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California's High-Speed Rail Mistake

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This is the piece in which I out myself about California's high-speed rail mistake. Let's face it, now is not the time to be spending a decent size country's GDP on a fast train between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Instead we should be spending that fortune completing much needed regional mass transit systems for Los Angeles, San Diego, Anaheim, Irvine, San Jose, the Bay Area, Bakersfield, Fresno and Sacramento. Given the astronomical estimated cost of the high-speed rail project I doubt I have overpromised California's major population centers on the regional transit construction.

I had this epiphany while riding the Bolt Bus between 911-memorial soaked New York and Philadelphia. True, the bus took two hours instead of the one it might have taken on Amtrak's Acela Express. But the $13 I paid left a much smaller hole in my pocket than the $105 the Acela would have cost. And like my Bolt over Acela decision the choice facing the dysfunctional California legislature is whether it wants to spend the California taxpayer's money on critical regional mass transit that we need every day vs. the shiny, fast business travelers' sometimes choice when heading to a trade show in San Francisco. Wanna accelerate the regional transit construction process? Pass a law like the special one the Legislature is writing for AEG, a private company, so it can build Farmer's Field, a transit-oriented football stadium in downtown LA.

Why this change of heart for someone who is on record in support of the concept of high-speed rail in California?

It's simple arithmetic that even this mediocre math student can understand. In an ideal world there would be enough money to build both the high-speed rail and all the regional mass transit California needs. But we don't live in that Emerald City.

I doubt my friends at the big infrastructure construction firms and AFL-CIO are going to swoon upon reading this but I hope they don't get me wrong. Because the plan I'm proposing involves as much if not more work for them and the union iron workers and sandhogs than the high-speed rail. But instead of having to fight for months for a lousy motel room in Shafter or Bakerfield, the first leg of the proposed high-speed rail, the engineers and laborers will be able to head home for dinner or to one of their favorite loncheras after work building the subway. Sure, Central Valley workers need jobs but far more are out of work in LA and the state's other big cities.

Our need for transit infrastructure construction hasn't gone away. It's just that we need to be smarter about it. As a public infrastructure investment high-speed rail just can't hold a candle to the Wilshire subway, a rail or bus rapid transit (BRT) option for the Sepulveda Pass and a dozen other overdue light rail and BRT projects along LA's existing transit rights of way and many broad, made for bus-only lane, boulevards. And that's just my recipe for LA. There are of course similar transportation planner dreams for California's other urban agglomerations.

Hard choices are the name of the game in this era of bickering over public infrastructure spending. But as Measure R, the half cent LA County transportation sales tax demonstrated, local voters are willing to spend on themselves when it comes to public transportation. Let's put that logic to work by changing the construction plans and building the Metro, Muni and BART trains and buses we need everyday rather than the sometime convenience we long for when we think of inter city travel in France, China and Japan. That train too will come but not until we make regular regional transit riders of most Californians.

Yours in transit,

Joel