California has always prided itself on pointing to the future. Its latest bullet-train plan points to somewhere in the 20th century, with the 19th not far behind.
Gov. Jerry Brown is doing all he can to save his state’s ill-conceived high-speed rail project, but he’s no magician. He’s finding that there’s no way to cut the project’s cost other than to make it smaller and less speedy — in short, even less like the scheme that voters approved in 2008.
He has just endorsed a new business plan that lowers the system’s projected price tag from $98 billion to $68 billion. This is still well above the $40 billion estimate of 2008, and the project is scaled back.
The most striking retreat is in the Los Angeles and San Francisco metro areas. There, instead of building new high-speed train lines right into the urban core, the new plan would just upgrade existing commuter rail lines.
Riders will have to wait until 2028 for completion of the full run from San Francisco to Los Angeles (and on to Anaheim in Orange County). Even then, it won’t be all that fast.
The original promise was for a train that would get you from L.A. to San Francisco in 2 hours and 40 minutes. Already, there was a problem with competition from the one-hour airline flights. Now, with much slower commuter lines carrying passengers for a sizable stretch at the entire end, the train ride is bound to be even longer.
So where is this all leading? To put it another way, where is California leading? In terms of transportation technology, it is pointing the way back to a 20th century model, commuter trains. These aren’t a bad idea in the right context. But they have no place in the high-speed rail vision that captivated (or just fooled) voters four years ago.