A new poll suggests strong public support for California’s ambitious high-speed rail project, but the challenges of stretching it to San Jose are daunting.
UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies reported voters in California favor continuing the high-speed rail project by a five-to-three margin. The poll, which examined a range of issues voters want the state to address, was administered online to 8,676 California residents in English and Spanish. The findings are likely subject to a sampling error of approximately plus or minus 2%.
Mark DiCamillo, director of UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies poll, told San José Spotlight it can’t easily be compared to past surveys about the popularity of the rail project. But he said the results show majority support for the truncated version of the project.
“We’re now in 2022, it’s a long way away, and it’s been 14 years, but voters wanted to go forward even in its kind of abbreviated form,” DiCamillo said.
In 2008, California voters approved bonds to design and build a high-speed rail system that would run from San Diego to Sacramento by 2030. Cost overruns and delays have extended the timeline: the state’s current plan calls for a rail line linking Bakersfield to Merced by 2030, and then the Bay Area by 2033. According to the latest state estimate, finishing the complete route from Los Angeles to San Francisco could take $105 billion.
The high-speed rail line would feed into San Jose through Diridon Station, which is already set to become a major transit hub thanks to the expansion of BART from the north. At a recent VTA board meeting, officials from the California High-Speed Rail Authority said the project will require tunneling through the Pacheco Pass to connect the Central Valley to Gilroy, and then San Jose. A final environmental impact report is going to be received by the authority’s board later this month.
According to a high-speed rail spokesperson, the connection between Silicon Valley and the Central Valley is projected to generate nearly $50 billion in economic output.
“It’s encouraging to know the people of California are excited by the promise of the nation’s first high-speed rail system,” Anthony Lopez, a spokesperson for the High-Speed Rail Authority, told San José Spotlight. “We look forward to moving this project forward and putting high-speed rail into service by the end of the decade.”
Speeding through San Jose
Local officials and transit advocates are optimistic about the project’s potential impact on San Jose. Vice Mayor Chappie Jones, who chairs VTA’s board, told San José Spotlight he believes high-speed rail will transform Diridon into the equivalent of New York’s Grand Central Station on the West Coast.
“You’re going to have BART, light rail, buses and trains coming into that station, and having high-speed rail also come in will bring tens of thousands of riders into downtown San Jose,” Jones said. “The economic benefit of that alone is tremendous.”
Derrick Seaver, president and CEO of the San Jose Chamber of Commerce, said he’s not surprised people are supportive of the project, especially given the return of crushing traffic as the pandemic recedes. The Berkeley poll noted four out of 10 respondents are experiencing serious problems due to rising gas prices.
Seaver said there are many upsides to the project for the local economy, although he is concerned about construction.
“The struggle the business community has is all about the mitigation costs—where is the construction going to take place? What is the mitigation going to look like?” Seaver told San José Spotlight. “Downtown San Jose has a lot of activity already, with the BART project coming downtown, so this would be another element they would have to work through.”
Jones noted the project will also allow more people to commute to San Jose from the Central Valley, where there are more opportunities for people to find affordable homes. Aside from the challenges of tunneling under the mountains that separate Silicon Valley from the Central Valley, Jones said he’s concerned about how the trains will travel through San Jose.
“That’s a big discussion in terms of grade separation. Do you want a train just going 110 or 125 miles per hour at grade level and crossing major intersections?” Jones said. “Imagine the safety concerns for vehicles and bicycles and pedestrians.”
Monica Mallon, a transit advocate and San José Spotlight columnist, believes high-speed rail will be a major improvement over Amtrak, which she said is too slow. She said the greatest obstacle will come down to money.
“The funding has not been what (high speed rail staff) expected it to be,” Mallon told San José Spotlight. “I think they expected the private sector to step up a little more and contribute.”