The silver bullet train

High-speed rail would solve the state's most pressing environmental and transportation problems. So why isn't Schwarzenegger supporting it?
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steve@sfbg.com

There aren't many easy answers to the environmental crisis facing California, a state with a fossil fuel–dependent culture that's cooking the planet, congesting the freeways and airports, and hastening a tumultuous end to the oil age. But there is one: build a high-speed rail system as soon as possible.

All the project studies indicate this should be a no-brainer. San Franciscans could travel to Los Angeles in just a couple hours, the same time it takes to fly, at a fraction of the cost. And the system — eventually stretching from Sacramento to San Diego — would generate twice as much money by 2030 as it costs to build. The trains use far less power than planes or cars and can be powered by renewable resources with no emissions. The system would get more than two million cars off the road and single-handedly reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 12 million metric tons per year.

High-speed rail is a proven green technology that works well everywhere it's been implemented, including most of Europe and Asia. In France the TGV line from Paris to Lyon connects the country's two most culturally important cities in the same way that Los Angeles would be linked to San Francisco — from one downtown core to the other — allowing for easy day trips and ecofriendly weekend jaunts. Advocates for high-speed rail say it's an essential component of California going green and the only realistic way to meet the ambitious climate change targets approved last year in Assembly Bill 32.

Yet for some strange reason, the idea of high-speed rail has barely clung to life since San Franciscan Quentin Kopp first proposed it more than a decade ago as a member of the State Senate and set the studies in motion, all of which have found the project feasible and beneficial. Today Kopp, a retired judge, chairs the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA), which has fought mightily to move the project forward despite severe underfunding and sometimes faltering political support.

Growing awareness of climate change has increased support for high-speed rail among legislators and in public opinion polls (among Democrats and Republicans), leaving only one major impediment to getting energy-efficient trains traveling the state at 220 mph: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

While posing for the April 16 cover of Newsweek with the headline "Save the Planet — or Else" and touting himself around the world as an environmental leader, Schwarzenegger has quietly sought to kill — or at least delay beyond his term — high-speed rail.

The $10 billion bond issue to build the LA-to-SF section was originally slated for 2004, then pushed back to 2006, then pushed back to 2008 because Schwarzenegger worried it would hinder the $20 billion transportation bond, Proposition 1B, which was focused mostly on new freeway construction.

Part of the deal to delay the train bond involved giving the CHSRA the money it needed to start ramping up the project, which included $14.3 million last year, the most it has ever received. But rather than give the authority the $103 million that it needs this year to honor contracts, set the final Bay Area alignment, start buying rights-of-way, and complete the engineering work and financing plan, the governor's budget proposed offering the agency just $1.3 million — only about enough to keep the lights on and not fire its 3 1/2 staffers.

And now Schwarzenegger is asking the legislature to once again delay the 2008 bond measure, which would take a two-thirds vote of both houses. "Investing in it now would prevent us from doing bonds for any other purposes," the governor's spokesperson, Sabrina Lockhart, told us, citing prisons, schools, and roads as some other priorities for the governor.

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