south or simultaneously in both directions as additional sections of the project are ready to be built. … The Central Valley line is the essential core of any viable high-speed rail plan for California.”
I support Gov. Newsom’s plan for an electrified high-speed rail system between Bakersfield and Merced.
Build the system from the spine, block by block. Let the lessons learned transition from the easier sections to the hardest. Have the right of way acquisition, utility relocation and infrastructure delivery nailed down on the spine before attempting implementation in the urban centers. Finishing a tangible first piece of true high-speed rail with integrated and improved connecting services is the only viable path toward a statewide high-speed rail system for California.