It is hard to argue with Gov. Gavin Newsom's decision to abandon the original vision for a high-speed rail system enabling travel between San Francisco and Los Angeles in just two hours and 40 minutes.
The $77 billion project, originally estimated to cost $44 billion, was already on life support when State Auditor Elaine Howle released a blistering report in November entitled "California High-Speed Rail Authority: Its flawed decision-making and poor contract management have contributed to billions in cost overruns and delays in the system's construction."
The auditor found that the rail authority rushed the construction-planning process, didn't adequately oversee contractors and consultants and began construction before needed land was acquired and agreements with local government and railroad operators completed. The project had become a pipe dream, and even supporters had soured on its prospects for delivering what had been promised.
Newsom had little choice but to scale back the project to a route between Bakersfield and Merced and abandon any pretense that high-speed rail would eventually connect San Francisco and Los Angeles.
When voters approved the high-speed rail proposal in November 2008 through Proposition 1A, California and the rest of the nation were in the midst of the Great Recession following the collapse of financial markets two months earlier. The hugely ambitious infrastructure project had strong support from unions, elected officials, environmentalists, the Obama administration and 53 percent of California voters. But as the price tag and bureaucratic miscues skyrocketed and no private investment surfaced, the dream became an albatross.
Back in late 2008 and 2009, local highways flowed at the speed limit even at rush hour. Commute times were reasonable. Housing prices beyond the Midpeninsula weren't anything like what they are today, and employees commuting from places like Tracy or Merced were few and far between. Google, Facebook and other tech companies employed a fraction of the people they do today.
More than 10 years later, the transportation needs of our region are dramatically different and the original vision for a modern rail system needs to be re-invented, not thrown out. The scaling back of high-speed rail is an opportunity to study and build a system that addresses real problems affecting average people instead of providing a service that air travel already handles at a competitive price.
Silicon Valley and the Central Valley desperately need to be better connected, both to serve the thousands of people who are commuting tremendous distances to jobs here and to spread the economic successes of our region to places like Modesto, Merced and Fresno. Making these Central Valley cities more accessible will help them attract companies and employees that we no longer have room for here, and it will allow growth to occur in areas of inexpensive housing and an abundance of available workers.
Fresno's population is now well over a half million, more than Sacramento. Modesto has more than 215,000 residents; Merced 83,000 and Turlock 74,000. Yet they remain largely detached from our strong California coastal economy.
The quality of life for workers who spend up to five hours or more a day commuting, largely driving alone, to Silicon Valley is intolerable, inhumane and unsustainable. It leads to unhappy employees, families and employers, high turnover and little or no time for community connections, attending school events or coaching kids' sports teams.
The success of the ACE (Altamont Corridor Express) train that connects Stockton with San Jose over the Altamont Pass shows what is possible even on tracks shared with freight trains and with travel times of almost two hours between Tracy and San Jose.
A modern, dedicated and faster rail system, whether high-speed or not, that connects our region with the Central Valley deserves careful study while construction proceeds on the 160-mile stretch of the scaled back high-speed-rail project between Bakersfield and Merced.
By continuing to allow massive amounts of new office development in the Bay Area with less housing than those new developments require, we make our already dire regional transportation and housing crisis steadily worse. Our political and corporate leaders need to formulate a realistic vision and conduct a feasibility study for a rail system that will eventually connect the south Bay with high-speed rail in Merced. Let's not let the failure of the original vision for a full north-to-south high-speed-rail project stop us from seeking rail solutions to the transportation crisis we face today.