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This week California is marking the 150th anniversary of the first train service between San Francisco and San Jose. The Southern Pacific Peninsula train began in 1863 as a private for-profit business to meet transportation needs. It cut the travel time between San Francisco and San Jose from eight or nine hours to 31/2 hours. More modern equipment cut the time to 90 minutes and in the mid-1860s the new engines were setting speed records of 67 mph. By the early 1950s more than 9 million Californians rode the Peninsula. Expanded freeway construction dropped ridership to 4.4 million by the late 1970s and Southern Pacific aimed to discontinue the service. In 1980 the California Department of Transportation provided subsidies and the service continued as Caltrain, with more riders now than 20 years ago.
Contrast that record with California’s “Bullet Train,” also know as the Grand Bunk Railroad for good reason. This project began not as a private venture to meet a transportation need. High Speed Rail was a government project from the start and aimed at shoring up the fortunes of central valley politicians. That explains why a train that is supposed to link San Francisco and Los Angeles is slated to start somewhere near Fresno.
When voters approved bonds for the project in 2008 they were told it would cost $43 billion. Now voters are told it will cost nearly $100 billion if completed by 2033, but they don’t get to vote on the higher price tag. A judge recently ordered California’s High-Speed Rail Authority to rescind its original funding plan but the state can still spend $3.4 billion in federal money.
California governor Jerry Brown wants to fund the project with cap-and-trade money from the state’s global warming legislation. The proposed diversion, says Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters, “is more likely to be dumping more money into a bottomless rathole.” And according to state analysts, the project would actually increase greenhouse gas emissions for many years. And if the bullet train is ever completed it will still be slower and more expensive than air travel.
As taxpayers might note, rail is 19th century technology, an odd choice for a supposedly progressive state home to high-tech industries. It is as though in 1863 California politicians had rejected the Peninsula line for a swifter brand of covered wagon, and started the service in Bakersfield.